Here’s the thing about your 20s. You most likely graduated from college. You debated making a victory lap with graduate school. Or, you just took the plunge into your first job. In any case, managing your money may not have been a priority back then, as there probably wasn’t much money to manage.
If you’re like many others, your 20s are full of questions that promise to shape your personal and professional future. Amid the chaos, it’s common for young people to forget or ignore the topic of money management. Skills like budgeting or saving seem trivial compared to finding the right opportunities and networks. Yet, dismissing your financial situation as “good enough” in your 20s is a sure path to future headaches.
Few groups are as well-positioned to comment on this as millennials. The amount of student loan debt owed across America now sits close to $1.5 trillion, and millennials are racking up credit card debt quickly. According to an NBC News/GenForward survey, credit card debt has become one of the most prevalent types of debt among millennials.
As older millennials progress into their 30s, they’re confronted with new questions about marriage, family and homeownership that are complicated by the consequences of earlier financial missteps. We talked to a number of people about money advice they wish they had received in their 20s.
Don’t blow your entire paycheck
“When I made my first big paycheck, I spent money like crazy. Had I learned to have more self control in my 20s, I could have set aside more in a good savings account,” reflects Lauren Lane, a 29-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Not only could she have set aside more in savings, but more in retirement, too. Employer-sponsored 401(k) plans can help you maximize potential matching contributions to get free money toward retirement.
While a steady paycheck can make it feel like your financial situation is headed in a better direction, it doesn’t erase looming debt. The regular income may seem great, but you’ll need to start paying your student loan debt as you exit your deferral stage. “I wished I would have been more responsible in paying [student loan debt] down instead of spending money on myself,” Lane says.
She isn’t the only one feeling this regret. The average graduate carries $32,731 in the student loan debt. Assuming current federal student loan interest rates of 5.05%, you could be paying close to $9,000 in interest alone over a 10-year span. Instead, try setting aside an extra $100 to $200 per month toward erasing your debt, and you could potentially cut the amount of interest you pay in half.
Pay attention to student loan agreements
The impact of student loan debt can make it difficult to consider other chapters of your life, like starting a family or buying a home. Josh Frost, a 37-year-old from Prattville, Alabama, graduated from college the week the market crashed in 2008—with $85,000 in student loan debt. He works multiple jobs and is living at home to pay off his student loan debt fast.
“I went into sticker shock and deferred multiple times. About three years ago, I finally started making principal payments. I’m still paying it off and it’s overwhelming, to say the least,” says Frost.
Many millennial college students don’t understand student loans and their impact over time. Before taking out a student loan, visit your financial aid or registrar’s office. Ask for a tuition cost breakdown for the following year so you can create a plan to cover it.
If you already graduated from college, log in to your loan servicer account to locate the repayment terms. There are multiple repayment options if you took out federal loans, but you’ll want to clarify terms if you have private lenders. Knowing the repayment terms will help pepare you to pay off student loan debt.
Use credit cards responsibly
Millennials average more than $5,800 in credit card debt. While some credit cards can give you rewards, chasing after them can become pointless when you spend money on interest. Jessica Fowler, a 29-year-old from Chandler, Arizona, knows this all too well. “I wanted to build credit and use the points for rewards. It got so addictive that I racked up $10,000 in credit card debt,” she admits.
Multiple credit cards with high interest rates ended up costing Fowler. And collecting sign-up bonuses made paying the balance more difficult. “You have to spend so much within a few months to get the bonus points. It’s now been difficult to pay it off,” says Fowler, who pays a 23% APR on one card and 26% on the other.
With maxed-out credit cards and poor utilization, her credit score was impacted, too. If you want to be responsible with credit cards, a good tactic to use is the “move as fast as cash method.” If you can’t pay off your card in full every month, you probably can’t afford whatever it is you’re trying to buy. Use a credit card wisely by paying your bill on time and understanding the billing cycle. This is a good way to manage money without overspending.
If you’re in your 20’s, by now, it’s probably no secret that finances are one of the biggest stressors for Millennials and Generation Z. There’s no shortage to the number of news articles out there covering the student loan crisis. By keeping these key steps in mind early on, you can start taking control of your financial future today, and avoid becoming one of the statistics so often quoted in the news.