Last week, a story about how I paid of over $80,000 in consumer debt ran on the front page of MSN.com, bringing a flood of new visitors to Money Under 30. Although the article focused on a part of my story I’m rather proud of – how I set my mind to getting out of debt and accomplished the goal relatively quickly – the other half of my financial past isn’t one I brag about. It’s the seven years of overspending responsible for creating that debt.
In my daily interactions with readers, I’ve noticed consumer debt is a less common concern among 20-somethings than it was five years ago. Research supports this. Among people younger than 35, the median household debt declined 29 percent, from $29,912 to $15,473 between 2007 and 2011, according to a February 2013 study by Pew Research.
That’s good. Clearly, people coming of age in the last decade saw how excessive debt was crippling millions of Americans and spawning a major recession. So fewer young people will be making the overarching mistake that ended up setting me back financially by nearly a decade.
But credit card debt is far from the only money mistake we make in our twenties. As a steady stream of reader emails proves, there’s still a lot we have to learn. Here are 10 of the most common money mistakes I see young professionals making today – and what you can do to avoid them.
10. Rushing to buy a home
The allure of home ownership is powerful. After all, it’s the American Dream. And that dream is ingrained in our collective conscious. Whether we think we desire homeownership or not, culture keeps whispering that haven’t “made it” until we own a home.
Try to resist until you’re really ready.
I know people who bought condos and homes as soon as they graduated from college and I know people who, after 30, are renting and have no interest in giving it up (and not just in New York).
Although the results of the early-home buyers were mixed, the apartment-dwellers are generally happier. They have less stress, more free time and money, and more freedom.
Owning a home is rewarding, but it requires time, money, and a serious commitment.
9. Borrowing money for a wedding
Emotion and money don’t mix. And few events in life evoke more emotions than your wedding day.
With the average cost of American weddings surpassing $28,000, tying the knot could be one of the biggest single expenses in life after buying a home and sending a kid to college. But it doesn’t have to be.
Traditionally, lavish weddings have been family celebrations paid for the bride’s and/or groom’s parents. Being older, parents are usually wealthier than their betrothed adult kids, in which case the wedding tab, while still large, makes less of a splash.
What’s happening is more people are deciding to pay for the wedding with their own meager bank accounts, but they are expecting parties on par with family-funded extravaganzas they’ve seen on Bravo reality shows. And they bridge the gap by borrowing heavily.
Now I never judge people for spending money they have on things that are important to them – even if it looks unnecessary or wasteful to most people. And I wholeheartedly understand the desire to create the party (and memory) or a lifetime. I just think here’s one way you don’t want to be reminded of your big day – with even bigger bills. Being newlyweds is difficult enough; don’t compound that stress with unnecessary debts!
On a positive note, many of my friends have opted for simple wedding ceremonies at home or City Hall followed by a casual party. The events are no less fun or meaningful because they cost a truckload less. Sure, a smaller wedding may disappoint some relatives, but if they’re not footing the bill, can they really complain?
8. Not carrying health insurance
In 2010, the average hospital stay in the United States cost $33,079, according to FacetheFacts.org.
If you don’t have health insurance, you have to ask yourself: Do you have that kind of spare change lying around?
We shrug off health insurance when we’re young and healthy. And yes, we’re statistically less likely to be hospitalized than older adults. But anybody can have an accident or suddenly be confronted with a serious illness. These events are stressful enough, but you don’t want to pile tens of thousands of dollars of hospital bills on top.
It sucks that our country can’t provide a more affordable healthcare system, but until that happens, you’re responsible. You can stay on your parents’ plan until you turn 26, or you can find lower-cost catastrophic insurance until you have access to better plans. This won’t cover doctor’s visits for every sniffle, but they could save you from bankruptcy someday.
7. Postponing saving for retirement
How do you save $1 million on $30,000 a year? By saving 20 percent of your paycheck for 45 years.
That’s a long time, but it’s also the length of a common career – say between the ages of 22 and 67. The problem is, many of us don’t start investing for retirement at 22 – or even 32! And the longer we wait, the less compound interest will help us reach our goals.
In my opinion, everyone should strive to save at least 5 percent of their pay in a retirement account as soon as they begin working. You may feel like you can’t afford it, but in the long run, you can’t afford not to.
6. Going to grad school unnecessarily
If you can earn demonstrably more money by getting an advanced degree in your field, heading back to school also makes sense. (For example, teachers in many states get automatic pay bumps for having a master’s degree).
And if becoming a doctor or a lawyer is your lifelong goal, grad school is a no-brainer, right?
Much has been written about law grads with six-figure debt who can’t find jobs, and even the venerable MD faces a tough road. I recently read the story of one medical school graduate who is waiting tables with $300,000 in student loans because he couldn’t land a residency position.
Obviously, this problem is extends beyond English PhDs. Graduate school does not automatically equal job security and more money.
Too often, young professionals see more school as the best answer to a mistaken career choice or a dead-end job. But borrowing tens of thousands of dollars and possibly taking a couple years off of working is a major financial setback. You have to ask yourself if the potential reward is worth the sacrifice.
5. Not building credit
I get frequent emails from readers who get into their late 20s or early 30s and suddenly want to get a credit card or buy a home and realize it’s not going to be easy because they don’t have a credit history. And in the eyes of lenders, that’s as bad (or worse) than having a terrible credit history!
Typically, these readers have made a conscious effort to avoid credit cards and debt. That’s good, but it comes at a cost.
For better or worse, a good credit record matters. Not only when you go to buy a home, but for things like car insurance, renting an apartment, and sometimes even getting a job.
There are ways to build credit from scratch at any age, but it’s easier to get a student credit card or become an authorized user on a parent’s account while you’re still young. All you have to do is pay every bill on time to establish a minimal but healthy credit record.
4. Giving up on a chosen career
If the upside to graduating in a recession was an aversion to debt, the downside was the economy’s aversion to hiring young professionals. With professional entry-level jobs harder to come by, I hear from a lot of readers who either can’t get jobs in their field or can’t move up after a few years.
Worse, many are forced to abandon their career of choice for jobs that don’t excite them but pay the bills.
That’s often a necessary move in the short-term, but failing to get into the professional workforce in your 20s can have serious consequences for your lifetime earnings potential. That’s because salaries top out at age 40.
Launching a career takes years of hard work, but failing to do so will take its toll for the rest of your life.
3. Rushing to pay off student loan debt
Nothing puts a damper on your financial ambitions like a big stinky pile of debt. So it’s natural that most people who graduate with student loans want to pay that debt off as quickly as possible.
That’s a good thing, but I caution people to take a balanced approach to repaying student loans. If your plan is to attack your student debt in five years, you could end up with zero debt (good) but no savings (bad). Then, a small setback like medical bills or losing your job could force you to borrow money at much higher interest rates than your student loans.
Finally, there are valuable tax benefits to putting some money away in retirement accounts like a Roth IRA, while some student loan interest is tax deductible. You may be able to keep thousands of extra dollars by balancing retirement savings and student loan payments rather than focusing solely on the student loans.
2. Leaning too much on parents
If you have parents who helped pay for school, an apartment, or your insurance, count your blessings (I sure do). Because right now people are reading this who paid for college entirely on their own and who can’t choose to live with parents to save rent.
When used to limit debt or reduce expenses for a few years, generous parents can help you achieve financial independence quickly. But they can also have the opposite effect.
Checks from the bank of Mom and Dad are great if you get them, but only if you’re using them to build your own financial life. If, however, this assistance is forestalling your ability to live within your means without help, watch out.
Navigating finances for the first time on your own isn’t always pretty (as a look at my checking account circa 2005 would confirm), but it’s the best way to learn how to be an independent and responsible adult.
1. Failing to plan
I know I don’t speak for everybody, but throughout most of my twenties, I lived for today (or, at least, the semester or the current job). My goals were shortsighted: Pay the rent this month, afford gas to visit friends next weekend, etc.
Eventually, I confronted the fact that getting out of debt would take several years and I began to take steps towards that goal. That was my first encounter with a financial plan.
In personal finance, having a plan separates the men and women from the boys and girls. We have a limited supply of money, so we must decide intentionally what we’re going to do with it. That means balancing needs and wants today with needs and wants tomorrow. Failing to tackle this results in having little to show for years of hard-earned money.
To start making a plan, read 6 financial planning tips for recent grads.
What about you? What’s the biggest life-altering money mistake you’ll never make again?