20 Money Lessons I Would Teach My 20-Year Old Self

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Being 40, there are many money lessons I’d give my 20-year old self. Here are some of the financial lessons I’d give my younger self.

I like to live life with no regrets. We only get one opportunity to live and try to leave everything on the field, so to speak. Otherwise, what’s the point? Now that I’m in my 40s I have the opportunity to look back on my 20s and see some of the mistakes decisions I made and how I’ve grown, changed and hopefully improved over the past few decades.

This is an important exercise to go through every once in awhile. Not only can it help you identify areas for growth now, but also times where you were stressed over a decision that turned out not to be worth stressing over (though it never seems that way in the middle of the situation). As a parent of kids who seem to grow too fast, these money lessons are important as the exercise helps us raise our children with more wisdom so they hopefully won’t make the same exact mistakes we did. So, if I were to have a conversation with my 20-year-old self, it’d go something like this:

Money Lessons I’d Give My 20-Year Old Self


  1. Spend on experiences, not stuff. Stuff begets more stuff and just collects dust. Experiences change you, hopefully for the better, and open your eyes to opportunities you otherwise might have missed.
  1. There is no such thing as free money. I’m looking at you, student loans. Going to college can be a great thing, but if you must finance something, make sure it’s an education – not a lifestyle.
  1. Listen to your gut. If your gut tells you “no,” then follow its advice.
  1. Say “yes” more; you never know where it’ll take you.
  1. Don’t drink as much alcohol. I know you’re supposed to enjoy your 20s and alcohol is usually a part of that. Just be balanced. The extra weight gained, fuzzy memories and cost aren’t worth it.
  1. Take a specific amount of money out of each paycheck you earn (starting with your very first one) and save it. It doesn’t have to be much in the beginning; it can even be as little as $5 per pay period, but that’s not the point. The point is to start a saving mindset early and think about your future often. Thankfully there are tools today, like Simple, that help you use a goals based saving mentality to hit what you want.
  1. That extra 10% off you got for opening a credit card in a store…you still have to pay the other 90%. Pay with cash and don’t give into the marketing trick of financing your purchases.
  1. Challenge yourself to learn something new at work each week. Not only will you stand out at work, but also you never know where a new skill will take you professionally.
  1. Consider your college major seriously. Sure, something like History may be fun but will it help you get a job? You need to look at college as an investment and pick a piece of paper that will actually help you do what makes you happy and help you establish financial independence.
  1. Open a Roth IRA as soon as you can. Investing may not sound like fun and it may be difficult at first, but you can start investing with $1,000 or less and watch your money grow. Thankfully there are many options out there today that help you start investing with little money – like Betterment – they’ll even manage it for you too.
  1. Don’t be afraid to go it alone. Getting advice is important, but not everyone is an expert or credible. You want to live your life, not what someone removed from the situation thinks you should do.
  1. Travel more. There are so many areas and cultures in this world to experience. You’ll be a more well-rounded and experienced individual by getting out there and seeing it firsthand.
  1. Surround yourself with friends that share the same basic financial goals. If you spend most of your time with spenders, they may not understand your desire to be financially healthy.
  1. Save up your money until you can buy a car outright. If you have to have a payment, keep it as low as possible. A car is something to get you from point A to point B. That’s it. Oh, and it’s a depreciating asset, which means the longer you own it, the less it’s worth. A car payment doesn’t make you more of an adult; it obligates you to someone.
  1. You will make money mistakes. It’s a fact of life. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Learn from the mistake, grow and vow to never make it again.
  1. You’re only in your 20s once; enjoy it. Don’t use them as an excuse to live foolishly, but rather as a foundation for growth in your 30s.
  1. Make your LinkedIn profile look professional. Employers will look at it before interviewing you; the last thing you want is to not look your best. While you’re at it, clean up your other social media accounts too.
  1. Learn how to start a budget. I know it seems restrictive and won’t allow you to have fun. It gives you freedom to love life, trust me.
  1. Start a side hustle. Like #8, you never know what you’ll learn from starting a side hustle. If learning isn’t enough motivation, the extra money isn’t too shabby either.
  1. Learn from your parents – both the good and bad. They may not be your most favorite people at times, but they can be a wealth of information and education. Plus, once they’re gone you can’t get them back. Cherish the moments you have with them.

Being 40, there are many money lessons I’d give my 20-year old self. Here are some of the financial lessons I’d give my younger self.

What are some things you wish you could tell your 20-year-old self? What’s one thing you did well in your 20s that you’ve built on in later years? How soon did you start saving for retirement after graduating from college?

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • Rachel @ The Latte Budget says:

    Great post! As someone in my early 20’s, one lesson I have already learned is to not take other people’s opinions so seriously.

    I value people’s opinions, especially those close to me, but they aren’t always right, and they don’t always know what is best for me. I used to feel bad when I didn’t take all of their advice, but now I have learned to trust myself to make the best decision for me.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Rachel! Completely agreed Rachel. I think there are times where we can benefit from the wisdom of others, but largely, you need to do what’s best for you as they won’t know what’s best for you/your situation.

  • Amanda @ centsiblyrich says:

    I can relate to many of these, John!

    #9 (college major) was something I should have put more thought into – a master’s degree in a field that doesn’t pay well at all doesn’t make sense to me now.

    #14 Save up for a car. I financed a car when I was still in grad school and had perpetual payments for more than a decade. Big mistake.

    Another mistake I made was buying a house too soon. I should have rented longer and saved more of a down payment.

    My husband and I did start investing in our mid 20s, which I’m grateful for. I do wish we had invested more, though! 🙂

    • John Schmoll says:

      I wish I would’ve done the same with regards to #9. I love history, but a BA in history…doesn’t really pay the bills. 🙂

      Great point on the buying a house too soon. We made the same mistake, but won’t be something we ever do again.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Really great list John! If I could back this list up to 18 year-old me I would absolutely tell myself to go to community college for my first two years. I could have crushed a ton of credits and only would have needed loans for my second two years of college.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks DC! Yea, I think that’s one a lot need/should hear. I know I’m thankful I did community college for my first two years – if I didn’t I would’ve had quite a bit more in student loans to pay off.

  • Millennial Money says:

    This is a great list that I agree with – especially the part about travel and challenging yourself. These are investments in human capital that pay off in your ability to relate to people and make money in the future.

  • Robin says:

    I wish I truly understood that everyTHING you buy depreciates in value… either hard $ value or “value” of ownership (now that you are on quest for someTHING else).

    Growing up in the ’80’s was not a good foundation for the future. It was about buy now, not create/curate a bucketlist and save for the must-haves of your future life.

    Yes, spending wisely on experiences would be another- on experiences you want, KNOW THY SELF, respect yourself & create boundaries to not “spend just ’cause others are.”

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