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Building Wealth in my 20s: Successes and Failures

A look back at my 20s, considering the things I did (or wish that I did!) to start myself off on the journey of building wealth.


image by WikiImages from Pixabay

 

For most people, your 20s are a period of huge change.

You’re probably either going to university or starting your first full time job (or both!).

Moving away from your parents.

Meeting a large group of people, possibly for the first time since you changed schools at 11-12 years old.

And amongst all this change, you’re supposed to be making decisions to set yourself up for the rest of your life. That’s a lot of pressure!

I was prompted by this post on r/UKPersonalFinance to think about my own 20s and reflect on what I did right, and what I might change if I could go back.

 

Education

Choosing to go to university to study a STEM subject, and then subsequently staying on to do a PhD, has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on where I’ve ended up.

Obviously university isn’t for everyone. Tuition fees are now £9,250 per year, and may well increase again in the future. There is growing debate on how well universities prepare students for work, and whether that should even be their purpose.

From my own experience, university gave me the skills and qualifications that got me to where I am now. Before university, I was earning minimum wage in call centres and retail. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with these careers, but they weren’t for me. Now, I earn a respectable mid-£30K per year. I appreciate that’s (far) less than a lot of the big earners in the FIRE community. But let’s not forget that this is still above the UK median wage (approximately £30K) with room to grow.

But even if you decide not to go to university, that doesn’t mean that you should stop learning, stop investing in yourself, or stop striving. As one example, Mr FU over at FIUKmoney has encouraged his children to pursue an apprenticeship rather than university.

The takeaway here is to invest in yourself. The more you can increase your earning power, the more you can reap the rewards over your lifetime.

 

Reduce expenses and avoid bad debt

Shared accommodation

During the first year of my PhD, I suddenly felt awash with cash. A £13,000 annual stipend doesn’t sound like much, but it feels great after living on the meagre student loan! (Which I think, at the time, was about £3,500 per year).

On the transition from undergrad to postgrad life, most of my friends started new jobs and moved away from the city. Rather than share a house with strangers, I opted to live by myself. The independence was great. But it was very expensive. I was unable to save much money after rent, bills, and just generally living.

Thankfully, I made friends throughout that year. Once my contract ran out, I moved in with them. My rent more than halved, from £500 to £230 per month. Bills dropped even more so. I suddenly had more money for savings, and also didn’t have to worry about making my money last as pay day approached.

 

Debt

I’ve avoided “bad” debt, but haven’t shied away from “good debt.”

The obvious example is student loans. In the UK, they really aren’t that bad. I attended university during the brief era of £3,000 tuition fees. Taking a student loan enabled me to attend university. The final amount on graduation was around ~£25,000. In return, I only pay ~£90-100 per month. Even better, the remaining balance will get wiped out 25 years after graduating. This is why I have no intention of making overpayments on my student loan.

Another example is that I was in my overdraft for most of my undergrad and PhD, and even for a few years afterwards…. But the only reason that I didn’t pay it off sooner was that it was a student account with a fee-free overdraft. Luckily for me, my bank didn’t change my account for a few years after I graduated. Instead, I stuck the money in whatever high-interest accounts I could find.

Otherwise, I have avoided debt. No credit card debt. No loans, be they pay-day, bank loans, car financing, etc. This meant that any money I saved was mine to keep!

 

Take an interest in money

Track my expenses

I got in the habit of tracking my expenses from a very early age. It’s a habit that has since grown over time. At first, I just tracked it but didn’t do anything with that information; as long as I spent roughly less than £x per month, I was happy. Fast forward a few years, and I started to monitor expenses in greater detail. This allowed me to forecast expenditure, or to reign it in if something gets out of hand.

 

Investing

There was a time when I was all about searching for the best interest rates. I remember switching my cash ISA every year to maximise my gains. (Let’s ignore that interest rates, whilst better than they are now, were still paltry).

Unfortunately, it took me a long time to progress past that stage. I only started to learn about investing in my very late 20s, in 2017/18. Think of all those missed years of growth! I had built up enough of an emergency fund a few years prior. My savings each month from that point continued to go into a crappy savings account and when instead they could’ve been put to work in the stock market.

 

Travel / work abroad

Admittedly, this isn’t strictly necessary for building wealth. But life is all about the journey, not the destination.

Following my PhD, I had the opportunity to work abroad for several years. I cannot recommend it enough if a similar opportunity presents itself to you.

Although my PhD was difficult, it was all in an environment that I understood and was familiar to me. Moving to a foreign country, completely by myself, brought about a new level of independence.

Living on the other side of the world from your friends and family forces you to adapt. You encounter a completely different range of problems. But you also meet a whole new diverse group of people and encounter a whole new range of experiences.

If nothing else, travelling to a foreign exotic country is suddenly much cheaper when you already live nearby! For example; as a Brit, I take Europe for granted and have been on holiday there multiple times throughout my childhood (thank you, mum and dad). But a holiday to Thailand, or Canada, or South Africa, is a much more difficult prospect. But if you move to Japan, NYC, or South Africa to work for a few years, these places become much more accessible. That’s probably not reason enough to move and work overseas, but it is certainly icing on the cake.

 

Have a plan (?)

As I write this, I don’t know if I can claim to have followed this point completely successfully.

In some respects, I have more or less just followed the path of least resistance. I didn’t plan to do a PhD, for example. The opportunity to apply presented itself, and I took it.

However, I can’t argue that, when I started my PhD, I did it with a goal to use it to work away from the UK. Which, as mentioned above, ultimately came true.

In many ways, following the path of least resistance has worked out; I earn enough money, have met my best friend and wife, and am enjoying life for the most part… but I’m now approaching a crossroads. There are no obvious paths to take. I’m faced with the prospect of having to sit down and actually think about where I want to go next.

Ultimately, my main point here is twofold. I think it’s important to have a plan. But it’s also important to be flexible.

 

In summary

As it turns out, there isn’t much that I would personally change! I’m not necessarily intending to stay in my current career, but I don’t regret the decisions that have brought me to where I am. The biggest thing I would consider change is to start investing in the stock market a few years earlier.

To summarise the key points of this post:

  1. Invest in yourself
  2. Track and reduce expenses
  3. Avoid bad debt
  4. Learn about the stock market and get investing
  5. Have a plan…
  6. … but also stay flexible and open to new opportunities

Of course, none of this is exclusive to your 20s. It’s never too late to start any of these steps. As I said above, I am debating a career change. I intend to keep learning and expanding my qualifications to improve my chances of making the jump successfully.

 

Over to you

If you’re a younger reader, what steps are you taking to start building wealth?

For those with a little more life experience, what do you wish you had done earlier, or differently? Or what did you do then that has set you up for success now?

Thanks for reading

 

12 replies on “Building Wealth in my 20s: Successes and Failures”

Great post Dr. FIRE! As someone who’s in my 20’s now, this post resonated with me. I think we both ended up way ahead by going into STEM and really set ourselves up for success long term. Man am I jealous of your university tuition rates! The cost of college just keeps going up over here in the US. My “exotic” location to study aboard in college was Limerick, Ireland, but I hope to work abroad one day like you did.

Hi Jordan, glad you enjoyed the post and that it was relevant for you.

I definitely do not envy US student loans! Thankfully the UK is much more reasonable.

I think even studying abroad is a fantastic opportunity. Actually, maybe that is one regret I should add to this above article; my university offered the chance to spend your third year (of four) studying in a foreign university. In hindsight, I should have been all over that. I don’t think it would have made a huge difference in the long run, but I do think it would have increased my confidence going into the PhD.

I guess I am youngish as I am currently in my mid 20’s.

Some of the stuff that I’m thankful for or have started early:
* Strong relationships with friends/family
* Travel with friends
* Understanding of money, its uses and how to grow it (but not investing so much as of current)
* Diet and exercise (although consistent, I would like this to be even stronger)

Some of the things I’m aiming to improve or start:
* Investing more in Index Funds. It’s complicated given my background (citizenship) but I have been putting this off for too long
* Control health issues
* Develop and start more relationships in hop of finding a partner
* Possibly switch profession to something I care more about but I don’t get that much satisfaction work anyway/

Hi there, thanks for commenting.

Sounds like you have a pretty good foundation from which to build the next steps of your life upon. Excellent point regarding having strong relationships with friends and family. It can be easy to lose sight of that in the pursuit of more money!

My wife has a similar issue regarding investing. My brief research has indicated that she can invest in pensions without any problems, as there are pension agreements in place between the US and UK. Annoyingly, ISAs aren’t recognised by the US. Even more annoyingly, I don’t think she can easily invest in non-US companies either! Hopefully you can figure something out soon enough.

All the best!

Really enjoyed reading this (in my mid-20s now!)
What has influenced you along the way? Specifically what you read or saw before becoming fully involved in FIRE?
J

Hi J, thanks for commenting.

I think I was made aware of FIRE by just lurking on the UK Personal Finance subreddit. I kept on seeing references to investing and financial independence, which made me curious to learn more. I eventually stumbled across a few FIRE blogs, notably The FIRE Starter and Quietly Saving and through them many other blogs as well, especially Monevator. They all pushed me towards saving more and investing for the future.

As for more general influences… Videogames were a big one as a child! I think they helped to make me competitive and to be quite systematic. Friends also influence me; talking to them about their ambitions or what they have accomplished recently can help to inspire me. Reading, be it books, blogs, news, all have an impact. You can see the articles that are influencing me in real time on the Favourite Articles page!

Oh, nice. I haven’t actually been on the UK PF subreddit in a while. I shall go and check it out again.

I feel like as and when people do stumble across FIRE blogs, it is quite a high hit rate. The pure notion is something that almost everybody will aspire to, whether they have the willpower to see it through…

I’m going to check out your influenced articles, cheers!

Congrats on your PhD! That is a huge accomplishment! It is exciting to hear you took the opportunity to live abroad. I am currently doing that and am based out of Cambodia. You are so correct that living in a country provides a level of independence and self sufficiency that you just do not gain by staying in your comfort zone. Plus, the access to surrounding new countries is amazing! It’s much cheaper to catch a flight for the weekend when you are one country over v.s. when you have to request time off work and travel halfway around the world.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia for almost a year now and I really want to visit a few more countries out this way just because I know it will be so much harder once I return to the states!

Thank you Kat!

It’s funny; when you do a PhD, unsurprisingly, many of your friends and colleagues are also doing, or already have, a PhD. So it’s easy to take it for granted at times!

I haven’t been to Cambodia, but I did visit nearby Vietnam whilst I was living out that way. It was a really cool place. Even though I’m now back in the UK, it’s easy to daydream about moving back to an exotic country like that for a year or two!

This is a great summary. It also took me a while to start investing, I actually started at age 25. I sometimes imagine where I’d be now if I’d started at 18 – but compared to many others, mid or late 20s is still a very good starting point and will help us a lot years down the line.

Thank you Kathrin. Agreed, mid/late 20s is far better than leaving it for another 10 years. One thing I have to remind myself is, even if I had started investing earlier, I didn’t have a lot of spare cash to invest anyway. So my gains wouldn’t have been huge in the grand scheme of things!

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