The Best Financial Decisions to Make in Your 20s

Image credit:  Becca Tapert

Image credit: Becca Tapert

Mortgage-backed securities, sub-prime loans, traunches…. It’s pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think that only they can do what they do. – “The Big Short”

Savings. Does the word send shivers down your spine?

As a Millennial, the (credit) cards may feel hopelessly stacked against you. Everyone said “go to college and a good job will easily follow.” No one prepared you for entering the workforce in the wake of The Great Recession. No one warned you about how long student loans would follow you. No one explained how truly tight life is on a entry-level salary. Living paycheck-to-paycheck often seems like the only way to keep your head above water. However, if you can master the art of saving at a young age, not only are you setting yourself up for a secure future, but you’re also building a powerful muscle of financial self-control.

Disclaimer: I am not a financial professional, just a young person who has worked to gain basic financial literacy.

Build an Emergency Fund

To move away from the paycheck-to-paycheck panic, focus on building an emergency fund. Truly audit your life, exploring what short-term sacrifices you can make. Brew your own coffee instead of buying a fancy latte. Funnel your entire tax refund directly into savings. Sell personal items you no longer use. Surely there’s something you can sacrifice, even $10 a week is better than nothing. You never know when you’ll have a medical emergency or car failure or suddenly become unemployed. However, the one constant with emergencies is they will happen to everyone.

Recommendations vary for emergency fund goals, but most advisers recommend saving 3-7 months’ worth of living expenses. Start small, focusing on just saving $1000. After your first $1000, shift gears to save the next $1000. Breaking this into small goals will make this feel more manageable.

Credit Cards

Don’t. Just don’t. There’s so much to be said on the topic of credit cards: How high interest rates will be your demise. That you should always pay them off in full. You don’t need more than one. You should avoid any with annual fees.

Credit spending will undermine your saving goals. If you’re drowning in credit card debt, then focus on paying off the highest interest rate debts first. Cut up the cards and throw them away. Paying off your 17% interest rate card is a 17% guaranteed return on investment for those dollars, way better than the return on a boozy brunch.

Start Saving for Retirement

Financial professionals everywhere advocate the value of starting a retirement account in your 20s. Touting the power of compounding interest, you’ll vastly multiply your investment if you start saving at 25 versus at 35. Once your emergency fund is healthy enough to protect you from catastrophe, start saving for retirement.

401(k)s – Employers regularly provide 401(k)s and often offer matching programs. Matched funds are basically free money, so sacrifice as much as you can from your paycheck to take full advantage of these. Not doing so means leaving cold hard cash on the table.

Personal Retirement Accounts – If your workplace doesn’t offer 401(k)s, consider opening a personal retirement account. There are many options: IRA, Roth IRA, HSA’s, etc. Talk to a personal investor about your best option, but make sure your investor is a “fiduciary,” which means they’re legally obligated to act in your best interest.

"No one explained how truly tight life is on a entry-level salary."

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Start Saving for Goals

After establishing an emergency fund and retirement savings, you can now save for life’s big purchases. Maybe you want to buy a car, go on vacation, or plan for your wedding. When your friends post magical pictures of what’s going well in their life, it’s easy to get caught in the Instagram jealousy game. Don’t forget, they had to pay for that photo, and many them are doing so with credit cards. No amount of Instagram likes will feel better than paying for a major purchase in-full and with cash.

Be Smart with Extra Income

If you get a raise, bonus or any other unexpected extra income, divert that directly into savings. You’ve already figured out how to live at your current salary. You won’t even notice the difference, but your savings will thank you for the bump.

Fall in Love with Finance

Recently over dinner with my best friend, she mentioned how she’s become fascinated with finance and loves talking about retirement plans with her co-worker. I enthusiastically revealed that it’s also become so exciting to me. We’re total finance nerds.

"No amount of Instagram likes will feel better than paying for a major purchase in-full and with cash."

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There’s a whole world of helpful resources out there to self-educate yourself on personal finance.

If financial personalities interest you and you want to know, “can I afford it?” Suze Orman is a hoot. Dave Ramsay also educates with charisma, breaking financial freedom down into digestible baby-steps.

Maximize your daily commute by listening to economic podcasts. Planet Money and Freakanomics make big economic theories personal by connecting humanized stories to tales of dollars and cents. The Minimalists focus on living within your means and pepper amazing financial wisdom throughout.

If you prefer films, The Big Short is fascinating. Last Week Tonight often covers finance while also cracking you up, like this segment on Retirement Accounts. If you prefer documentaries, check out Frontline: The Retirement Gamble.

Surround yourself with the vocabulary of economic theory and personal savings and before long you’ll become fluent in finance. You might just fall in love with savings.

Do finances overwhelm or excite you?

An original version of this article appeared on Darling. Written by: Talitha Baker.