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What I Learned In My 20s About…Finance

A little later on this year, I’ll be turning 30 years old. In American society, this is for some reason a milestone birthday[1]. If nothing else, it’s the birthday that signals that “milestone” birthdays will stop coming at oddball intervals and instead begin showing up at the decade mark.

I don’t see getting older as a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just reality. Everyone ages, regardless of if we want to or not. And while I feel like I’ve known a good bit for whatever age I’ve been at the time, I certainly found that I’ve accrued quite a bit more knowledge over the last decade. As time gets closer to my birthday later this year, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in my 20s about various topics. I figured I’d start off with a topic that I learned a lot about as a teen then built on in my 20s — personal finance.

Take the things I talk about in my list below as items I gained from my own personal experience rather than hard gospel. While the things below worked (or didn’t, depending on the case) for me, your mileage may vary.

1. Emergency Funds Are Useful…But They Likely Won’t Feel Useful

As I was coming out of college in 2008, I had very little money and a whole hell of a lot of debt to my name. Any money I had made during college from jobs there went to car payments, car insurance, student loans, my cell phone, or gas. With my first job out of college, I got paid twice a month and I found that nearly all of one of those two checks went to student loans. That said, I was driving a car that was ten years old, trying to scrounge money together to apply for grad school, and still had other bills to handle. If it wouldn’t have been for the kindness my grandparents showed me by letting me live with them for a year and a half after graduating, I probably would have ended up in a significantly worse place than I was.

One of the things that I learned from a co-worker at that job was that an emergency fund would save my ass when I least expected it. Over the course of the first year I had that job, I set out to save enough from each paycheck to give me three months worth of paychecks in savings by end of year. I got to December of 2009 and had reached my goal a month early. It felt like a waste. That money was sitting in a savings account and gaining (very little) interest and could be used up at any time. What was the point?

Soon I realized that the fact that the money¬†could be used at any time but wasn’t being used was the ideal situation. It was a safety net — something I wasn’t used to having in my life. The net below an acrobat seems awful useless until you fall. When my car broken down two days before moving from Arizona to Ohio, I was glad I had it.

2. Take Advantage of Income Based Student Loan Repayment

One of my biggest mistakes financially early in my twenties was choosing not to use income based repayment plans offered by the student loan companies I had my loans with. As I mentioned in the previous section, my student loans were taking up nearly 50% of my take home pay when repayment started. I was able to manage it for around six months, but eventually decided that the solution to not having to pay student loans was to go to grad school in order to get my loans back in deferment.

While graduate school ended up being a largely positive decision for me[2], I wish I would have given more of a thought to the repayment options that were available to me. I was far too stubborn in my early (and mid) twenties to be willing to consider lowering my payments. By the time I was willing to consider them, my loans were nearly paid off. Though I’m certainly not saying income-based repayment makes sense for everyone, if you’re having trouble with your student loans, I would encourage you to look into it.

3. Take Advantage of 401k Matching As Soon As You Can

There’s a lot of debate around whether or not Albert Einstein actually said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, however one thing is for certain — interest and market growth are immensely powerful. I came into my twenties knowing next to nothing about retirement plans, the stock market, or investing in general. On top of that, it turns out that the things I was taught about those items were very, very wrong[3].

In the USA, if you’re at least 21 years old and have been with a company for at least one year, if your employer offers a 401k plan, you are eligible by law to be able to contribute to it. Furthermore, if your employers offers something known as employer match, the money you put towards your retirement can be matched in some capacity (usually dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage and/or amount).

While retirement investing is a bit complicated and I am not a financial advisor in any way shape or form, I will say that there is one thing that I’ve found is unequivocally true. Free money to help out your future is almost always a good thing. If you’re not putting away whatever amount of money towards your 401k that your company will match, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

4. Stop Lending Money to Friends and Family

Of the four items on this list, this was probably the hardest for me to get good with. After all, friends and family are people you are close to. You care about them and want them to be successful. And yes, if someone needs a little money here or there in an emergency, there’s nothing wrong with helping them out. But when that request becomes routine — $20 one week, $40 the next, $10 the week after that — it’s a sign there are bigger problems in play.

Instead of lending the money, or perhaps in addition to doing that if you must, offer to help the person needing the money with their budget and finances. It wasn’t until I sat down and figured out a budget in my first few months out of college that I really was able to understand where my money was going. While I’ve slipped in budget management from time to time[4], I’ve always found myself coming back to math and spreadsheets to help set my finances straight. If someone is serious about making their financial situation better, they’ll work to do so. If not, they’ll just keep asking for money. Those are the very people who you shouldn’t lend money to.

Budgeting Basics For Twenty Somethings

As I have progressed into the later part of my twenties[1], I’ve become fortunate enough to be in a position where I can say I’ve been financially independent for the majority of my adult life. That’s not to say I couldn’t support myself or didn’t have a job at some points, however I don’t particularly consider my time in college/grad school where student loans were paying for my housing to be a moment of self-sustainability. I’ve been living on my own since I was 22, and paying for all my own non-housing bills for longer than that, all while managing to build up a solid credit history.

I look at where I am now and consider myself to be decent financial shape. This reality did not happen overnight, nor will it for anyone except those who suddenly come into a large sum of money[2]. The foundation to being in the position I’m in now has come about as a result of fairly careful budgeting and planning. Now that I’m in a position where I’m setting myself up for success in the future, I would like to be able to share what’s been successful for me.

Follow a (modified) 50/30/20 rule

If you’re researching money management and budgeting on the internet, there’s a decent chance you’ve come across the 50/30/20 rule. While there are minor variations to wording depending on your source, the basic rule is as follows.

  • 50% of your monthly net (take-home) pay goes to fixed costs — rent, utilities, car, etc
  • 30% of your monthly net pay to flexible spending — personal entertainment, eating out, groceries, gas, etc.
  • 20% of your monthly net pay to financial goals — credit card debt, stocks, savings account, loans etc (Note: pre-tax investments like 401k are not typically included here)

I think this is a nice guideline to follow, and I have done everything I can to live by my own version of the 50/30/20 rule. With that said, there a couple notable differences in my version, which is below.

  • 50% of your monthly net income to living and employment expenses — rent, car payment, groceries, gas, utilities (Note: rent should not exceed 30% of your monthly net income in most cases)
  • 30% of your monthly net income to financial goals — credit card debt, stocks, savings, student loans
  • 20% of your monthly net income to cover all other costs — personal entertainment, eating out, extra money to put toward the other two categories

The most notable change between the typical 50/30/20 rule and my version is that I consider a pair of costs traditionally viewed as flexible — groceries and gas — to be fixed costs. Unless you’re unexpectedly changing jobs or adding a new person to your family, there is little reason these costs should drastically change month to month. Budget for this accordingly. It’s worth noting that I don’t include any bonuses I receive from my employer in the above breakdown. Bonuses almost always go towards my student loans.

Speaking of student loans…

Do not get behind on your student loans

I know this is far easier said than done, but for the love of whatever deity you choose to worship, do NOT allow your student loan payments to be late. While this is especially important for public service employees who are looking to get their Department of Education loans forgiven, it’s vital to your credit score that student loans are not paid late.

You know how you (likely) had to take out new loans ever semester as part of the results of your FAFSA? Each new round of loans you take out gets set on a separate loan within your account. So while you look at your Department of Education/Sallie Mae/Navient[3] account and see that you have one payment of $600 (or whatever your payment is), in reality your $600 payment is split up across multiple accounts. This means that one late payment could actually cause you to have multiple late payments on your credit report, which is damming to your credit score, especially as a twenty-something.

Don’t be afraid to work multiple jobs…within reason

My first job out of college (with my bachelor’s degree) was a call center employee at a company that took outsourced calls for a major telecommunications company whose logo may or may not look like the Death Star. I made $7.00 an hour in training and $8.00 an hour once my eight week training finished. While $14,560 a year ($7.00/hour) is still above the USA poverty guidelines, that does not mean it’s a liveable wage. In fact, if I stick to my 30% rule for rent mentioned above, a person making $7.00 an hour at a single job would have to find an apartment for $336 a month, and that’s presuming they take home 100% of their money. Not exactly a positive thought.

While minimum wage is now $7.25/hour nationwide, that’s still only an extra $520 pre-tax per year. If you’re stuck in a shitty minimum wage job that you hate, know that with enough time at the job, as well as good performance, you’ll have opportunities to move up[4]. But to survive in the meantime, if you have the time to pick up another part-time job or two, do so. Working more in your twenties will pay off in a big way as you get old.

That said, don’t overwork yourself. I made the mistake of having three part-time jobs while going to school full-time (including one job that had a 2.5 hour commute). Needless to say, the experience ended very, very poorly, courtesy of a car crash involving my truck and a semi. Learn your limits. Putting yourself in the hospital from overworking yourself certainly doesn’t help to improve your bottom line.

Do you have suggestions or tips that you’ve learned to managing your money as a young adult? Sound off in the comments.


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