made a lot of mistakes in my twenties. Most of these, thankfully, were impermanent or at least salvageable: the men I tried to convince to love me could be jettisoned in a social media purge; the visible memories of five years spent not washing my face at night could be unwritten with retinol. Financially, however, the chalky residue of my twenties is harder to scrub off. I have a strong financial support system, the immeasurable luck of no student debt, and I even once worked as an editor at a financial website (lol), but despite all that, I still messed up well and good many times when it came to creating responsible spending habits.
Now, at the ripe old age of a gently-bruising peach in her juicy prime, I know enough to know I simply can’t afford to be ignorant. Money is everywhere, the people who control it would rather we didn’t understand it (and they expend real effort on keeping us confused!), and there is nothing more powerful than a woman in full possession of her financial autonomy. With that in mind, here are three financial lessons I wish I’d learned in my twenties.
1. Money ≠ shame
I spent a stupid amount of time in my twenties skirting the question of money. I stammered apologies through my first (unsuccessful) salary negotiation; I agreed to dinners I couldn’t afford because I was too ashamed to tell my friends I was struggling; I nodded along in incomprehensible conversations with HR teams about retirement plans and insurance co-pays rather than ask what I assumed were the dumb questions. Again, this is how our evil overlords want it: the less we know, the more we’ll fork over. And since we’ve culturally shrouded the concept of money in shame, it’s easy to paint the whole arena as gauche or inappropriate.
Resist! No more! I’m now a walking financial AMA thread. You want to know how much I get paid to write? Just ask! My rent? $2600 split between me and my husband, thank you so much for inquiring! The linen drawstring pants I’m currently wearing? Free, stole them from my mom, thanks mom! The absolute only way to be in full control of your money is to ask all of the questions, no matter how small or seemingly stupid. This isn’t uncouth — it’s shrewd and resourceful. If people take offense to your questions, a simple “Sorry about that, I’m just trying to become more financially educated,” can ease the tension.
2. Credit cards are not inherently evil.
One of the most common pieces of financial advice is to live a cash-only lifestyle. I’m not against this in principle and if it works for you, hurrah! But this rhetoric often positions credit cards as the enemy, suggesting that so much as glancing at a credit card will immediately throw you into debt. It suggests that we aren’t smart enough to understand how credit works, or that we are weak-willed simpletons who go to pieces at the sight of a sample sale, hysterically tossing credit cards at shoes we can’t truly afford. Credit card debt is real, and scary, and huge business for banks, and it’s your job to outsmart them. Using a credit card responsibly can build your credit score, increase your financial literacy, and kick back serious rewards.
Having said that, the only way to do credit cards responsibly is to pay off your balance in full every month. If you can’t do that, credit cards aren’t for you. When I was living in New York on $30K a year, I let myself carry debt month to month because I thought it was necessary. It wasn’t. I shouldn’t have had a credit card. Period. So be honest with yourself about your relationship to money. Take a hard look at your monthly expenditures. Educate yourself on interest and debt (this is a great list of female finance writers). And when you are ready to take the plunge, make sure to choose a card that will work for you. I use a purchase eraser (a card that allows you to “erase” purchases using points accumulated by spending) because I know I simply don’t have the wherewithal to navigate a points system, even if those rewards might arguably be greater. My annual fee is $89, and I “erase” about $800 each year in purchases. Using a credit card responsibly has taught me more about my finances than cash alone, and for that I am grateful.
3. A sweater is not just a sweater.
A sweater is: The hands that made it, the fiber it is made from, the energy it took to create, the work you did to earn the money to purchase it, the way you feel while wearing it, the memories you’ll form in it and what you’ll think of it a year later when you see it hanging in your closet. When we remove objects from their context, we lose all sense of their — and our own — value. This is not to say you should only wear $600 dresses you can trace from Peruvian alpacas to women-owned collectives (but bully to you if you can), but rather that taking the time to understand and appreciate the fullness of everything we eat, wear, and own, and the money we’re forking over to obtain it, can lead to a much more intentional relationship with our finances.
Of all the financial lessons I’ve learned, it is this one that I still struggle with the most, and the one that has had the biggest impact. Ultimately it comes down to building a more conscious relationship with both my spending and with my earnings. Remember that uniquely childhood bubblegum feeling of saving up the tooth fairy quarters to buy a thing of your own: that sparkly purple pen, the wild bravery of sliding those coins across the counter yourself? Remember how tall you felt, how accomplished? That is the feeling I’m trying to recapture every time I pay a bill or save up for therapy: the self-satisfaction of having done the work I needed to do to get the things I’m very lucky to access. This also helps me know when a purchase is an empty one, when I’m shopping out of boredom or sadness. And it helps me remember that there are many other people out there between me and my sweater. I want to make sure I’m honoring their work as well. In the end, it’s simply about slowing down.
I love spilling my financial guts! Are there questions about money you want answered? Let me know in the comments.
Photos by Madeline Montoya.