Updated on 02.18.08

The Value of Investing in Yourself

Trent Hamm

For many young people, particularly people under the age of thirty, there’s quite often more value in investing in yourself than there is in investing in stocks. A well-conceived investment in your future can continue to pay dividends over the rest of your life. Some investments in yourself can even be worthwhile near the end of your career.

In my own life, I’ve found that some of the most valuable things I’ve ever done were investments in myself. My parents invested in braces for me when I was in junior high, straightening out some crooked teeth. I invested the cost and time to get a college education. I’ve even invested a lot of time – an amount that some of my friends have believed was excessive – carefully figuring out who I was, what my true talents are, and what I should be doing with my time. I did all of these things pretty early in life, before I was thirty, and they were all worth the time and financial costs associated with each of them.

Here are some specific examples of what I’m talking about.

Education This is the obvious one – there’s a reason so many people go to college straight out of high school – it’s a great investment. Post-secondary education can vastly increase your earning potential over your life, even if you choose a degree that isn’t “money.” Even if you didn’t get the needed grades to get into college, learning a trade in trade school – like learning to be a carpenter or an electrician or a plumber – also vastly increases your earning potential.

Later in life, education can still be very valuable, but in a somewhat different way. Many people don’t realize their deeper passion until later in life – if you return to school with that burning passion in your gut, you’ll be in a much better position to get through school successfully.

Steps anyone can take to get started with further education include figuring out what you’re passionate about and where your natural talents lie, then seeking education that can maximize and cultivate those passions and talents. For example, I have considered enrolling in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, because I’m passionate about writing and believe I have a modicum of talent in that area that could be cultivated.

Specialized skills These are things that you don’t necessarily learn in school (or at least don’t major in). Skills such as the ability to speak in public, the ability to present in a dynamic fashion, the ability to communicate with others, technical certifications, and so on are valuable. Most of these skills primarily cost time rather than money – you can build them by participating in groups like Toastmasters.

Steps anyone can take to get started with further specialized skills include identifying skills in others that you’d like to acquire, figuring out what you could do to work on those skills, then setting aside the time to work on them. For example, I’d like to continue to hone my public speaking skills, so I’m getting involved again in Toastmasters.

Appearance I’ve written about the value of personal appearance before, but it’s true – the first impression most people get of you is your appearance. The investments here are a mix of time – practicing good hygiene every day, keeping your hair cut well, and so on – and cost – dental work, nice clothing, and so forth. Remember that your appearance is an investment – you’re maximizing the first impression that you give people, as well as the continuing reinforcement of that impression.

Steps anyone can take to get started with personal appearance include simply bathing every day, brushing your teeth, using deodorant, and other basic tasks of personal hygiene. If you have problems with your teeth, talk to a dentist – I know that my braces made a huge difference for me when I was in junior high, for example.

Therapy Many people have something on their mind that would feel good to relieve, if nothing else. Others might have some psychological issues that need to be worked around. The biggest key is to talk about it, whether to a therapist or to a close friend. Talk about the things that bother you, upset you, and keep you from being happy. One of my closest friends and I spent several years where we basically functioned as therapists for each other – it not only built a very close bond, but it helped us both come together as people.

Steps anyone can take to get started with therapy include just talking to a friend or loved one and laying out the things that really bother you. If you don’t have anyone, a therapist will also work. Some people may find that they do in fact need psychological help, but for most of us, relieving the burden of the things on our mind is enough to make us feel much better and more confident about our lives.

“Feeling good” By this, I mean things like massages, free time, meditation, aromatherapy, and other environmental things that can improve good feelings in ourselves. I’m not talking about spending for the rush of spending – I’m talking about investing in experiences that genuinely improve our outlook and feelings on life. If something genuinely lifts your mood consistently without negative repercussions – like getting a massage from your spouse or spending twenty minutes each day praying or meditating – then do it.

Don’t be afraid to invest time or money improving yourself, particularly early in your career. Over the long run, education, skills, strong appearance, and a grounded and positive outlook on life will pay enormous dividends for you. The key is to not become obsessive about each individual area, but to balance things – a strong appearance is great, but if you’re spending an hour each day “getting your face on,” your time can probably be better spent working on learning a skill, for example.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. KC says:

    I’m 34 and out of the age group you are addressing here, but I’m still close enough to remember some of the good and bad things I did. Two important things I totally underestimated were apperance and language. I know its trendy now to have longer hair and a more unkept apperance, but it is important to look neat and clean. That doesn’t mean short hair, no facial hair – it means comb you hair, don’t have scraggly facial hair, and make sure your clothes are pressed, clean, and fit well.

    The other thing I greatly underestimated was language. Don’t use curse words, period. The language you use with your peers is not acceptable in a work envirnoment at all. It just isn’t looked well upon. There will be times when something slips out. And there will be times when you get to know your co-workers and the language they use. But before you reach a familiarity keep it clean.

  2. One of my favorite suggestions here is to start a part-time business – perhaps a hobby-related business – and see how well it grows … investing in yourself is all about INCREASING INCOME so that you can SAVE A LOT MORE … perhaps enough to generate millions. It worked for me!

  3. Harm says:

    Good post for the most part, I would
    nitpick a little, and say that as long as
    one puts a little effort into bathing, one
    can usually get by with every other day (same
    with shaving, as long as one has a light
    beard and isn’t subject to scrutiny, LoL) saving
    a certain amount in resources and helping
    one’s immune system. One can balance not subscribing
    to the current avalanche of (expensive)
    ‘personal care’ products and not looking scruffy
    or scroungy…..

  4. I totally agree with the dental work. I really wish my parents had fixed my underbite when I was a kid. It has done a lot of permanent damage to my teeth and gums already.

    I’m actually just now starting the process of braces and surgery to get this corrected. I consider it an investment in my future. I’m 28 and I want to get a few more years out of these chompers! :)

  5. You hit it right on with education. The best thing I ever did was get my degrees. The ROI on a marketable degree is amazing.

  6. Fran says:

    One of the hardest lessons I ever learned was the correlation between how I look and feel. If I take the extra 3 minutes to put on a little eye shadow and lipstick,I feel more productive. Even though I do the bulk of my work at home, it just makes me feel better. Remember what Madonna said: “If you don’t think you’re a star, no one else will.” Treat yourself accordingly.

  7. !wanda says:

    @Fran: That’s conditioning. I work in a scientific field, and many, if not most, of the young women here don’t wear makeup, and we don’t feel less professional or productive because of it.

  8. KM says:

    Excellent post Trent. As a 23 year old, I find this advice to be particularly relevant and useful. I would also add excercise regularly under “Feeling good.” Not only is it good for your health, but also relieves stress and makes you feel great!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Health. I think you missed a big one here by mentioning therapy but not exercise or eating right. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have much. Keeping yourself healthy at a young age will pay dividends for a long time.

  10. KC says:

    I, too, work in a field where the women don’t wear make-up or any sort of adornments – I’m a librarian – LOL! But it’s true, most of us don’t doll ourselves up much. However once I moved into management I started noticing how important it was to dress better – no more khakis. I started wearing my hair down more, I wore suits anytime I had a meeting, and I wore a little make up – eyeliner and some color during the winter months. It was amazing how that got me noticed by the administrators. Hopefully my performance helped, too, but I think my attire and personal appearance did the most for me – sad, but true. I suppose you could say it set me apart to do that little extra. It was certainly well worth the minimal effort.

  11. Jayne says:

    I know very bright people who became tradesman, not because they didn’t have the grades for college, but because it was what truly interested them. I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that people who work with their hands are any less intelligent. I hope your point was that if school isn’t your thing, trades are another way to increase your earning potential.

  12. Empress Juju says:

    I used to be one of those women who overspent on all the most fabulous beauty treatments: facials, hair, mani-pedi, you name it! Paradoxically, I always looked like something the cat dragged in, because I was overworked, exhausted, and malnourished!

    I’ve learned to turn down some work, sleep 8 hours, attend to my nutrition and hygiene, and now I look and feel like a million bucks!

    Now that I’m one of the people who knows how to TRULY invest in myself, I see my younger colleagues scrambling around, working their fingers to the bone, and I do half the work for twice the money, because I am composed, present, and competent. Oh, and I spend a lot less money to stay this way ;)

  13. riley says:

    The single most important personal area an individual can”invest” in is regular exercise. This will enhance and support all other personal investment areas. More stamina, sharper thinking, better health, etc.

  14. !wanda says:

    @KC: Of course I dress up a little for conferences, presentations, and meetings. I don’t wear makeup for these things, but maybe I should; it’s just that I haven’t been willing to spend the time or money to select appropriate colors, and the stuff feels wrong on my face.
    When you “dress for success,” you have to understand the norms of your workplace. On regular days, my hair has to be easy because I constantly have to put it up or in a hairnet (to prevent germs from being transmitted to the animals in the animal room), and it hardly matters what I wear under my labcoat. Everyone understands this and is under the same constraints. Where I work, you can identify *the administrative staff* because they are the best-dressed. Everyone in a suit is either a secretary, a salesperson, or a visitor. It would be actively harmful for me to wear a suit or business-type clothes every day, because it would mark me as an outsider, someone who is more serious about clothes than about my work.

  15. Kaye says:

    Love this post. I firmly believe that no matter how out-of-debt/frugal you may be or how financially successful you may prove yourself, if you aren’t happy with yourself (in any manner), you will be unahppy until that is rectified.

    I whole-heartedly agree that taking care of yourself is first and foremost in importance! Thank you for posting this in a area where people concentrating on their finances can read it.

  16. John J says:

    Start a part-time business, when you get out of college. Why waste college to be an employee. Education can be good if used right. There are no grantees.

  17. Lisa Spinelli says:

    All I want to know is, when does anyone find the time to do these things when they are starting up a new blog!? :-)

    I have been totally consumed! Really, though, It fulfills the education piece, for sure! Now if I can just find the time to fit in some simple things like feeding my dogs, making dinner…


  18. Few people really take the time to consider themselves an investment. Luckily there are a lot of high-end discount retailers in New York, a great way to get nice clothes and still be frugal.

    I completely agree with education. I was fortunate enough to have my parents pay for most of it, although I did pay for the last nearly 2 years and lived at home off and on to save money. I only had a small student loan when I left that I paid off within 2 years. But I have friends who are 30k+ in debt from school, and I don’t think that’s wise. While student loans have made it possible for nearly everyone to attend college, it’s also allowed colleges to raise their tuition to skyrocketing proportions. Unless you are going into a money field, I don’t see the value in needing to pay off loans for the rest of your life, delaying the ability to invest, buy a home, etc.

    I think we’ll see more kids in the next generation opting for cheaper schools, online universities, community colleges, part-time enrollment, etc. so they won’t repeat the generation of educational debt behind them.

    And just an aside, I majored in Film studies and minored in English. But what actually helped me most was taking a non-university 6-week video editing course which then let me get a job in New York. That eventually lead to me freelancing as a video editor and then focusing on writing, which I’m now doing full-time. So I gained more money-making skills in those 6-weeks than in the 5 years of college.


  19. A in NC says:

    Investing in education. I liked what the innovative traveler had to say. Personally, I find myself often in a dillema.
    I work as an admissions representative for a small private college. You may not realize it but this job is sales.
    I am supposed to convice (atually the word used in my job description is “entice”) people to come to our school and pay for an education. Our education is VERY expensive.
    From a frugal standpoint, I find the dilemma to be that I’d suggest NOT taking out student loans. But the vast majority of students here have huge loans and will for years to come.
    They are not studying to be lawyers and doctors where they will make a mint when they get out. Most will leave with an associates degree.
    They cannot get the jobs they are studying for without the training but the training at a private college is VERY expensive.
    If they were to go to the local community college (where most of the folks who work here send THEIR kids!) they could get the education for a fraction of the cost but they would lose out on somethings like free tutoring, small classes, individual attention, etc. Yes there is value to those things (and I repeat it over and over every day) but the bottom line is you get out of school what you put into it. If you give community college your all, you will get a lot out. If you give private college the least you can to get by, then that is what you get.
    It is more about your willingness to learn. Sometimes though the student needs the experience and the debt to understand it.

  20. Josh says:

    When most people are buying 20k cars in their 20s I don’t think 30k in education loans is that much. Especially if it in a marketable field. I guess I would agree don’t spend 30k+ of your own money on Film/English. It’s all an investment and w/ majors there are clear indicators what your ROI is going to be, and on liberal arts majors its usually very low.

    I paid for my engineering Bachelors and Masters 100%, no help from parents. I had 34k in debt when I left college a year and a half ago and am making 80k a year now. If I had really buttoned down I could have paid it off in less than a year, but the APR is so low it didn’t make much sense. Now I’m starting my PhD, on the company’s bill, in the summer. By my late 20s I’ll have a PhD and no debt, how many people have their PhD and no debt by the time they are 30 w. no help from parents! I think the investment into my Bach/Masters has pave d the way for financial security the rest of my life. I am free to go and try my hand at my own businesses/startups if I want, I can always get job at IBM, Intel, etc making near 6-figures.

  21. SJean says:

    agree with Josh… I had 27k in loans for a BS. But it was in engineering, It’s 1.5 years later I could have had it all paid off by now if I skipped out on 401k/roth/savings, but that makes no sense. I pay 130/mo, pretty minimal considering that degree allows me to earn 70k at age 25, a company that will pay for an MS, and much more later probably

    You do have to be careful with student loans, like anything, but they can be a great investment.

    Good tips, i agree with comments about exercise though

  22. M3 says:

    Trent, Just wanted to say that both portions of the email were fabulous today! Investing in Yourself and In Defense of Food were absolutely spot on and I forwarded them around. Thanks for a really in-depth read.

  23. chris says:

    I took the crooked path, spent many years in and out of school and now I’m only working part time. With two BA degrees and a Master’s – I job hopped, got laid off due to budget cuts – and now I can’t find the work I want. I teach and they are only going for the younger (CHEAPER) hires. My husband attended a trade school – welding, got into a union and earns a six-figure salary, with more work than he wants to do. Go figure! You made a lot of good points. In fact, as I have watched the trends in high school education do away with all the hands-on skills, I think that the skilled craftsman is a good way to go for many people in the future. A skilled tradesman (and not a non-English speaking day-worker) will have a great advantage in the future. Having a good plan going in makes all the difference!

  24. I love your site and agree with everything I’ve read so far! I like to talk to women about avoiding the marketing traps in cosmetics and all things spendy and girly. I love Dave Ramsey too-we are currently saving up to pay cash for a car.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *