We’ve all seen commencement speakers give advice to graduates as they’re about to enter the workforce. In much the same way, financial experts are in the unique position to impart money advice to the younger generation. I asked personal finance authors, columnists and podcast hosts who have figured out a thing or two about money to share the nuggets of wisdom they wish they could tell their younger selves. Among their advice? Invest in the stock market early, save as much as you can, steer clear of credit card debt and don’t worry so much about having it all figured out.
Those of us who write and talk about money for a living tend to have our financial acts together. But that wasn’t always the case. I invited some personal finance experts to share what they wish they could have told their younger selves about money.
INVEST EARLY, EVEN IF IT’S SCARY
If the stock market scares you, nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary can relate. Singletary says she avoided investing for many years because in her first job out of college, an older co-worker — one who was close to retirement age — warned her that stocks were too risky.
Singletary later realized that someone in their 20s has decades to ride out stock market swings, and that she could have afforded to take much more risk with her investments.
“The lesson I learned was to look at my own individual situation and invest based on my timeline and goals,” Singletary says.
STUDENT LOAN DEBT CAN PAY OFF
Darian Woods , a reporter and producer for “The Indicator from Planet Money” podcast, says he can no longer remember exactly how much he borrowed to get a master’s in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley — just that his balance was “in the tens of thousands of dollars” by the time he graduated.
The debt felt enormous. Woods wishes he could reassure his anxious younger self that the loans were a solid investment in his future. Woods, a New Zealand native, landed a job as an analyst for his country’s treasury department and was able to pay off the loans in a year.
“That debt wasn’t as much of an albatross as I’d feared,” Woods says.
SAVING, SPENDING, EARNING: THEY’RE ALL IMPORTANT
Paco de Leon , author of the book “Finance for the People: Getting a Grip On Your Finances, ” has two bits of advice for her younger self. The first is to save, no matter what. Saving can feel futile on a small income, but the amount you save is far less important than the habit of saving that you’ll develop, she says.
The second piece of advice: Deal with your pain.
De Leon graduated with a degree in finance and a minor in economics. But a head full of knowledge about money concepts was no match for what de Leon calls “a deep-rooted scarcity mindset” and a profound sense of inferiority. De Leon says she didn’t earn enough for years because she wasn’t convinced of her own worth and bought expensive things she couldn’t afford, hoping to get validation from others. She wishes her younger self had spent time in self-reflection and therapy to work through her psychological issues.
“Do the work to heal your pain, so you aren’t creating more unnecessary problems for yourself,” de Leon says.
DON’T MAKE WORK YOUR LIFE
Tess Vigeland is host and senior producer of The Wall Street Journal’s “As We Work” podcast. She, too, has both practical and philosophical advice for her younger self.
The practical: Never, ever carry a credit card balance if you can help it.
“I got myself in deep credit debt throughout my early and mid-20s, because I lived life like I had my parents’ bank account, when in fact I had a tiny fraction of that,” Vigeland says.
The philosophical: Develop interests outside of your job.
Vigeland loved her work in public radio — until she didn’t. In 2012, she abruptly quit her job as host of American Public Media’s “Marketplace Money ,” a personal finance show, with no clue about what she wanted to do next.
Part of that journey became a book, “Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want.” But Vigeland says life after public radio might have been easier if her work hadn’t been such a big part of her identity.
“Have something you love to do outside of what you do for a living,” Vigeland says. “It will help down the line if you decide to leap to another career or go back to school — you won’t be stuck in just one idea of who you are and what you can do.”
AND MY TWO CENTS
Most of us can look back at our younger selves and see how much we’ve matured over time. But somehow we think our evolution has stopped. Whether we’re just starting our careers or have long since retired, the so-called “end of history illusion” convinces us that we won’t change much from the person we are today.
If I’d known about this psychological quirk, maybe I would have worried less about getting it all figured out and making exactly the right career and money moves. Who I am and what I want won’t stay the same. I’d tell my younger self that the important thing is to do the best I can today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
(Spoiler alert: It all works out.)