In my early twenties, the world was my oyster and the concept of long-term planning seemed laughably distant. As a young professional, I was eager to prove myself and immerse myself in the competitive landscape of corporate life. I was determined to climb the ladder of success, but my focus on the present blinded me to the potential consequences of my actions, and the importance of crafting a stable future for myself.
One of my first “real jobs” was as a consultant at Bain & Company. While I was immersed in business strategy and corporate financial planning, I ironically found myself making significant missteps in managing my own finances. As I moved forward in my career, I began to see the impact of my early decisions (or lack of decisions) and felt regret.
Here are four critical things I would’ve done differently as a young professional, in the hopes that others may avoid my pitfalls.
SHIFT YOUR DEFINITION OF WEALTH
Alexander Graham Bell once said that true wealth is when your investment income covers your living expenses for your entire life. This means that wealth isn’t about how much you earn, but how much you save. For young professionals, chasing wealth doesn’t have to be about materialism or excess. It can be about wanting more freedom and flexibility in life—to travel, volunteer, start a business, or start a family. This shift in mindset is important, because it not only makes wealth seem more attainable, it also gives you a worthy goal.
MAXIMIZE DOLLARS IN TAX-ADVANTAGED ACCOUNTS
In your 20s, retirement can feel a lifetime away—but don’t let that stop you from saving now. In addition to Bain & Company, early in my career I also worked at Microsoft. Both companies offered a generous 401k matching program. I missed out on years of potential growth by not contributing enough to my retirement account.
Maximizing contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s is crucial. But it’s not enough to contribute by the end of the year to receive tax benefits. By contributing early, you can reduce your taxable income and increase your post-tax returns. It’s important to have a solid financial plan and stay within the contribution limits to avoid penalties and additional taxes. Keeping track of your contributions throughout the year is essential.
BUILD THE RIGHT INVESTMENT PORTFOLIO EARLY
Creating a personalized investing system can significantly reduce your investment taxes, resulting in higher post-tax returns. Tax-advantaged accounts like a traditional IRA offer tax-deductible contributions and tax-deferred earnings until withdrawal, which can reduce tax liabilities in the long run. In contrast, a taxable account is subject to capital gains taxes and dividends taxes, which can significantly reduce investment returns. A tax-efficient investing system can also help achieve long-term financial goals, such as buying a house or funding your children’s education, by reinvesting the money saved on taxes in your portfolio.
ADOPT A FRUGAL MINDSET
Regularly put money into your investment accounts, even if it’s just a little bit. This requires discipline and planning, including managing your expenses wisely. You can start by examining your current expenses to identify areas where you can save money, such as cooking at home or using public transportation. Prioritizing your spending based on your values and goals is also crucial.
By adopting a frugal mindset and being mindful of your passions and interests, you can save more money and channel it towards your investments. This will help you build a solid financial foundation for the future. Remember, the more you save and invest, the more your money can grow and generate returns over time.
AVOID LIFESTYLE CREEP
If you’re making more but not saving more, keep an eye on lifestyle inflation. With each raise, it’s easy to want to spend more as you earn more money, but this spending pattern can quickly eat into your savings and make it challenging to achieve your long-term financial goals.
Instead, think about how maintaining your current lifestyle and increasing your savings can benefit you in the long run. This way, you can invest more in your investment system and watch it grow over time. As your wealth increases, you can gradually splurge on experiences or things that you genuinely love.
Building and maintaining wealth requires discipline, planning, and a solid financial system. Wealth is not just for the rich or those with high incomes, anyone can achieve it by saving and investing wisely. Start early in your career, and you’ll thank yourself when you’re older.