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Money Lessons I Wish I'd Learned Sooner: 5 Stories

Marianne Hayes

Many people associate April with downers like tax bills, closet-cleaning and rain showers. But, as you may be well-aware by now, it’s also Financial Literacy Month, which offers a perfect opportunity to amp up your money know-how.

When it comes to your finances, knowledge really is power. And the more you know—and the sooner you know it—the better equipped you’ll be to handle whatever comes your way. Take it from these five, who range in age from 28 to 45 and hail from around the country, who shared key money lessons that would have made a big difference in their financial lives had they learned them earlier in life.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to bounce back. Here’s how they recast their past money mistakes into golden insights for their financial future—and yours.

“I wish I’d identified money wasters sooner.”

Paul Moyer, 38, blogger at SavingFreak.com in Greenville, S.C.

“I’m not, by nature, a big spender. But tracking my spending during my college and early adult years could have helped me realize how much money I was wasting on eating out or buying the latest video game when I should have directed more cash toward credit card debt—which I accumulated by making purchases I couldn’t afford, like an entire spring break trip when I was 20.

The catalyst for making a change was getting married at 27. My wife and I wanted to avoid having fights about money, so we took a financial literacy course after coming home from our honeymoon. We were debt-free 14 months later. A decade later, the only debt we have is our mortgage.”

His best advice: “Always have someone you trust hold you financially accountable. Back when I was doing my finances all by myself, it was easy to make excuses for poor choices. Once I had someone to hold me accountable—my wife—those poor decisions went away.”

“I wish I’d understood the long-term consequences of relying on credit.”

Danielle Toste, 28, a marketing director in Chicago, Ill.

“Growing up, money wasn’t something that was talked about in my family—no budgeting advice, savings goals or anything of the sort. So maybe it’s not that surprising that I’ve been struggling with debt for most of my adult life. I applied for my first card at 18, and, while I knew that lower interest rates were ideal, that’s pretty much all I knew.

I wish I’d understood just how easy it is to get into debt. As a college kid, everything I wanted could be mine with the swipe of a card—from new clothes to vacations—and trying to keep up with a lifestyle I couldn’t afford was my biggest downfall. At one point, I had a balance of roughly $10,000, and climbing out has been an uphill battle.

Thankfully, I’ve pared down my lifestyle, and today live much more within my budget. Sinking further into debt is the last thing I want. I don’t carry any cards in my wallet and have even cut up cards before so I wouldn’t be tempted.”

Her best advice: “No matter what, never be late paying your bill. This is what’s kept my credit score intact.”

“I wish I’d researched investing basics before handing over my money.”

George Alex Popescu, 34, financial entrepreneur, New York, N.Y.

“During my mid-20s, I made some investments…that, in hindsight, can only be described as foolish. But what did I know? Fresh out of college and eager to make some easy money, I didn’t seek the advice that could have saved me big time in the end. Instead, I invested without any due diligence.

For example, had I known that a ‘60-percent annual return’ promise comes with a very high probability of losing everything, I never would have invested.

The upside to having lost so much money is that I’ve learned from my mistakes. Today, I’m a much more cautious investor. If rates are more than two to three times what banks pay, it’s an immediate red flag for me.”

His best advice: “Do your homework and thoroughly research both the risk and potential rewards of new investments. There’s also something to be said about seeking the advice of a trusted advisor. Adopting these practices makes it a lot less likely that I’ll make an emotional investment.“

“I wish I’d started saving earlier.”

Tara Currie, 34, a customer service specialist in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

“Back when I was a teenager and got my first after-school job at a grocery store, my grandparents told me how important it was to save 10 percent of your paychecks. Oh, how I wish I’d listened! Instead, I ended up spending my money as soon as it came in.

I did eventually get the hang of saving about five years ago. As I approached my 30th birthday, I took stock of my financial picture. I read up on expert advice online and took a closer look at my rainy day fund, which was pretty much nonexistent.

That’s when I decided to make a change. I started socking away $20 a week, which really added up over time. When I lost my job in 2013, the $1,300 I’d saved helped soften the blow. It wasn’t enough to cover all my bills, but it was a very helpful cushion while I got back on my feet.

My savings account is still rebounding from that crisis, but it’s growing again. After paying off my credit card debt—which sits at just over $5,000—rebuilding my emergency fund is my No. 1 goal.”

Her best advice: “Don’t rely on credit to replace your savings account. The interest will come back to haunt you. Also, money comes and money goes, but taking a ‘poor me’ attitude surely won’t leave you feeling empowered. Maintaining a financially positive attitude is key.”

“I wish I’d known how to budget for non-monthly expenses.”

Jennifer Bright Reich, 45, a publisher and author in Allentown, Pa.

“I wish I knew earlier in life that budgets change from month to month. I used to make a strict budget, stick to it one month, then get frustrated when I went over the following month. Things like an unexpected house repair or hosting a party would send my neat little budget into a tailspin. Reluctantly, I’d dip into my savings to cover the difference, which is never a good habit.

Finally, after some trial-and-error, I learned it’s way more effective to create a customized budget for each new month. By factoring in month-specific trips, birthdays, doctor co-pays, haircuts and so on, you’re not blindsided.

Starting each month with a blank budget form has not only helped me stay on budget, it’s also led me to discover recurring expenses I didn’t know about, like a $10 bank fee, that I now factor in as a monthly bill.”

Her best advice: “If you tell your money where to go, it listens. You are in control of your spending!”

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