Advice for my younger self

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My youngest niece just graduated from high school. Achieving this rite of passage is a turning point in our family—the last of her generation to move in to adulthood. And while 17 may not seem like an adult, this young woman has already shipped out for basic training in the Air Force. She’ll be a grown-up very soon, ready or not! Jordan hasn’t asked her wise old aunt for any advice (yet!) but I’ve offered to give her some tips about money. Makes me nostalgic about my own youth. What do I know now that I wish I had known then?

Just do it!

I knew money was tight when I was a kid. My dad loved to shop and did all of the grocery shopping. He would tear the corner off of the check he gave the cashier at the supermarket when it was getting close to payday. He explained to me that this would keep the check from being automatically processed. Manual processing would result, he hoped, in enough of a delay that his paycheck would be in the bank before the check was presented to clear. Though I was aware my parents didn’t have a lot, I always felt like I had everything I needed. Geez, we lived in the suburbs and I had my very own horse when I was 12—was I living a charmed life or what?

Dad helped me open my first checking account (at the credit union where he was member #7) and my first department store credit card. He taught me how to balance said checking account and pay my credit card bill. But the rest of what I learned I absorbed from my family home—living from paycheck to paycheck. We never talked about savings. I don’t think my parents ever had a savings account until they sold the family home and downsized to a small place when they were in their 60s. They taught me what they knew about money, but their perspective was limited. What shall I tell my niece that I wish my parents had known to tell me? Easy!

Pay yourself first

From your very first paycheck, automatically save a chunk first. I hope she’ll start out at 10%, but even if it’s just 5% that’s a start to the habit. And if done every paycheck and automatically, it will become a habit, just like brushing your teeth. Habits, good or bad, just happen, we don’t question them. A savings habit established at an early age sets us up for financial independence—the ability to spend our time in the ways that are most meaningful for us. This is what life is all about.

The alternative is a much harder road, and I speak from experience. Not trained to save at an early age, I believed that I would start saving when…I started earning more money, paid off my student loan debt, bought a boat, you name it. We fall into the trap of procrastinating. Want to know how I started saving money? It was when I was living on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands where I neither had nor needed much of anything. There was no easy way to spend the money we made taking people on sailing vacations. No easy way cause we were occupied with our business during the winter season and off exploring cool places on our boat during hurricane season. Spending money, particularly on things we had no room for, didn’t make it onto the fun activity list.

Later, when we moved back on land, we quickly fell out of the savings habit. Once we made the transfers to savings automatic, we didn’t even miss the money and the savings account grew steadily. That financial buffer—savings—gives us the freedom to shape our destiny. All of that, just from paying ourselves first!

Stuff won’t make you happy, but experiences will!

I wish I had heard these very words, repeatedly, from the time I was a kid. I’ve had it easier than many. While not a born saver, I was also not enamored with stuff. Even as a child, I loved books. My allowance went for inexpensive paperbacks. I spent hours pouring over the Scholastic catalog to make my choices. I wasn’t that particular about clothes or accessories or toys.

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Having a horse was expensive and there was lots of gear that you could use. Like any young horse owner, I loved spending money at the tack shop! But when my friends decided to get in to the really big money pit—showing their horses Western Pleasure with all of the attendant clothes, silver adorned saddles and bridles, professional trainers, horse trailers, I went my own way. I spent many an afternoon riding miles alone on the trails in the surrounding undeveloped hills while my friends rode circles in the arena back at the stable. (I’ll save the stories of all of the miles I walked after my horse threw me and took off in said hills—fortunately she couldn’t open gates!) While still an adolescent, I was learning both to value experiences and to make my own decisions instead of following the crowd. Both are necessary to escape the materialism of our culture.

Too much stuff—to buy, sell, store, maintain—keeps us from the very experiences that make us happy and give our lives meaning. When we told people in NYC that we were getting rid of everything and moving on to our 31 foot sailboat to sail away, one acquaintance said, "I'd love to do that, but I just bought a couch." That happened 25 years ago, and while I've forgotten who said it, the comment has stuck with me. Don’t let things keep you from moving towards your dreams, whatever they are! 

But will she ask?

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I’ve got my two tidbits of advice ready…but will Jordan ask? Two simple ideas can change a life’s trajectory. Advice, however, is only useful if it is sought after. I can wait.

Do you have a story about paying yourself first or prioritizing experiences? Or, what do you wish that you could tell your younger self? Let me know at If you’re ready to enlist a partner to get you on track to your goals, give me a call at (336) 701-2612.

Investment advisor representative of and investment advisory services offered through Garrett Investment Advisors, LLC, a fee-only SEC registered investment advisor. Tel: (910) FEE-ONLY. Fair Winds Financial Advice may offer investment advisory services in the State of North Carolina and in other jurisdictions where exempted.