Ever think about what you’d do if you could turn back the clock and be 20 again? Though I wouldn’t especially want to live my life over, there are a number of money moves—and decisions that had more influence on lifelong personal finance than I could have guessed at the time—that I’d either not do at all or that, given a peek forward 40 years, I’d do differently.
• I would have taken advanced degrees in disciplines whose graduates make decent pay.
Can’t say I regret having prepared for an academic career. It has allowed me to earn an adequate (not generous) living after spending way too much time as a lady of leisure. However, I’d never recommend to a young person who wants a life in academe that she or he pursue a doctorate in the humanities. University faculty in business, engineering, and law earn more than those in other disciplines. A Ph.D. in accounting can start at the assistant-professor level with a six-figure salary, and believe you me, that is one hell of a lot more than you earn teaching history or English.
Mind-numbing major? Puh-leeze! What could be more mind-numbing than postmodern theory? Oh yah: postmodern feminist theory! Give me a bag of beans to count, any day!
Knowing what I know today, I’d still want a career in higher education. I would take an undergraduate degree in a humanities discipline that a) interested me, b) would furnish a young mind, and c) would build skills in logical thinking. But at the same time I would take lower- and upper-division courses in statistics and basic college-level math. Then I would get myself an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in business management, a subject not too taxing for my sketchy math skills. With those credentials—which certainly demand no more work, expense, or skill than the doctorate in English that resulted in a well respected book published through a prestigious press—I’d be earning about twice what I make now.
• I would have started working in higher education early on, even though it entailed having to teach five sections a semester of freshman comp at a community college.
What I didn’t understand, in my callow youth, about that horrifying prospect is that over time community college faculty find ways to evade the most onerous courses and to wangle course release time, just as university professors do. Nor did I have any idea how much more community college faculty here earn, compared to GDU, UofA, and NAU faculty.
Without the fugues into magazine journalism, today I’d be earning a decent income, and I’d probably occupy a layoff-proof job. Or, more likely, I would have retired by now with plenty of savings to support me in the style to which I was accustomed while I was married to the corporate lawyer.
• If I were 25 again, I would insist that my husband include me in the marital finances.
It was easy to tell my women friends to get a grip on their family finances, establish credit in their own names, and know where the money was. But all the time I was dispensing that excellent advice, I wasn’t following it myself! I had no idea where all our money was going, I did not know what my husband was investing our money in or what debt he was obligating us to, and to tell the truth, I never did know exactly how much he earned. Because he deliberately entered false figures in the checkbook, I couldn’t reconcile the bank statements when I tried, and so I had no clue how much we had in our joint account. Nor did I know about the two other bank accounts he’d opened without my name on them.
• I would open my own savings and checking accounts—preferably at an institution other than the one that held our joint account—and set aside part of my paychecks, my freelance income, or (when I wasn’t working) part of the grocery money.
Being my relentlessly frugal father’s child, I was bothered when the husband refused to save for our son’s college education. But he never tried to exercise any serious control over how much I spent. In those days, I paid for everything with checks and often asked grocery-store cashiers for cash back (cash-back policies were more generous then). I could easily have creamed off $100 a month—weekly cash-backs of $25 would’ve gone unnoticed. If I’d started doing that the month my son was born, I would have stashed $21,600 for him by the time he graduated from high school.
My husband also refused to budget; his express reason was that budgeting is for poor people. Consequently I had no control over our spending and no idea whether I was spending more than we had. If I’d put aside money for myself, I could at least have budgeted independent of his whims and felt more in control of some of our finances.
• I’d use a credit union instead of banks.
Even before banks decided to make a profitable business of fleecing their customers, credit unions were always preferable to commercial banks. Savings rates are higher, checking is free, and service is infinitely better.
• I would have learned about investing early on.
If I’d had a clue about such things as mutual funds (no joke: before I walked from the marriage, I’d never heard of them), I wouldn’t have taken my husband’s private banker’s weird advice to invest a $40,000 inheritance in (hang onto your hats, folks!) one-week CDs! Yes. Forty grand sat in one-week CDs for over a year, until after I ran away, spent three awful months sleeping on the ground in the outback of Alaska and Canada, and finally made my way back to the city.
Yup. I could’ve invested the $21,600 of grocery money in instruments that earned compounding interest, too. Hmmm. Check out this handy-dandy little calculator. Assuming we went ahead and paid for my son’s education out of his father’s capacious salary and so I just kept on investing a hundred bucks a month for him at, say, 8 percent, today he would stand to inherit another $177,395.38. Ah, coulda shoulda woulda!
• I would have learned and started to use Quicken the minute it came out.
Quicken is the answer to the innumerate English major’s dreams. Not having to add and subtract (something I can’t do reliably even with a calculator) made it possible to reconcile bank statements easily, without dampening sheets of paper with sweat or with tears. Consequently the program allowed me to take firm control of my financial life, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible when every encounter with money involved a daunting episode of math torture.
• I would have learned how to use Excel.
I still don’t know it well enough to free myself from Intuit, which, despite the glories of its Quicken program, rips off customers by issuing ever-more-bloated annual updates that won’t read data in formats more than three or four years old. Excel does everything I need Quicken to do, it doesn’t go out of date, and it functions across platforms.
• I probably would have spent less on my current home’s landscaping.
I’m pleased with the yard and glad to have it, but something acceptable could have been accomplished at lower cost. Specifically, I wouldn’t install such a large front patio (or possibly any front courtyard!), and I would have planted younger, less expensive trees.
• I would have opened a Roth IRA as soon as they became available and maxed out contributions every year.
Though we can add a substantial amount to our 403(b) above and beyond our mandatory retirement contributions, the university matches only 7 percent of our paychecks. IMHO, that makes these highly restrictive investment instruments less desirable than the after-tax Roth IRA, which accrues interest and dividends tax-free and can be passed to your heirs without encumbrance.
My not building Roth savings from the get-go is a function of late-blooming investment knowledge. Which takes us back to item 6: learn about investing early on.
What would you do differently if you could start from financial scratch again?
On this subject, check out Frugal Scholar’s conversation about the most successful things she and Mr. FS did with their finances.