Yesterday was my 35th birthday and while I don’t hate getting older, I still feel like I’m 25. Sometimes I look at little six-month-old Henry and think, “whose baby is this? I’m surely not old enough to have one of these.”
But when I think back over the last five or 10 years, I can’t believe how much life has changed. And how much it has changed in ways I never expected. I remember being 23 and feeling the urge to have my entire life and career mapped out by the time I turned 25 (I’m a recovering control freak). I didn’t expect life to look anything like it does now.
I didn’t think I’d have kids.
I definitely wasn’t planning to get my MBA and I couldn’t have told you what state Duke was in.
I wanted to live in Europe but I had no idea how that would happen.
And if someone would have told me that I’d make my living writing about money on the internet, I would have told them they were crazy.
These past 10 years have not gone according to plan and it has been the best adventure. There have been a lot of ups, plenty of downs, and so many lessons learned along the way. The 25-year-old me would have hated how unpredictable my life seems now, but the 35-year-old me is embracing the adventure and is excited for tomorrow.
When it comes to money over the past 10 years, I’ve had a few regrettable mistakes. But I’ve also done a few things really well. If I could go back in time and help 25-year-old Erica avoid some mistakes, here’s what I’d tell her:
Ditch the closet full of fast fashion
Living in Europe with a very small closet has been the best wake up call. I feel like I’ve spent the last five years purging a too-full closet. Shirts that were worn twice. Yet another pair of dark skinny jeans. Shoes that didn’t quite fit well, but I swore they’d feel better if I could just break them in a little.
I’ve gotten rid of it all, and I miss none of it.
I still shop, but I’ve changed my goal. I’m a more thoughtful and discerning buyer. I don’t “go shopping.” I don’t buy things on a whim and I focus on buying classic, high-quality pieces that I can wear for years. That doesn’t necessarily mean everything I purchase is expensive (it’s not). But I try to make really smart choices about what I do buy.
Spend where it matters
In 2008 my younger sister and I spent 5 weeks backpacking around Asia. It was amazing — and it was relatively cheap. We chose hostels over hotels and took public buses instead of private shuttles through the countryside of Cambodia. It was exactly the adventure a 25-year-old should have.
Though I saved up for a year, at the time I still wasn’t sure it was the best idea to spend $5k+ on a vacation. I had goals of going to grad school. I could have been saving more for retirement. There were plenty of other things that I could’ve done with that money.
But to this day it is one of the best and most memorable trips I’ve ever been on. I’m so glad I spent money on something that mattered to me.
Watch those nickels and dimes
In high school, a friends mother once told her to not “nickel and dime herself poor.” What she meant was that going out and spending $5 on a snack when my friend was no more than a ten-minute walk from home, wasn’t a good financial decision. This small and seemingly inconsequential purchase would add up and keep her from spending money on something that she really wanted.
A few years after college I took a look at my nickels and dimes and realized that a lot of what I spent my money on was mindless: $10 here, $5 there. Over the course of a month, those mindless purchases would add up to hundreds spent on who knows what. It was then I started my habit of asking myself, “do I need this? Will spending money on this really make me happy?” Pausing for a minute to think before spending has helped me save thousands over the years without feeling deprived.
You have worked so hard for that money. It’s OK to care about it
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but I used to feel guilty for caring too much about saving money. If my friends were buying concert tickets, going out to a fancy dinner, or planning a girls weekend away, I would feel pressured to do that too. My team at work used to eat out for lunch every single day, and I’d feel awkward trying to skip it in favor of bringing lunch from home. There was always an underlying message of “you make enough money. You can afford to do this.”
And while I could afford to do these things, spending money in these ways wasn’t my priority. I used to have a really hard time saying no or acknowledging that I didn’t want to spend money a certain way. But one day it dawned on me: I work so hard to earn the money that I have, I shouldn’t be so ready to part with it.
The more you enjoy what you do, the less money you spend
I don’t know if this is a truth for everyone, but it certainly has been for me. When I’ve had a job that has been stressful or unpleasant, I’ve spent a lot. The more I’m excited about my work, the less I’ve blown cash on impulse purchases.
This isn’t the advice to do what you love and the money will follow. But find something that you enjoy doing and you won’t need to spend money as an escape.
That lingering debt is going to keep you from doing amazing things
Someone once emailed me and mentioned that I talk about my student loans all the time. And I do. Not because I love to talk about them — honestly, I don’t. But I mention them so often because I used to think that they would be a fact of my life for a very long time. And I know how much it sucks to think you’ll be tied to a debt payment for 10+ years.
This is probably my biggest lesson. I spent 18 months living as though my student loan debt was going to be a fact of life. I didn’t refinance. I didn’t make extra payments. I was comfortable with it.
I woke up one day and realized that my debt was keeping me from living a life I was really excited about. Once I finished aggressively paying it off, I was able to make a career switch, travel without guilt, and focus on chasing the things that I really wanted in life. If I still had the lingering debt, life would look and feel completely different.
I majored in economics, got my CPA, and then got my MBA from Duke. And guess what? I still google nearly everything.
I used to not ask questions about money because I figured I should already know the answer. It took me a long time to realize that it’s OK to not know everything. Once I started asking questions (“How is our mortgage amortization calculated? How do bond funds lose money?”), I realized that no one actually has it all figured out.
And guess what? Asking how our mortgage amortization was calculated helped us spot an error and we ended up getting a refund check for $10k.
So ask the questions.
Ask for a raise
And don’t half-ass it. Prepare, do some research, and make the ask, confidently. Enough said. Just do it.
You can make more
Until somewhat recently, my mindset around money has been that of scarcity. And a little bit of catastrophic scarcity. I was worried that there would never be enough. When I had a high paying job, I worried about layoffs. When I got my first freelance client, I worried that even though I’d signed one, I’d never find another client again. I was constantly in fear that the good times would end and I’d be left without enough.
While this mentality helped to ensure I’d save, it’s also caused a lot of money anxiety. It’s probably kept my prices too low and kept me from not investing in myself and my business. Now I’m trying to embrace the idea that there are endless possibilities out there if you want to pursue them. You can make more.
Being good with money is as much a mental game as anything else.
Do more of what YOU actually want to do
Jordan and I talk about how we hope to raise Henry, and these conversations are obviously a window into things we like or don’t like from our past. One big theme for me is that I want to raise him to be his own person. To appreciate his own interests rather than looking at what other people like. Whether it’s choosing a career or deciding how to spend a Saturday night, I hope he always chooses the thing that lights him up, rather than what his friends (or gasp, his parents) think he should enjoy.
Buy life insurance
I don’t like thinking about why I need life insurance. But with a mortgage and a family, it would be irresponsible to not think about life insurance. Both Jordan and I had default life insurance through our employers for a long time. When Henry came along we upped that amount but kept insurance through his employer’s group plan. Now that we’re in our 30’s and shopping around for life insurance that will be separate from his employer’s policy, we’re going to end up paying more monthly than if we had purchased it in our 20’s.
I wish someone would have explained to me that buying a policy early and buying a plan separate from my employer would be a smart move.
Boring is best
Investing in a 401k or an IRA is boring. And that’s not a bad thing. The best thing I’ve done for my money is to set it and forget it in a tax-advantaged retirement account. Even just saying this sounds boring. But honestly, investing money and not needing to think about it again is something your future self will thank you for. The worst thing I ever did was try to pick individual stocks because it was more exciting (hi, $16k mistake).
Consider a target date fund or look for an easy, automatically balanced portfolio through Vanguard or Wealthfront.