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Personal Finance: What I Wish I'd Known in my 20s

Personal Finance: What I Wish I'd Known in my 20s

March 23, 2023

Recently, I was asked what types of personal finance advice I would give to a woman in her twenties. In consideration of that question, I decided to share the advice I wished I had received.

First, it may be helpful to learn about my background. I grew up the oldest of three children raised by a single parent mother. Early on, my experience with money was that it was hard-earned and harder to keep. I also realized the heavy reality of the phrase, if it is to be, it is up to me. I determined that my circumstances would not define my reality: I would. Therefore, in my late teens and early twenties, I decided that I would earn a college degree, have health insurance coverage, and buy my first house.

I graduated college at age 21, had my first full-time job (with health insurance benefits) at age 22, and bought my first house at age 25. I also paid off five-figure debts using a five-figure salary: my credit card debt by age 27 and my student loan debt by age 30. And I had five-figures in savings by the time I was 28 years-old.

What did I learn?

Invest in yourself and expand your skillset. While in college, I worked 2-3 part-time jobs to pay for my tuition and living expenses. I chose occupations that frequently offered job openings, like food service (waitressing), retail (sales), and administrative (office work) so that I would have the experience likely to secure a job at any time. What kind of work are you doing now? Is it the kind of work you want to continue doing or is a bridge to get you to the next place? What is the highest salary available in your line of work? Is it acceptable to you? What steps can you take to grow your skillset?

Invest in learning a trade and earning professional certification. What are you interested in learning more about? Having a trade gives you an opportunity to work regardless of the economic situation. What are your natural aptitudes? What courses can you take at our local community college to become an expert in a trade and earn a certificate to evidence your credibility in that field?

Do the work required to make your dream a reality. Higher education, whether learning a trade, apprenticing a master, or earning a 4-year degree, is an investment of your time and money. Figure out what you want to do and how you will pay for it. Do a google search for things you want to learn about and learn from others who are doing what you want to do. We live in a time where virtually everything you want to know anything about is accessible. Don’t know where to start? Visit your local library and talk with a librarian about what interests you. Want to start your own business? Visit our local Haywood Community College Small Business Center to learn about programs available to support your entrepreneurial journey.

Define what you want from a big picture perspective. Write down what you want to achieve within the next three years. Where are you right now in relation to your goals? Write down only three of the next steps you need to take to move in the direction of your goal. There is scientific evidence available that proves how writing your goals down increases your odds of achieving them.

Promptly resolve debt. Debt can feel complicated. There are often feelings of shame associated with debt. However, it is critical not to allow those feelings to overwhelm you. I worked multiple jobs while juggling a full college courseload, but those jobs didn’t cover all expenses, so I took out college loans and applied for credit cards. Although I do not regret having an opportunity to build credit, I regret that I overextended myself by living outside of my means. Nevertheless, the most important step I took with my debt was developing a plan for working through it. Though it took several years to accomplish it, following the plan I created led me to pay off my college loans and credit card debt by the time I was 30 years old. By educating myself on how to use credit responsibly and living within my means, I transformed my lifestyle into a way of living that aligns with my values.

Spend less than you make. Oftentimes, it may feel that there just isn’t enough money coming in to pay for your lifestyle. If this is the case, you may want to consider reevaluating your spending habits. When you spend less than you make, you have money in savings. In fact, your emergency fund, or money you set aside in savings for the purpose of covering living expenses in the event you are unexpectedly unemployed, is priority number one. Credit cards are not an invitation to thoughtlessly spend money. In other words, just because you apply for a credit card, get approved, and have a limit of (for example) $10,000 does not mean that you should spend all of it (also known as maxing out your credit card). The rule of thumb is to not spend more than 30% of your available credit limit. Further, when using your credit card to make purchases, you should only spend what you are able to pay off in full every month.

Buy the house you can afford. When I bought my first house at age 25, I made several mistakes. First, I didn’t shop around for rates. Then, I took the preapproval letter right to my realtor without asking my mortgage banker what my payments might look like and whether I could afford such payments. Finally, the home warranty I bought turned out to be worthless. What do I wish someone had told me? First, shop around for rates. Second, the amount of your preapproval and the amount you give your realtor are two different matters altogether. Your preapproval amount represents what the bank is willing to lend to you: can you afford to make the payments on that amount? Have your mortgage banker run the payment amounts with and without escrows. Then, ask your mortgage banker to create a preapproval letter based on the amount you can actually afford. Your mortgage banker may get paid on the size of your loan and your realtor may make commission on the property you buy. However, at the end of the day, neither of those people will be responsible for the mortgage payment: you will. Finally, do your homework on companies that offer home warranties, especially if you are buying an older home. Ask them for a list of what they will cover, the process for initiating a claim, and their claim approval rate.

Save for your future. I delayed investing in the 401(k) offered by my employer because I didn’t understand how it worked. I missed out on two years of my employer matching my contributions (also known as free money) because of my ignorance. If you have access to retirement plan offered by your employer, take advantage of it. If you are self-employed, take the time to talk with a financial professional or tax professional about how you may be able to contribute to your retirement savings while also decreasing your taxable income (i.e., reducing your tax bill). If you are working part-time and have extra money to save but are ineligible to participate in the retirement plan offered by your employer, consider saving money in a Roth or Traditional IRA and take the time to learn about how they work via a search of those words at the website.

Identify the career you want and the education required to move into that career. Do not make the mistaking of going to college without an endgame in mind. Define one thing you want to accomplish by going to college, be it a trade or accolade. Yes, you may change your mind, but defining what you want to achieve is critical for making progress in that direction.

Know your worth. Research, understand, and ask for a salary commensurate with your experience and skillset. There was a period of time when I underestimated my value and accepted what people told me I was worth because I wanted the opportunity. This is a mistake that women often make. So, woman-to-woman, whether you are self-employed or working for an employer, I beg you: expect and demand to be paid what you know your work is worth.

As a woman now in her 40s, I have a healthy respect for where I was, where I am, and where I am going in my personal finance journey.

What would I say to that 20-something version of myself who felt anxious about her financial journey? Be confident. Your grit, tenacity, and fierce independence will not let you down. You are on the path to achieving your dreams. Keep doing what you are doing: focus on your goals and work through your plans. You are more than capable of achieving your dreams.

Empowering resources. To learn more, check out these resources.

  • Haywood County Small Business Center,  
  • Skill development. Online courses and programs to develop skills available via Haywood County Public Library, 
  • Buying a House. Tools and Resources for Homebuyers,
  • Credit and Debt Management. National Foundation for Credit Counseling, and Operation Hope
  • Check out to get an idea of what you can expect to earn in a variety of different jobs working for different companies.
  • Learn about retirement plans.

Wendolyn Forbes is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ with Wealth Transition Finance, A Member of Advisory Services Network, LLC, where she offers financial planning and investment management services for either a one-time or on-going cost. Wendolyn is a fee-only financial planner and member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). For more information about Wendolyn’s financial services practice, please visit her website at

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and federally registered CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

This material is provided as a courtesy and for educational purposes only.  Please consult your investment professional, legal or tax advisor for specific information pertaining to your situation.

This article contains links to articles or other information on third-party websites. Advisory Services Network, LLC is not responsible for and does not control, adopt, or endorse any content contained on any third-party website.

 Originally published in the March 23, 2023 issue of Rumble by Smoky Mountain News, found here