Money Lessons We Should Have Learned

If only our earliest encounters with money, like getting a quarter for cleaning our room or a whole dollar from the Tooth Fairy, taught us what we would need to know about personal finance. Instead, we learned the hard way by growing up.

A lightbulb flickered in my head in fifth grade when I realized my $10 weekly lunch allowance didn’t need to be spent on cafeteria pizza. By saving $2 a week for two months, I could buy my first Backstreet Boys CD. It was a moment I’d never forget, for it finally dawned on me exactly what money was worth — anything I wanted.

Over the years, I traded school lunch for CDs, birthday money for movie tickets, and even college textbook money for new boots. The exchange value of money, as I like to call it, grew larger and grander as I moved into my early 20’s. I likely “exchanged” thousands of dollars before I graduated college, yet still hadn’t learned how to manage my finances. By the time I got my first job, I spent more on food and happy hour than on rent and found myself in serious credit card debt. Obviously, I still didn’t have a clue about money management.

As children we learn to spend and as adults we learn to save. Along the way, did we ever learn how to manage our day-to-day personal finances? Unfortunately, for most of us the answer is no.

Luckily, I’m older, wiser, and in less debt, and in the spirit of good karma, I’m sharing the five money lessons I wish I knew — and we all should’ve learned — growing up:

1) Know what you can afford. Being realistic about what you can afford is hard to live by daily. Really consider what it means to have a lifestyle your salary can support, without living paycheck to paycheck or having to choose groceries over the car payment. Shopping for my first car, I wanted a new Mini Cooper; instead, I bought a used Honda Civic. Sure I could have gotten the Mini, but that would have meant I’d have to regress to the college diet of Easy Mac and cereal.

2) Savings is a priority, not an afterthought. As we grow up, our money goals graduate from lunch, to CDs, to cars, then maybe a house. But we don’t always prioritize a savings account, or for that matter, an emergency fund. The summer after college, I planned to spend my entire savings on a summer-long trip to Thailand. Due to unexpected circumstances, I needed the cash instead for my first apartment and car. These days, I allocate a certain percentage straight from my paycheck to my savings, and also prioritize having an emergency fund as well as a separate vacation fund.

3) How to use credit cards. My friends taught me that credit cards are a great lifeline for the things we can’t afford right now. It wasn’t until I was in college and battling over $2,000 in credit card debt did I realize that credit cards are best used in amounts we can afford to fully pay back. Since credit cards are one of the best credit-building tools, I adopted a new attitude towards credit: I keep my card active every month, charge a little, and pay it on time and in full. My credit score jumped from 695 to 754 in a year.

4) Deal with debt, now. When we get into debt, we don’t often prioritize paying it off and end up costing ourselves hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest. Being saddled with debt doesn’t have to be a fact of life; dealing with debt as quickly as possible is the strategy we should always take whether we’re $50 or $15,000 in debt. In two years, I paid over $700 in interest charges on the $2,200 debt I graduated with. Finally, I made up my mind to begin hacking away and pay more than just the minimum payment. Thanks to cutbacks on eating out and shopping, I started paying hundreds more towards my debt every month.

5) For what you didn’t learn, ask. In school, wise teachers told us, “There are no stupid questions.What they should’ve added is that not asking questions could also cost us money. For all of the financial actions you plan to take, do your research. With so much information at our fingertips, personal finance websites and tools like Credit Karma, LearnVest, Bundle and The Motley Fool can help you understand and manage money. There is no longer any excuse not to invest your money or to let your husband do your taxes.

I bought my first car on my own dime after graduating. Right before going to the dealership, I asked my Dad for advice on how to negotiate price. He proceeded to share his so-called foolproof secrets on how he managed to purchase 11 cars in his lifetime way below sticker price. When I questioned why he didn’t teach me savvy financial know-how before, he said, “You never asked.”

Don’t wait to be taught; or worse, stop learning the hard way. We need to question, challenge, and learn to empower ourselves about personal finance each and every day.