The 7 Easiest Pieces of Advice About Money I Wish I Could Tell My 21-Year-Old Self

A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart. --Jonathan Swift

Money. 

It brings people together. It pulls them apart. It “isn’t everything” and “doesn’t buy happiness,” but it is “the root of all evil.” And it sure does matter. And it causes a lot of stress.

Being smart with your money isn’t easy because it has little immediate reward. However, what you do today will likely still matter ten years from now. I’ve been in scary amounts of debt, made decent money doing various jobs, and lost money by making bad choices. And I’ve learned from those experiences and hope to be able to apply what I’ve learned in the future. It’s really too bad I couldn’t apply these lessons in the past, because they’re not that hard. If I could time-travel, this is the advice I would have followed.

Please note: All photos in this post are from various artists who share their work on Unsplash, a free photography website that’s way better than Shutterstock, et, al. All photos in this post are attributed, so please check out the portfolios of the photographers whose pics you like (links in captions).

  1. Don’t spend so much. My 21-year-old self is like, ‘uh, thanks?’ because this piece of advice seems obvious. As a 21-year-old, I didn’t buy a lot of expensive stuff. I was an avid sale shopper and was price-conscious about what I ordered on the menu when I went out to eat. But what I didn’t pay close attention to was how often I was spending these relatively small amounts and how quickly they added up.
  2. Hide your savings from yourself. When I was in my twenties, I thought of “saving” as getting a good sale price. And surprisingly, I actually put a lot of money in my savings account. But, because of my spending habits, I also took money back out. Instead, I wish I’d safeguarded myself against… myself.
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    Photo by Freddie Collins via unsplash

    How does one do that?, asks my 21-year-old self. Easy! By putting cash into accounts that require extra effort, then doing my best to “forget” about it. That can be as simple as putting savings into an account that isn’t linked to my primary checking account and credit card accounts. For example, if you have a checking account with Wells Fargo, a Wells Fargo credit card, and a Wells Fargo savings account, it’s a heck of a lot easier to transfer money out of your savings account to wherever its needed. And a heck of a lot more tempting. Think about it: every time you log in to see your debt, you see your savings sitting right next to it. Savings you could use to pay your bills… Instead, if you keep your savings account–and only your savings account–with a separate bank, you just might be less likely to spend those savings. You can also take it a step further and decline to create an online account for your savings. That makes it even harder to access it, but doesn’t leave you in the lurch in case of an emergency.

  3. See your debts as a whole. My collection of credit cards debt eventually reached over $10,000. It got so high because I allowed myself to see each source of debt separately instead of making myself see it as a whole. It was easier to look at one credit card that held $3,000, then ignore that one when I looked at another a few days later. Looking at each source of debt as an isolated amount made it seem more manageable, which is great when you’re focusing on paying it off. But when you’re not really focusing on anything, it makes it easier to simply never add up the true total.
  4. Make little payments toward your debts as often as possible. This is an important habit, even before that 0% deadline ends. Because, if you’re like me, you’ll mistakenly view that deadline as farther away than it really is. You may also view the credit card balance as more manageable than it really is, effectively ignoring it until it is too late (especially if you have more than one balance). Instead, when you get a few extra bucks here and there, whether it’s from Grandma or simply an unexpectedly low bill, chuck that little amount toward your debt. It will prevent larger interest charges and will prevent you from having to make that payment in the future.
  5. You will not make as much money as you imagine you will. Maybe this is an extremely negative way to look at one’s future; it certainly goes against Pinterest-worthy quotes and motivational posters with cats and lions. But for many people, it’s a reality. It is for me. When I was 21, I assumed that taking on new debts (student loans and credit cards) was an okay thing to do because I would be able to pay them off in a few years. I thought I’d be making a lot of money (I never bothered to think about how much, exactly), and I also forgot to think about new expenses I would have when I was making that money. When I look back, it seems that I must have thought all of my income could go toward the debts I was creating
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    A Depressing, but Accurate, Photo by Ian Espinosa via unsplash

    now. Here’s reality coming atcha and a healthy dose of darkness: That is absolutely not the case and isn’t going to be the case for most people. If you are not careful, your debt will follow you around for decades.

  6. Sell your stuff instead of just giving it away. I moved a lot in my twenties. And I also experienced several style revolutions. That meant I transitioned my collection of stuff a lot, which also meant a got rid of a lot. While I am a big advocate for donating, I wish I had thought to try to sell my stuff first–particularly my clothes. If your things are in good condition, someone else probably wants it and will pay decent money for it. In the past few years, I have stumbled upon many ways to make money on your stuff, and I often think back about the gobs of clothing and shoes I simply donated in a frenzy of personal development. In addition to make a few extra bucks, you’re giving someone else a great deal–which brings me to my next point.
  7. Shop used and thrift. Since most of my money problems came about because I have an affinity for shopping, I think this piece of advice would have saved me hundreds, maybe even… dare I say it? Thousands. In addition to selling my own used stuff, I wish I had bought used stuff others were selling. Sure, I shopped sales and rarely/never bought anything full-price, but I still spent more than I needed to. Since I’ve started thrift shopping, I’ve found beautiful, brand new and like new clothes to experiment with. And, because I’m surrounded by more variety when I shop, I’ve also been more creative (and confident) with my daily look. What’s more, because thrifting requires a good eye and patience, I think I would have been pickier about my clothes (buying less, spending less, etc.) In other words, shopping used and thrift could have help me all around, and would have reinforced a money-conscious lifestyle that would have allowed me to use my money for other things–things that aren’t in the past.

So there you have it, 21-year-old self. There are a few pointers that could have saved you from getting into a shameful amount of debt. As I wrote this list it, I realized I can still follow those principles now so my 40-year-old self can share an entirely different set of “what I wish I knew” tidbits.

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