When we’re teenagers, we all make a number of mistakes as we’re figuring out how to transition from childhood to adulthood, and money mistakes are definitely among them. While I wouldn’t change much from my teen and young adult years, there are definitely some financial mistakes I would have loved to avoid – though the lessons learned weren’t all bad.

When I turned thirty last month, I wrote out my thirty financial successes that had gotten me to this point in life, but I promised I would follow that post up with the flip side of that coin – the financial mistakes that also happened along the way.

Unlike some financial bloggers, I won’t tell you that I bought a fancy new car out of college or racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt, because I didn’t (my parents would only pay a portion of my college tuition if I didn’t open a credit card – though I’d like to think I would have been responsible and not ended up in that hole regardless). Even so, there are plenty of missteps and lost opportunities that I kick myself about from time to time.

I tend to focus on the positives because I believe it’s important to focus on the successes and good things in your life, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had plenty screw ups. In order to be real and transparent on this blog, I wanted to share my financial missteps over the years, because there have been plenty. If I could go back in time and let my 15 year old self know what mistakes to avoid, though, they would be these.

Copy of Friday’s Frugal Five

1. Not setting up at Roth IRA in my teens.

Even $10/week would have some serious returns in 15 years. Using the Bank Rate ROI Calculator, that $10/week from age 15 to 30 would now be worth somewhere around $12,443 based on just a 7% rate of return. Alas, I did not set one up so I do not have an additional $12,000 in my Roth accounts.

2. Spending most of what I earned through age 21.

I earned a bit of money through middle and high school, and I had temporary jobs during my college summers. While they didn’t make me a ton of money (and I did use that income to cover my books / sorority fees / random expenses during college), I didn’t save nearly as much of what I made as I could have. While this probably wasn’t a huge number in the scheme of things, since I did at least cash flow the college incidentals instead of rolling them into my student loans, I would have done better to invest even a small fraction of that money.

3. Buying a car at 19.

I did buy it in cash for $3,500, but I really didn’t need a car in college and could have held off until moving to South Carolina after graduation, so this was two years of car ownership that I really didn’t need. Between repairs and maintenance and gas, this cost me at least another $5,000 on top of the cost of the car itself. Granted, that car lasted me 7.5 years and a trip across the country and back, so maybe this one isn’t fair to be listed here.

4. Accepting the first job I found to supplement my post college internship. 

When I made the decision to move across the country after graduation to be with my now husband, I luckily had gotten hired as a naturalist intern before I made the move, but it paid very little and was a temporary position. In order to afford rent and my student loan minimums, I needed to pick up a weekend job as well.

As this was 2009 and I was now living in a small town, job opportunities were few and far between. Feeling pressured, I took the first job offered. While working at Petsmart was by no means terrible, it paid just $8.50/hour. Looking back now, I’m almost certain I could have continued applying to jobs and found something with better pay. I only expected to be in the area for a year, so I didn’t make the effort, but it definitely cost me.

I’m also a sucker and shouldn’t work where animals are up for adoption, because I bring them home

5. Not refinancing my student loans. 

The interest rate on my student loans was 8.5%. It goes without saying I paid thousands of dollars and interest over what I could have had I refinanced them to a lower rate.

6. Never negotiating a starting salary. 

Again, starting my career during the Great Recession where job opportunities were scarce meant that I felt I could never negotiate a starting salary. Women are also much less likely to negotiate a salary, and I have to admit some of this apprehension factored in as well.

7. Letting off the gas once my student loans were paid off. 

I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but honestly this feels like one of my biggest financial mistakes. I did an incredible job of paying off close to $30,000 of student loan‘s in 3 1/2 years on a much lower salary and I have today. If I had kept up that momentum afterward, we would have a LOT more saved by now. I try not to beat myself up too much here, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve left tens of thousands of dollars on the table by easing up after my loans were paid off.

8. Barely contributing to an IRA.

My park ranger job is the only one I’ve had that offered any form of retirement account. I did contribute to that one, but because it was a lower paying job and I only worked it full-time for one summer, the total amount saved in that retirement account was not huge.

My current company has no 401(k), and I have been really lax about sending money to my IRA account. Tax reduction was a little bit of a motivator, but it was always too little, too late for the year. That and the money was sent to Edward Jones for far too many years. At least I now finally have a Vanguard account set up.

9. Succumbing to lifestyle inflation.

This one goes hand-in-hand with letting up after paying off my student loans. Once I didn’t have the direct incentive of avoiding high interest, I let myself feel like we had a ton more play money. I don’t necessarily have an issue spending more money than the absolute bare necessities, but I can honestly say a lot of that inflation was on things that didn’t really give us near the value that they cost. Since starting the no spend month back in November, we have slashed our expenses like crazy, but I don’t feel like we are any less happy. If anything, there is more contentment in reducing our needs and a definite satisfaction with the amount of money we are now able to divert to savings.

Hanging out at the beach doesn’t cost a thing

10. Not taking full advantage of my time before I had a kid.

Before we became parents, we honestly had so much time available in our days. Time that we could have used to cook more meals, do more car repairs ourselves, and generally find frugal analogs to many of our day to day expenses.

This also means we had more time to put into our careers, and me to my side hustle. Even an extra 10 hours a week could have been used more productively. I’ve never been a huge television watcher, but the hours I did watch could have been used to earn more income or reduce expenses.

Honestly, we felt so busy most of the time, but we had much more of it to ourselves than we realized. This is not to lessen the busy lives of people without children, but a reflection of our personal experience.

11. Spending way too much money in the first year of my son’s life.

The first year of being a parent was honestly pretty overwhelming for both of us. Adjusting to our new normal took a lot of effort – much more than we anticipated – so we spent quite a bit of money making life easier. This includes ordering things off Amazon, getting a lot of take out, and buying doubles of things so they wouldn’t get left at the wrong house (one of the very few downsides of having so much family support). I don’t regret spending extra money that first year because it really did make life easier.

Once we adjusted to life with a child though, we had also adjusted to all the little lifestyle inflations that had come with it. We ordered dinner out multiple times a week, I bought coffee and lunch almost every work day, and we went out to eat every weekend.

But he sure was tiny and cute

Life has settled down but we also just excepted the extra spending that went with it. If I were to do it over again, I would have filled our freezer with tons of premade dinners, and I would have jumped headfirst into mom meet ups instead of spending money at coffee shops and stores just to get out of the house. Once we got into the habit of spending so freely, it was a very, very hard habit to break. Even now, it is so easy to slip into our old standby of spending way too much money on food and drink. It would have been much better to have been more prepared and not go down that rabbit hole to begin with. But, like everyone always says, you can never be fully ready for kids.

12. Not purchasing a rental in the bottom of the housing market. 

Buying our house in 2011 in the very bottom of the Seattle housing market was one of the best financial decisions we’ve made thus far. We were not in a position to buy another property right away, but we likely could have a year or two later. There were condos selling in our area for $60,00-$80,000 that would have been an absolute steal had we bought one then. Even if we decided we didn’t want to be property managers ourselves, we could have sold it now for some serious profit.

At the point properties come down significantly again, I’d love to get the chance to purchase a rental (I think). Though I doubt we will see quite the opportunities we did in this past downturn because of the combination of low prices and the lowest ever historical interest rates.

What I won’t call mistakes – but definitely cost me money:

1. Choosing to finish high school instead of getting my associate’s degree.

My younger siblings choose to do what is called Running Start around here for their junior and senior years of high school, and they graduated high school with a dual AA degree. The cost has gone up a bit since we were in school, but in Washington State you can now be reimbursed up to $7,459.38 for the 2017-2018 school year.

I took the more traditional route and stayed at my high school the entire time, and while I did pass 7 Advanced Placement classes, I had to take three years to graduate instead of just two. While this is still ahead of most, it definitely cost me considerably more than if I’d cut out another year. I can’t fully regret this though, because I was able to experience a real freshman year at college, I joined a sorority, played on the varsity softball team, and all around had a very full college experience. Had I come in as a transfer student and a junior, I would have missed out on much of what made my college years so wonderful.

2. I chose a private liberal arts college to attend instead of an in state school.

I probably could have graduated close to debt free had I chosen a public, in state school. However, I would never have played softball or joined a sorority, or gotten all of the positive experiences a very small school (and very small class sizes) provided for me. Had I graduated with $50,000 – $80,000 of student loan debt like many of my peers, I probably would feel differently, but since I kept things reasonable, I’m very glad I went to the school that I did.

3. Not picking a high earning career (not a doctor, lawyer, tech, engineer)

Some of these careers start out with a higher entry salary than I do now, most of a decade into my job. However, I also love my job and don’t plan to quit once I hit financial independence – something that many of these high earning careers seem to be missing. I’d rather enjoy my 20s and 30s in a career that I find fulfilling and meaningful, rather than waiting until I retire early for my life to start.

4. Getting pregnant at 26.

Pretty obviously, having a child is expensive, no matter what way you look at it. Getting pregnant in my mid-20s has seriously impacted my career and life – but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love that my son has such a strong bond with his grandmothers and great grandmother, and that they are all healthy and able to care for him every week. If we waited another 10 years, that may not be true. Plus, we’ll be empty nesters at 45, which is pretty freaking awesome, if you ask me.

Hanging with his great grandma

5. Cutting back my hours

Like #4, cutting back my hours to spend more time with my son has a very high cost to our net worth and total earning potential – more than any one of the mistakes I’ve listed above. It is also one I have not regretted one day since I made the switch.

It may be a little frustrating looking at my mistakes over the years, but I realize we’ve mostly made some really right decisions. The fact that our incomes are not in the six figures and we can’t turn around our spending and reach FI in 3 years sometimes feels like we’re being left behind, but I don’t regret the big choices we’ve made, because they make up the life we have.


62 thoughts on “Letter To My Fifteen Year Old Self: Financial Mistakes To Avoid

  1. I too wish I started a Roth IRA in my teens. What frustrates me the most about this is my grandparents had me sit down with a mutual fund advisor (really, a salesman) to set up a mutual fund account – and IRAs, Roth or otherwise, were never mentioned. I’m pretty sure Roth IRAs were around then (it looks like they began in 1997) but I know traditional IRAs have been around longer than me.

    1. Well, better than no savings account set up at all, right? But I really only figured out in the last couple years how much mutual fund advisors are sales people. Frustrating realizing how poor those returns are because of it.

  2. I spent most of what I earned through 30 :(. But hey, you live you learn, right? I was lucky to have a job with a good 401K, so at least I was putting a small bit away there while spending everything else haha.

    Thanks for being so candid with the mistakes that you made, hopefully some of the younger folks looking for FI will learn from them!

    1. That’s the beauty of the 401k – even if you spend every dollar you actually see, you’re still putting something away for the future.

  3. I love this post of so much you have no idea! Some of these sounds more like learning curves than mistakes, as in the end they made you wiser. I also wish we started saving up early in invested in our retirement fund, but I find that it’s better to take it one step at a time. Both my partner and I are still in school and living on peanuts, but I often think we could be doing better and saving even more! Thank you for sharing your experiences, I really enjoyed this post. Also, how cute is the little fella!!!

    1. Oh thank you!! It is definitely hard to save while in school but it can give you some really great frugal skills – as long as you keep them up once you get a job! That’s the tricky part 😉

  4. I went through some of these same mistakes like you especially not contributing to an IRA. I had IRA account just sitting there for like over 10 years @ only $2K from my old workplace. It was at Citibank with no contributions and paying annual fees of $50. I finally took action around 3-4 years ago and rolled it over to Fidelity and now maxing it out contributions. But what could have been, I would had more in there if I contributed immediately, like close to six figures by now. Oh well, better late than never!

    1. Ouch. $50 annual fees!! That took like a quarter of what you had in there 😫 But really, there’s only so much value looking back at your mistakes. Great if you learn from them, not so much if you just beat yourself up about it.

  5. Good article. Not taking the first job offered is a good and making sure to negotiate your salary are important tips, especially for introverts. Introverts can get exhausted by the interview process and dread having to do it all over again. Try to take some days to recharge before making a decision to take the job. You can face another round of interviews after a break. Negotiating can be tough for anyone but can be especially distressing for an introvert. To reduce anxiety, we can look for strategies to prepare for the salary negotiation before it happens and practice articulating.

    Some blogger who is focused on introverts and personal finance and career success should take the time to write about these two topics on his blog. If only there was such a person and he could discipline himself to do it.

    In the meantime, thank you for writing these important lessons for others to learn from your experiences.

    1. I’m actually an extrovert, so I don’t mind interviews at all – I actually *mostly* enjoyed them because it gave me a chance to really pitch myself. I realize I’m in the minority of personal finance bloggers though for sure!

      1. I believe we’re not mentally trained to really negotiate salary, especially women. It takes practice as well. If I were looking for a new job I’d review the methods Ramit Sethi teaches at I Will Teach You to be Rich.

        I think you were wise to start your family in your 20s. Mr. G and I discussed kids but married in our 40s and decided against it.

      2. It’s harder in some ways to start earlier, but completely worth it in my opinion. We just lucked out that we found each other so young.

  6. So while it’s a bit of a bummer that you could buy a rental property at the bottom of the market, you bought you home in Seattle in 2011!! SCORE!! That alone gives you a great real estate foundation – and now you can build from there with all that equity and appreciation.

    1. Serious score. We don’t plan to move, but our 3 bedroom house costs less than a one bedroom apartment now (plus we have a roommate that lowers the cost even more).

  7. These are some great lessons! Many of the Financial mistakes I can relate to (hello Roth IRA & lifestyle inflation) while others I’m sure I’ll have to deal with later (kids).

    I’d like to think your son will avoid making most of these mistakes with you being there to guide him 🙂

    1. I hope so! I grew up with a fantastic financial education from my parents, but somehow they forgot abort the magic that is the Roth IRA.

      1. Haha awesome. I wonder what it is that makes people forget about the Roth.

  8. Wow, TLRE. This post really resonated with me. Like you, I didn’t make gigantic mistakes. I just made a lot of little mistakes over the course of two decades. But the effects of those little mistakes over two decades really left me in a financial hole. If it weren’t for Mrs. G and geoarbitrage, I’d still be floundering. Anyway, I won’t bore you with my numerous mistakes. I’ll just share one. In my 20s and 30s, I easily spent a $100 a week in bars. If I would have just cut out half the bar pies and PBRs and invested the difference, I would have easily accumulated $150K over those two decades. Doh!

    1. It’s definitely frustrating when there isn’t just one big “mistake” to point at – just a thousand little cuts. Especially when you extrapolate that into a decade or two, those seemingly little things really add up. Maybe that’s why I love writing my weekly “Frugal Five” so much – the realization that the little stuff really matters.

  9. Awww – I love it when you mention your kiddo. It’s personal and financial sacrifices at this stage in life, but, there’s a quote I always remember, “they’re only little for so long”

    So enjoy these fine moments – they’ll push us away soon enough and we’ll have plenty more time to work on side hustles, invest and be frugal…all which you are setting good standards…for him to someday tread lightly and retire early too!

    1. Exactly true. Except… I’d originally planned to step back up to full time when he went to school (in 2.5 more years), but now I’m realizing the beauty of a reduced schedule and I’m going to hang onto it for dear life 😊

  10. Another mistake I see people making is deferring loans by continuing with higher education.

    Yes, your loans can be deferred while you’re working on a graduate or doctorate degree, but they are still incurring interest, and you’re probably taking out new loans for the higher degree, which just adds to your overall debt.

    So not worth it unless you have a very specific career plan that requires a higher degree. This post is very much helpful and a lot of students didn’t know where they are getting themselves into and then regret it afterwards.

    Hopefully more students would be able to reach this post for them to be reminded. Thank you for sharing this list!

    1. Yeah – deferring my loans didn’t even occur to me at the time, but looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t think of that option (though I’m sure glad I didn’t because it wouldn’t have helped any in the long run!)

  11. Ah, everyone has so many small mistakes, but at least you didn’t spend the next three decades on that path. I’m super curious about your job…green/efficient homes? What aspect do you cover?

    1. Very true. And we were saving over all of those years, even if some years it was very small amounts. I’m our company’s LEED AP, so the one who makes sure all the green stuff actually happens 😉 plus a whole bunch of other duties because it’s a small group.

  12. As Mr. Groovy said, these are really small mistakes and I made many of them myself. Just the fact that you’re only 30 and committed to being financially healthy – including running a great blog about it – will guarantee your success. Keep it up!

    1. Thank you! I have to remind myself that I am “only” 30, and in general, that’s still super young for tackling finances – just hard sometimes reading about certain folks who’ve set themselves up to retire in their early 30s 😉

  13. I’m loving the trend lately of bloggers revealing their financial mistakes. I was seeing lots of comments on viewers ‘feeling discouraged or like they’re so far behind they couldnt….’ I get that there’ll always be people that feel that way. Even some that hide behind that rather than do something about it. But I also think it’s good to see personal finance is a winding path.

    I’ve made plenty of financial mistake. Rather than naming some from the past, here’s a current one: I spent 3K on road trips last year. Yikes! I love road trips; we don’t own a car so we rent one. Which still works out cheaper. Anyhow, even though we saved plenty, I still feel this is high for the return. So now I’m looking at not repeating that mistake this year.

    1. I’m all for spending money on travel (we definitely spent more than $3k in total last year). Honestly, if you don’t have a car, you’ve still come out ahead by renting one at that cost. But perhaps you could look at train trips, or destinations that don’t require a car at one end? I bet there are lots of options for the same value this year 😊

      1. Road trips are ‘bonus’ weekend trips for fun or seeing family. If that was all we spent, I’d have no issue. But we also took a 2 week trip to Europe! Mostly though, I simply think I can optimize that ‘bonus weekend getaway/family’ bucket better. That’s all.

        Yes I was thinking train or bus trips to locations we don’t normally consider!

      2. Ah, gotcha! We do a ton of the weekend trip kind of thing as well – vacation only once or twice a year just isn’t enough time to explore 😉

  14. As I read it, your family is going to reach financial independence at the perfect time for you both. And that perfect time is undefined right now…I honestly believe that you are in such a great position because you are enjoying every day of your life right now with your career and family. Most dream of FIRE because they generally want to be out of a job/life they don’t currently enjoy. You seem to be on the other side where you do have a job and life that you love, so there is no additional pressure to rush FIRE, and that is AWESOME!!!

    There is definitely an external pressure to FIRE, especially when you read stories of those who somehow do it before 30. As long as you’re enjoying your life and your financial principles are in place, then you will reach financial independence when it is the right time for you:)

    1. Exactly true – the outside pressure from stories who reached FI crazy early definitely has an impact on how I feel about our position. But yeah, I don’t see life changing significantly between now and 45 anyway, which is when our son will graduate high school. But never a bad thing to be extra prepared for just in case 😊

  15. Heyo, numbers 4 and 6!

    I love that you included things you wouldn’t change, especially the choices that have led to so much quality family time! 🙂 Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew at the time while making those choices that say, the tradeoff of less time at work and therefore less money, would be so worth it?

    1. 4 and 6… yeah. At least we know we’re not alone!! And I’m finding as I get older / once I became a mom that time wins out over more money again and again.

  16. Great letter. All of the mistakes you mentioned, seems like they made you good memories too. If i were in your shoes, i wont let myself make these mistakes again, except afew like not negotiating your salary, buying alot of stuff in the first year of your son and suerly i would buy a rental property by mortgaging or something. Still great moves. Fair seas

    1. Thank you! I’d agree that there’s not one big giant mistake that I really beat myself up about, so I’m generally not *too* frustrated that I made them. You live and you learn.

  17. I love this! I agree so much with wishing I’d started retirement savings earlier in life. The earlier, the better! I wish I’d gone to a more reasonable college and not gotten into student loan debt.

    1. It’s amazing how you can get to feeling “behind” in your late 20s without doing anything astronomically wrong haha.

  18. I wish I had started earliest. We all do. I have a similar write up but with a different spin, a lesson to my children instead of “regrets” so instead it is more you should do this, not I wish I had not done that.

    1. Right – regrets isn’t quite the right word. Learning experience is probably better. Will go check out your post 🙂

      1. Ah – was wondering because I didn’t see it. Looking forward to reading once it’s published!

    1. Ha, I know exactly what you mean. I may not have dug myself into a big debt hole, but I definitely spent more than was really necessary.

  19. I really enjoyed this post! My husband and I have struggled with lifestyle inflation for sure. It’s so frustrating to get a raise, think about all the money you can save, and yet not see the savings actually happen because you increase your spending, often unintentionally/subconsciously.

    1. Exactly true – it is so frustrating to look at our income increases over the past decade and realize how much less we used to (happily) live on. Three months of focus and we’re slowly clawing our way back there.

  20. I love this. I’ve been thinking about my own “time travel checklist” items lately (wish I’d maxed out an HSA every year I had one, wish I’d opened a Solo 401(k) years ago, wish I’d figured out house hacking before I got married and had a baby…).

    But if I really think about all these things I wish I would have done, the “big mistake” that ties them together is that I didn’t have a concrete goal. Throughout my 20s, I just had the goal of not being poor, and being able to retire in my 60s without using my kids as a retirement plan.

    Then I got laid off from my dream job and married in the same year, and discovered financial independence (above and beyond the “financial stability” movement I’d been a part of for 8 years) and then I realized that what I wanted was the ability to have more dream jobs (for my husband to have them as well) without having to panic and take an undesirable job if that dream job went away again.

    Having that focus has changed everything. I’m so thankful for it, now.

    1. You are completely right about focus – I did so well with paying off my student loans, but with no real plan after that, we really just coasted. Glad to have a concrete goal in mind again now.

      1. Oh, and you know what I forgot to mention? The most important part: my little one had those same monster butt pjs at around that age. Oh, how I miss the monster butt… <3

  21. Empty nesters at 45 does sound pretty good. With modern science, that’s enough for round 2!! (I’m kiddin’) I didn’t negotiate my first job either. But that was a bit of a joe job. And when I came out we were just getting out of a bad recession so everyone was hungry. I believe stepping stones are just as important.

    1. Getting your first “real” job at the end of a recession definitely made it harder to feel like it was okay to negotiate.

      And my mom had my youngest brother at 41, but no that’s a no thanks from me 😉

  22. It sounds to me like you avoided many of the major financial mistakes that others often make.

    It is easy to look back with and think about what could have been better, but it is really hard to blame yourself for some of these mistakes. For example, when we were at the bottom of the housing market, it wasn’t clear that it was the bottom. Same for refinancing your loans, you will never know the cost of that mistake, because there is no way of knowing what rate, if any, that you would have qualified for.

  23. Good list! A nice open hearted read 🙂 I totally feel you with the lifestyle creep and momentum of getting addicted to spending and eating out all the time.

    Why 15 and not 14?! In NY, once you turn 14, you can get a permission slip from the school to start working 20 hours a week and putting that money into an IRA?

    1. Why 15? Probably because it’s half of 30 and that’s how old I am now 😉 I seriously didn’t have time in high school to work 20 hours a week, but I so wish I’d set up a Roth from day 1!

  24. The point about the Roth IRA in your teens is an interesting one. My parents required that my brother and I save 10% for retirement of all money that came our way, from jobs and from gifts, for as long as I can remember. So I have been saving for my retirement since I was about 8 years old. I remember as a kid working with my mom in Quicken (their budgeting software) to figure out how to split up, ie, a $50 birthday check and moving $5 to retirement (and $5 to church and charity – we also had to tithe! Then the remaining $40 I could spend how I wanted). However, I think that “retirement fund” just sat in my parents’ bank account for 15+ years until they finally made me invest it once I graduated college. I opened a Roth IRA in January. Imagine if that had been invested in a Roth that whole time! Hopefully I’ll remember this in 10-15 years when I have my own kids.

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