A Millennial’s Guide to Financial Success

by A. Millennial

Below are a few lessons I’ve learned about money that I hope will help other millennials, or any other generations for that matter.

Stop letting the media and politicians scare you.
Now is a great time to be alive. Houses are cheap, interest rates can’t get any lower, the stock market keeps chugging along, jobs are plenty (yes they are, quit making excuses), and cars get more MPGs than ever. Stop worrying about the next bank failure and start making your money work for you.

Decide what you need and how much your salary must be to achieve this.
Do you want a waterfront mansion when you retire? Do you want to travel to every country in the world? That’s awesome, now figure how much you’ll need to save and start bringing it home. But do you really need those things? Maybe you do. Or maybe all you need is a Volkswagen to tow your tinyhouse around to where the jobs are. That’s cool too… but whatever you need, stop sitting around and start making it happen.

Live within your means.
Try to spend only 50%-80% of what you make. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you’re doing it wrong. Those leftovers are what create your net worth, and with no money in savings, you’ll be perpetually broke the rest of your life.

Stop hating capitalism.
Capitalism is such a great system here because there’s such an abundance of labor needed to make the products and services we use. One day robots will take over labor and capitalism might go away, but until then, you are responsible for winning your own bread. There are a million ways to be a millionaire in America, if you have the motivation to be one.

Stop buying stuff.
If you have something you never use, get rid of it. If you’re only going to use something occasionally, rent or borrow it. Resist the urge to go nuts with a hobby, stop buying crap you don’t need, and break the endless upgrade cycle. Most importantly, keep away from luxury stuff. Most millionaires don’t even buy into that kind of lifestyle.

If you must buy, buy modular.
For the stuff you buy, find something that can solve multiple problems, even if it costs more. Buy a multi-tool instead of 5 separate tools. Buy a desktop PC instead of a laptop, so you can upgrade it when needed. Buy an adjustable ladder instead of 3 ladder sizes. Find apps for your smartphone that replace the need for a standalone gadget. As long as you can appreciate all functionality in something, go with the thing that does more, and/or will stay running longer.

Don’t have a wedding.
Weddings are a massive waste of money. Get married (or not!) and celebrate, but there’s no reason to make a complicated scene out of something that is becoming increasingly meaningless in society. Avoid marriage for as long as you can, as long as your partner agrees. In the long run, marriage can do more harm than good to your finances, especially in the event of a divorce, which is mathematically probable.

Stop being a victim of society.
You can blame politicians, boomers, parents, the 1%, the Man, the Illuminati, the kyriarchy, the voices in your head, whomever you want all day for your financial problems, but not doing something about it is YOUR FAULT. Yes, you’re a victim, and yes, I’m blaming you. We’re all victims. But this is your life… make it what you want it to be, and leap any obstacle that gets in your way like the millions before you have.

Don’t work hard, work smart.
“Hard work” is such a meaningless phrase. Digging holes and filling them is hard work, but not practical. Retail is hard work, but not rewarding. Roofing is hard work, but will wreak havoc on your health. Work smart instead. Automate your work tasks whenever possible, or figure out how to simplify them. If work is hard, that usually means a tool needs to be invented to make the work easy. Make that tool.

Don’t work a job that sucks.
Enjoy what you do, there’s just no excuse not to. If you hate your job, find a better one and quit. If you don’t like your career, learn a new one. Doing what you hate to make enough money to keep hating life, is a waste of a life.

Understand that time is money.
Every hour you play video games, watch TV, or surf Facebook, is wasted. You will learn next to nothing. Cancel your cable (yes, even Netflix). Make your time count for something, unless it’s Friday night.

Avoid drugs.
Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, etc. are a massive black hole for your money. They will do more harm in the long run than good, so keep this stuff to a minimum, or cut it out of your life completely.

Make food at home.
Buy a dutch oven, stand mixer, and food processor, and suddenly cooking will be fast, fun, and nutritious. Cut down on your meat intake. Experiment with generic brands and see which ones are equal or better than name brands.

Be honest about whether or not you need a degree.
Do you want to be a lawyer? Doctor? Architect? Engineer? Go to college.
Something else? You probably don’t need it, brah. But don’t take my word for it, do your own research, and don’t be afraid of the conclusion; it may save you $30k or more. Community college is also a great way to get a great education for much less.

Stop listening to Dave Ramsey.
“I love Dave’s teachings, except when he says to do X. And Y… and Z….” I know, I’ve heard it a thousand times.
I’m not a Dave hater or anything, but his method has a massive, obvious flaw: psychology over reality. This is why his books sell so well. However, he is giving you mathematically unsound advice. Credit cards are not the devil. Having a 30y mortgage and investing the savings is usually a better idea than a 15y. Expecting the stock market to yield 12% a year is a bad idea. Buying a beater car is going to cause more problems than it solves. Leaving money under the mattress instead of investing it is incredibly stupid. Paying off your high interest debt first is usually better than paying off the low balances.
If you are irresponsible with your money, than fine, you should use his method. But if you can trust yourself with your own cash, do things the right way.

Don’t be afraid of investing.
One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t start investing until later in life. Nowadays there are so many ways to do it, but the most common way is, of course, the stock market. If you don’t have time to research companies to invest in, use something like Motif; prefab portfolios are built for you by experts, which you can buy up and watch them grow; it’s really that easy. I use it and its a wonderful system and takes a lot of the complication out of investing. If you want hands-free investing, try Betterment. There are tons of great services out there that help you diversify better than the old Charles Schwab model. Don’t invest the way your dad did.

Start a 401K or Roth IRA. Now.
Don’t have one at work? Make one for yourself. You can use pretty much any trading platform for this. Don’t be like the millions of boomers who didn’t have a plan for retirement.

Be frugal. Don’t be a cheapskate.
Frugal living blogs are all the rage these days, but some of the advice is ridiculous. Before you try to find out the exact amount of bathroom tissue it takes to get the job done, or turn your swimming pool into an aquaponic garden, listen. Your life isn’t worth pinching extreme pennies over. You’ll get stressed out and that’s no fun. Instead, find out where your money is going and figure out where significant corners can be cut without sacrificing your sanity.

Credit cards are not evil. Just don’t carry a balance.
Credit cards can open up thousands of free dollars and give you free vacations, if you are responsible. Always, ALWAYS pay off a credit card in full every month. Also, don’t mess with credit card churning, as this loophole is slowly being closed up.

Pay for large purchases in cash, when possible.
You probably can’t buy a house in cash, but at least use cash for vehicles. The more lines of credit you have open, the more enslaved you are, and the more money you’re losing to interest.

Create a spreadsheet of your ongoing expenses.
I use Google Docs to keep track of all my bills and when I’ve paid them. If I don’t have this checklist, I’ll forget, and then I’ll have a bigger financial problem. Also, it helps to see what’s coming up, how much is left to pay off a loan, and where your money is going.

Log into Mint.com at least once a week.
If you don’t have a Mint account, get one immediately; it will change your life. Mint allows you to link all your financial accounts into one magical system. You will have transaction history, goals, charts and graphs with income and expenses, and a place to track investments. Once you have a Mint account, you should log in every other day and keep track of what’s going on with your money. Mint is a must-have, and I can’t really stress this enough. If you don’t have Mint, stop reading this article and create an account *now*.

Get an online savings account.
Don’t bother with the awful interest rate your bank or credit union is offering. Instead, try opening an online account with Ally Bank, where there are MUCH better (but still relatively poor compared to the good old days) savings rates. Don’t bother with CDs and Money Market, as they don’t offer much more than an online savings account right now.

Negotiate your bills.
Your mortgage is usually a good place to start. Check around to see if you can get a better homeowner insurance rate, and check your property records to make sure you aren’t overpaying on taxes (screwups are extremely common). Jack up the deductibles on your car insurance. Also, cell phone companies are currently caught up in some fierce competition right now, so threaten to leave if they won’t cut your bill down… and if they don’t, dump them for a cheaper company. Right now T-Mobile seems to be leading the charge to dirt cheap unlimited plans.

Go green to save money on utility bills.
Buy a wifi thermostat. Automate your ceilings fans and drapes. Replace your old appliances with energy efficient ones. If you have the money, go solar, buy low-e windows, or get a geothermal AC. If you need a new roof, go with a reflective metal roof.

Have a second stream of income.
Make money on the side by turning a hobby or talent into a business. Places like Etsy and Bigcartel make it easy to sell products online. Or, take a second job. There are lots of evening jobs out there looking to hire. You can also look at investing at places like Prosper or Lending Club.

Keep your credit score clean.
Your credit score should be north of 750. Do you know what your score is? If not, use Mint.com to track it for free. Also, you are entitled to a free credit report every year. Credit reports won’t give you the exact number like Mint does, but it’ll tell you exactly why your numbers are what they are.

Found where you want to live? Now buy a house.
Owning a house outright is the smartest thing you can do for your future. You will have a much smaller overhead when living off your retirement, you can’t lose your shelter, and you have something to pass on to your family. Or if you need to sell it, it will likely increase in value.

Have a house? Buy another one.
Real estate is a good way to make extra cash, but the more tenants you have, the more headaches will come with it. Are you a handyman? You’re about to become one. Being handy is a great way to save money, anyway.

Trade in your car for something more economical.
Buy electric if you can; there are 80% fewer parts and cost pennies a “gallon”. If you can’t buy electric, try a hybrid or a subcompact with good mileage. When you can, use a bike.

Understand the difference between retired and semi-retired.
If you read blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, you’ve been told that the way to retire is the save up hundreds of thousands, then spend the next 50 years of your live living off of 25k a year. This sounds like it might work for some, but you have to consider what will get in the way: market crashes, inflation, medical emergencies, lawsuits, and other disasters you aren’t insured for. And what about vacations? College funds? Or otherwise living the good life?
Quitting your career at age 30 is a dangerous way to retire. As long as you can work in your field, do it. If you absolutely want to live in a tinyhouse and live off of ramen instead of helping the world solve problems, go for it. I seriously understand that millennials live for that stuff–but it isn’t retirement. You’ll still end up working, and it’ll probably be somewhere less rewarding.

Know your net worth.
The best way to calculate this is Mint.com. Throw in your home value, car value, and all non-consumable assets worth more than $50. Subtract your debt and loans, and that’s what you’re worth. This number should be increasing steadily every month. If the number is negative, your mission in life is to make it positive. If positive, your goal is to shoot it to the moon as fast as possible by bringing in more income and/or paying off debts. Every year, re-calculate your home and car value using Zillow and KBB.

Understand that money passively works for you.
If you know how to invest, money at rest makes more money. This money can then be reinvested, making more money. The easiest way to create wealth is to create snowballs and roll them down mountains. You won’t “get rich quick”, but this method is far less risky than any scheme.

Don’t just do one thing on this list, do as many as you can. For investing in general, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

Don’t get too obsessed with money.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy peace of mind. However, once in awhile you need to step back and appreciate the world, the people you care about, and other things that money can’t buy. Life isn’t about money, it’s about what you do with what you have and the mark you leave behind. Money can help you accomplish these things, but it is only a means to an end.

When you conquer this list and there’s nothing left to do… give.
The saying goes, “It’s better to give than to receive,” and it’s true. Give to those in need. Donate time and money to your community. Life isn’t a competition. Help people do what you did by teaching them to fish. Take care of yourself first, but be altruistic when you can. You can be both selfish and selfless depending on when your needs have been met.

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