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30 Years, 30 Things I’ve Learned About Money

Thirty things I've learned about money in 30 years.I’m turning 30 soon†.

With this milestone approaching, I’ve already passed a late night or two sipping bourbon and meditating on my first three decades of life—successes, failures and what, if anything, I learned from them.

Today, I want to share a few of these points on money. I’ll offer brief explanations of some; others stand alone.

(Having spent almost five years writing about finances, I could easily pen a list of 200 or more “money lessons”, but I’ll stick with 30 of the most personal and, hopefully, most prescient.)

1. People love to judge the financial decisions of others.
Try not to. Personal finance is personal.

2. Armed with credit cards, anybody can live richly for a year or two.

3. Doing so causes a world of pain.

4. Being ensnared in debt was the most difficult thing I have experienced in life.
Debt’s effects are widespread: emotional, psychological, and even physical.

5. Poor financial decisions also mean lost opportunities.
Debts tie you down, and when you’re tied down, you can’t take risks.

6. It’s hard to reach financial goals until you know where you’re going.
Make a financial plan. Get specific, put it in writing, and set deadlines.

7. When it comes to reaching financial goals, BABY STEPS really do work.
Set a small goal. Celebrate achieving it. Set a bigger goal. And so on.

8. The less you have to think about money, the better.
Without a doubt, paying yourself first and automating retirement contributions and debt payments has consistently helped me reach financial goals sooner.

9. It’s a GOOD idea to admire people who EARN MORE money than you.

10. It’s a BAD idea to admire people who SPEND MORE money than you.

11. Over time, I regret spending money on ordinary things.
A new bicycle, a $200 set of poker chips, an Xbox 360, and more guitars than I can count. All things I bought with credit when I shouldn’t have. Most of them I later sold on eBay when I smartened up. And I don’t miss any of them. Although making a new purchase leads to a kind of high for a couple of days, it inevitably leads to remorse…especially when you buy it with credit.

12. Over time, I DO NOT regret spending money on extraordinary experiences.
If I were to tally up all the things I financed with credit cards years ago, the single biggest line item would be this: PILOT’S LICENSE ($4,500).

That’s right, I spent several grand I didn’t have on flying lessons. Idiotic? Yes. Irresponsible? Of course! But do I regret it? Well, not exactly.

In hindsight, I wish I had never gotten a credit card so young, which would mean I would’ve never purchased flying lessons. But quite honestly, learning to fly was one of the best and most unique experiences of my life. I know people who dream their entire lives of doing something like this but never get around to it because they don’t have time or because spending the money on something so indulgent isn’t the responsible thing to do.

But in this case, I chose to trade in a dream for a memory, and I don’t regret it. Flying was awesome. And once everything else in life is paid for, I hope to do it again someday. But if that never happens, at least I did it. That’s how I feel about experiences. If you have the opportunity to do something you really, really want to do, it might be time to throw pragmatism to the wind.

13. Having “enough” money is a really good feeling.
Does money buy happiness? I don’t think so. But getting out of debt and having a few dollars in the bank sure makes a lot of problems disappear, if you can swing it.

14. The less money you have, the easier it is to gamble it.
Ironic, isn’t it? When I was in the depths of indebtedness, working two jobs just to cover minimum payments and rent, I started playing casino blackjack. I was deluded into thinking a big win would wipe out all my debts and let me start over, easy as pie.

You know, the classic gambler’s dream. The easy way out.

Of course, all I did was make my debt worse by gambling money I couldn’t afford to lose.

Although gambling itself wasn’t the source of my debt (thank God), gambling became a roadblock to getting out of debt. Whenever I had some spare cash, instead of making an extra debt payment, I gambled it. Sometimes I won and used the winnings to pay debt. More often, I lost, and once again had to turn credit cards to pay the month’s bills. But because I had so little money, gambling was really exciting. It was all or nothing. Go home with nothing or go home with a couple thousand dollars which, at the time, was a huge sum of money. This is why, I think, casinos are filled with the old and the poor. Gambling is most exciting when you have the most to lose. The dollar amount doesn’t matter, only the relative sum.

15. The more money you have, the more you want to protect it.
Something interesting happened when I emerged from debt and watched my savings and investment balances grow. Spending money became more painful. For the first time in my life, I could actually afford some of the things I once racked up debt to buy, only now I didn’t want them. Knowing how hard I worked for the money in my bank account (and to pay down all that debt) puts purchasing decisions in an entirely new light.

16. Don’t blindly trust investment advice.
I think you have to ask yourself: If somebody pitching stock tips is so smart, why aren’t they just investing for themselves? (For one, because selling investment advice is a sure-thing whereas any investment, by definition, is a risk). Now I’m not saying there isn’t good investing advice out there, but I am saying you can’t always tell the difference. Ignore most investing advice, and ignore the stock market, too.

17. Talking about money with your (future) spouse is so important…and extremely hard.
My wife and I have been totally open about money since before we were married, and this has enabled us to jointly make some smart financial decisions. I honestly can’t imagine being in a relationship in which I couldn’t talk about money. That said, I’m not saying the conversations are always easy.

Your financial values will never be the same as your partner’s, and whenever your values differ, there is the potential for tension. The sooner you learn to to talk about your differences and reach compromises, the happier (and wealthier) you both will be.

18. Pay your taxes (and double-check your returns).
Just sayin’.

19. Practicing earning more money is a lot more fun than practicing spending less money.

20. The first dollar is the hardest to earn.
Nine out of ten business/freelance ventures I’ve attempted have failed to earn a single dollar. Then one got off the ground, made some money, grew, made some more money, inspired another idea which made some money, and so on. With persistence, success can be exponential.

21. You don’t have to be a “numbers person” to make smart financial decisions.

22. Being pragmatic doesn’t have to mean being boring.
Back in my spendthrift days, I used to tell myself that being frugal meant being lame. I was all about living for the moment, something boring people who saved their money obviously never did. I’ve since learned that it’s not only possible to enjoy today while saving for tomorrow, life is more fun when you pay in full.

23. Talking about money is more taboo than talking about sex.
Unless, perhaps, you’re with a bunch of personal finance bloggers.

24. Contributing to your 401(k) and/or starting an IRA while you’re still in your twenties is really, really smart.
And it’s not as hard as you think once you learn the basics.

25. Big banks assume their customers are stupid and treat them like crap.
Most of us put up with it for the sake of convenience.

26. When it comes to our economy, the only certainty is uncertainty.
Be prepared for anything.

27. Owning your home (as a financial strategy) is overrated.
It’s okay to rent.

28. Budgeting takes discipline most people don’t have.

29. When it comes to money, most people are ostriches; they have their heads in the sand.
Most people will never regularly read a financial blog. Most people will not make a plan to save for different financial goals. Most people will not take the time to learn even a little bit about investing. Most people won’t even save enough to cover three months living expenses if they lose their jobs. The good news? It doesn’t take much to do better than “most people”.

30. Time is a scarcer resource than money.
Spend it wisely.

So that’s a wrap: 30 years, 30 lessons! What about you—what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about money in your life so far?


† Note: Because somebody always asks: No, I’m not changing the blog. Sure, MoneyUnder30 may become MoneyUnder40 someday, but for now, regardless of the name (and my age), my mission remains unchanged: to provide useful reflections on managing your finances simply and successfully in early adulthood. Back to top.

Thanks to 96dpi for the photo.

Published or updated on January 20, 2011

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. BESD says:

    I love your 30 lessons. I’m working on my own lessons, and some of yours relate. I like your blog & hope we can support each other in this effort to educate others through our sites. Your blog has inspired me in my own vision of inspiring others in a similar way. Keep it up
    @3kidshere on Twitter

  2. Fifi says:

    Great tips! I hit some financial hardship/life crisis at age 27/28. Finally finished paying off the legal settlement, now trying to get my life back together. Unfortunately, my real concerns revolve around career (I travel too much) and relationships (travel too much therefore I am single). I might just be complaining with this comment. But wanted to drill in how much I can’t wait to be where you’re at.
    I’ve started a few businesses, but none have done that great (see legal settlement). What was it you did that finally got off the ground?
    It is quite an undertaking! Thanks for reading me vent. 😛

  3. Kelvin Abdallah says:

    Good piece David, and congrats on the good work.

    I chanced on this website today and have managed to read about 20 of the articles/posts.

    Anyway, I think some of the points are debatable and depend entirely on the set of circumstances. If your monthly rent is potentially equal to mortgage payment, then buying a house may be a better option as you earn additional equity with every single repayment you make. You (may) also benefit from capital appreciation.

  4. Ben says:

    Thank you for the list! As a high school student it is very beneficial to see tips like these that can help me make smart financial decisions when it comes time for college.

  5. Peter says:

    Great list! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I started to come around to these realizations myself in the latter years of my twenties. The one that really caught my eye was Number 23. I was just having that conversation with a friend the other day about how it seems that people would feel freer talking about sex with a stranger than their finances. I think it’s this lack of communication, this lack of asking for help that contributes to many financial woes.

  6. Janet says:

    David, I just discovered your blog. Happy 3-0!

    And @Brian … agree. To me, money used to be all about “image.” Now I see at as security and freedom, not something to flash. Working on getting my financials in line with this realization. :)

  7. Smash says:

    Hope you kept the bike – great way to get around & get some exercise.

  8. Moneycone says:

    Very nice post! I wonder what reflections the next 10 years will bring!

  9. love number 9 – it IS good to admire those that make more than you, there is always something to learn.

  10. Thank you for all the well wishes and great lessons learned…glad you liked this post! I promise to keep my site fresh and relevant to everybody under 30 and those crossing over, too (like me).

    @Adam, it definitely definitely feels good to be in the place I am now.

    @Bigbird, thanks, glad you found the site. I would contribute to SA and elsewhere if only I had the time. I work full time, manage this site (which can be a full time job itself if I let it), and play dad to a 5-month old.

  11. Bigbird says:

    Hi there, I came across your site today in my daily reading and I like what I see. Keep up the good work. Have you ever thought about contributing on they are paying contributors who generate page views. That way I could follow you on the site as I spend a lot of time there. They could definitely use some personal finance mojo though it’s pretty pure play invest/trading. Being smart about money has allowed me to live a lifestyle that is disproportionate to my low income from my pedestrian occupation.

  12. SLD says:

    Excellent post! The most important thing that I learned is that there is no such thing as “good debt.” I graduated with student loans because I was told that I “had to go to college right after high school” even though I couldn’t afford it; I “had no other option” other than taking out loans; and that I shouldn’t worry because student loans are “good debt.” Going to college is important, but there are so many other ways to pay for it. Despite what the credit bureaus say, no debt feels good when you’re swimming in it.

  13. Max says:

    The biggest thing that I have learned, and probably the most fundamental…. Don’t spend what you don’t have! I see so many people, family included, in WAY over their heads with debt problems. They didn’t pay attention to what the heck they were doing and will be paying the consequences for years, if not decades.

    Being only 22 years old and a recent business graduate, I feel very lucky to have received the education I did and to know these very important lessons at such a young age. I am looking forward to being on top of my game and always aware of where my dough is going!!

    Cheers to many, MANY years of financial freedom!!

  14. Brian says:

    My lesson: Sail your own course. I got in the situation I’m in because I tried to maintain an image I thought others would like (going on trips, buying electronics, etc.). In hindsight, I should have lived my life they way that was good for me (hence PERSONAL finance).


  15. Adam says:

    We won’t harass you about changing the name of the site as long as you don’t harass us about still reading it while we are turning 30 with you. My wife hit 30 on 1/1 and I am right behind her on 2/24, so you’re not alone there. Isn’t it great to cross this milestone in a much more stable position than any of the previous milestones?

  16. Bishnu says:

    Happy Birthday, well maybe I’m a bit off on the birthday but your blogs really helped me, even though I was on the right track already it helped me because unlike everything else you read and hear your site actually encouraged saving and being responsible and I felt right at home here from day one.

  17. Bryan says:

    #17 is a biggie. You summed it up when you wrote, “your financial values will never be the same as your partner’s”…. so true. If you can get through that and find a happy medium between the two then its smooth sailing.

  18. David, this is an awesome post! I love all your tips. Definitely bookmarking this post for future use/inspiration. Happy early birthday! 30 is nothing. 😉

    • Kim says:

      I agree entirely with Amber & I also want to thank you for for all the other great posts! I have only read a few (I just found your site today by accident) but I plan to read through them all. I am grateful there are people like you sharing such helpful information.

      Again, thank you so very much David! =D

  19. aaron says:

    About no. 23. I’ve found that a lot of GenYers have a different view on this. I think there’s a different set of rules for a lot of them, having been stifled by the Boomers’ rules of politics, money, and religion. I’m thankful that my friends and I talk frequently about money (not full disclosure, obv.) and try to spur each other on to responsible decisions.

    There’s a lot of wisdom here. Thanks for sharing all you’ve learned!

  20. Brent says:

    #15 is a biggie, it pains me to think back to the things I bought when I had less money in the bank

    #27 is debatable, if you can purchase a good home for a decent price and actually pay it off in cash I think you are ahead of the game. Buying too much home is a no no so renting depends on the person.

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