I’m Sharing 11 Devastating Money Mistakes I Made in My 20s So You Can Avoid Them

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Karen Schneider, PMP®, PMI-ACP®, CSM®27
Experienced Project/Program Manager
Money mistakes in my 20s? Yeah, pretty sure I made all of them. 
It has been said that you learn and grow wiser once you've experienced something for yourself,  and made a few mistakes along the way. I do believe those words have merit, but boy, is it not fun when you are the one paying for it  (literally).
My parents were great with money and they had no debt; we lived a very comfortable life. I guess they figured I knew enough to manage on my own finances (which, yeah, I probably should have). Unfortunately, schools don't teach financial literacy like they do algebra. So, I made some wrong turns before I got myself on the best path to maximize my money and make it work for me. 
I am now 37-years-old, and I often wish I could rewind the clock to fix those mistakes I made with my finances. Here's a list of my money faux pas, and what to avoid:

1. I didn't have a budget.

One of the biggest  — not to mention, cringeworthy  — mistakes I made is that I didn't even have a basic understanding of my cashflow. I spent money without thinking about the dollars I was putting out, or if I even had enough in my checking account to cover what I was charging. Now I budget and know where my money is going with the help of the Mint app. 

2. I lost a lot of money on overdraft fees. 

As a surprise to no one, I often ended up paying overdraft fees for my checking account since I had no budget. If you've never been the unlucky recipient of an overdraft-o-gram, they're not fun. Generally they cost you up to $35 per charge, and they can really snowball (though in 2010, federal regulations were passed to try to eliminate banks from profiting off of these charges). These extra charges can be especially detrimental when you don't have a lot of money to begin with.  Now that I have a budget, I keep track of the money in my accounts and I don't overdraft.

3. I didn't save 10% of my income... or really anything. 

I can't say I never saved, because I did. But my saving was sporadic at best, and was often spent just as suddenly and frivolously. I always think of the episode of Friends where Monica is about to ask her parents to borrow money after she loses her job, until they confidently assert that surely she must be prepared for her unemployment because they always taught her to save ten percent of every paycheck. Yeah... not true of Monica, or me. Now, I automate savings to my emergency fund and other short-term savings accounts.

4. I shopped with complete abandon. 

In case you haven't figured this out yet, I had no willpower to save or be smart about money. I loved — and still love — shopping. Somehow, all the clothes I already owned paled in comparison to the new dress and shoes at the mall. I shudder to imagine what it would have been like if Amazon had existed in my early 20s. Also, friends? Bars? Happy hour? Yes, please! I had no limits. My 30s have taught me that staying home in sweats (or going to a friend's house) is a real mood, and a bottle of wine goes a lot farther than the $20 vodka soda from the club. 

5. Also, I ate out. All. The. Time.

Cooking? What's that? I won't pretend that I have mastered the art of cooking even now, but I can tell you that  the moment I moved out on my own, all I did was order out for nearly every meal. If only I had learned the art of meal prepping on Sundays sooner. It has saved me a bunch of cash. 

6. I didn't negotiate my salary

I love that women are becoming their own best advocates in the workplace, but it wasn't such a widely celebrated topic back when I was in my 20s. While I started negotiating my salary in my 30s, I just accepted whatever I was offered back when I was younger. Who knows how many thousands of dollars (and overall earning power) I left on the table because I didn't speak up for myself?

7. I didn't prioritize saving for retirement at my first job.

When you're young, the thought of being older and providing for your golden years is the furthest thing from your mind. Or,  it was in my case. I'm embarrassed  — and sad  — to admit that this didn't become a topic of interest for me until about 3 years ago. Years for building compound interest went completely down the drain. Talk about the one that got away. Luckily, I did always have enough sense to meet my employer-sponsored match (if you don't, you're literally throwing away free money - don't do it!).

8. I got divorced. 

Make good choices - both with your money and with whoever you choose to be your life partner (they may have access to your money!). I made a number of mistakes here, but in summary: I didn't prepare or choose wisely. Divorce in and of itself is a costly experience, but my ex and I never had the necessary financial conversations we should have had prior to marriage. We didn't have the same views on money or the future. Despite how much I had left to learn about money, I was the more responsible one. The marriage and the divorce left me both unprepared and financially devastated as he had secretly been opening accounts in my name and ruined my credit. I later had to file for bankruptcy, and have only started to fully recover my credit in recent years. 

9. I paid more interest due to a low credit score.

Because my credit score was lower, the higher interest rates I was stuck with made me pay out nearly double of what I would have paid if I had a good credit score. Treat your credit score with respect and pay plenty of attention to it. It will save you money in the future.

10. I didn't take advantage of the more prosperous times.

Despite all of my mistakes,  I earned a good salary and didn't want for much. My ex had a job that provided a free apartment, and we didn't pay for any utilities. I think I made so many mistakes early on because I didn't have to scrimp and save to survive. However, once the recession hit in 2008, I lost my job and was unemployed for nearly two years (with a young toddler to boot), and then my ex and I divorced. I realized that if I had only prepared myself better, I wouldn't have been so down and out when hard times hit. If you're reading this and things are going well, take the opportunity to save an extra 1% to retirement or set up an automated transfer to your emergency fund every time you get paid. Trust me, it pays to be prepared when an emergency decides to rear its ugly head.

11. Most of all, I didn't ask for help when I needed it.

Overall, this is my biggest regret. Asking for help could have saved me a lot of stress and money. When I needed to figure something out or when I needed money,  I didn't reach out to my friends or family, and the online resources and communities didn't exist like they do today. But good news: they do now, and you are not alone! Never feel shy to reach out for help when you need it. 
Women are becoming more involved in their financial futures by investing in themselves and avoiding the kinds of mistakes I made. I can't encourage this enough. There are several resources I use now to upkeep a healthy financial situation, including the Fairygodboss's salary database, the Financial Diet, and Stefanie O'Connell's blog.

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