I’ve been working with a pretty awesome 22-year-old assistant the last few weeks on my newest show and I kind of constantly see myself a decade ago reflected in her. We got to talking about IRAs for a minute the other day and she sort of laughed at the notion of having one and all I could think about was how glad I was that I really buckled down on my finances from about 25 on.
I’d like to go back and convince 22 year old me to open an IRA three years earlier than I did, but even without being able to do that, I was sort of left pleasantly marveling at how a little sacrifice and good planning in my 20s has made my 30s pretty financially easy.
I finished my undergrad with no debt and my first grad degree with about $3,000 of debt that I paid off almost immediately. I lucked out that I had people in my life who convinced me to think about retirement, so I opened an IRA at 25. At first, not much seemed to be happening with it – but even now, when it doesn’t hold that much, it still grows by $1,000-1,500 a year without me doing anything extra than contributing the $5,500 year. That’s kind of a lot of extra money it makes me and I see it in a real way now, a way that encourages me to keep saving.
When I went back for my second graduate degree, I wound up around $30,000 in debt and learned a lot about frugality and living below my means to get rid of that debt in 2.5 years on a salary that was pretty much the same amount. The most important thing I learned from that situation though was that debt owns you. When you owe other people money, you have to do what has to be done, whether it makes you happy or not. That includes being trapped in jobs you hate.
After finishing up paying off that debt, I prioritized building up an emergency fund so I’d never get trapped by debt again. I aimed for $1,000 goal first and funneled money toward it like there was no tomorrow. Once I hit that, I prioritized getting to $5,000 within a year and set up a plan to do that. I failed the first time, it actually took me 2 years to get there. My final goal for the account was to have $10,000 in it, so I set a goal of contributing at least $100 a month until I got there, which I finally did this year. Now I have a solid cushion and I’ve freed up those old contributions.
So I’ve begun to invest more. I also have savings amounts set for mid-term goals like buying a new car when mine dies (hopefully in 5-7 years) and for a down payment on a house. These mid-term goals provide even more financial cushion if anything horrible happened like losing my job and I’ve definitely noticed a pretty big leap in my net worth since I’ve been able to funnel more towards investing.
It’s so strange to me to think of the massive gains this has all brought into my life over the last decade just by making a few smart choices along the way. The absolute biggest gain is the safety. I generally just don’t worry about money, which is so crazy because I remember worrying myself nearly sick a few times in my twenties.
Two weeks ago we had a few days off in Georgia and I made several impulse buys, ate at a bunch of restaurants and drank a lot – and the cost of all of that didn’t bother me at all. As a matter of fact, it still never even touched my regular job income. I was able to float all of those additional costs out of my side hustle income.
I’m not writing this to brag or anything, only to point out that I’m as average as they come and I work in a low income industry. You can achieve all these things even if it means starting out small and then sticking to it for a decade. As far away as 32 seemed at 22, I’m sure 42 is right around the corner and I’m trying to set up 42 year old Mel for easy street. That’s worth a little extra careful planning.