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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Invest in yourself
- Track and reduce expenses
- Avoid bad debt
- Learn about the stock market and get investing
- Have a plan…
- … 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