What Turning 35 Taught Me About Money

Earlier this year, I turned 35. After what seems like a whirlwind, I am not only the mother of a preschooler and first-grader, but 10 years into my marriage as well. How did this happen?

I have to be honest; I don’t know.

It seems like just yesterday I was an awkward teenager in high school. And just last week I was struggling to get by and saving for our wedding.

How could it possibly have been more than six years since my oldest daughter was born? And more than four since I introduced my oldest child to her sister in the hospital?

It seems like it all went by in the blink of an eye. Before I really had the chance to enjoy it, it was gone.

What Turning 35 Taught Me about Money

It doesn’t seem possible, yet here I am, fighting middle age and wondering where the time went. Fortunately, all that time wasn’t a waste. While we are making huge financial strides now, we made plenty of mistakes, too. And along the way, we learned plenty of lessons that have shaped the way we think about money. Here are a few of those lessons and realizations.

A debt-free life is better than the alternative.

For the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I didn’t pay too much attention to our spending or our outstanding debts. We made decent incomes, after all, and didn’t have any children. What difference did it make if we carried credit card debt, student loans, or car loans?

Here’s what I found out — it makes a huge difference. With two kids in school now and the college years fast approaching, I can’t imagine how unstable I would feel if we carried the kind of debt we did early on.

Now that I know a debt-free life is much better (and a lot less stressful) than the alternative, my plan is to avoid debt like the plague if at all possible. For us, that means driving older cars, saving money for splurges so we can pay in cash, and staying put in our reasonable home. If that keeps us debt-free, that’s fine with me.

Investing regularly actually matters.

With the stock market taking off the way it has the past few years, I have received constant reminders of how much more money I could have saved if I had started earlier. Unfortunately, I didn’t start saving heavily for retirement until my mid to late 20s, which has held me back. And let me tell you, I would do anything to have back all the money I wasted on cute clothes and beer — anything.

Since I can’t make up for the earnings I lost out on in my early 20s, all I can do is make sure I don’t miss out again. With that in mind, my husband and I invest heavily in index funds every month, no matter whether the market is up or down.

Even though I started later than I wanted, I now know that time is still on my side. I can’t change the past, but the future is up to me.

Caring what other people think is pointless.

Once upon a time, I cared a lot about what others thought. This was especially true when it came to money, and over time, I spent quite a bit keeping up appearances. In addition to constant home upgrades, we spent a lot on new cars every few years, nice clothes, and evenings out on the town.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped caring what others think. I stopped worrying whether my car looked nice enough, or whether my house was as nice as our neighbors’ or friends’ homes.

Having kids and growing a family taught me that our real financial lives were a lot more important than appearances. Reaching that conclusion — and letting go of the need to please others — was incredibly freeing.

Having an emergency fund is crucial.

This year alone, we have dipped into our emergency fund to rebuild our chimney, buy a new lawnmower, replace a busted water heater, and replace the HVAC unit at one of our rental properties. Over the course of a single summer, those repairs have added up to more than $7,000!

While there was a time in my life when I would never have had that kind of cash on hand, the e-fund we keep stocked now allows us to handle multiple emergencies without too much stress.

In my 20s, I didn’t see the need to keep plenty of cash on hand, but in my 30s, I realize it is crucial. And with two kids and a mortgage, I know my e-fund is part of the reason I sleep so well at night.

Even if I never retire, I want the option to do so at any time.

For some reason, turning 35 made the idea of retirement seem more real to me than it was just a few short years ago. Perhaps it’s because I already have 15 working years behind me, or maybe it’s because financial independence could be just 15 short years away.

Either way, I have been thinking a lot about how long I plan to work, and what I might do in retirement or semi-retirement. While I’m still unsure, I know for a fact I want to keep up with our current rate of saving and investing. I’ve seen far too many people have to work far too long to make the same mistakes.

And while I may never retire all the way, I want the option to. So for now, that means keeping our savings rate as high as possible, avoiding lifestyle inflation when we can, and making smart choices when it comes to our investments.

The Bottom Line

None of us can change the past, but we are the ones responsible for the future. And if I have learned one thing, it’s that the little things do matter. The steps any of us take today can make for a better future, or conversely, they can hold us back.

As for me, I plan to take all the lessons I learned from overspending, being in debt, and planning to fail, and harness them for good. Time goes faster with each passing year, and I know that one day, everything I did and said today will matter.

What have you learned about money during the past decade? What are you doing today to make for a brighter future?

Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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