3 Things I Wish I Could Tell My 20 Year Old Self

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I'm always one to be looking forward to the future. I find the future to be exciting and, hopefully, better than today, which was better than yesterday, and so on.

But sometimes I am introspective, and look to the past to take stock on what all I have accomplished (or missed!). While I think I am fortunate enough to have lived a pretty fulfilling life so far, there are some things I wish someone would've told me along the way to help set me on the path that I am on today.

So, in this one, I thought I'd look back on what I could tell my 20-year-old self. What has gone well, what I'd do differently, and more. If you are 20 and thinking what the future may have in store, this one is for you!

Take the Gap Year(s)

Cambodia Ruins
I would likely never have made it to Cambodia if I didn't go on a gap year.

Ever since I started college, I knew I wanted to travel. I didn't quite realize just how much this was going to become an important element of my life as my month in Europe after college turned into planning a gap year after grad school, which turned into two gap years (the latter of which Angie joined in on after she finished grad school), and ultimately making travel writing my full-time job a decade or so later.

But, as with all things, allocating two years of my life to travel (and spending nearly $100,000 in the process), was not without risks. There was always the fear of whether I'd get a job when I got back if it was logical to spend that kind of money when it could be a good nest egg for a house or retirement, and so on.

Thankfully, it was a great idea, and I have zero regrets.

Travel is the best way to grow internally, and is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. The job stuff worked out in the end, and I've adopted the mindset of enjoying things as they come now with the “I can always work more later if I have to” rule for what comes next. The only difference between myself now at 38 and at 20 is that I've explored 79 countries on five continents and have so many incredible memories that have, quite literally, helped define who I am today.

So, to anyone on the fence, if you're thinking of taking a trip, be it a vacation to somewhere new or a crazy gap year, jump in head first. You likely won't regret it at all.

Get in the Habit of Saving Money Early

Stack of Money

  • Disclaimer: We are not financial planners. This one is anecdotal. If you have any questions regarding financial advice, talk to a licensed expert.

Now, it may seem silly to immediately go from “spend a lot of money taking a gap year” to being financially responsible for retirement. But, honestly, I think there is room for both. One is investing in yourself now (travel), and another is investing in yourself for later (retirement).

There are a few recommendations that can be made here, but the easiest is simply to say to first, get in the habit of putting money in your 401k right away, and, second, try and max it out as fast as possible if you are able. (Also, if you saved for that gap year after college, getting into a savings mindest for a 401k isn't really that different.)

To show why, a few hypotheticals are in order. Yes, we know, everyone does them, but math proves the point. Let's look at a hypothetical scenario starting at age 25- a common post-gap-year age for some.

  • If you added $500 a month into your 401k starting at 25 through to 60, with an average 7% rate of return, you would have just under $900,000 for retirement.
  • If you added $1,000 a month into your 401k starting at 25 through to 60, with an average 7% rate of return, you would have just under $1,800,000 for retirement.
  • If you maxed out your 401k, roughly $1,900 a month not accounting for annual increases, starting at 25 through to 60, with an average 7% rate of return, you would have just over $3,400,000 for retirement.
    • Conversely, you also would hit the above $1,800,000 figure by the time you're roughly 51 1/2- 9 years earlier!
  • But another fun one, if you maxed out your 401k from age 25 to 30, put no additional money in it after that, and let that set with an average 7% rate of return to 60, you would have just under $1,100,000 for retirement.  Yes, potentially more than someone who added $500/month for 35 years!

This certainly highlights the time value of money, and how compounding really can work to your advantage. 

Ironically, I accidentally did this. Before I quit my day job to work for myself at age 32, I had spent a few years maxing out my 401k. I thought I'd be able to continue maxing out my 401k while being self-employed, but most years I only managed to put in around $6,000 to $10,000 per year- closer to the first two examples.

I didn't look at my balance too much, but a few years later I was shocked by how much my 401k grew simply from time. Those early years of maxing my 401k out really helped considerably and set me off on a path to (hopefully) financial security in retirement. I'll continue to add some when I can, of course, and maintain outside savings and investments as well, but there is a certain point where the base could be enough simply by waiting.

So even though we fully advocate taking time for yourself to travel when young, don't forget to plan for the future. What you do early on can make big impacts down the road!

Time is the Most Important Commodity of All

Woman Relaxing on Beach with Drink

We've tiptoed around this one a bit in the previous two points, so it is now time to say it outright- time is the most important thing in life.

Time to travel. Time to read. Time to play music. Time to learn a language. Time to nap. Time with friends. Time with family. Time to just be. Yes, my philosophy with travel and, incidentally, saving money, is that I can always work more later if I have to. But time is the one thing you can't make more of now.

The quote about when you are old and will regret the things you didn't do more than the things you did is absolutely, 100%, true. Time marches forward for everyone no matter what is going on in the world around us.

For me, one element of my time I have always been upset about was that my dad passed away right before I turned 30. Life is precious and, well, our time got cut short.

The good news is that our parents came and visited us during our gap year, and we even lived with them while looking for work afterward. Likewise, when we did find jobs, we moved within driving distance, so we still get to see our family regularly, as other opportunities cross-country would've cut that chance short. We had time, even if it ended too soon.

Looking back on it, this time was quite a fortunate thing to have. (So, if you still have family with us, allocate time for them, too—it is precious.) But apply this to all things in life. Go on that trip. Learn that language. Take up that hobby. And if you have to put in some time working to make it happen, so be it, but you're doing it for the best reason possible- using money to buy time.

Ultimately, these are the things that I wish my 20-year-old self had better direction on. I inadvertently stumbled into these, which I am quite happy with in retrospect, but it is something I wish had been told to me again and again when I would have been in a better position to plan ahead of time.

Do you have anything you would tell your 20 year old self to craft a better life? Comment below to share!

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