1. Learn to use a credit card the right way
Using a credit card is like the buffet food in college dorms. Just because you can eat everything you want, doesn’t mean you should eat everything. Same idea with spending on credit. Just because you can buy more than you can actually afford definitely doesn’t mean that you should. I got myself into a small amount of credit card trouble when I was in my early twenties, not because I was oblivious to the fact that I’d be charged interest—although I had no idea how much—but because I didn’t realize how slippery the slope would be. At first, the minimum monthly payments were a breeze to make, so I didn’t feel too much pain and kept on charging. A year or two later, when I decided to pay off the bill, oh boy, I felt the pain.
Related: Credit Cards and Rewards
If I could talk to my younger self, I’d explain the nefarious way that interest rates on credit cards can balloon even small balances after a few months of not paying your credit card off, in full, each month. I’d express to her the painstaking and diligent frugality that it requires to pay back a credit card balance—and that no one is going to step in and do it for her. And perhaps most importantly, I would explain to her all of the ways that building good credit will help her life—from renting first apartments to getting the best rates on loans later on (which could save her thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars over time). Using credit right can be a great tool—but it takes mental strength and an understanding of long-term consequences to use it right.
2. Make as many connections as possible and nurture many relationship types
I did fairly well at university—I had two majors, I got good grades, and touted a very robust social life. But beyond that, I wasn’t very involved. After being very active in high school, I was burnt out on sports, student government, and frankly, volunteering my time for free. Back then, I genuinely believed that I only needed these things to get into university, but not after. This couldn’t be more wrong. The people you meet and the network you create will be one of the biggest assets you take away from secondary education. And while I made a lot of friends in school, I wish I had done a better job of connecting with the dynamic and brilliant doers and creators on campus that I never met because I was only ever in the library or really, at the bars. It’s hard to replicate the opportunity that university provides to meet some smart, interesting people that can become friends, teach you, and provide you with future opportunities.
This advice easily translates to the working world. When you’re working at a job, it’s easy to feel like you and everyone else will be in that position and at that company forever. You won’t. They won’t. In five or ten years, everything (and everyone) will be different, and the genuine friendships and work partnerships you’ve made along the way will prove invaluable. One real human connection is worth sending a thousand cold applications. I’d remind the younger version of myself this; be helpful and a delight to work with even when you feel stuck at your job. You never know who’ll be able to open a door for you later.
3. Negotiate. Everything.
Haggling makes me feel like a total a-hole, but I’d tell a younger me to put on her big girl pants and ask for a better price. In both directions, up and down. During my first career in investment management throughout my early and mid-twenties, I never proactively asked for a raise. Not once! Knowing what I know now, I would have negotiated even my starting salary. Heck, why not?! A starting salary is so important because it’s what every raise thereafter is made (and compounded) upon. I had many excuses at the time (it was just after the 2008 financial crisis and the firm just had major layoffs, for one), but what if had worked, even once? I could be tens of thousands of dollars richer, which is a pretty hard amount to make up for with just saving. Negotiating is hard, but it rules; I’d do it over if I could.
In addition to negotiating a salary up, I’d tell my younger self that she must learn and get used to negotiating prices down. While I don’t bother with small items—especially if it’s an item being sold by a small business or craftsperson—most big-ticket items should be negotiated. This includes (but is not limited to) rent, insurance, cable, internet, cars, rates on loans and credit cards, and most major appliances. Sales representatives always have the power to offer discounts—I’d tell my younger self to ask nicely, be persistent, and always come armed with data about competitor pricing. No harm in trying!
4. Don’t stress about whether you’re on the right career path.
When I was young, it felt as though the decisions I made would dictate the entire trajectory of my life, and one false move would doom me to a burning, eternal failure. Yes, your decisions matter. But no matter what, there will be a path, and you have control over that path. In ten years, you’ll be so impressed at how far you’ve come and how much you’ve learned. It’s really wild to look at my own work history, and the histories of my friends, and to see the unexpected moves and great progressions we’ve all made.
Like most normal twentysomethings, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. Because I needed money, I decided to pursue a career in finance. Shortly after making this decision, I regretted it. I felt as though the industry was the wrong place for me, and I dreamed of getting out. I wish that I could tell that version of me that it’s actually a great thing to learn about something that you don’t love or makes you uncomfortable, because that means you now have a skill that not everyone has. And even more importantly, through trial and error and real-world experience, you’ll really learn about yourself and what you want from a career, and you’ll be given opportunities to work towards that. You don’t need to have it figured out right now, but you do need to be actively learning. Work hard at the job that you’re at, learn as much you can from people who are smarter than you, and take it a step at a time. If a younger me knew that I had found a way to use my financial background to pursue a creative life as a writer and to start my own business educating young women about investing, I think she might be pretty dang stoked.