Experience makes us wiser, and now that I’m in my thirties I would never want to undo anything that happened in the previous decade—even the parts that seemed hard at the time—because it’s all brought me to where I am today. But that’s not to say there aren’t some things I wish I’d realized when I was a bit younger and figuring out life as a college student and beyond. I recently read this piece that really hit home for me, so I was inspired to write my own version through the lens of looking back to my 20-year-old self. Some lessons are more meaningful than others, but even the seemingly trivial ones have a big impact. Together, these are the things that could have helped me better navigate the trickiest parts of being a 20-something.
1. What you studied in school isn’t necessarily what you’ll end up doing. And that’s totally okay.
One of the biggest things life has taught me over the years is that no matter what you major in or learn in college, it will add value to your life, even if not directly monetarily. You may be a poetry major who doesn’t apply your thesis-level mastery of Keats in the first, second, or even third job you have out of college—or perhaps ever. But whether your love of poems serves as a conversation starter with a new colleague who becomes a lifelong friend, or something that earns a name for yourself at your office where you start a poetry club, your area of study will serve you throughout your career and life in many different indirect ways—even if it doesn’t translate to your specific job title or the industry you end up in.
2. Your taste will change a lot over your 20s. So buy quality classics over quantity.
There are some trendier items that I remember lusting after as though my life depended on it. Looking back, I can hardly fathom that I’m the same person who once liked that item, so I’m grateful for every instance in which I didn’t purchase said item. Experimenting with self-expression and trying different trends to see what you like is important for honing your personal style, but try to remember that your taste is going to change a lot in your twenties. Forget clothing hauls, and instead save for select pieces that won’t go out of style. A decade later, you’ll be happier to have a few classic workhorses (such as great black pumps and a versatile trench coat), than a rotating closet full of items you can’t believe you liked at one point. This applies to both fashion and home.
3. Automatic transfers and 401ks are your friend.
Set up an automatic transfer into your saving account so you don’t have to think about it. Even a small amount makes a difference and you’ll be happy with yourself when you need to access those funds. If you do it right from the outset of a new job, you won’t miss the money and it will build over time. On the 401k front, whenever an employer will match your contribution to a certain percentage, take their money and make it work for you. At the end of the day, it’s free funds.
4. Learning to make 2-3 basic dishes will save you a lot of money.
When you have a few simple dinners mastered, you won’t be nearly as tempted to spend three times as much money on ordering Seamless and going out to restaurants out of hangry desperation.
5. Don’t let FOMO dictate your happiness.
Life is a marathon and there will always be another party, event, concert, and night out. We all experience FOMO, but when you listen to what your body and instincts are telling you (for example, you’re too tired to go out), you end up much happier. People also respect you more when you don’t live your life based on a fear of missing out, and can confidently say no to an invite knowing that your friends will still like you if you stay in with Netflix—because they will.
6. Girlfriend dates are as important as boyfriend dates.
When people are courting each other they go on dates that have itineraries—dinner, movies, ice cream; wine tasting followed by picnic in the park. One of the most important things I learned about my adult relationships is how much a friendship can benefit from similar sorts of dates. From a young age, girls start doing things like getting manicures and pedicures and shopping together (which are always fun times). But in addition to the usual suspects, you can suggest grabbing coffee and going to the new museum that just opened up; meeting for a hike followed by mimosas; or picking out new books at the bookstore and taking a walk through a gorgeous neighborhood to discuss your favorite houses. You’ll learn new things about your friend and it makes for great traditions and memories.
7. Don’t buy “cheap”—or uncomfortable—shoes, no matter how cute they are.
I’m not saying not to look for sales, but don’t do yourself the disservice of wearing poorly-made shoes. Quality footwear will not only provide more support which is better for your back and body long-term, but you can repair and resole shoes to extend their life so they last for years. There’s also nothing cute about a girl hobbling around in painful shoes like a baby deer.
8. Cherish the lulls in your life—and create them, too.
Big or small, I’ve learned how important the lulls in life are. I’m the kind of person who can easily feel anxious if I’m not getting something done at all times. But it’s really those periods of repose that fuel my greatest productivity. There are going to be chapters in your life where you’re the busiest you’ve ever been, and there are going to be quieter times that might seem scary at first, but will eventually be what you look back on and wish you’d savored more. Regardless of what’s going on, take at least ten minutes out of your day to do nothing. Meditate, go for a walk, stare at some clouds. Give your mind a moment to process nothing.
9. Don’t subscribe to age “milestones.”
Everyone follows a unique timeline, so don’t get caught up in achieving certain goals based on an arbitrary age. The less you worry about when something will happen, it’s likely you’ll learn more from the process of making it happen when it’s right for you. People are going to get engaged, earn promotions, buy houses, have kids, and sometimes these things will happen before you; other times you’ll be the first in your group to do something. So just do you, and be you, because there’s no “right” time to do something except when it feels right to you.
10. Setting boundaries is healthy, not mean or selfish.
Setting boundaries for yourself is one of the most important things you’ll learn to do in your 20s, and the earlier you master this skill the better. There will be roommates who want to borrow your face cream even though you don’t like it, coworkers who make you uncomfortable with their constant complaints about your boss, and family members who want to stop by unannounced even when (or especially when) it’s not a good time. Being able to communicate directly and establish boundaries doesn’t make you mean—it will make every relationship you have, from ones with family and friends to co-workers and love interests, better functioning ones wherein resentment doesn’t build and cause issues.
11. Practicing truly active listening will serve all of your relationships.
Listening is a skill that should be practiced. Most people equate the physical act of sitting silently while someone talks listening, but they aren’t the same. It’s an amazing feeling to truly be heard by someone, and it’s easy to know when someone is paying attention and really taking in what you’re saying. To give someone the gift of listening engenders trust, appreciation, and will help to deepen relationships. Plus, you’ll likely be listened to in return.
12. Drink good liquor.
You don’t have to spend a lot to get quality alcohol, so don’t poison yourself with crappy liquor. There are lots of ways to scrap and save in your 20s (foregoing the gym for working out outside; taking uber pool when needed instead of having a car payment; buying furniture on Craigslist)—what you drink doesn’t have to be one of them. Your hangover will thank you in the morning. The day after drinking bad tequila, vodka, or champagne is a day no one should have to suffer through more than once ever.
13. Always have cash—and coins—on you.
Sure, the world is moving to electronic everything, from paying people back and splitting checks with Venmo to using Apple Pay to check out at the grocery store. But at least for the foreseeable time being you’ll always do well to have cash and coins in your bag. Whether for tips at the nail salon, or having the exact amount to contribute your portion to a complicated group meal without the card-splitting headache, you can avoid an awkward bind by having bills on hand. And until every parking meter in the world takes debit cards, make sure you never head out for errands without coins in your car or purse.
14. The minute you move into a new place, strategize a lock-out plan.
Whether you live in an apartment, condo, or house, as soon as you have a new set of keys in hand, know (or plan) your lockout situation. If it’s an apartment, you might not be able to make a copy of the keys and will need to have the leasing office let you in if you’re locked out, or pay for a new set if you lose them. If it’s a house or condo, make extra copies of the keys on day one and give an emergency set to a friend who lives nearby. There is nothing worse than being locked out and having to pay a locksmith $100+ dollars to come and bail you out, waiting around aimlessly for them to arrive when it could be cold, raining, or late at night. You’ll thank yourself for having a backup plan in the chance you do misplace a key or leave them inside by accident.
15. Packing always takes more time than you think it will.
No matter how many times you move, you’ll realize you own way more stuff than you thought you did—and packing will take way longer than you think. Don’t wait until the last minute or you’ll be up all night, knee deep in boxes and massively stressed out. When you know you’re going to move, begin packing things up and planning weeks in advance so moving is less a traumatic life event than a nuisance.
16. Remember that uncomfortable feelings are temporary.
When I first moved to L.A., I didn’t know anyone and felt a bit adrift and out of my element. A very new friend invited me to another friend’s birthday party, and even though it was great to be included, I ended up feeling really sad afterwards. A wise mentor reminded me that what I was feeling was temporary with a capital T. It’s difficult to move to a new place, start a new job, make new friends, etc. It involves growing pains. But feeling out of sorts due to these circumstances is normal, and will pass. It took me a few months to feel like I belonged, but sure enough, when things started to click and I felt more comfortable in my new city and life, I looked back on that memory and realized just how true it was that those feelings had been temporary.
17. You teach others how you want to be treated through your actions.
Similar to the boundary lesson, you have to teach others how to respect and treat you by leading by example. Whether in your career, friendships, or romantic relationships, you can’t expect someone to treat you any differently than how your own actions indicate you want to be treated. Remember that actions do speak louder than words when it comes to how others interact with you, so set the bar high and others will follow suit.
18. Quitting, or losing your job can be the best thing to ever happen to you.
Seismic shifts in your life, like choosing to leave an unhealthy work situation or being laid off, can be terrifying. You worry about how you’re going to pay rent, stay on top of your bills, and make your way in the world while also feeling professionally satisfied and fulfilled—among life’s other pressing questions. But it’s often these changes that show you what you’re really capable of. You may not realize until you’re tested to that you’re so much stronger than you think you are, and capable of not only surviving, but thriving and achieving your dreams. I accepted a severance package at AOL when they were offering voluntary lay-offs and it was a nerve-wracking experience at first, but it freed me up to pursue my blogging passion full time and build my own business into what it is today. I never would have imagined that it would change my life in such a positive way. Keep perspective because bad news and scary decisions, can, in time, become the best news you ever got, or best decision you ever made.
19. Put it in the cloud. The importance of doing this regularly cannot be overestimated.
Your photos. Your work. Your contacts. Put them in the cloud, so if your phone is ever stolen, computer crashes, or any other technological disaster occurs, you have your most important collateral in a place that’s safe and secure.
20. Don’t worry so much.
I’m a sentimental person, but life really does have a way of falling into place that gets clearer and more meaningful the older you get. Many if not most of the things we worry about never end up happening—and even the ones that do have a way of working themselves out and leading to amazing things down the road. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. You will figure it out day by day, year by year. Enjoy the journey and trust yourself.
Pay attention to what brings you joy, and spend your money there.
We all have things that bring us genuine joy. For some, it’s getting the newest technology the day it comes out. For others, it’s a blowout once a week, doing hot yoga at a beautiful, well-lit studio, or picking up a fresh lipstick color on the regular. When you do something that leaves you buoyant afterwards, with a lasting feeling of happiness and value added to your life—pay attention to what it is, because your money is best spent there. Life is about choices, from the big to the small. If you could care less about what kind of car you drive, but love trying new restaurants as often as possible, then drive an old car that doesn’t cost much and bask in your restaurant budget. Tune out the noise and pay attention to your preferences. It’s your life, your happiness, and your money—so spend it based on what brings value to you, not what others place value on.