Finances in your 20s: Getting used to having and handling money. So how do you go from having enough money each pay period to having a plan for the future?
Boom. And just like that, you are making money — regularly.
The bills are getting paid, you're enjoying time with your friends, and you even treat yourself to lunch because there's enough money left over. Living expenses: check. Sure, there are squinchy times, like when you have to replace the front tires, or your roommate comes up short on the rent payment, but overall, it feels like you're winning.
Truth is, you are. This is what finances are in your 20s: getting used to having and handling money. You likely feel a sense of "look at me go" because you are doing just fine on your own.
Check the list and see what you already have covered. (If you are already financially smarter than your peers on some of these, feel free to skip ahead.)
So, what's next? How do you go from having enough money (or nearly enough money) each pay period to really being a genuine adult with a plan for the future? That's easy. You're doing it now.
1. Ask for help
No, don't ask for money. You don't want to do that anyway. You want to do this yourself. Financial independence is a thing. But asking for help is ab-so-lute-ly different than asking for money.
Learning the lessons of financial literacy that they didn't teach in school, creating (and managing) a budget, opening your first 401k, or enrolling in insurance are all brand new experiences in your 20s. Adults sometimes act like they have all the answers — they don't. Real adults look for answers, even if it's a Google search.
You want to understand how to take what little money you earn and do all these things that adults seem to do, like buying houses and managing a mutual fund. There's no homework assignment here but wanting to learn and asking questions is one of the best life lessons you can practice.
If a YouTube video doesn't answer all your questions about real estate and investing in cryptocurrency, then it's super smart to ask an expert. "Tell me how to do it, as if I have never done it before," is a great way to ask for help without fessing up that you've never done it before.
2. Take charge of your accounts
Having a bank account isn't just a place to dump your money. Be proud of your money! You work hard for it, as you obviously know from first-hand experience. Don't just deposit it into whatever checking account you had to open to set up your direct deposit. Keep your money where it is valued.
Not to sound like your parental units, but keep tabs on what's in your account. Don't just check the balance, actually control the movement of your money. Your money is your source of power: purchasing power, decision-making power, and moving-ahead-in-life power. Manage it. Control it. Own it.
Do you need to be thinking about retirement now? No!
Simple math: If you're 22 now, you're going to live what is basically two more entire lifetimes before you retire. Whatever happens between now and then is anyone's guess. But — and there is always a "but" — when you get to that point, it will be great to have money to live off of.
There's this fabulous concept called compound interest — you may have heard of it — and it is going to help you save money for that day in 40-plus years when you might want to think about retirement.
Complex math: If you put $100 in an IRA (individual retirement account) that earns 6% interest and add just $20 every month (yeah, yeah, you'll add more than that in the future), you'll have over $38,000 in 40 years. Totally worth the effort now.
3. Save money for something
When your parents or grandparents opened your first savings account, you tossed in your birthday money, maybe some money your parents added, and you saved up and bought whatever all the kids wanted at the time. Your savings goal was a $50 video game or an $80 pair of shoes. Way to dream.
Don't knock it, though. That's the same idea you need to use now to save for whatever you want next.
Save for an emergency
Do you want to go to your best friend's wedding and not stress about how you're going to pay for the travel and gifts, and that hideous dress you will never wear again? That's worth saving up for. Do you want to not be freaked out when you have to repair your car? Same idea.
An emergency fund is the first way you should start saving money. A surprise expense is just another bill you have to pay, it just happens to be one you don't know is coming. If you build yourself a solid financial reserve, it's your way to save for something you don't yet know you want. Or will need.
Save for future you
Once you've banked four-to-six months of savings, start paying yourself. Your retirement savings plan is really just a fancy way to save up for the "something" you want for yourself in the future, whether that's the down payment on a house, the money to start your own business, or the ability to travel when you want.
Even if you don't know what exactly you want yet, start saving. Once you do know, it will be fabulous to have that money sitting there, hanging out while earning interest — just waiting to make your life really fantastic.
4. Bad debt vs. good credit
The nice kids over at the credit card company have probably been pestering you to apply for their credit card. There's a certain sense of financial independence knowing a company wants to give you money. No! Not even! Don’t fall for the false flattery or cheap t-shirt giveaway at their booth on campus.
Opening a credit card is a way to get you to give your money to a company. Their credit card company. It is just debt, plain and simple, so you can have a few objects or enjoy a few activities that cost more than you can afford. That's it. What do you have to show for it after you've paid all that money back?
Sure, you might want to establish a good credit score for yourself, but there are ways to grow your credit without paying 16% interest to a megabank. It's basically compound interest except it's being taken from you, not given to you.
The smart way to improve your credit score is the same way to get that paycheck: you need to earn it and work for it. Ugh!
No, now, don't be daunted — you're likely already doing this. If you have student loan debt, making on-time payments, or even paying a little ahead, you are building up your credit. What do you have to show for it when you're done paying back your student loan? A degree, and greater earning potential, and a history that proves you are capable of paying back your debts are what you've acquired — and that ain't nothin'.
In a sense, it's an unsecured personal loan. You do not have a car or a house, but you do have your education. Any time you use debt to improve your financial position, also known as your net worth, you are improving your credit responsibly.
5. Do the grown-up thing
Budget. *sigh* It's just adult homework.
This is a good point in life to change your money mindset. Having a budget may sound like an assignment you don't really want to do, much less one you don't want to do every month for the rest of your life.
Let's mix up the concept of a budget. Consider that financial planning every month is really about developing a financial wellness plan. A budget is about where your money is going each month, but a financial wellness plan is about where your money is taking you.
Just like the idea of asking for help, seeking financial advice is a brilliant way to develop an overall financial wellness plan. Yes, managing your money each month is important, but so is developing a longer-term plan for your money.
If your company offers you a 401k plan, absolutely take it, but also ask if it includes a financial advisor to help you manage your money in a bigger, broader, more adult, future-facing way. A secret you may have already uncovered: your finances can cause stress. Shocker, right? Speaking with a financial advisor not only can help you develop a life-long financial wellness plan, but they can also help relieve the stress of trying to go it alone.
6. Get your body financially fit
Your 20s are a remarkable time when you still feel invincible. It may not last (as you'll discover in your 30s), but it may prevent you from making smart financial choices that impact your physical and financial wellness.
Depending on your financial situation, you may opt to not enroll in your company's health insurance. Speaking of doing the grown-up thing, having health insurance is a way of protecting your financial position in case you encounter an unexpected physical condition. Protect your physical health and your financial health.
According to a March 2022 KFF Health Care Debt survey, four in ten adults report currently having debt due to medical or dental bills. Additionally, of the 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed, 40% say they have current healthcare debt, while 54% report having medical debt at one point already. The numbers don’t look great, so do what you can enrolling in healthcare that will cover your most common needs and that can do so with premiums and deductibles that make sense for you.
Also, be aware that there’s only a certain window of time or specific instances that make you eligible to enroll in a healthcare plan. Missing those deadlines can kick up some real trouble.
When it comes to saving money for your own health-related expenses, a Health Savings Account (also known as an HSA) is the perfect way to do it. Many employer-provided health care plans include your employer actually paying money directly into your HSA. And just so you know, this isn't "free money." It's your money. It is part of your employee compensation so be sure to take it.
Likewise, your employer may offer you life insurance, so you may think you've got that covered. Additional life insurance may feel like an unnecessary expense, especially if you're single. Go back and ask your financial advisor how life insurance might be a smart decision, and it may not cost you too much each month. Consider it a small investment in your life.
7. You're worth it
If you've ever looked at your savings or your debt or your budget or even your 401k and tried to determine if you are actually in debt, or if you are on the plus side financially, there is a way to determine your net worth.
Your tangible worth
You may have a little money in your childhood savings account, your current emergency fund, your 401k, your HSA, your student loan balance, your credit card balance, and now you think you have money spread all over the financial map.
Yes, this again involves a little math homework, but it's smart to calculate your net worth every few years. Knowing your net worth isn't about putting a dollar amount on your life, but it does help you think about big financial decisions. “Should I take this new job out of state? Will it help me save more for the house I want to buy? Am I financially stable that if I propose to my girlfriend we will be able to start married life with more than just a few bucks in my pocket?”
Okay, you may not even be dating anyone right now, but when someone talks about personal finance, your net worth is about as personal as your finances can get.
Your true worth
If you've ever said to yourself, "I can't do ____, because I need to ____," then consider this thought:
"I can't save money into my retirement savings because I need to use the money to pay the next three BNPL payments for my new video card [or insert other expenditure]." That's like saying, "I can't pay me because ..."
Stop right there. Pay yourself! You are worth it. If your employer is willing to pay you for the tasks you perform while on the clock, you should be willing to pay yourself for every little thing you are doing to create a spectacular life for yourself. Granted, life may not feel spectacular every single day, but you are worth it and there are no exceptions that are more important than taking care of you.
8. Get ready
Alright, last tip. Your financial future is obviously pretty darn important as you've figured out. So, when is a good time to get serious about your financial future?
Well, your next payday is in your financial future. And so is your next tax refund. And your next raise or promotion. Your financial future starts tomorrow — or maybe even later today. This is why you can't look at your financial future as some faraway date that will someday be here. It will be here when you wake up in the morning.
Whether planning to pay your bills when you get paid or retirement planning, your financial future is always just around the corner. Your financial decisions today are affecting your budget, your wellness plan, and your financial health for your lifetime. Get started preparing for it.
You may have just entered your 20s, but before you know it, you'll be turning 25 and then you'll level up to your 30s. Don't shrug and ignore it — it's going to happen. Getting ready for what comes next, even just looking a year or two ahead at this point is so much more brilliant than just looking ahead to your next paycheck.
Look at you — and your money — go!
If you've glanced at what your financial success can be like, let's recap:
You're owning your financial know-how
Put your money where your values are
Save up for something you really want — a great financial life
Use your credit wisely
Manage your financial self-care
Get financially fit
Know your wealth and your worth
Be ready for what comes next in life
Your 20s are pretty amazing, right? But you knew that already.