Your 20s are great, y’all. Sure, it can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out a bunch of things about adulting that they never taught you in school (like how to file your taxes or fold a fitted sheet). And yes, we’re in some crazy times right now, and your world probably looks a lot different than it usually does. But we will get through it, and when all’s said and done, this is still a good time in your life to enjoy being independent, get your money in order, and set yourself up for success later on.
Here are a few habits and practices to think about when (and even before) this storm dies down that will make life as an adult a whole lot easier. I’ve included certain things I wish someone would’ve told me back when I was younger, and some wisdom I picked up along the way that has really impacted me now that I’m in my 30s. So, here it is—my list of 20 things you should do in your 20s.
1. Develop your vision.
I say it all the time, you guys. Before you can even set goals, you need to have a big-picture vision for your life. Take some time to pray and seriously reflect on what this could look like—and don’t be afraid to think big.
What kind of person do you want to be when you get to the end of your life? What do you want to accomplish during your time on this planet? How do you want to serve and contribute to humanity? (Yeah, we’re jumping right into the hard-hitting questions, people.) Once you have your greater vision in mind, you’ll be able to set more specific goals that will help you get there.
2. Make and stick to a budget.
I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, A budget? That’s fine for math geeks and my dad, but I don’t need one. Think again, my dudes.
A zero-based budget is actually the best way to stay in control of your money and build wealth. It also gives you the freedom to spend money, because you know exactly how much you’re able to spend on groceries, eating out, clothes and other things without breaking the bank.
3. Learn how to say no.
Listen—saying no doesn’t make you mean, stingy or a loser. It just means you know your limits and won’t push the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. Whether it’s turning down a freelance job, a date or a social invite when you know you can’t afford it, saying no is a sign of self-control.
Side note: There will be times when you want to say no but should actually think about saying yes—like if a friend or family member really needs help or you get the chance to volunteer and make a difference somewhere. Don’t use “self-care” as an excuse to be selfish. It’s up to you to be wise about how much you can realistically handle and how much time you can give to others.
4. Pay attention to your mental health.
Don’t underestimate the value of talking through your thoughts with a trusted therapist or counselor. It’s not “weird,” and it doesn’t mean that you have issues. There are also plenty of other ways to take care of your mental health that don’t involve counseling—take time to talk to friends, pray, exercise, journal, take a day off, go to bed early, or take a nap (amen).
5. Build your emergency fund.
Before you even pay off any debt (if you have it), it’s important to save a starter emergency fund of $1,000 and keep it in an account that’s separate from your checking account. Crap happens, and you need to have a way to cover it with cash so you don’t take on any debt.
And let me just clear this up: An emergency is something that’s urgent, unexpected and necessary—like getting a rental car if your car breaks down. Wanting a phone upgrade because the iPhone 50 just came out doesn’t count as an emergency.
6. Develop quality relationships.
Notice I said quality, not quantity. There’s nothing wrong with having a lot of friends, but personally, I’d rather have a few deep, real friendships—not a ton of shallow ones. It takes time and effort to pour into your relationships, so don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to be there for everyone all the time. Seek out strong, iron-sharpens-iron relationships, as well as someone you can look up to and learn from as a mentor.
7. Get rid of all your debt (including student loans).
Nothing will take the burden off your shoulders quite like kicking your debt to the curb. I know it sounds intimidating, especially if you’ve got a ton of student loan debt, but you’re not alone. I promise you, with some intentional planning and hard work, you can pay them off faster than you could on any standard repayment plan. And when you do, you’ll be so much freer to pursue your passions and goals!
8. Rent an apartment.
Bye, mom and dad’s basement. Having a steady job in your 20s is important, because having an apartment all to yourself (or split with roommates) is an amazing feeling. Plus, it teaches you a lot about paying bills on time, cooking for yourself, and keeping your space clean.
9. Read one book a month.
Okay, this is my personal goal, but reading is a great goal for anyone. If you don’t think you can swing one book per month, try one book every two months. It can be fiction, history, biography, whatever your jam is—but I guarantee it will make you a smarter and more interesting person.
10. Date intentionally.
I know y’all were waiting for this one. Here’s what I mean by dating intentionally: If you know you want to get married at some point, go on dates and get to know people whose values line up with yours to find someone who would be a good partner in marriage. Don’t date just because you’re bored or lonely or the guy working at Subway wrote his number on your sandwich. That’s unproductive and a waste of time. (Sorry for the truth bomb, but some of you guys need to hear it.)
11. Learn a new skill.
You know that thing you’ve always wanted to learn how to do? Playing an instrument, making your favorite food from scratch, editing photos, writing a novel, you name it—now’s the time to do it! Let’s be real, you’ll probably never have more time or energy to spend pursuing your passions than you do right now (especially if you don’t have kids yet).
12. Visit your family more often.
It’s easy to get disconnected from your fam when you’re busy with adult life, but keeping in touch and spending quality time with them—even virtually—means the world. These are the people who raised you and know you better than anyone else, and you won’t have them forever—so be intentional about seeing them.
I know that family dynamics can be tricky, and not everyone’s situation looks the same. Don’t forget to spend time with the people who have treated you like family along the way too.
13. Start investing.
As long as you’ve finished Baby Step 3, that is. For those of y’all who aren’t familiar with Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps, step 3 is to save three to six months of expenses in a fully funded emergency fund. After that, start investing 15% of your income into your company’s 401(k) and/or a Roth IRA!
14. Fail at something.
Nobody likes to fail, but looking back, my times of failure throughout my life have grown me a lot. I’m not saying you should be out there failing on purpose, but when those failures do come (like I know they will because we’re all human), see them as learning opportunities.
15. Figure out how taxes work.
What’s more fun than taxes, am I right? The answer is literally anything, but you still have to do them. Here’s the good news though: Once you actually learn how to file taxes for the first time, they won’t seem so bad.
16. Travel somewhere you’ve never been.
A lot of people don’t travel because they’re worried about the cost—and yes, you should make sure you can cash flow your trip before you book anything. But now that you’re not in school and your vacation time isn’t limited to just summer, Christmas, and spring break, you can find good travel deals during the off seasons. Check out online services like Google Flights and Kayak to find the best rates!
17. Eat well.
Welcome to life after college, where you can no longer survive on ramen and pizza rolls. Do your health a favor and eat a vegetable or two every once in a while. I highly recommend meal planning, cooking at home, using coupons, shopping for produce that’s in season, and keeping your takeout and restaurant runs to a minimum as ways to eat healthy on a budget.
18. Don’t skip leg day.
Exercise is key for your physical, mental and emotional health. You don’t have to hit the gym at 5 a.m. every day, but try to get your heart rate up at least 3 times per week by going on a jog outside, playing sports with some friends, doing some crunches while you’re watching TV, or taking the stairs wherever you go.
19. Give back.
My favorite reason to pay off all your debt and get your money in order is so that you can be a blessing to other people financially. But listen—you don’t have to wait until you’re 40 years old and living in a two-story house to give back. Even when you’re trying to save money, keep tithing at church, do random acts of kindness like paying for a stranger’s coffee, and help people out as much as you can, whether it’s with your money or your time (or both). Generosity will give you a mood boost unlike any other.
20. Grow your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Y’all, this is the one that has changed me the most. At a time in your life when you might be feeling overwhelmed and like you have so much to figure out, having faith in God keeps your priorities straight and reminds you that the weight of the world is not on your shoulders. Plus, God thinks you’re pretty great. He wants to spend time with you—and spending time with Him will only make you a stronger and more peaceful person.
For more money and life tips that will help you in your 20s and beyond, join the AO fam. I’ll drop some encouragement in your inbox every so often to keep you motivated as you’re working toward your goals!
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About Anthony ONeal
Since 2003, Anthony has helped hundreds of thousands of people make smart decisions with their money, relationships, and education. He’s a #1 national bestselling author of Debt-Free Degree and national bestselling author of The Graduate Survival Guide. He recently released Destroy Your Student Loan Debt. He travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults start their lives off right and people of all ages succeed with money. You can follow Anthony on YouTube and Instagram @AnthonyONeal and online at anthonyoneal.com or facebook.com/aoneal.