We put a lot of pressure on our 20s. While growing up, we imagine that our 20-something selves would seek and ultimately find personal and financial freedom, a rapidly growing career, and opportunities around every corner. But when we finally get there, those expectations often leave us disappointed and anxious about our progress — especially as we approach 30.
Here are three important lessons I’ve figured out since leaving my 20s that would have made the transition a little smoother.
Beware of arbitrary milestones
Throughout childhood and adolescence, I thought that turning 18 would be the age where I’d have everything figured out. When college made me ask more questions than it answered, that age became 21. Then 25. And finally 30.
In my 20s, I placed so much weight on growth and accomplishments that it was easy to forget that life didn’t end at 30. I’m now 34 and am finally realizing that I’ll never have all the answers.
Far from feeling like I’m done growing, I now find this realization quite freeing. I am trying my best, while continuing to learn and ask questions; yet I no longer worry about whether I am meeting arbitrary deadlines — particularly the ones that relate to my finances.
It’s so easy to compare yourself to other people your age who have a higher salary, have more saved for retirement, or appear to have their lives or careers more on track than we do. We forget that no two people follow the same path or go at the same pace. It’s up to you to set your own milestones and to celebrate how far you have come once you reach them.
More importantly, time only ever moves forward — never backward — so don’t spend too much time worrying if you’re missing out on anything. Live in the moment, try new things, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
But do set goals and strive for self-improvement
Time may fly when you’re having fun, but it flies even faster when you’re drifting aimlessly.
Life in your 20s lies in stark contrast to the rigidity of school, which has weekly assignments, midterm and final exams, and the progression from freshman to senior years to keep you advancing toward a fixed goal.
After you leave school, it often feels like the years pass by quickly without easily-quantifiable advancement. That’s a big reason why I’m into not just setting goals, but the writing good goals and good intermediate goals in particular.
With money, the same is true.
There are plenty of big things to save up for — a home, kids, and retirement — but decades can pass before you reach the next one. Without setting intermediary goals, I wouldn’t have been able to make as much progress in paying off my debt as I have. And by holding myself to those intermediary goals, I am on track to reach my long-term goals for retirement and whatever else I choose for myself later in life.
Build a strong foundation
One of the things I miss most about my 20s is how quickly I could recover physically — whether from a hard workout, a minor injury, or a late night out.
These days, I have to spend nearly as much time warming up and stretching as I do exercising, and I usually need two or three recovery days after a high-intensity work out when one used to be more than enough. And don’t ask about my knees.
Yet even as I encounter new challenges with each passing year, I know that it could be much harder had I not spent my 20s eating right and staying fit. Not only do I have a much better foundation upon which to continue to build my health, but I developed great fitness habits like learning how to shop for and cook healthy foods, and how to safely train for a race. Having to overcome these hurdles later on in life makes getting or staying fit that much harder.
The same goes for personal finance. My 20s would have been a great time to have learned to live frugally, since I didn’t mind living in cramped spaces or making do with less-than-fancy food and transport. It also would have been a great time to build up my retirement savings — with decades left to go until retirement, compound interest would have turned even tiny amounts into a huge nest egg by age 65.
- Here’s a net worth calculator
Alas, neither of these were things I did anywhere near as well as I could have. Yes, I am picking up those skills now and catching up quickly with saving for retirement, but I would definitely be in a better place had I been more focused in my 20s.
Oh, and one more thing…
While we’re talking about good habits, you really should be flossing.