Over the years I’ve discovered that the single greatest thing you can do to help your finances is to be an independent thinker. You need to make your own choices and live according to what you know is right for you, not what society thinks is right for you. Society (your friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, and marketers) likes to tell you that you are a failure if you don’t do this or that, or you’re a loser if you don’t own this or that. You’re told you can’t succeed unless you do or have certain things. It can be hard to stand in the face of that pressure and spend only according to what you know you can afford, but if you want to be financially successful, you have to do it.
And you need to start when you’re young. The decisions you make when you’re just starting out have far reaching impacts. Student loans may be with you until you’re fifty. A bad early marriage can leave you paying child support or alimony for decades. A big house bought before you were ready can lead to a foreclosure that stays on your record for years. Maxed out credit cards can take decades to pay off. From your first independent moments you need to be an independent thinker. You need to stand up and say, “I can’t afford this, so I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do things I can afford, instead.” Begin your independent thinking with the following areas and you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches later.
Housing: When you’re young and everyone around you is buying big houses, it’s hard to stay in your crappy 700 square foot apartment. But if you can’t afford a house, if you want a small house, or if you want to save for other things, you have to resist the temptation to join the herd. When you’re older and everyone is upgrading, you have to have the courage to stay put if your current house meets your needs. Big houses come with big payments and expenses. If you can be happy in a smaller home or apartment, stay there and be happy. Resist the voices of society that tell you to own a big house just because it looks good.
Cars: Cars are like houses when it comes to society telling us to have the newest, biggest, and best. You’re encouraged to upgrade every couple of years, to buy more than you need, and to always buy new. But when you get right down to it a car is, as Steve Martin says in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” “Four wheels and a #@$%ing seat.” You don’t have to have the newest and biggest to get you to and from work. A used car will do the job. Buy the car that meets your needs in terms of reliability, safety, and affordability and let the rest of society drive the luxury cars.
Education: Society would have you believe that you must go to an expensive private school, otherwise you’ll be flipping burgers for a living. Yet studies show that, with a few exceptions in certain fields (medicine, law), where you get your degree does not really matter. What matters is that you get the degree, you get good grades, and you come out of school with marketable skills. The person who graduates with $200,000 in debt from a private school is not necessarily a better employee than the one who went to community school for two years and finished up at a state school. Student loans can leave you in debt for many of your working years, negating any benefit you may have gotten from the private school. If you can’t afford that, go to a school you can afford and work your butt off to develop marketable skills.
Marriage: Don’t marry someone just because they are good looking, your friends/family love them, they are wealthy, or they are the one you’re “expected” to marry. That person may make a great trophy spouse but chances are it won’t end well. Since divorce can set you back financially for years, you’re better off marrying the person you love (or staying single) rather than the one society thinks you should marry.
Investing/retirement: It’s not cool to contribute to a retirement plan. It cuts into the budget for that bigger house or newer car. You’re too young to worry about that, spend your money on fun stuff. No one else at work contributes, so why should you? Society comes up with plenty of reasons to put off setting up your retirement accounts. You should contribute because the younger you start, the more time you have to rack up some serious money and avoid eating dog food in your old age. Resist the urgings to put off saving and start immediately. You know it’s the right thing to do, so do it.
Gadgetry: Game stations, DVD players and movies, cell phones, TV’s, MP3 players, computers, GPS’s, swanky kitchen gizmos, and all other types of gadgets and gizmos can get you into trouble. You may know you need that you only need a basic cell phone, but when everyone around you is buying smart phones, it’s hard to stick to that notion. So you cave in and get stuck with the big data plan you don’t need and the associated expenses. You can get to work just fine without a GPS so do you really need one, or is it just something else everyone else has? Gadgets are fun, but too many of them can send you into a financial tailspin. Resist the pressure to have the newest, most feature rich gizmos. Get only what you really need and pocket the extra money.
Travel: It’s tough to stay home when all your friends are taking their kids to Disney World or going on cruises to exotic lands. Those mini-vacations you take to the nearby beach or amusement park don’t seem like much in comparison. Society tells you to keep up and go to the same places where your friends are going. Your kids won’t grow up right if they don’t see Disney World! Expensive travel is fine if you can afford it. However, if you’re going into debt to take those trips, you’re heading for trouble. Take the vacations you can afford, even if they are just long weekends in the mountains or “staycations” where you do fun things around your home. Kids will be happy just spending time with you and you can take the expensive trips when your finances are in better shape.
Some people talk a lot about how they are individuals or rebels, or how they like to thumb their noses at convention. Yet many of these people are the first in line to buy a new cell phone, trade cars every two years, or upgrade their house every five years. They march right along with the rest of the herd straight off the financial cliff. If you want to succeed, you have to set your mind to doing the right thing for your finances, even if it’s not the popular thing. You might take some flack for your cheap cell phone or used car, but you’ll have the last laugh one day when your finances are on track and your tormentors are seventy-three and working at Wal-Mart.