5 Things Every Twentysomething Needs to Know About Financial Planning

The best time to face the financial facts of your life is right now.
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The best time to face the financial facts of your life is right now.

When I recently started my new job, I was paired with a mentor to show me the ropes. He taught me plenty about my new position, but he also happened to teach me something equally valuable, if a bit surprising: financial planning.

To 25-year-old me, financial planning was the voluntary one-hour class I took to figure out how one spends a “real person” paycheck. My high school didn’t require home economics, and my university never required any kind of financial management. The terms 401k and 403b sounded like the start of complicated passwords. Financial planning was a foreign language I had decided to put off until later—say, sometime in my thirties.

Then my fortysomething mentor told me how much he regretted poor financial management for two decades. At his urging, I decided to take a hard look at my finances and see a certified financial planner. Here’s why you should, too.

01. Money problems do not disappear.

According the 2015 Millennial Money Survey, less than half of twentysomethings are saving up for retirement, and 14 percent of millennials aren't saving at all. With median student loan debt at $28,000, college graduate unemployment at over 7 percent, and college graduate underemployment at nearly 15 percent in 2015, it’s understandable. We have debts to pay off, bills to cover, and basic necessities to buy. Many twenty- and thirtysomethings are living paycheck to paycheck, and planning for the future just seems too daunting.

Yet, as much as we millennials like to think we’re special, we’re not. Most of America is struggling too. U.S. News reports that 18 percent of Americans aren't saving money at all. CNN Money reports that 76 percent are living paycheck to paycheck, and 20 percent don't have enough of a financial cushion to last more than two weeks without a paycheck across all income levels.

The reason is that bills don't go away with time; they increase even as our paychecks increase. As we age, we may need to make room for children, a bigger place to live, emergencies, more doctor's appointments and ER visits, and various other living costs.

The good news is, our ability to save isn't dependent on our income level. Finding a way to save $10, $20, or $100 a paycheck now sets you up for a habit to save 5, 10, or 20 percent a paycheck in the future when things (hopefully) aren’t as tight.

02. It’ll help your current or future marriage.

Money is often cited as a common marriage conflict. Jeffery Dew of Utah State University discovered that married couples who argue about finances once a week are twice as likely to divorce than couples who disagreed once a month. What’s with all the fuss about money?

Researchers led by Lauren Papp at the Couples Lab at the University of Wisconsin study intimate relationships extensively. Unlike other conflicts between spouses, money conflicts are pervasive, more troublesome, and can remain unresolved despite repeated attempts at problem solving. In essence, money is an ever-changing problem that requires new solutions. Though financial planning involves looking at objective numbers and figures, according to Papp and colleagues, couples tend to use more negative emotional behaviors when discussing money.

Relationships expert Dr. John Gottman discovered destructive behavior patterns from watching videotaped arguments between couples. How a couple handles conflict, whether financial or otherwise, is a large predictor of divorce. Gottman, with his researching partner and wife Julie, has found that the couples who remained happily married could identify common negative behaviors in their interactions and opt to react in a gentle, constructive manner.

But it's difficult to discuss money this way without proper tools and a framework. In my first sessions with my financial planner, I would get defensive almost to the verge of tears. With practice, I’ve learned to be honest with myself and my spending, and now I’m much less defensive with my financial planner. Becoming intentional about how you discuss money now can lead to more openness and constructive financial conversations with your spouse down the road.

03. It prepares you for the unexpected.

Working in the emergency department of a hospital, every day I see people experience the unexpected: heart attacks, stroke, accidents, life-changing cancer diagnoses. If nursing has taught me one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.

As a single 25-year-old, if I die tomorrow, I don't have much financial obligation left in the world. But what about that hopeful someday when I have a husband? A mortgage? Kids? I’d feel much more insecure about their financial future without me.

According to my financial planner, the best time to prepare for a house and kids is before you have a house and kids. That’s why this very single 25-year-old has life insurance. With a great health history, it’s unlikely I’ll die in the next ten years. But if tomorrow I’m diagnosed with cancer, injured, disabled, or would otherwise be disqualified for my life insurance plan, it's not a problem. Why? Because I set it up before any of that happened.

It makes sense to start life insurance before your natural health begins to decline, because the rate can't be changed so long as you make payments. Mine will remain the inexpensive, very healthy, 25-year-old me rate for the term of my life insurance. But what if I waited until 35 and my cholesterol levels have increased? My monthly rate would be much higher because my likelihood of death has increased with both age and poor health indicators.

As for making other plans to prepare you for the unexpected, an experienced financial planner can help figure out what’s best for you and your situation.

04. It can improve your health.

Reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I learned the concept of keystone habits. It is a single habit that creates a domino effect of other habits. It’s the cornerstone, the base, the soil for other habits to grow.

Duhigg cites the research of Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng of Macquarie University in Sydney. Oaten and Cheng tested gains in self-regulation by assigning volunteers to a two-month physical exercise program. Subjects who successfully completed the program also performed better on self-regulatory exercises. Unexpectedly, the subjects also reported a significant decrease in smoking, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and a significant increase in good habits like healthier eating, better emotional control, maintaining household chores, attending commitments, improved study habits, and monitoring spending.

After results from their initial study, Oaten and Cheng decided to test gains in self-regulation again. This time, volunteers entered a four-month financial monitoring program. Those in the test group who completed the program showed similar results to the two-month exercise group: a decrease in stress and increase in good habits. 

Financial planning is a keystone habit. Knowing that I spend $40 a month on the gym when I could be saving it for graduate school, for instance, motivates me to utilize my membership. Looking at my monthly cost of groceries and dining out, I’ve started buying produce that is in season and cooking more at home. I may not have Oaten and Cheng studying me, but I know financial planning has generated many other good habits in my life. It will do the same for yours.

05. A penny saved can become way more than a penny earned, but you have to start now.

Before I started working with a financial planner, I’d hear over and over again why it’s important to save for retirement while young. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," I thought, brushing it off. Then I did the math myself with a compound interest calculator.

Let’s say at 25, you invest $100 in a retirement fund at an interest rate of 5 percent. You plan on retiring at age 65. So that $100 has forty years to collect compounded interest each year. At age 65, that $100 will have become $729.80.

Now let’s say at 35, you invest that same $100 in a retirement fund with the same interest rate of 5 percent. You still plan on retiring at age 65, so that $100 has thirty years to collect compounded interest each year. At age 65, you’ll have $444.02.

Just by putting $100 away ten years earlier, I'd gain an additional $285.78. That number got my attention. What would happen if I added just $100 more each year?

Not saving anything for retirement now is essentially wasting free money. Saved money accrues interest. The earlier it’s saved, the more time your earned interest starts earning interest. Even if it’s $10, $15, $20 a month, that money grows exponentially higher now than it does years down the road.

If your workplace matches retirement benefits, not putting in the minimum match each paycheck is also like saying no to free money. Yes, you’re $40-ish dollars out each paycheck, but your company is also giving you $40 each paycheck for your retirement.

Regardless of how tight money is today, saving even a little in a 401k or 403b now will help you out exponentially in the long haul. When you change jobs, just make sure to roll it over.

Taking a cold, hard look at how you save and spend your cold, hard cash is eye-opening. But financial planning is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my twenties. With much more of my life left to live, I feel confident and secure about my future, financial and otherwise.

Photo Credit: Getty