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9 things I wish I knew about managing money in my 20s

They say hindsight's 20/20.

My 20s were a decade of self exploration. It was a time to try out different career paths, countries and even languages. As this decade comes to a close, I feel more settled in myself as an adult than I ever have before. I also know a whole lot more about how to manage my finances.

While I don’t have many regrets about how I’ve spent the past 10 years, there are a few things I wish I’d done differently — and choices I wish I’d wasted less time doubting.

Here are 9 things I wish I could go back and tell my 19-year-old self.

1. Savings accounts are more important than you think.

I opened a savings account in high school to deposit birthday checks. The 1% APY translated into pocket change, since the balance was so small. So when I went to college and opened a checking account, I found no reason to keep the savings account around.

While closing that account might not have been a bad idea, having no savings account was a mistake. Only relying on a checking account made it easier to burn through all of my money. Especially since I was swiping my debit card instead of handing over cold, hard cash.

If I’d had a savings account, I might have been able to build up an emergency fund. Or save up for grad school. It also would have taught me how to keep better track of my money, potentially avoiding a couple of weeks of living off ramen after overspending at the beginning of the month.

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2. Volunteering can pay off in unexpected ways.

I volunteered at a charity bookstore for four years while I was in college, but only because my school required it. I saw it as a waste of time — I could be studying! Or, more realistically, watching Netflix!

But it did a lot more for me than fill a college requirement. I learned what it meant to hold a job without the risk of losing my source of income. And I made connections with people who helped me land my first internship, as well as my first full-time job after graduating. It probably didn’t hurt to have it on my resume, either.

3. Only working for free is not a good idea, however.

Like most millennials in their 20s, I was so used to fighting over unpaid internships that it felt wrong when I finally received my first paycheck. I think I even asked for less than I was initially offered for my first job.

Not only did this mean I got paid less than I would have otherwise. But it also made me feel undervalued as an employee because everyone was making more than me. And my bosses clearly thought I was a pushover.

There comes a point in your career where you need to stop working for free and know you’re worth. And that point is probably sooner than you’re willing to admit if you had to slog through internships — at least it was in my case. Volunteering occasionally is a great way to give back and have fun, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

4. Credit cards can be extremely useful — if you’re careful.

I was afraid of any kind of debt for most of my 20s — and credit cards seemed the scariest. I heard stories of friends, family and even teachers falling so deep into debt that getting out seemed impossible. So I stayed away until I was 27.

And while credit cards come with that risk, they could have helped me build my credit. They also could have made my life a whole lot easier by giving me a few days or weeks of wiggle room if I needed to cover an unexpected expense before getting paid.

5. Graduate school might be worth the debt.

I went to grad school fully prepared to spend my life in academia — what else would a master’s in Middle Eastern studies be useful for? But by the time I finished, I wanted nothing to do with it. And I was almost $40,000 in debt.

I spent a few months beating myself up about it — I couldn’t imagine wanting to work a job that used my degree. But it’s been more helpful than I initially expected. Having a master’s on your resume — no matter your major — can help your job application float closer to the top of the pool. And you might even get paid more for that higher level of education.

6. Finding sober activities is good for you and your wallet.

One of the biggest shocks of adulthood was how much I’d spend on booze. Socializing where I live can be difficult without alcohol — people tend to meet up at bars. It wasn’t until my late twenties — and many regretful hangovers — that I made an effort to find ways to hang out with friends without drinking.

Aside from saving money and strengthening relationships, I also found that I do way better at work when I’m not completely hungover (duh). It’s easier to fully engage and actually enjoy getting things done.

7. Living alone is a luxury and should not be taken for granted.

I had a completely free, hard-to-get dorm room all to myself in undergrad. And I 100% took it for granted. I wish I’d savored that space I didn’t have to share with anyone when I had the chance. Little did I know I wouldn’t have another place that was truly my own until I was 28. And even then, that was only financially sustainable for a few months.

Thankfully, I’ve had good luck with roommates. But I’m still the kind of person who needs some alone time every so often. When someone offers you a chance to house sit — jump on it. It’s almost as good as a free vacation.

8. You might seriously regret jumping into a financial relationship too soon.

The first few times I fell hard for someone, I wanted to share everything with them — including my money. I always earned a little more than my partners, and inevitably they became financially dependent on me.

I did the math after one particularly rough breakup and figured that I’d spent well over $20,000 on my ex. I could have put that money toward retirement, paid off half of my student loans or even bought like 5,000 lattes. While I felt very rich when that relationship ended — which certainly eased the emotional distress — I also regret neglecting my own financial needs for another person. Sharing is great — just don’t over do it.

9. Don’t let student loans dictate your career.

I was lucky to get my bachelor’s degree for free, but I paid for most of graduate school with federal student loans. While I wanted to pay off my student debt as fast as possible to save on interest, my first few jobs just didn’t pay enough to cover standard repayments.

Getting out of debt should be a priority, but don’t let it dictate your career path. Consider income-driven repayments if you’re thinking of sacrificing your dream career to tackle your debt. Also, look into forgiveness and loan repayment assistance programs that employers, government agencies and other private organizations offer to bring down your debt load.

Paying off debt is important, but so is enjoying yourself. It’s worth taking some time to learn how to handle your student debt without making personal sacrifices so you can still enjoy this weird, magical decade.

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In the end, we’re always growing

I still haven’t met many of the financial milestones experts recommend you reach by the time you turn 30. I don’t have six months of my salary saved up. I didn’t start saving for retirement until I was 27. And I certainly haven’t started investing, as Suze Orman recommends.

But I don’t regret my mistakes — at least not yet. They’ve taught me a lot about how to manage my money, career and relationships. And I’m a stronger person because of them.

You can learn more about how to handle your student debt with our guide to student loans.

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