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.