Your Money: A Bootcamp for 20-Somethings

It’s time to organize your money.

Maybe you’re a 20-something struggling to make ends meet, or maybe you’re moving into a job that’s finally giving you financial stability. But no matter your situation, what everyone has in common is the desire to make the best financial decisions.

This week, we’re going to help you get started.

It would be nice if there was a comprehensive course that prepared us for this important aspect of our lives—something like Financial Adulting in American Capitalism. But we often fail to figure it out on our own. How do you cover your expenses on an entry-level salary? Should you be focusing on paying off student loans instead of saving for retirement? What kind of health insurance do you need – and how much should it cost?

Our five-day financial bootcamp will help you digest all these big issues. Each day, we’ll ask you to complete a small task that will lead you in the right direction. (Today’s action item will appear at the end of this note.)

Your guide will be Ron Leiber, Your Money columnist. Tara Siegel Bernard, a financial reporter; and Mike Dong, Personal Finance Editor. We have more than half a century of experience writing and thinking deeply about these topics.

And we all survived our twenties.

  • Think about the aspects of your financial life that give you the most anxiety and the ones that give you the most hope. Write them all down and make a list of things you want to improve or improve. (And it’s totally okay if you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start; that’s where we come in. We’ll give you tons of ideas along the way.)

  • Make sure you have a copy of your paycheck handy, and then list all your active financial accounts, along with their usernames and passwords. These may include: checking, savings and other bank accounts; All student loan related accounts; budget apps; 401(k) and individual retirement accounts; and health insurance.

  • Do you have a question about money that you want answered? Ask us here.

Before we dive in, we want to share a glimpse of what our 20s were like for us.

When I was in my early 20s, I had just finished a graduate degree in journalism and was working as a researcher and fact-checker for less than $30,000 a year when the U.S. housing market crashed and The Great Depression began. I had about $70,000 in student loans, which I started trying to pay off while also helping my immigrant parents with some of their bills. So many people were suddenly losing their jobs and homes – it felt like a dark and scary time.

I didn’t know much about money, but I wanted to learn. I wanted to make smart decisions but I also wanted to feel like I could make a few financial mistakes every now and then without beating myself up about it. I took a few trips that I couldn’t afford on credit cards, reasoning that I had to live a little while I was young and uncoordinated. This was also the time when Suze Orman, one of the biggest names in financial media, had a television show where she told people whether or not they could afford the things they wanted. I had nightmares in which she was screaming at me that she wanted something that wasn’t food or shelter.

How do you save for retirement when you’re trying to pay your monthly bills, get rid of your student loans, and support your parents? That’s the kind of question I asked myself, and finally answered, when I was 20 and reading a newsletter like this one.

When I think back on my first decade of work, from 1993 to 2003, I feel mostly grateful.

I made a fortune on cheap rent—$260 for the second largest room in a five-bedroom house in Somerville, Mass., and then about $600 for my share of a perfectly nice two-bedroom in Brooklyn, discounted because It was on a high road. Less than a block from the jail.

I made a fortune in 1994 with an employer, Time Inc., with a 401(k) plan and matching contributions. There, I had the good fortune to meet a colleague on a Saturday afternoon when we were alone in the office. Feeling conversational, he showed me his 401(k) statement — six figures — and urged me to join the program.

I was blessed with a father who was an Army veteran and a customer of USAA, a bank that primarily serves US military members. Bank magazine hidden The first graph I ever saw showed the power of compound interest. Start young and save as much as you reasonably can, he suggests. I did it.

I lucked into a college with generous financial aid. I graduated with $8,000 in student loan debt and was able to afford the repayments, even on a journalist’s salary in New York.

The skills will come later, but I don’t give myself too much credit for the book learning I’ve achieved, much of it is on the job. It was also kind of fortunate that he was able to work in places where experts would pick up the phone and talk to me.

“Try to be lucky” isn’t particularly useful advice, but it’s more important than many skilled people realize.

Take a trip back with me to the late 90s in New York. Bill Clinton was president, Rudy Giuliani was mayor and I landed my first job out of college — as a reporting assistant — for about $32,000 a year. Dot com stocks were all the rage.

The real estate market was on fire, or at least it felt like it when I was trying to rent an apartment in Manhattan myself. You had to show up to bustling open houses, checkbook in hand, to cover your credit report and deposit. I finally landed on a teeny, rent-stabilized studio in the West Village for $877 a month.

I remember writing down my monthly expenses on a notepad, trying to figure out how I was going to do it all on my take-home pay. I probably saved enough to get a 401(k) match, but not much.

There wasn’t a ton of wiggle room anyway, and big expenses — a laptop, vacations — sometimes ended up on my credit card. It didn’t feel frivolous, but it didn’t feel good either. Those days served as some of my basic money lessons.

I’m not sure how much I would change about my 20s, even if I could. But I wish I’d been able to look a little further past that particular moment — maybe even take a few more financial risks.

Tuesday: Meet yourself where you are: Whether you’re a student, looking for a job or working, we’ve got some tips for you.

Wednesday: Budget for Haters: A budget is a statement of values. Once you see them that way, examining how you spend becomes a kind of central practice.

Thursday: Debt Management: How to Think About Paying Off Debt (Without Shame)

Friday: Thinking about the future: Savings, retirement and coming up with reasonable goals.

Looking for the next episodes? Day 2 is here, Day 3 is here, Day 4 is here and Day 5 is here.

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