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5 money tips financial experts wish they could tell their 20-something selves

August 21, 2015

By Maryalene LaPonsie | Money Rates Columnist

Two young females with a credit card

When you were 20 years old, you may have thought you knew everything. Then you aged another 10 years and realized you weren't nearly as smart and savvy as you thought.

If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would be it?

That was the question put to finance professionals Jennifer Landon and Charlie Harriman. Landon founded Journey Financial Services in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and took a straight path into the world of finance. She began working in the field directly out of college, which was 15 years ago.

Harriman took a detour into education before earning his MBA and entering the finance industry. He's been with Cloud Financial in Huntsville, Alabama, for the last five years, where he works as a certified estate planner.

Landon and Harriman say if they could go back and talk to their younger selves, these five points are the pieces of advice they would give themselves:

1. "Be afraid of debt."

It's not enough to simply avoid debt. Landon says she would advise her 20-year-old self to be downright afraid of it.

"Every time you borrow money, you give away a future dollar earned," she says.

Not only can interest payments stretch already thin budgets, but always being in debt means you will also be perpetually paying off your past with no chance to save for future dreams and goals.

2. "Make sure advice is right for you."

Harriman notes there is no shortage of personal finance advice available today. It's posted on the Internet, written in books and shared by well-meaning friends and relatives.

"It's great to listen to what people say, but a lot of that is general information," he says. When asked what he would tell his 20-year-old self, Harriman says, "You have to make sure the advice you're taking is right for you."

Rather than trying to wedge yourself into someone else's investment philosophy or savings strategy, young professionals should take into account their own personality, goals and circumstances when making money decisions.

3. "There is absolutely no correlation between income and financial success."

Don't fall for the mistake of believing a big paycheck is a sign of financial success. On the contrary, Landon says she would tell herself that success is actually measured by your habits, not your circumstances.

"Financial success is based upon good habits, and those are habits you can have at any income level," Landon says.

Good foundational habits that lead to success include living on less than you earn, putting money into savings and paying cash for big purchases whenever possible. Landon notes that 20-somethings might want to make excuses about why they can't stop spending or start saving, but ultimately, it all comes down to cultivating self-discipline.

4. "Invest early and open a Roth retirement account."

Although Harriman opened a Roth Individual Retirement Account at age 21, he regrets not putting more cash in it during his younger years.

"I see some 30-year-olds with a quarter million in their 401(k) account," he says. "I wish I would have put more in a retirement account."

For today's young professionals, Harriman suggests putting money in Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) rather than traditional retirement accounts. While you don't get a tax deduction for putting money into the account, you can withdraw from tax-free savings in retirement. Harriman says people early in their careers are likely in lower tax brackets than they will be in retirement. That means it's better to get a tax hit on the money now instead of later.

However, the most crucial thing is to simply start saving. Time is a critical component to maximizing compound interest in retirement accounts and as Harriman says, "You can't get back time."

5. "Don't wait for your circumstances to make you happy."

Landon says her final piece of advice to herself would be to not wait around for the stars to align before being content with life.

"We wait for our circumstances to make us happy," she says.

However, time can quickly slip away while you're waiting for the perfect job, a bigger payday or a great circle of friends. Rather than waiting for an ideal life, Landon would tell her 20-year-old self to "be relevant in the space you're in."

On the flip side, if life does bring material success, Landon would remind herself to never feel like she needs to apologize for living well. "It's OK to work hard and have a great lifestyle because of it," she says.

For those who are older, it's easy to look back and have second thoughts about decisions made earlier in life. However, for today's 20-somethings, the future is a blank page. Make the most of it by listening to the wisdom of professionals who have gone before you.

Tell us: What money advice do you wish you could tell your 20-something self? 

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