I’m thirty years old. Over the last ten years, my life has changed radically. I went from being a college student to being an office professional, then to being a writer. I went from being single to being married with children. I went from owning just enough stuff to fit in the trunk of someone else’s car to owning two cars and a home. I went from being debt free to being perilously in debt and part of the way back again.
Looking back, there are a lot of things I wish I could tell myself then (for one, avoid someone named Alison who lived in your apartment building during your senior year). I’ve often jotted down these thoughts in my personal writings, but I’ve realized that there are several very useful general things that are worth mentioning.
Here are ten things I wish I had done when I was twenty.
I wish I had saved just a bit. If I had just put away $5 every time I spent money on something frivolous, I would have barely missed it at all. I could have just stuck it into a savings account if nothing else and just let it ride until I needed it for something big like the down payment on our house. Even a few dollars saved here and there over my younger years would have made a big difference when we went to buy.
I wish I had connected better with many of my college classmates. There was a steady group of people that I saw time and time again in many of my classes, yet I never bothered to try to get to know many of them. I knew their names and their faces and that was about it – I was more content to just hurry home and go do something fun with my normal crowd. What I didn’t realize is that many of these people in my classes were people that wound up following career paths similar to mine – and having long-time friends in the same career as you’re in is incredibly helpful and quite fun.
I wish I had taken at least a class or two on writing. Writing was what I was passionate about, but I always found it difficult to squeeze in classes from the English department on the subject. Even during the semesters when my academic credit count was low, I never even seriously considered taking such a class. Looking back, I passed up a great opportunity to get some training and encouragement in an area I was personally passionate about. If you’re passionate about something, find time when you’re in college to dabble in it.
I wish I had learned the art of postponing purchases. It’s easy enough: if you’re in a store and see something non-essential that you’d like to have and weren’t originally intending to buy, put it down and leave the store. Give it some thought. Ask yourself in a few weeks if you still want the item. You might surprise yourself and find that you don’t actually want the item any more – and that saves you money. Instead, I bought strongly into instant gratification – and it cost me for a decade.
I wish I had engaged in overseas educational opportunities. I had an opportunity to spend most of a summer in Australia, an offer I turned down because of the limitations I put on my own perspectives. I even let that perspective spread to others, talking a person very close to me out of considering a semester in Scotland, because I didn’t want them to leave. I regret both choices – and many other opportunities that fell through. Be serious about your own fears – recognize them when they pop up and try hard to knock them down.
I wish I had been more entrepreneurial. I was around at the birth of at least two dot-com startups and could have easily been involved in them, but I avoided the opportunity. It seemed too risky. Looking back, I realize now that I had very little to actually risk by being involved except for my free time (which I had plenty of). There are opportunities all around you – don’t close your eyes to them, particularly when the only thing you really have to lose is some of your spare time.
I wish I had used credit cards more sensibly. I racked up hefty balances on my first credit card quite quickly. Looking back, most of this was because I really had no idea how to reasonably use a credit card. It’s easy. Just use it for things you would already buy and you can already afford and a credit card not only builds up a positive credit report for you, it also can help you get some free stuff via rewards. I didn’t follow that basic rule.
I wish I had listened to more of my mentors’ advice. I had three great mentors during the third decade of my life, all of whom were present in my life when I was twenty. They all offered me great advice over the years, but I was only willing to listen to some of it. When you find a good mentor that you can trust, they’re usually there to really help you – take everything they say with value.
I wish I had been more politically involved. I loved politics then and I love politics now. What I didn’t see then is that all politics is local. Sometimes it’s difficult to see at first glance, but even the most national of politics grows out of a foundation built in your own community. Today, I see a lot of issues in my community and state that I wish I had the political experience to affect, but I don’t – I was too focused on national issues where I had little impact. If you want change, start on your block.
I wish I had started saving for retirement during my first day on the job. Actually, I did do that, but I didn’t save nearly as much as I should have. The first day of your real job, contribute as much as you possibly can to retirement. Make it a habit right out of the chute. For one, doing it now before you’ve adjusted to your higher salary makes it much easier to do. For another, the earlier you start saving, the easier it is to reach big retirement goals.
I started this post as an email to a few college students I know. Instead, I’m going to send them the link to this post – and hope that they pass it on to their friends, too.