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The One Piece of Financial Advice I’d Give 18 Year-Old Me

Kate and I have a young family member who’s considering her next major steps in life. Over dinner on Saturday night I told Kate about my plans to sit this family member down and lecture her at great length about how to not commit the financial felonies that pockmark my adulthood. It’s going to be called “Mark’s Scared Straight Financial Program for Financially At-Risk Youth.”

(Note the awkward repeated use of “Financial.” I’m still dialing in the name.)

Truth is, I don’t plan to lecture this young family member, but I will mention a few of my dumber moves, letting her know she’ll be much happier if she doesn’t follow in those particular footsteps. It actually got me thinking about what I would say to myself at age 18 if we had the opportunity to chat.

If I could give 18 year-old me just one paragraph of financial advice, this would be it:

“Do work you enjoy within biking distance of your home. Maximize your income, but always subject the desire for higher earnings to your mental, physical, and emotional health. Consume much less than seems “normal.” Save 30 to 50 cents of every dollar you earn, pursuing a reasonable return while protecting your principal. Never borrow money, except to buy a small home whose payment will not impair your ability to save 30 to 50 cents of every dollar you earn.”

Considering my successes and failures during my fifteen years as a “grownup”, following this one paragraph of advice would have allowed me to enjoy the best parts of my financial life without experiencing the worst.

The advice answers only a few questions while raising many, many more. I came up with seven:

1. What work would I enjoy and allow me to bike commute?
2. How can I pursue higher income without risking my mental, physical, and emotional health?
3. For that matter, what makes me mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy?
4. What is “normal” consumption, and how can I stay well beneath it?
5. What is a “reasonable” return on my money, and how can I achieve it while protecting my principal?
6. What do you mean, never borrow money? What about school? What about a car?
7. What is a “small” home and how much will it cost?

I’ll pass the advice along to my young family member, and hopefully the questions it sparks will help her find clarity about her finances.

Fortunately for all of us, we can start pursuing this ideal (or whatever version of it suits us) regardless of our age or present circumstances. It’s never too late to point your life in a happier direction.

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The One Piece of Financial Advice I’d Give 18 Year-Old Me