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Those of us who write and talk about money for a living tend to have our financial acts together. But this has not always been the case. I invited personal finance experts to share what they wish they could tell their youngsters about money.
Invest early, even if it’s scary
If the stock market scares you, Michelle Singletary, national columnist for the Washington Post, can understand. Singletary says she avoided investing for many years because in her first job after college, an older colleague – who was close to retirement age – warned her that stocks were too risky.
Singletary later realized that someone in her twenties had decades to ride out stock market fluctuations and she could have afforded to take a lot more risk with her investments.
“The lesson I learned was to look at my own individual situation and invest according to my timeline and my goals,” Singletary says.
Student loan debt can pay off
Darian Woods, journalist and producer of “The Indicator from Planet Money” podcast, says he can’t remember exactly how much he borrowed to get a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley — just that his balance was “into tens of thousands of dollars” by the time he graduated.
The debt seemed enormous. Woods wishes he could reassure his anxious younger self that the loans were a solid investment in his future. Woods, from New Zealand, landed a job as an analyst for his country’s Treasury Department and was able to repay the loans within a year.
“That debt wasn’t as catastrophic as I feared,” Woods says.
Saving, spending, earning: they are all important
Paco de Leon, author of the book “Finance for the People: Getting a Grip On Your Finances,” has two tips for his younger self. The first is to save, no matter what. Saving may seem futile on a small income, but the amount you save is far less important than the saving habit you’ll develop, she says.
The second tip: face your pain.
De Leon earned a degree in finance and a minor in economics. But a head full of knowledge about the concepts of money was no match for what de Leon calls “a deep-seated mindset of scarcity” and a deep sense of inferiority. De Leon says she didn’t earn enough for years because she wasn’t convinced of her own worth and bought expensive things she couldn’t afford, hoping to get validation from others. She wished her young self had spent time reflecting on herself and going to therapy to resolve her psychological issues.
“Do the work to heal your pain, so you don’t create more unnecessary problems for yourself,” de Leon says.
Check: Your next career or life change doesn’t have to be a choice. Give yourself a “both and” decision.
Don’t make work your life
Tess Vigeland is the host and lead producer of The Wall Street Journal’s “As We Work” podcast. She, too, has practical and philosophical advice for her younger self.
The practicality: Never, ever carry a credit card balance if you can help yourself.
“I ended up with significant credit debt in my early and mid-twenties, because I lived like I had my parents’ bank account, when in fact I had a tiny fraction of it,” explains Vigeland.
The philosophical: Develop interests outside of your job.
Vigeland loved her job on public radio – until she didn’t. In 2012, she abruptly quit her job hosting American Public Media’s “Marketplace Money,” a personal finance show, with no idea what she wanted to do next.
Part of that journey became a book, “Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want.” But Vigeland says life after public radio might have been easier if her job hadn’t been such a big part of her identity.
“Have something you enjoy doing outside of what you do for a living,” says Vigeland. “It will ultimately help you if you decide to move on to another career or go back to school – you won’t be stuck in one idea of who you are and what you can do.”
And my two cents
Most of us can look back and see how much we have matured over time. But somehow we think our evolution has stopped. Whether we’re just starting our careers or long since retired, the so-called “end of history illusion” convinces us that we won’t change much of the person we are today.
See: White-collar graduates are vulnerable to recession and need to be smart when applying for jobs. Here’s exactly how to do it.
If I had known about this psychological quirk, maybe I would have worried less about figuring it all out and making exactly the right career and money choices. Who I am and what I want won’t stay the same. I would tell my younger self that the important thing is to do my best today and let tomorrow take care of itself.
(Spoiler alert: Everything works.)
Liz Weston, CFP® writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @lizweston.
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