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It’s Not All About Money: Financial Wisdom for Young Adults

At 21, you’re a financial adult. But chances are you still don’t know what you don’t know.

We asked personal finance experts and financial planners what newly minted adults need to know about money. Their bottom line: Be sure your balance sheet includes some joy, too.

How to think about money

A job you love saves money. How you earn a living affects how you spend, says Kathy Kristof, a longtime financial journalist and editor of, a website that evaluates gig opportunities. If you hate your job, you’re likely to spend more to distract yourself from all you put up with at work.

Spend on joy. Diane Harris, editorial director of Considerable, a financial and lifestyle site launching later this summer, and former editor-in-chief at Money, says she wishes she had understood at 21 that spending on experiences and people you love brings more joy than accumulating stuff. Budget for happiness.

Buy freedom. Delaying gratification is hard. But savings give you the means to act when you need to, says Krista Smith, a fee-only certified financial planner in Atlanta. “Your savings are often what saves you when you finally get the courage to leave a bad relationship and need to pay a security deposit on a new apartment, when you bust a tire on the highway, or when a family member’s health is failing and you need a plane ticket NOW.”

Time is money. When you buy something, you trade minutes or hours of your life for it. It’s a good way to decide if it’s worth the price.

Practical tips for keeping more money

You need less than you think. It’s OK to drive a beater, live with a roommate and buy secondhand. It’s a great way to set yourself up for wealth later. You’re just starting out, and it’s smart to live as if you’re broke, Kristof says.

Live on less than you make. A lot less, if you can. Expenses add up quickly. Learn to cook and to use household tools, for example. Those skills can make a big difference in your budget.

Travel cheaply while you can. You may not mind hostels and bunk beds now. There’s a good chance you’ll feel differently later. Go.

Don’t lose “found money.” Smith says if she had saved even half of holiday and birthday checks, money from selling textbooks and the occasional $20 bill when she was starting out, she could have been in a position to avoid credit card debt later.

Thinking ahead

Save money now — don’t wait. It’s tempting to put it off. Even Harris, who was a personal finance writer advising others to save, didn’t do it. “I would have SO much more money for retirement now if I’d heeded my own advice,” she said. If your employer provides matching retirement funds, that’s essentially free money.

Cash in on compound interest. The sooner your money starts earning money for you, the longer it will work — and the less you have to save. Compound interest is the interest that your interest earns. In time, your balance may increase as much as or more from interest than from your contributions.

Build your credit. Your credit history matters. Pay on time, every time. A good credit score may keep you from having to pay utility deposits, help you get approved for a lease or result in lower car insurance.

Know what loans cost. Lenders are likely to approve you for more than you can reasonably repay. Before you sign, make sure you know how much you are borrowing, and the total of your payments. The faster you pay something off, the less you’ll pay in interest.

The article It’s Not All About Money: Financial Wisdom for Young Adults originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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