7 Things You Need to Know About Budgeting in Your Twenties

How to think about money as a millennial
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How to think about money as a millennial

When I began earning a post-grad paycheck, I assumed that managing my money would come naturally. My income wasn’t grand, but it was a definite step up from my part-time jobs as a barista and student researcher.

A few years into budgeting, I feel like I’m finally in a groove, but it proved to be a challenge for me—and my post-grad friends. I interviewed a few millennials with several years of “adulting” under their belts. Here are seven things we all wish we had learned sooner that would’ve definitely paid off.

01. Saving a little bit every paycheck adds up.

When beginning a budget, it’s difficult to know where to start, especially out of college where you’re likely hit with new expenses like insurance, security deposits, and an needing to build an emergency fund.

Christine Romans, CNN chief business correspondent, explains in her book Smart is the New Rich: If You Can't Afford It, Put It Down: “Throughout human history, civilizations endured because they planned for the future by socking away a little of today’s wealth for the next year. They saved some of this year’s crop to plant again the next year to guarantee stability (and wealth) for coming year.” 

Mary Claire—an art educator at a museum—started budgeting by simply putting away a small portion of her take-home pay into a savings account.

“I wish I realized how fast you can start saving money by taking a little from every paycheck,” she said. Setting aside just $75 each month, for instance, adds up to $1,800 in two years. Raise that to $100 a month, and you’ll be sitting on $3,600 just three years from now. Say hello to that dream vacation!

02. A budget helps you enjoy your money.

In college, Taryn carefully watched her money and opted for budget-savvy entertainment options like movies and games in a friend’s dorm instead of going to a movie theater. Although she graduated debt-free with some savings, she realized that her approach to money was driven by fear. Now that she is employed full-time as a mechanical engineer, she’s learning to enjoy what she earns while being frugal. 

“I’m realizing it's okay to go out for a nice meal, especially when that's the most natural form of fellowship and spending time with friends,” she says. But a budget helps balance her dining out spending. “The weeks that we don't make time for grocery shopping, we probably spend 3 times more on lunch and dinner eating out, and by the end of the week we feel horribly unhealthy,” Taryn adds.

Abby, an OB nurse, says that budgeting has allowed her to not worry about purchases because she knows when she can afford it. “The cool thing about budgeting that I didn’t realize until recently is that if I plan ahead for big purchases (like a fancy dinner out with my husband), I don't have to feel guilty about spending a lot of money,” she says. “It’s fun to put aside money for something special. Budgeting lets me go out for dinner and not think twice about splurging on wine and dessert.”

03. It gives you a guideline to choose your housing situation wisely.

When beginning your first job, it’s easy to look at your paycheck and get carried away by the new lifestyle you can afford.

“You have your first offer letter in your hand, you divide your salary by 12 and think, ‘Wow, I can afford to live in a really nice place now,’” explains Taryn. “You don't think about federal taxes, state taxes, health insurance, car insurance, etc. which, sadly, significantly reduces your monthly take home pay.”

Although 30 percent is often a standard given for how much of your income should go toward housing, Bloomberg reports that recent data is showing that more and more people are spending much more than that

Financial guru Dave Ramsey explains that there is no one perfect formula for how much a person should spend on a home. “There is no magic dollar amount for the ‘perfect home,’” he writes. “How much house you can afford is as unique as you are and is based on many factors—your location, income, savings, personal preferences.”

The goal with all expenses, but especially with housing, is to make sure your living situation enables you to live the life you want rather than one that is frustrating or burdens you. 

04. Find a mentor or professional adviser.

When talking with friends, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t know what you’re doing with your money. How can your peers on Instagram afford daily lattes, the latest J.Crew pieces, and a trip to Europe?

“I felt really alone in my struggles to budget and make wise financial choices right after college,” says Katie, an elementary school speech therapist. “Once I started talking to my friends about it, I realized they were pretty much asking the same questions. We were all just trying to learn.”

Talk with those you trust, like your parents or friends, about your budget and ask for advice or tips on what they do to successfully manage their own. Create an accountability group with your friends to talk about your budgets. Meet with a financial adviser or banker to learn about different savings accounts and other ways to make your goals like home ownership or a big trip happen. Whatever you do, don't ignore your finances. That's never a good option.

05. Let your budget fit your needs.

Like Abby, Liz is a nurse who has let her budget evolve as she’s learned more about herself and what she values, even if that means going without luxuries that her peers consider necessities.

“After college it was hard for me to feel good about spending money on certain things that I enjoy. I've realized over time that it's ok to spend more on what I enjoy if I'm willing to skimp in another category,” she says. “Eating good food is important to me, so I spend a little more on groceries. Watching TV is not a priority, so I don't spend money on a cable plan or Netflix.”

Take a personal assessment of your priorities. You might find that you're actually spending a lot of money on something you don't care as much about. Do you actually see a big difference in the high-dollar mascara from Sephora, or could you switch to a drugstore brand and use the extra $20 for something else?

06. Find a system that works for you.

One of my biggest struggles with budgeting was taking my well-laid plan and making it a reality in my life. Through conversations with friends, I’ve realized that how everyone creates and executes their budget is as different and unique as their personalities.

Katie decided to make simple rules for herself to help her reign in spending. “Maybe it's the teacher in me, but making up rules seems to work well for me. I never buy coffee at a café unless I am going to drink it in the company of a friend,” she says. “I only grocery shop once a week. If I run out of something halfway through the week, I just have to live without it. Little rules like these keep me from impulse buying a rotisserie chicken on my way home from work.”

Budgeting has also helped Abby and her husband navigate differences they have regarding money. They both value generosity, but approach opportunities to give differently. “We have a line item on our budget every month for money that we want to give to or spend on others, whether that’s buying dinner for a friend or helping someone in our community buy groceries,” Abby says. "Our budget has given us a boundary that we agree on and lets us give confidently."

Liz said that working out a budget took some time, but it was worth the effort. “The first year, I was way off on what I thought I would spend on certain items, both over- and under-budgeting. However, by having a budget, I can at least see where my money is going so I can track it and make my budget a little bit more accurate each year.”

07. It pays off.

Regardless of family situation and salary, budgeting is for everyone. It is a way to tell your money where to go versus coming to the end of a day, month, or year asking where your money went. 

Abby was able to decorate her new apartment and enjoy trips using rewards from her credit card (which she uses like a debit card) without going into debt. Budgeting gave Taryn and her husband the ability to buy a car when they needed to. And because of our consistent (though imperfect!) budgeting efforts over the past three years, my husband and I were able to purchase a home last fall.

Navigating the early stages of managing your own money can be tenuous. But if you put in the effort, you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

Photo Credit: Mariam Sitchinava