5 Financial Wellness Tips I Wish I’d Known In My 20s
When I was in my early 20s, I was working multiple hourly jobs between taking college courses. The last thing on my mind was saving money, let alone managing it in a way so effective it’d benefit me in the future.
Now, a decade later, when I think back to my younger self, I sympathize with her scrappiness—she was just trying to keep her account from hitting zero. But I also wish she would have learned and implemented a few financial wellness practices to ease money anxiety and also to set a foundation for years ahead.
There are numerous online articles that will tell you to create a budget and start saving when you’re young—this article is not that. While good advice, less conventional tips don’t often make the list, yet they are just as important to developing a healthy relationship with money.
1. Break up with your bank (and find one you love)
Let’s start with the big ole organization that keeps your money safe. Did you know you get to choose your bank?
My mom set me up with a checking account at my parent’s bank when I was a teenager, and so that’s the bank I stuck with into adulthood. It was just fine. I never had any major issues, but I always dreaded having to call customer service or—when banking in-person was still a big thing—wait in the drive-through line to deposit cash tips from the restaurant I worked at.
But when it comes to choosing a bank, we have options! We can shop around and “date” prospects until we find a good fit. This is especially important if you’re looking for a green bank or a local entity; you don’t have to stick around just because that’s who you’ve been banking with forever. Ask questions. Test the customer service (my current bank has a short wait time and always asks about my day and the local weather). Navigate the website and apps to see if they feel seamless and like something you can easily use. The last thing you want is to feel stressed every time you need to make a deposit or pay a bill. Choose a bank that works for you.
2. Know the value of the trade
I wish we lived in a society that regarded trade and barter more highly. Our skills are valuable and can often save us money. Do you love babysitting or watching friends’ pets? Are you experienced with writing resumes or taking headshots? Do you have a knack for DIY and home repairs? Consider trading your skills with others to save both you and them on services you’d otherwise be paying for.
For example, trade your accountant friends a few weekends of free dog walking for help with filing your taxes. Or, instead of hiring movers, trade your willing neighbors a homecooked meal in exchange for help loading the truck.
You can also bargain books, clothes, home goods, and even your house with friends. Going on vacation in Seattle next month? Use the power of friend referrals to find someone who wants to visit your city for a few days. Swap apartments, trade cars, watch one another’s pets. This will save everyone on hotel and transportation costs, plus it offers a unique travel experience.
3. There’s a coupon code for that
Do you remember the show “Extreme Couponing?” I used to watch it in my early 20s and always thought of the contestants clipping from piles of newspapers whenever I’d check out at the grocery store. Hello, kind cashier. I don’t have any coupons to use today.
But coupons are not only reserved for dusty stacks and ad mailers. Most stores have gone digital now and have apps you can download for instant savings.
For example, Target’s Circle app has hundreds (!) of weekly coupons you can “clip,” and you even get one percent back to use off your next purchase. It’s entirely free. Even if a store doesn’t have a dedicated app for savings, web browser plugins like Rakuten and Honey make it easy to earn cashback or find a quick digital coupon (and you don’t even have to sign up to a site’s newsletter).
4. Ignore Dave Ramsey & open a credit card
Building credit is a good thing, especially if you want to buy a home in the future or take out loans. The trick is finding the best credit card (look for low APR and low annual fees), always paying it off on time, and not using it like disposable income. Only spend what you actually have in the bank, using it for purchases you would otherwise make with cash or debit card.
Another tip I wish I’d learned sooner: If you have a significant purchase coming up, open a new credit card with sign-on bonus rewards. For example, if you are about to spend $3,000 on a home repair or to pay a college tuition installment, find a credit card with a sign-on bonus (like cash back or air miles). Then use the card to make the payment while being sure to pay it off with the money you already have set aside—this is the key, as you’re only using funds you already have.
Now you have a free flight for your next vacation, and you’re building your credit—all because you made a payment you were already going to make.
5. Don’t save money on the wrong end
Finally, my favorite financial tip is advice from a very dear friend.
There will be times when you have unexpected expenses or emergencies. Your car will need new tires (or you’ll just need a new car). There will be a leak in the bedroom, and you’ll discover the entire roof needs replacing. Your toddler will want to see if your work laptop can float in the bathtub. (Insert screams.)
When these unforeseen situations happen—and they will, usually right when you begin to feel cozy about the number in your bank account—it will be tempting to cut corners and go with the cheapest option. Sometimes this is necessary depending on life circumstances, and that’s okay when we don’t have other options.
But in other seasons, we’ll want to cut corners because it feels like a wise financial decision. So we hire the guy off Craigslist to replace the roof instead of the certified roofing company, or we purchase the cash-only beater car instead of buying through a dealership. We forget to factor in that cheaper cars often require more maintenance and can even cost more in gas depending on the age and miles-per-gallon. Our attempt to save money on the front end (or wrong end) can cost us more in the months ahead—that, and it costs us time and stress.
If you have the extra savings available, try not to cut corners for these surprise purchases. While you may spend more upfront, you’ll likely save in the long run.
Bonus tip: It’s okay to spend money on yourself
A bonus tip to leave you with—this is one I’ve learned most recently, and sometimes it’s still a struggle. But to anyone else who needs to hear it:
It’s okay to spend money on yourself occasionally, and it’s okay to splurge and treat yourself to a mini facial or to buy the jacket you’ve been eyeing for the last two winter seasons. Saving money is important, but so is living and enjoying the fruits of your hard labor. A nice meal out or (gasp) $25 bottle of wine instead of browsing the usual discount aisle is encouraged. Plus, when you don’t allow for small luxuries now and then, you’re more likely to spend the money unintentionally.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.