Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life happened in college. For example, I learned how to be 100% dependent on myself vs. my parents, how to make a decision on my own and actually live with the consequences, and I embraced building relationships in a new city by creating something that felt like a family for me, considering I was four hours away from home.
But most of all, I was forced to learn how to live on a budget.
Most college students don’t have much money, and are forced to live on little to almost nothing. Their regular diets include Ramen noodles, pizza or any free food offered to them in order to keep a dollar in their pocket. While this is the norm for most college students, this mentality quickly changes once life happens.
Upon graduation, you obtain a full-time position in your field, you start making your own money, you get married to the love your life, have beautiful children, and now you have more expenses than you ever imagined were possible. Oh the joy of being bill free as a college student! I was fortunate to start my career with a start-up financial planning company after a semester internship. I was hired upon graduation at age 22, and embarked upon a new journey of preparing for life.
Letter to my 22-year-old Self
First day on the job, I was scheduled to setup my own financial plan with the owner of the firm. This was unexpected, but if I was going to teach others how to manage their finances, I had to be a good student and master every aspect of building my own financial portfolio. Although I still follow the majority of this plan today, like any other 20-something, I still made some financial mistakes early on that could have been avoided.
Yes, the best time to make any major financial mistake is when you’re in your twenties!
You have time to easily recoup from your setback, as I did, and then vow to never make the same financial planning or investment mistake again.
There are two categories new graduates fall into upon obtaining full-time employment. First, graduates who continue to live below their means – they live in a modest apartment, possibly with a roommate, and have no car payment, which creates an opportunity to save more. Second, graduates who change their lifestyle immediately by spending everything earned now that there is a significant increase in income.
If I had to write a letter to my 22-year-old self, it would include these four important rules for building a financial legacy:
Stay on Target with Your Budget
You must have a clear understanding of your personal budget, which details your monthly income and expenses, including debt repayments. The primary purpose of a budget is to keep track of every dollar spent. You’ve earned it, so make it a priority to know where you’re spending your money or spending will control you.
After a month or two of following your budget, review all of your expenses to determine if you are spending less or more than expected. This will allow you to make some minor adjustments and help you identify bad habits that can affect your financial future. This process is necessary to stay on target and to avoid the mistake of spending more than you have.
I know all too well that sometimes you have a long week at work and feel like you deserve to buy that handbag and shoes from the mall. You should certainly reward yourself for various accomplishments and milestones, but plan for it by saving for the splurge. Impulse buying does not demonstrate self-control. Kill the urge to buy those unplanned items, especially when caused by emotional stress or a feeling of entitlement.
Rule #1: Do not spend what you do not have.
Build Credit Wisely and Remain Debt Free
The 2015 American Household Credit Card Debt Study shows that the average household carries approximately $15,762 in credit card debt. Credit cards can be beneficial when used wisely. They can also be very detrimental to your financial situation and cause unnecessary stress.
Until you build an emergency savings fund, use a credit card as backup for unexpected expenses, such as a $250-$1000 deductible required by your car insurance company. Then, be sure to setup a plan to pay off this debt within the next 3-6 months.
For a $2,000 credit limit, your goal is to keep your debt balance below 35% of your available credit. If you must have a credit card, try to limit its use to travel expenses. For example, many companies require a credit card to reserve a hotel, flight, or a car rental. Promptly pay the credit card charges before interest accrues. The goal is to be financially free – no credit card debt.
Rule #2: One major credit card is enough and it is not for everyday use. Do not abuse it.
Invest in Yourself Early
The biggest mistake young professionals make is not saving for retirement in their early years of employment. You have the opportunity to start saving early, and by taking advantage of these years, you will reap financial benefits greater than a 35-year-old who’s saving the same amount in their retirement account. Your funds will be invested in the market longer than someone who waits to contribute to a plan, which means significant growth potential for you.
Most employers offer some form of retirement plan, such as a 401k or 403b. To give employees an incentive to participate, a company match is generally available to each participant after contributing the minimum amount required. For example, let’s say your employer offers to match you dollar-for-dollar on the first 3% contributed. You will have 3% deducted from your bi-weekly paycheck, and your employer will also place 3% in the account. This is free money added to your account that will earn interest based on investment allocations offered in the plan.
Please choose your investments wisely, with the understanding that these funds will not be accessed for the next 40 years or more. This money grows tax-deferred until you make a withdrawal during your retirement years. If your employer doesn’t offer a match, you can still contribute towards the retirement plan. In the case where your employer doesn’t offer a plan at all, a ROTH IRA is a great option for regular contributions, if eligible, and you can withdraw these funds at retirement tax free.
Rule #3: Start saving early, with no excuses.
Follow Your Passion
Initially, my goal was to be a math teacher because I enjoyed math and felt appreciated when teaching someone a topic/concept. After my first semester in college, I decided to major in business finance instead of the teaching profession. After many years of working in my field, I realized that I still have a passion for teaching.
Sometimes your passion may not be reflected in your primary source of income. If you have been able to incorporate your passion with your career, I certainly commend you on this accomplishment. Unfortunately, many Americans go to work every day doing a job they like or don’t like, but they are not passionate about it. Since my passion was teaching, for the last few years, I have been a Math tutor for students in secondary, middle and high school; this has not only fulfilled my desire to teach, but I have earned supplemental income as well. Follow your passion and work towards doing what you love to do.
Rule #4: Follow your passion to sources of supplemental your income.
Building a financial legacy and working to preserve it is my mission in life. I believe if you take responsibility and follow these 4 rules, it will change your life, your family, and your legacy. Having read this letter to my 22-year-old self, it is my hope that you will develop the habit of making wise financial decisions, and reap many benefits in the long run.
So, what’s the play call?
Get financial wisdom. For Wisdom is better than all the trappings of wealth; nothing you could wish for holds a candle to her. Proverbs 8:11