Finance Tips I Wish I’d Known When I Was 20

Full disclosure: I’m not a financial expert. I’m a regular human being, one who once sailed off on a work trip after whispering to her boss that she didn’t have enough cash to pay for her cab ride to the airport. I’ve figured out some shit the hard way and learned a few things I wish my younger self had known. I hope this list helps the financially ambitious young ladies out there take some chances and learn to make friends with the green stuff.

Be Patient, Grasshopper

When you get your first Adult Job, you may suddenly be immersed in the world of People with Money. These people may have the following: ski equipment, Apple Watches, cars with four-wheel drive, garages, or other sundry items that you could not comprehend affording. You, on the other hand, are suddenly feeling less cool about upgrading from store-brand hand soap to the fancy kind that smells like lavender rhubarb. Your next logical question might be, where is MY money that I need to join the echelons of those around me? The thing is, you are, say 22, and they are probably older than 22. Your salary might be low now, but it will increase, hopefully substantially, every year of your life for at least the next couple decades. It sucks to stress about money, but it WILL get easier every year.

But Also, Don’t Be a Doormat

That said, you don’t deserve to struggle just because you’re young. If your salary is so low that you say, freak out about basic gyno bills or ask your parents for a loan just to buy frozen pizzas, your work isn’t paying you enough. Either ask for a raise or consider finding a different job. Look up how much people with your title typically make at your age, and if you’re not making that, talk to your boss.

Asking for The Money You Deserve Gets Easier Every Time You Do It

Asking for a raise for the first time is one of the scariest things you’ll ever do. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s quite likely that you won’t get much sleep the night before. It takes a lot of energy to anticipate all the ways your boss could say no, and to rehearse a response for them. To prepare yourself psychologically, create an empowerment playlist to listen to on the way to work, even if it’s mostly Spice Girls and Christina Aguilera.

Take a breath, talk to your boss in person, and know that you’re developing a very important skill. No one is noticing the splotches on your neck, ok! Once you’ve done this once, you’ll have climbed a huge mountain of bravery that will help you succeed in life. (Oh, and don’t say you need a raise to pay your bills. Say you deserve a raise because your salary isn’t competitive, considering all you’re contributing to the company. Be prepared to prove how much that is. Your boss might not know!)

Realize No One is Going to Reward You for Quietly Doing a Great Job in the Corner

It may be tempting to reassure yourself that those squeaky wheels making a fuss at work are going to cause more trouble than they’re worth, and it’s your quiet devotion that will win in the end. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Bosses are happy to continue paying you a lower salary if you seem perfectly content with it. You’re going to have to speak up for yourself, sooner rather than later.  

Talk About Money with Everyone

There’s still an old assumption that money is an indelicate matter, one that precious and innocent women need not deal with! Continue toppling this phenomenon. Tell your friends outside of your company what you make. Learn what they make. Ask older people for advice. Just tread carefully when it comes to telling your co-workers what you make. That can get messy.

You’ll Never Make the Money You Want if You Don’t Take Chances

Permit me to sound like your dad for a moment. Sometimes to go up a tax bracket, you have to make a lateral move. That may mean switching companies or even industries. Sure, there’s a chance that your entry-level desk job will allow you to slowly climb the ladder to upper management. But there’s more of a chance you’ll strike it rich if you take chances, get out of your comfort zone and expand your network. That doesn’t mean you have to show up at countless corny networking conferences. It just means your hidden skill or hobby might open huge doors for you if you dust it off and show it to the world. You just need to have the confidence to believe – you really are good enough to succeed at whatever it is you truly want to do. Once you open that door, opportunities will crawl out of the woodwork, I promise.

You Can Invest, Even if You’re Not Rich

This is actually something I was aware of at 20. A couple friends and I started a mini “investing club” during the height of the recession and bought some dirt-cheap stocks. At the end of the day, we all made close to a thousand dollars after only putting in a couple hundred. That doesn’t sound like much to fancy adults, but it was incredible to me at 21. To invest on a small-scale, just sign up for a site like E*TRADE and buy a few shares of companies you truly believe in. Just know that you will have to pay taxes on your earnings, so prepare for that in advance before the IRS comes knocking at your door. The skills you build investing on a small scale will help you prepare to invest at a much larger scale once you have some serious funds (and that day will come). Let’s get more ladies investing in 2017!

Inventory Your Interest Rates

After college, I started making the minimum payments on my college loans, feeling like a very responsible adult all the while. Then, a couple years later, I bought a new car. This car came with a shiny interest rate of .9%, courtesy of our friends at Honda. This rate got me curious— how did it compare to the rate of my state and federal college loans? I looked it up and was shocked to find out that my college loans had a much higher rate than my Honda Fit (around 6.5%). If only Honda could have financed my education! Once you inventory your interest rates, from your car to your loans to your credit cards, you can figure out which debts to pay off first. Oh, and you can also look into consolidation if that’s your bag.

Don’t Put Off the Retirement Account, No Matter How Boring and Irrelevant it Sounds

I know what you’re thinking. I’m 20-whatever, the epitome of health and also broke as $%^&. Not only can I down six vodka Red Bulls a night, but I can also approach bankruptcy just by having an unexpected cavity! I feel you. But the truth is, the younger you set up a 401k or Roth IRA, the richer you’ll be as a fabulously cool retired person, even if you barely put anything into it. Why? Something called compounded interest. This magical process can turn a little money into a lot over time. Conversely, a lot of money, over a little time, doesn’t have that same effect. Plus, you will be old as dirt sooner than you realize. Time seems to compound in a similar manner as interest, hate to break it to you. Talk to a financial advisor to figure out the best plan for you.

Credit Cards are Not Just for Shopaholics

This is a HUGE one. Remember how I said I ran off on a work trip with naught but a low-balance check card and a crumbled two-hundo that our CEO put into my sad little hand? You just cannot negotiate the finances of events like corporate business trips without a credit card, unless you have tons of cash in your bank account (which, if you do, why are you reading this?). Finally, a very nice co-worker sat me down and said, “You don’t have to front the 1k bill for your cabs, hotel and travel meals from your own bank account. Just get an airline miles credit card, pay it with that and then take all those free frequent flier miles and use them on your vacation!” This blew my mind. It was such insanely useful advice. Now I have like nine credit cards because I have become such a ninja at putting purchases on cards and using my rewards points. I have paid for a huge chunk of many vacations with these points. Also, my credit score is awesome.

I would recommend a Chase Sapphire card if you qualify, but I’m also a fan of my American Express Delta SkyMiles card. Do some research and find one that will work with the airline your work uses.

Aggressively Pay Those Fuckers Off

That said, I would be completely irresponsible if I told you to open a bunch of credit cards without reminding you of what kind of trouble you can get into if you don’t pay them regularly. If you have shopaholic tendencies, start with a credit card with a low credit line of, say $500. That should curb your spending. If you don’t have this problem, you may want a credit card with a higher limit. You can put your big life purchases on them, and then pay them off as soon as possible to reap major rewards. Just make it a habit to aggressively pay them off the second you have extra cash, or else you’re headed for trouble. Once you’ve inventoried the interest rates on all your debts, you’ll surely see that your cards have a much higher rate than say, your federal loans (around 13-18%, usually).

Actually Look at Your Account Balances, Even if It’s Scary

I am convinced that a huge percentage of people don’t deal with their finances because it causes acute anxiety to even log into accounts that aren’t pretty. That’s why I didn’t bother to look at my college loan interest rate for years. It’s often why I overdrafted on small purchases. Looking at a sadly stressful figure in an account that is not going well sucks. Can we have compassion for people who go through this regularly? It makes you feel powerless. That said, you have to bite your lip and just do it. Schedule a calendar event once a month reminding you to just LOOK at all your balances, from your bank accounts to your credit cards to your loans. Write down the numbers you see, and you’ll have taken the first step to dealing with them.

Avoid Comparing Yourself to Friends. You Don’t Know Their Whole Situation

One friend has paid off $60,000 of student debt by the time she’s 25. Another friend just bought a flat-screen TV that you saw was $1400 at Best Buy. What the hell? How is everyone so RICH? Before you start resenting your friends or trying to Sherlock Holmes-style puzzle together how the hell they pulled off that financial feat, take a breath. Almost everyone’s financial situation is different. That friend who bought the TV? She could have inherited money from a family member who may have gone too soon. The friend who has been to Europe 18 times by the time she’s 25? Her parents may be paying for her cell phone bill, her insurance, her car, her rent and her groceries. (Is she also Hannah Horvath?) People are often not very transparent about these things, so you’re unlikely to be getting the whole picture. Don’t compare yourself to your friends, if you can help it. Give it some time, and some finessing, and you just may be the one going on all the annoyingly fancy trips yourself in a couple years.

Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

Finally, have some compassion for yourself. Almost everyone is a financial mess in their 20’s. After all, our generation was robbed of countless opportunities thanks to people on Wall Street played by Steve Carrell in a fake nose. Once you lose the pressure to have it all figured out, you can gain the bravery it takes to look hard at your actual situation. Do this, and it will get so much easier to take some major steps forward. Good luck!

Image from SF Girl By Bay


Becky Lang is a writer, creative director and occasional podcaster living in Minneapolis.

She also likes to draw dogs and female protagonists.

 

 

 

 

 

  • I learned way too late to ask for more money. I was afraid they would laugh and say no, but they said yes. Every time.
    Re credit cards: you need to make incredible returns elsewhere to outdo the interest rates on credit cards. In fact, good luck–doesn’t exist. Pay off your debts first. And then keep them at zero. The hardest thing is to really really really want something and to hold out because you don’t have the bucks, and then, well, you don’t want it anymore.
    Compound interest is your friend. Save early, automatically and often.

  • This is THE BEST “finances in your 20s” post! These regularly pop up on my bloglovin’, and I read every single one. But never has one gone this in-depth and felt ‘real.’
    I am 20 right now, and finances are an everyday thought.
    I love how the first point was, it gets easier- THANK GOD.
    Roth IRA made my heart speed up because I know now is the right time but getting it done sounds hard+boring+sucky. No thanks. But I am GOING TO DO IT bc you’re right.

    Thank you for this thought out post. I know there are lots of others who need to hear this. We will all be thanking you once we are out of these 20s.

  • When I worked outside of the home, I had this theory, basically, that I wanted to always be the best at my job. Not because I thought someone would notice, but when I needed them to see it, I had the information to back up whatever I was asking for. I agree with the fact that we just need to talk about money. People are afraid to ask what others get paid and that’s just so silly. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, too. And the more we talk about it, the more comfortable we feel asking for raises or evaluations, etc.

    One of my good friends just recently bought a house while her and her husband both work jobs where they get a little bit above minimum wage. It frustrates my partner a bit, but they got a wedding present enough for a downpayment from the husband’s family. Otherwise they’re just as broke as we are. It sucks, perhaps it’s not quite “fair”, but that’s how life is.

    Good post. I love these tips.

    Chris | http://www.ilovequietsundays.com

  • As a 22 year old I would like to thank you for this post! Luckily my parents did a pretty good job getting me ready, but some of these are really important and easily missed lessons!

  • To reduce some of the anxiety associated with checking your bank balance, I HIGHLY recommend banking with Simple. It’s an online-only bank that has amazing web and mobile app features that allow you to put money away into virtual “goals”. I do not work for them and I promise I’m not getting paid to say this, but banking with Simple has been life changing! They also have super responsive, kind, and fun customer service.

  • this is beyond helpful. I’m currently a sophomore in college, but because of how much school costs, and the lifestyle i’d like to one day have, i know that i need to really be on top of my finances now and going forward. I’m looking to start paying off my interest while working over the summer and making a game plan to minimize my student loans

  • The credit card tip is probably one of the best tips for any young adult. Getting one early is so important — even if you are just making 1 regular purchase every week or two. Get one and use it only at the gas station and build up some history. You will be thankful in 10 years.