One day, you may look back on your 20s and wonder how you did it. The word “busy” doesn’t begin to describe the different things most people juggle in the years following graduation from college.
If you type “your 20s are” into Google, autofill helpfully suggests “hard,” “lonely,” “the worst,” “confusing” and, perhaps most fittingly, “to make mistakes.”
It is unquestionably a difficult but thrilling time.
You may have more money than you did just a few months ago. You also have many more responsibilities. For most people in their 20s, it’s all about struggling to pay bills using that first paycheck and still trying to have a life.
Some call it “adulting,” which can mean anything from covering bills to doing your own taxes to avoiding credit card debt. A co-worker said, “I feel like I’m adulting when I do something I don’t really like doing.”
While necessary, adulting — in other words, going to work or generally doing the responsible thing — doesn’t have to be boring. “It is totally possible to enjoy your life and ‘adult,'” said Lisa Chastain, a millennial life and money coach. “It’s not either/or.”
In these building years, you begin to come into your own, from establishing yourself in a career to trying to find the love of your life. It’s less DIY and more DYL: “Design your life and live intentionally,” Chastain said. “Millennials want to make sure they are doing it with purpose.”
Yet most are still in that steep learning curve just after college, before adult life becomes second nature, and finances play a big part in your success.
Not knowing much about personal finance has a cost — an average of $1,230 in 2018, according to the National Financial Educators Council. The price of not knowing enough about money inched up from the previous year, when the council’s survey showed an average loss of $1,170.
Jessica Carroll, 22, splits her time between college and two part-time jobs. Neither pays benefits. “While I have the things I need and am a success with my budgeting, my financial life is also a very hard struggle to balance,” Carroll said.
On a starting salary, a single emergency can wreak financial havoc. Carroll, who lives in Garrett, Indiana, bought a house for $56,000. It seemed to be in great shape, but she found out after purchasing it that it needed a new furnace. That same week, a tree fell on her car, totaling it. Together, these occurrences emptied her emergency fund.
Carroll’s social life has taken a hit because of her tight work and school schedule. “It is not easy by any means,” she said.
Chastain names three tasks to master in your 20s: Find your own comfort level with debt, “what are you willing and not willing to go into debt for”; understand your earning potential; and choose the right people. “It’s important to have loving relationships and people that support you,” she said.
Carroll says her parents are great role models who taught her good financial habits, as well as being generous with support and even some occasional elbow grease. “There is no way that I would be able to do any of the choices I have made without them,” Carroll said.
A certain amount of luck is helpful. A bank internship turned out to be a blessing. Carroll applied to be a teller and was offered the marketing position, which she loves. Learning the field has helped her to look at ads differently and broadened her perspective.
As difficult as it can be to juggle several projects on a starter salary, it helped Carroll to crystallize her goals. This year, she’s determined to pay for college as well as the car she just bought. After graduation, she’ll channel all resources into paying off debts and rebuilding her emergency fund.
One way to succeed: Accept that it’s hard and make peace with that. “There are many others my age making different and as difficult monetary choices,” Carroll said. “I chose that I wanted to purchase a house while still trying to get an education.”
Carroll says she could have done things differently, but she decided sacrificing some personal time was the right choice.
Several factors can make your 20s especially burdensome. Student debt spirals higher every year. Wage stagnation is real. Desirable cities such as San Francisco, New York and Washington have skyrocketing rents. Financial headwinds that hit millennials especially hard include the inability to buy a home.
Here’s what happened to one millennial who decided she didn’t want to continue suffering in silence.
Talia Jane, a 29-year-old freelance writer and minimum wage worker in New York, has a pretty high profile for someone who makes sandwiches.
Jane is better known as the customer service rep who in 2016 wrote an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman detailing the impossibility of surviving in the Bay Area on a net salary of about $366 a week.
While the letter cost Jane her job, some positive things did follow. Yelp held a series of meetings with the customer service employees to find out what they thought, and Jane says the company increased the base hourly wage by nearly $2. Employees also received an additional 10 days of paid time off as well as 11 paid holidays, which they did not qualify for in the past. She does not regret writing the letter.
“We have a very emotional relationship with money,” Chastain said, and women may tip over more easily than men into some strong emotions surrounding their connections to their own finances.
When you start getting a grip on your money, it smooths out the emotions and makes your feelings about money more positive.
If you are struggling with low wages or student debt, “look at renegotiating the things that you can control,” Chastain said. You might be over-leveraged or you can’t keep up with the bills you have. It’s possible you don’t have a spending problem but your fixed costs are simply too high.
Without much of a support network aside from former co-workers, Jane decided to leave the area. New York would likely have more opportunities. In less than two weeks, she found an apartment and a roommate, far more easily than in San Francisco.
Jobs weren’t as easy to secure. “Even though all service and low-wage jobs boil down to the same components, the listings are highly specific,” she said. “During the recession, people were having an extraordinarily difficult time because [recruiters] were making the qualifications very difficult.” For low-level jobs, some ads requested candidates with a college degree, sometimes an MBA, and several years of experience.
Jane now makes $15 an hour, since New York raised the minimum wage, and life is easier.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.