A few weeks ago I was minding my own business on the train when I felt a certain energy in the air. I looked up and saw a sea of purple satin. Oh, hello, NYU grads.
Since I’ve realized I have some young readers, I thought I’d write something specifically for people fresh out of college who are nervous about being on their own for the first time and want a little guidance from someone’s who been there, done that. As you know, I’ve taken the meandering, mistake-filled route to life and have learned a thing or two along the way. Here are all the things I wish I knew about life, money and careers when I was 22 (or, let’s be real–whenever you get your first job post-college, because nowadays it’s often not happening at 22).
1. Don’t Expect Your Lifestyle to Be the Same As the One You Grew Up With
For many people growing up, things like meals, vacations and clothes are totally free because everything’s on your parents’ tab. And then sometimes your parents don’t do you any favors by shielding you from money talk. So when you’ve never dealt with money before, it can seem like this make-believe thing that just grows on trees. That means some of you graduate college and have no idea how much things cost, or how much life costs in general.
You don’t need to feel bad or guilty about this. When you graduate college, it’s natural to expect the same lifestyle you’re used to, because that’s all you know. But before you treat yourself to a back-to-school shopping spree just like you’ve always done, consider this:
You’re making, what, $30k a year? Your parents made maybe three times that amount and had years and years to build up what they have. Yeah, the math just doesn’t add up to the same lifestyle.
Before making purchases, start asking yourself, “Do I actually have the money for this?” I know it sounds basic, but it’s super common to not think about the actual money when making money decisions.
The sooner you let go of these expectations, the better off you’ll be. I didn’t take a proper vacation until four years after college, because I never felt like I had the money then. Inflating your lifestyle will natural happen as you get older and make more money, but you work up to that.
2. Re-evaluate Your Must-Have’s
Now you’re making hundreds of dollars more per month than that lame work-study job. Think of ALL THE THINGS you can buy now that you’re not a broke college student. Don’t get sucked into it. Remember this: how much fun you used to have in college and how much that fun cost. I bet it wasn’t much.
But since you’ve never been on your own before, everything you think you know about how to be a grown-up comes from adults in your life or books or TV or lord help us, social media. Rachel from Friends is a waitress and living in a 2,000 square-foot loft in NYC, so I can do the same thing, right? Carrie Bradshaw’s paying $700 a month for her apartment on a writer’s salary and going out to brunch with friends every weekend. Those are the things I should be doing, right?
Similarly, be careful about using your friends as a model for how you should be spending your money. You don’t know their money situation: they could be making more money than you or spiraling down into credit card debt. And if you live in big cities, the thing that no one ever talks about is that it’s often a real-life situation of that show Girls where people in their 20s and 30s are still financially supported by their parents.
So before you go off and buy that full bedroom set from West Elm, re-consider the markers of adulthood:
- Living alone
- Brand-new cars
- Brand-new furniture
- Diamond engagement rings and expensive weddings
- Owning a home
There’s nothing wrong with doing any of those, but are you buying into them because society expects you to, or because you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided they’re the right things for you? Thinking for yourself will do wonders for your money.
So no, maybe you don’t need that bar cart in your apartment at 22.
And a brand-new car on a $12/hr job? Nah, consider a used one.
Keep things really simple at first so you can spoil Future You later.
3. Don’t Let Other People Tell You What You Can Afford
If you’re going for a mortgage and the officer tells you can afford $400,000, don’t blindly trust them. Same thing with a car loan. If you live in NYC, scoff hard at the 40X-your-rent rule.
You’re like, “Yeah, but, they’re experts. Why would they tell me I can afford stuff when I really can’t?”
Because they don’t know your full financial snapshot. The only person who knows the complete picture is you.
Sure on paper you can afford what they say, but that’s if every single thing in your life goes perfectly, and only if you spend money on housing, transportation and food. You never need medical help, or have to move on the fly, or your car doesn’t break down.
Life has a way of throwing things your way, and if you don’t take ownership of figuring out what you can realistically afford, you could be on the expressway to a stressful, paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.
Jobs don’t always last, you know.
Crunch the numbers yourself, and do your best to account for every single thing you spend money on. It’s really easy to forget that stuff. $500 on Christmas presents every year? That should be in your budget. So should car maintenance and housing repairs (if you own either).
You can’t go wrong if you make a rule to always spend less than the “recommended” amount.
4. If You Have Student Debt, Make a Plan
Don’t just haplessly pay the minimum amount for seven years like I did. Sit down and make a list of everything you owe and their interest rates. Calculate how much interest you’ll pay over time and use that knowledge to light a fire under you. Stay motivated by following the debt-free community on Instagram. You can start by following my friend Veronika and branching off from there.
5. Don’t Think You’re Too Young to Start Saving
I’ve heard it time and time again: “I’m too young to worry about money.” Oh wait, I was that person, too. Actually, you’re not, because the younger you start saving, the easier it is to build wealth.
If saving for when you’re old seems too unbearable, then start saving for the present. All those things you want right now or in the near future? Things like: an international trip next year, going to a friend’s destination wedding, a new tattoo. They cost money. Get in the habit of setting aside money from every paycheck, even if it’s a laughably small amount at first.
You don’t need to know exactly what you want to save for, but know that saving money now will set you up for options later. Imagine saving steadily and one day you look up and realize that you have enough to buy an apartment in NYC before age 30.
6. Learn How to Vet Roommates
When it comes to roommates I’ve dealt with terrible situations: people using by body towel (gross), drinking my milk, smoking in the apartment, not telling me we were getting evicted and having to move after just six weeks.
And yet, I’d still advocate living with roommates in your 20s. The cost savings are just way too good.
Living with roommates significantly impacted how much I’ve been able to save, even on lower salaries. I know it’s way more glamorous to live alone, but choosing to live with roommates can free up a couple hundred dollars per month to spend on other things.
College roommates really suck, because in most cases you get stuck with random people. My freshman year roommate experience was awful, but that doesn’t mean you should use one bad experience as an excuse to swear off roommates altogether.
I’ve learned that there’s an art to vetting people. You don’t just think, “Hmm, this person seems nice,” and leave it at that. Nice doesn’t pay the rent on time.
Here’s a list of starter questions to ask prospective roommates:
–Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? If so, how often are they around? What you’re really asking: Will I have an extra roommate who doesn’t pay rent?
-If you’re a nonsmoker, ask: Do you smoke? What you’re really asking: Will all my clothes start smelling like I’ve been moonlighting at a bar?
–What are your pet peeves? What you’re really asking: Will I annoy the hell out of you?
And if you’re moving into an established apartment, make sure you always do these two things:
–Ask to see the lease. Some people lie about the total rent so they can rip you off.
–Ask how much the other roommates are paying. Sometimes the rent is split unfairly per room. Don’t end up paying the same rent as your roommate even though your room is half the size.
A roommate interview should be treated like a job interview. I’m serious. You’re looking for red flags and reasons why you shouldn’t live with them. Look for competence triggers, like someone who says, “Oh, I just checked my credit score last week.” ACCEPT THAT PERSON IMMEDIATELY.
7. Keep Your Job Description
When you get a job, file away the job description. It might come in handy later down the line when you’re zeroing in on a raise or promotion. Now you’ve got a concrete list of duties you signed up for when you accepted the job and can more easily pinpoint how you’ve been going above and beyond your job.
8. Ask “Dumb” Questions
You’re going to get a benefits package at work, and you might not understand any of it. Like:
- What’s a premium and a deductible when it comes to health insurance?
- What’s a 401k, and why would I contribute to it when it makes my paycheck smaller?
- What does “vesting” mean?
I remember sitting through a 401k talk at a job once and at the very end a girl raised her hand and asked, “Yeah, but, what do I do?” Everybody laughed, because it was cute. But she was the smartest person in that room. How many other people do you think probably had the same question and were too shy to ask?
I didn’t understand how my credit card statement worked at first. So I called the customer service and asked them a bunch of questions. If I hadn’t called, I could have easily just paid the minimum payment and paid interest for way longer than I should have.
9. Don’t Be a Tourist at Work
You know those tourists who do vacations by just checking off to-do items from a list they found on the Internet? They stop at a sight for like, 10 minutes, snap a couple pics and move on? Don’t be that tourist at work.
Having a good work ethic and doing exactly what you’re told is not enough to move up at work. Learn to be engaged. Talk to people outside of your department. Figure out who the stakeholders are and what their problems are. Make yourself visible. Ask people how their weekend went. That cool new tool you saw online? Google it and maybe put together a presentation of how it could help your company. Anticipate people’s needs.
Be that other type of traveler who doesn’t have a guide book, but can be dumped in the middle of nowhere and figure things out. The tourist is replaceable; the traveler is the one who’s going to go places.
10. Understand Tax Withholdings
You’re probably like, why does the math not add up when it comes to my paychecks? Like, I’m making $36k per year but my monthly take-home pay is way less than $3k. Probably because you forgot you have to pay taxes. When you get your first job you’re going to have to fill out this form called a W-4 and claim exemptions. This will tell the government how much tax to withhold from your paychecks. The more exemptions you claim, the more money you’ll get to keep in your paycheck. If you claim 0, your paychecks will be smaller, but you’ll most likely get a refund some tax time. Know if you have a tendency to overspend, and choose accordingly. Here’s a calculator that can help you estimate how much to withhold.
11. Chase Your Talents and Interests
When I was little, I had no idea that my job existed. I said I wanted to be a nurse, because that’s what my mom thought I should do. But when I grew older, there was never a specific job I had in mind. And after college, I was one of those kids who still had no idea what I wanted to do. So I chased what I was interested in and what I was good at. I got lucky, because I’ve worked way more jobs than the average bear, and I’ve had so many opportunities to hone in what I like and what I don’t like.
But if you’ve never really worked before, how do you figure it out? Here’s one helpful guide.
If you don’t stop to assess what you’re good at and what you like, it’s easy to get stuck working at jobs or industries you don’t even like.
12. Don’t Default to Grad School Because You Don’t Know What to Do
Investing in more school doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to be more qualified for a high-paying job. I have a friend who cashed out her 401k to go to business school, and now she’s doing a job she could have gotten without her MBA. Consider the ROI of advanced schooling. It also makes a difference if you’re paying for the grad degree versus having it paid by your employer, etc. But do remember that two years out of the workforce regardless is an opportunity cost where you’re not really earning money. If you can, find low-risk ways to try out different jobs you might be interested in, and don’t underestimate the value of networking. Instagram is an amazing way to connect with people you don’t know. If you see someone who has a job you might like, ask them questions about it! Nowadays, there are so many ways to get in touch with people who are doing the thing you’re considering, so plunking down big bucks for more school doesn’t need to be the default anymore.
13. Now Is the Time to Take Risks and Make Mistakes
Nothing makes my heart break more than seeing a 22-year-old who’s so afraid of making a mistake that they’ve always taken the safe route in life. You might think, I’ll always have time to do that thing later.
Here’s what I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older: your energy wanes.
I remember being in my early 20s, working on my online store on the side, and telling my boss that I was going to do X, Y and Z after work that day. My boss, who was in her 30s, was like, “Wow, when I get home from work I do jack shit.” I would have never started that business now. Now my life is more complicated. I can’t just up and move away anymore like I could when I was younger. Or quit a job with nothing lined up. In my 30s, I have a lot more to lose.
You’re never going to be this young ever again. So go and do things that twenty-two year olds do. If you’re 22 and single, revel in that freedom where you don’t have to think about anyone but yourself. Trust me on this.
What’s the most valuable advice you’d give to a 22-year-old or someone who’s just started their first “grown-up” job? What do you wish you knew back then?
Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist