The daughter of one of my clients left home right after high school graduation for a full-time job and part-time college classes. As she was settling into her first apartment, she told her mother, “I never thought I’d be the person who had to buy things like toilet paper and toothpaste.”
She had discovered one of the realities of moving into adulthood: the need to take responsibility for money matters we previously took for granted or never noticed at all.
For anyone stepping out into the “real” world for the first time, here are a few suggestions to help you create a healthy and secure financial life.
1. Understand the difference between your parents’ lifestyle and a new-adult lifestyle. Many middle-class families take for granted a variety of amenities like lots of electronic devices, dozens of TV channels, eating out regularly, and plenty of private living space. It’s a mistake for new adults to assume they can or should continue to have all these when they’re first out on their own. Don’t compare your first-apartment lifestyle with the way your parents live now; compare it instead to the way they lived when they were starting out.
2. Learn to budget and prioritize.
- Traditional wisdom says to “pay yourself first” by setting aside money for future needs before you spend a dime. That’s excellent advice. Unfortunately, there’s someone else you have to pay before you pay yourself: Uncle Sam. Always take income tax withholding and FICA (Social Security) taxes off the top first, then create your budget based on your take-home pay.
- Develop a habit of saving for the future, even if it’s only a small amount. One of the most important strategies you can ever practice for long-term financial success is to get used to living on less than you earn.
- Become a smart and frugal shopper. Look for sales, shop second-hand stores, clip coupons, read labels, and comparison shop. You may be surprised at how well you can live on a mix of creativity and thrift.
3. Invest in yourself.
- Invest appropriately in education for a career you’re excited about. This doesn’t mean a boatload of college debt is automatically a good choice. Be realistic about the relationship between your borrowing and the earning potential of your chosen field.
- Consider investing time and energy instead of money. It might be better to take six years to graduate from college with minimal debt than to finish in four years with high debt. Or taking a temporary second job to build up savings or pay off debt might help you build a stronger financial foundation.
- Take advantage of a variety of learning opportunities. Look for ways to learn on the job and through organizations or hobbies. Find mentors to teach you about money and help you learn to become a valued and valuable employee. Build your communication and customer service skills.
4. Understand the difference between being broke and being poor. Living on the cheap while you’re in school or at the beginning of your career is not a sign of failure. Often, it’s a sign of future success. Having the discipline and common sense to do without some of the things you’d like to have now can greatly increase your chances to enjoy those things comfortably later.
5. Take responsibility for your own finances. It’s your life, your career, and your money. No one will ever care more about your financial well-being than you do. The reward for accepting that responsibility is financial competence, self-sufficiency, and independence. Right down to choosing your own brands of toilet paper and toothpaste.