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My parents always treated the topic of investing the same way they did the topic of sex: knowledge to be imparted "when you're older."

Advice I Wish My Parents Gave Me When I Was 16

My parents meant so, so well. And they were so, so right about some things (the relative unworthiness of all teenage boys, for example). But there are a couple of things I’m kinda pissed they didn’t tell me about when I was 16 and on the cusp of making serious decisions about finances and the next several years of my life.

It’s not that they told me nothing, or even that they gave me horrible advice. But I feel like my time as a 16-year-old was the last year of my life before I was expected to make monumental decisions that would affect my financial future in really, really big ways. And that future could have been drastically different (and potentially better) if only they’d told me some key things that would have influenced my decisions about college, a career, and investing.

I brought receipts.

Don’t follow your dreams

Or rather, “Don’t follow your dreams until you’re at least 30. Instead, make as much money as possible as soon as possible so you will be able to afford to follow your dreams later without the risk of starving to death.”

It makes solid sense now that I’ve spent my twenties busting my ass to excel in an industry that is notoriously underpaid and competitive. Meanwhile, my earnings haven’t even come close to the starting salary of, say, a software engineer. So in effect, following my dream to make books for a living right out of college has permanently stunted my lifelong earning potential. Which is… something I try not to dwell on.

Go to a cheaper college

My parents both joined the Army to pay for their college educations, and they were determined that their children would not need to do the same. So when it came time for my brother and I to apply to colleges, they told us, “Apply wherever you want to go. If you get into your top school, we’ll figure out the money.” Which is wonderfully, heartrendingly noble and kind of them.

But in hindsight, they had no idea how much college tuition cost in the early 2000s. Hell, because of their aforementioned military careers, they didn’t even pay for college in the 1970s when tuition costs were significantly lower. Their good intentions helped to saddle me with student loans that were a burden to pay, because that’s what “we’ll figure out the money” meant.

And yes, while I graduated magna cum laude from a great program that led directly to my being hired at my first publishing job, it took me nearly four years of working in the industry I’d studied in college before my annual salary matched my school’s annual tuition. Which leads me to…

Major in engineering

Some careers just pay more. Full stop. And while the education required to enter those careers might sometimes come with a bigger price tag, that cost is absorbed by the higher starting salaries associated with those industries. So I guess what I mean is: I wish they’d encouraged me to run the numbers.

Chonce over at My Debt Epiphany recently wrote about how to calculate the return on investment where college is concerned. It’s such a blindingly brilliant concept that I’m literally furious no one encouraged my 16-year-old self to consider it. When I was picking out my dream job and planning my education around achieving that dream, I never once stopped to compare the cost of that education and the average salary I could expect if I actually made my dream happen.

My starting salary as an editorial assistant at a publishing house was $23,000. My annual tuition for a private college program that trained me in publishing was $40,000.

Meanwhile, my friend who majored in engineering at a state school paid $28,000 a year in tuition and his starting salary was $63,000.

So… there’s that. But all of this wouldn’t have been so bad if only they’d told me to…

Start investing now

To be fair, my folks told me a lot of wise things about money: that I should avoid credit card debt, try to save at least 25% of my income, and buy into my company’s 401(k) program as soon as I got my first job.

But they always treated the topic of investing the same way they did the topic of sex: knowledge to be imparted “when you’re older,” a mysterious temporal delineation that never seemed to arrive. (For the record, a healthy sexual relationship was way easier to figure out than a healthy investment portfolio.)

I knew nothing about investing when I was 16, and I knew nothing about it for many years after graduating from college and getting my first big girl job. So while I saved my pennies and diligently paid down student loan debt like it was a terrifying mob that could only be placated by firing dollar bills at it from a T-shirt cannon, what money I set aside languished, shrunk with inflation, and wasted its time when it could have been working to set me free.

Preparing to invest at age 16 wouldn’t have saved me from a life of toil and misery. But it would have put me on the road to financial independence a lot sooner, and drastically shortened the timeline until the day I can say “smell ya later” to The Man.

What I’m grateful for

Despite all of this, I don’t really blame my parents for my current financial situation, nor my own questionable choices up until now. Sure, they didn’t spoon feed me information… but neither did my public school. And I certainly didn’t think to haul my ass to the public library and find out for myself before it was too late.

Live and learn.

My parents may not have set me up to make a ton of money right out of the gate, but they taught me some important stuff. Perform random acts of kindness. If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. Be generous with your time. Don’t waste money on stuff you don’t really care about.

And if a boy puts his hand up your shirt, it’s ok to punch him in the dick.

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13 thoughts to “Advice I Wish My Parents Gave Me When I Was 16”

  1. As a new father this is a great article.

    I think my parents really tried to steer me these directions but ultimately led me to make my own mistakes, learn, and figure it out on my own.

    I knew the power of investing and wanted to invest early. I never did and had a large savings account (8k as a 17 year old!) They told me to just be smart with money and not overspend. This money became the payment for my first business at age 22.

    They tried to get me to go to an in state college where I had my pick of schools with full scholarship. Instead I went with friends out of state and now have a lot of student debt…..win some a lose some. I think they were happy I got a great degree that now pays well.

    I will definitely try to show my kid all the endless possibilities today. I loved computers and video games as a kid, but didn’t realize the amazing technology jobs out there. Between that type of showing my son the world and trying to teach finance along the way, I hope he turns out better than me!

    1. Thanks for reading Cameron! And congrats on the new dadhood. Your kid is going to be so lucky to have your advice.

      What was your first business at 22? Or should I just keep reading your blog to find out? 🙂

  2. I’m a HUGE fan of this. One of the most popular posts on my site last year was called ‘Work to Earn. Save Your Passion for Your Hobby.”

    That’s the advice I’ve been giving my 16 year old son for the past 5 years. He’s tired of hearing it, and knows my pitch by heart now, so I know the message has been received. Now I can only hope he’ll follow some of his old man’s advice! 😀

    1. Thank you! Your son might be annoyed to keep hearing the message, but I’m glad you’re telling him. I wish my parents had. That gosh-darned supportive parents of mine just had to encourage me to pursue my passions…

  3. Mine had a weird thing about health and genetic compatibility when it came to talking about partners (and werr generally weird about talking dating and relationships) and I wish they had focused on financial compatibility – which has been a big issue for me.

    1. Genetic… compatibility? That DOES sound weird. And oddly eugenic, though I’mma give your folks the benefit of the doubt!
      I love the concept of financial compatibility. My husband’s parents are notoriously bad with money, and he is determined not to make their same mistakes.

  4. Oh my God I love this post. Preach 100%!!! . Like you, I don’t blame my parents either. Taking personal responsibility is something you have to learn to grow. It was my fault for not realizing the price of a private university and not majoring in Computer Engineering.

    Youth is dumb, but there’s plenty of time to fix it.

    1. Late to the party, but as someone going into my sophomore year at a highly competitive university, I think this advice of “just major in engineering/comp sci/whatever” is extremely misleading. Most people tend to see the salary and not the dropout rates and work needed to GET the salary. The comp sci program at Waterloo University (arguably the best in Canada) has like the highest suicide rates among students. Recently, a second year at the University of Toronto committed suicide after finding out he’d need to repeat a critical course. These majors are fucking hard, and there’s a reason why so few people follow them. In my first year physics class alone the average on the final was something like 63%, and that’s FIRST YEAR PHYSICS. Most of it is intuitive and straightforward, very much unlike quantum physics, which requires a strong aptitude for complex abstraction. Compsci is essentially logic, which is a talent people usually either have or don’t have. It really bothers me how flippant people are about these majors, especially considering the highly toxic environment and burnout glorification that is 10000% there and getting worse every year. The truth is, the people who succeed in these fields are either those who love it or those who have an insane work ethic, in which case they’d succeed anywhere. They’re also inflexible degrees – if you graduate bottom of your class in engineering and no firm hires you, what the fuck are you going to do with it? And since these majors have gotten so hyped up, the job market is getting oversaturated with qualified graduates. Sorry about the essay – I know you’re not trying to minimize the work this takes, but a lot of people don’t understand the sheer amount of grit needed to succeed (I say this as a premed student with eng + compsci friends at many highly competitive schools). The minimum average for an engineering major applicant is 97% and compsci 95% at my school, so it’s not the kind of thing most people can just “decide” to do. If they do get in and end up switching majors, then isn’t that a much worse decision? (This happens to a lot of people in the premed stream, and the vast, vast majority are people in it for the money and were unprepared at the amount of dedication it takes)
      Ahh I’m really sorry if this comes off as aggressive or condescending or elitist. It’s just that I don’t want high schoolers to read this and end up worse off both mentally and financially. My friends and I have regular mental breakdowns and we love this stuff, so I don’t want to imagine the kind of shit someone apathetic might go through.

  5. There’s definitely a fine line between pressuring kids to be concerned about money to a degree that negatively impacts their lives and dismissing the importance and power of smart finiancial decisions. Telling a 15 year old to wait to pursue his passions until he is 30 is literally telling him to wait a LIFETIME. On the other hand, when I was 16 I wanted to be an English major, and I am so fucking glad I didn’t do that. (I did a lot of weird shit instead, including a lot of dumb service jobs, but I ended up with a science degree and a verging on middle class starting salary at my first real job.) One of my parents so heavily emphasized education – in any field, he didn’t care, but prestigious would be good – that it felt important to me to reject it wholesale, at 17, by dropping out of high school. My other parent was bitter about having finally finished her degree as a single parent taking night classes and running her own business just to find a dismal job market in her chosen field. It was the recession – she chose Human Services. Social work is extremely underpaid and under appreciated, even in a booming economy. She ended up a package handler at FedEx. I was blisteringly aware that college could be a total ripoff. I didn’t go until I came around to the idea of studying science – novelists don’t need degrees, scientists do – and I don’t regret taking the scenic route. We get where we get when we’re ready.

  6. I’m so thankful for my stepdad. When I was looking into investments at age 16, he helped me set up an account with Fidelity and called his financial advisor to have them help me. I even got a Roth IRA opened up and have invested in it every year since. When I was ready to quit out on math (potentially switching to Journalism or something along those lines), he said no, you have one more year, you can do it, get it done and then you can figure out your passion on the side. These two things were key to my current happiness in my position at work and my financial independence.

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