My wife and I just sent our first child off to college, and we’ll send our second to college next year. Through all the things that go with this time of life, I’ve been very focused on teaching my children sound money management principles. And the process made me realize just how much the decisions my wife and I made in our 20′s affect our finances today in our 40′s.
Despite the headline of this article, we’re not quit-your-job rich. But we are comfortable. We have no debt other than our mortgage. We paid cash for our last car (a used Toyota Camry hybrid). We have money set aside for our children’s college education. And we are on track to retire.
So if you are in your 20′s or know somebody who is, here are five decisions that made all the difference.
Decision #1–Earned a VALUABLE degree: This past weekend I attended FINCON12, a conference of personal finance bloggers. One of the speakers was Liz Weston. One point she made is that not all education loans are “good debt.” Amen.
As Steven Covey said in his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you must begin with the end in mind. Once you get the degree you are pursuing, what will you do with it?
If art history is your passion, that’s great. But recognize that a 4-year degree from a private institution will cost north of $200,000. If you borrow that money, you’ll likely spend decades repaying it. That’s bad debt.
In my case, I earned a law degree, graduating in 1992 with $55,000 in school loans. Contrary to popular belief, not all lawyers make a fortune. But it has been a rewarding career that has more than paid for the cost of the diploma. And yes, my school loans are now paid in full.
Decision #2–Avoided consumer debt: My wife and I were by no means perfect in this area. We had some credit card debt during the early years of our marriage. In fact, I wrote a series on how to get out of credit card debt for that very reason, as well as how we used 0% balance transfer cards to lower the cost of interest.
But here’s the thing. We never racked up debilitating amounts of consumer debt. We didn’t fund vacations, jewelry or expensive clothes with our credit cards. Debt that doesn’t add a nondepreciating asset to your balance sheet of equal or greater value will quickly become a financial burden.
Decision #3–Began investing early: Even if you have debt, I believe you should begin investing with your first job. With a 401(k), you can invest as little as $25 a month. If you don’t have a 401(k), you can begin investing with very little money with companies like Betterment. When I got out of school we began investing in a 401(k) even while paying off debt, and it was a habit that has stuck with us ever since.
Decision #4–Bought modest vehicles: Don’t drive your paycheck. It’s tempting to buy a car based on the payment you can afford. But the money that goes to your car will set you back later in life.
I can recall vividly my wife and I going to buy a car for me a few years after law school. We only had one car for several years, and I took the bus and subway to work. I was looking to buy something sweet, but she has always been more frugal than I. Here I am a lawyer at a big, fancy law firm in Washington, D.C., and guess what I drove off the lot. It was a used Ford Escort with manual transmission and hand-crank windows. It was the right decision. Thanks, Mrs. Dough.
Decision #5–Maintained good credit: This one was by accident. Back in the early 90′s, you couldn’t get your free credit score online. There was no “online.” Heck, I didn’t buy our first cell phone until 1995. So I had no idea what my credit score was.
But we paid our bills on time and didn’t rack up too much debt. As a result, we got a great interest rate when we bought our first home, got an even better rate when we refinanced, and got a great rate on our auto loans (we couldn’t afford to pay cash for cars until more recently).
Credit scores may seem boring, but they have a huge impact on your finances. Monitor and protect your score with care.
If you are in your 20′s, I hope you’ll give some thought to the above as you make decisions for you and your family. Trust me, you’ll thank me twenty years from now.
Published or updated September 10, 2012.