It's easy to look back, ask,"What if?" and second guess all the decisions I've made in the past 43 years. I have been fortunate to have no major regrets and a whole lot to be thankful for. However, there are some things I would have paid more attention to and done differently if I could go back and relive my early 20s.
Here's a list for all of you in your 20s, as well as for some parents to consider if you have children graduating from college soon:
1. Don't rack up credit card debt, and pay any debts off quickly. Seems simple and downright obvious, but taking on debt is easy to do. The transition from college to the working world can be expensive—new clothes, shoes, apartment, furniture, and other business-world expenses can make it easy to quickly pile on debt. Budget for these expenses, and if credit must be used to get going, have a plan in advance for paying it down.
2. Contribute to your 401(k). Just do it. Retirement contributions build up fast, often have an employer matching contribution, and are saved before taxes. Look at it as savings with an instant profit.
3. Start a savings plan early. The best time to start a savings plan is before you are used to having extra money in the first place. A good rule of thumb: Use 50 percent of your after-tax paycheck (excluding 401(k) contributions, of course) to pay for the non-negotiable "needs-based" expenses in your life, like rent and food. Use 35 percent for negotiable "wants-based" expenses—entertainment and other costs can scale back quickly if needed. Save 15 percent. Your goal here should be to save about six months of your pay.
4. Don't try to keep up with the Jones's. There is no need to buy the best brand of everything right out of college. People in their 20s who are driving expensive cars, living in luxury apartments, and buying the most expensive clothes either already have money from something other than their first job or they are piling on debt—which isn't smart.
5. Pay off your highest interest-rate debt first. Hint: It's not always the debt with the highest balance. The debt with the highest interest rate is probably the credit card you ran up on bar tabs and that Spring Break trip in the final year of school. Pay that off first. Your student loans, while they carry a big balance and are possibly the scariest in terms of size, probably have a reasonable interest rate relative to any credit card debt.
6. Save four months of your salary in cash before you start investing after-tax money in an investment plan. This may take a while, but the journey of a thousand miles always begins with one step. This is important because if you lose your job, you'll need to make sure you are not forced to sell your few assets at fire-sale prices or default on debt payments at a young age. It will keep you from a panic and keep you from moving back into mom and dad's place.
This also gets easier,because once you have the first four months saved, you can apply that savings discipline toward an after-tax investment strategy, and as salary raises come along, you can tune up your savings plan to raise your cash balance over the course of six months to a year.
7. Be patient. It's easy to "want." Be patient; with hard work and good fiscal discipline, you will amass a nice portfolio that allows you to realize all the hopes and dreams you may have for later in life. There are probably a lot more major financial events in your future, and you'll want the flexibility to make proper decisions when the time comes.
Having cash, savings, and an investment portfolio that allow you the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities down the road will really help.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: While it seems like your life is full right now, there is probably a lot coming up—such as a first home, graduate school, and maybe even, gasp, kids!
David B. Armstrong CFA, is a Managing Director and co-founder of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria VA, a full service Private Wealth Planning and wealth management firm. Monument Wealth Management is backed by LPL Financial, the independent broker-dealer and Registered Investment Advisor. He has been named one of America's Top 100 Financial Advisors for two straight years by Registered Rep magazine (2009 & 2010) based on asset under management. David and Monument Wealth Management can be followed on their blog at "Off The Wall", their Twitter account @MonumentWealth, and on their Facebook page. Member FINRA/SIPC.
*The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendation for individual. To determine which investment is appropriate please consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance references is historical and is not guarantee of future results. Securities and financial planning offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.