Why I Don’t Regret Not Saving More for Retirement in My 20’s

Bars are where much of my money went

*Gasp* A personal finance blogger who doesn’t wish he’d saved more money in his 20’s?!?

Yep, that’s me. And it’s not because I already saved a ton. Admittedly I didn’t – my savings rate through my 20’s was a paltry ~15% or so, give or take a few percentage points. Better than some, to be sure, but definitely nothing to write home about. Especially in the world of some personal finance bloggers who regularly save 70% or more of their income, 15% is laughable.

For as much as I didn’t save for the long term, though, I did do a few things right. And I don’t regret putting retirement a bit on the back-burner.

I Paid Off My Debts

My 20’s were a time of financial recovery. I graduated college in the red despite having no student loan debt. A horribly-planned not-trip to Vegas served as a catalyst to fuel my runaway credit card debt.

I added a car loan just six months after graduating before having paid off all of my credit cards. The interest rate sucked. Over time I got so irritated with the loan that I decided to wipe out what money I did have saved (basically a 5 month emergency fund) and destroy the note once and for all.

Allocating money to paying off debts was more important to me in the short-term than retirement. I could feel the squeeze on my budget from the car loan. Retirement seemed so distant to me that I didn’t put much thought into it.

I Funded My Own Cross-Country Move

When I asked my boss if I could work remotely from California I wasn’t expecting him to say yes. When he did, there was ONE major caveat: since it was my idea, the company could offer me no salary increase.

I didn’t care.

Despite moving to one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the US, I was just thankful that I’d have a job. My rent in California was about three times what I’d been spending with roommates in Minnesota. That put a big strain on my finances.

But it was also a mile from the ocean, and I’d never have to deal with driving in the snow out there. I was able to still save money, but definitely not at a noteworthy rate.

I Still Saved For Short Term Stuff

All the money I did have saved was for short-term stuff. My down payment on a duplex that fell through turned into my cross-country move fund. I bulked up my emergency fund again finally.

After Kristin and I started dating, I started putting money away to help pay for our wedding that I knew we’d have. We eventually had both of us funneling money into that once we got engaged.

One day the goal was to move back to Minnesota – maybe in our 40’s – so I started saving a little bit for that.

When I got a phone call from a good friend asking me to come work for her, “our 40’s” suddenly started looking like “in two months” instead. Another cross-country move, funded by yours truly (at least this time with the help of Kristin).

The Best Memories Are Free(ish) Anyway

I had an amazing decade of life in my 20’s. Some of it was fueled by money. Much of it was not. The best memories I have weren’t about dropping money on my Sonata or on something I didn’t need.

No, the best memories I had were things that had very little to do with how much money I had in the bank.

Like that one time my best friend came up to visit me in Minnesota and somehow a frog got into my apartment, and we chased that elusive bastard around.

Or taking a road trip down to Florida with my high school friends after we’d graduated college.

Camping in Panama City Beach over spring break with two of my good friends, and going to clubs and not drinking at them.

Waking up at 5:30 the day I left for California and saying goodbye to my family – and then getting all the way to Colorado before the caffeine and adrenaline started to wear off.

Screaming at the top of my lungs when an alarm woke me up at 3:30 when I was taking one one of my college roommates down to Texas. We still laugh about it to this day!

Those memories will stick with me and they didn’t require a significant cash outlay by themselves at all.

Saving More Would Have Stopped All Of This

As much as I want to say the best memories are free – and often times they are – the fact of the matter is I spent a lot of money in my 20’s. Money to travel and see things and visit friends. Sure, some of it was on stuff, and not all of my money was spent wisely.

But looking back, I’ve realized that if I’d saved more money in accounts I couldn’t touch, I know I’d not be in the place I am today.

There’s no way I could have afforded to move across the country on my own if I’d squirreled away the full contribution limit in my 401(k). Not moving across the country would mean never meeting Kristin, never moving in together.

Finding the Balance

I had dreams and goals and ambitions in my 20’s that needed money to support them. Saving for retirement is important – critical – but it’s not the only thing. My 20’s were about living life in the moment. The decade of my 30’s will be about finding balance between this moment and the future.

Finding a healthy balance between living your life today and saving for tomorrow is an ongoing process. Even now we don’t have it fully nailed down.

We’re still early in our journey together. Sometimes we swing too far one direction, and then over-correct in the other. Over time we hone in on what that balance is for us. Our dreams will change. Goals will evolve.

It’s not an easy journey and it’s never a straight one. One step at a time, though, we’re working our way forward.

Question:

How do you find balance between living in the moment and saving for down the road?

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35 Comments

  1. The balance is key. I struggle with this a bit. I’m starting med school at 27 and when I worked as a teacher I was busy paying off student loans. So I didn’t save for retirement, but I got to help out a lot of people and work towards a rewarding career. I made mistakes, such as not finishing high school and getting a GED at twenty, but regrets don’t help anyone. Moving forward I intend to save handsomely, but will remain relatively frugal to enjoy my healthy years.

    1. I also started med school in my late 20s (29). Don’t do like I did and blow all kinds of money while you’re in school; it’s a lot harder to pay back than you expect, even with a physician’s salary. If I had a chance to do it again (Noooooooo!!!!), I would be much more frugal the second time.

      1. 29 is pretty late to start med school from what I know but good for you! It’s definitely harder to pay back debt than you expect – I think that’s universal, but probably even more pronounced for someone expecting to earn a high salary after their education is completed who may not realize just how much debt is costing them, including student loans.

        I think the whole “having as much fun for a lot less” is something that takes time to figure out 🙂 Thanks for stopping in, reading, and sharing your story!

  2. Ahh, it’s nice to see someone else ‘gets it’. I also moved (but through 4 different states…) a lot and traveled in my 20s and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have met my Amazing husband/ best friend. Retiring a few years later is well worth it for the experiences and having someone else I love to retire with.

    1. Totally agree! I mean yeah I’d be in a lot better financial position, but it wouldn’t be worth it for me. Much happier to build this life now with someone special by my side!

  3. Great post Dave! It’s all about the balance. There is an on-going debate right now about an NPR story that profiled people who make 100,000 and don’t feel rich. Many people feel outraged because, well, compared to Mustache, these people are whiners. But look, life takes money to live. You get choose how you live, and if FIRE is making you miserable, is it really worth it? Better take 20 years, then 10 miserable ones. Besides, I thought this mad dash to retirement of ours had to do with life quality?!?

    1. Thanks HM!

      I think it’s easy to out-spend your money; that story doesn’t shock me too much. It’s crazy how easy it is for lifestyle inflation to get the best of most of us. Finding that balance is definitely key!

      MMM definitely is closer to one end of the spectrum compared to most, and many find his ways unfulfilling, or downright miserable. And yeah like you said I’d rather take 20 great years over 10 miserable ones. I’m already thinking about how to transition our work down to part-time once we hit a good enough nest egg 🙂

  4. This is a toughie. To me, I want all debt to be gone before I buckle down on retirement. To be fair, I’m still contributing to a Roth IRA, so it’s not like I’m not contributing at all! But in a few years I’m going to be VERY happy to not have a negative net worth, so all gains are actually in the black.

    1. I think the mortgage is the only one I’d argue to not tackle aggressively – otherwise I agree with you here. And the mortgage mostly because it’s just suuuuch a long time horizon.

      That being said you are pretty much winning either way, as long as you’re aware of the risks you’re taking by going this route (lower returns, exposing yourself to risk in case of a catastrophic job loss and your house isn’t fully paid off yet, etc.) Overall I think you and Mr PP are on a great track!!

      Related: Pay Off The Mortgage or Invest? Who F***ing Cares?!?

  5. Great post! Here’s how I find balance: I save half my income, so I can do whatever I want with the rest. Like, people got on my case for spending $60 on a T-shirt, and it’s like, do you know how much money I’m saving?

    I’ve always felt like I could never write a “things I regret from my 20s” post, because I don’t really regret any of it. Like you, I did a lot of stuff that made memories (travel, starting my own business, trying out a bunch of jobs), so I didn’t save much until my mid-20s. But once I buckled down I was all in. Saving much more than most people since I had to make up for lost time. So yeah, if you had fun in your 20s, it’s not too late when you’re older to get serious about saving–you just have to save more.

    Totally approve of your life choices 🙂

    1. I love this strategy – Paula Pant calls it the ‘anti-budget’ and it works great for most people. 50% is a ridiculous amount to save, so great job on that!

      It’s definitely not too late – but it’s also not too early too if that’s what’s important to someone at that age. Who am I to say someone in their 20’s shouldn’t save a ton, if that’s what drives them, what makes them happy?? It’s all about finding the right balance for YOU. 🙂

  6. Finding the right balance is key. Saving for retirement is great but you have to enjoy the present too and it means something different for all of us.
    I can’t remember everything I did in my 20’s (that is so sad!) but I do remember I was just glad to have enough money to pay for rent, food and minimum entertainment.

  7. There is no right or wrong way to go through life. Everyone finds their balance and that is great until they want to accelerate things.

    That being said, I’d pay double to go back to those rowdy gentleman days of raising hell and making one mistake after another.

    I wouldn’t be the good man I am today (my wife could argue this point), if it wasn’t for all of my stupidity way back. Cost quite a bit, but worth the investment and the life lessons.

  8. I do wish I saved more in my 20s. But my savings rate in my 20% was 0%, not 15%. (Damn, if I only saved a quarter of the money I spent on beer and bar pies in my youth!) I think 10-15% is a very reasonable savings rate for anyone in his or her 20s. This should give a 20-something the ability to explore and take risks and not sacrifice his or her future. Love the theme–find balance–and love the way you played it. Bravo, my friend.

    1. Yeah I think that it was a healthy amount to make me feel good about where I am now (of course, our insane bull run has helped a lot) while also enjoying life and exploring what I want. 🙂

  9. I wish I had spent less during my medical training. By the end of residency, I was almost living like an attending, and it took a long time to make up for that. I still have four years of student loans to pay off! I had lots of good experiences as a result of the money I spent, but I could easily have had almost as much fun for a lot less.

  10. Balance is key and your 20s are a good time to figure out what good life looks like to you. (And not everyone wants to FIRE by 27, a 15% savings rate is a really good start)

    1. I didn’t even know what FIRE was really. I read The Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly back in the day a little bit, but didn’t really apply much of that to my life. Now I see comments from kids in their late teens, sometimes even high schoolers, asking about FIRE and investment strategies, etc. Those kids have a HUGE head start and it’s awesome that they know what they want right now. It’d be interesting to see how that changes over the course of their lives, if they’re happy in the long run, etc.

  11. Beautiful. I’m not the only one! 🙂 I did a few things right back then, despite my own measly 10% savings rate. I had a roommate while single and focused on paying off student loans as soon as I got a jobby job.
    As to your question? I think you recognize what’s really important – and focus there. It usually has nothing to do with money but instead it’s spending time with your family and friends, finding experiences that don’t require cramming onto a plane to fly to god-knows where.

    1. Hey 10% is still better than a lot of people Cubert! Focusing on paying off loans instead of letting them control you is a big step that more and more people are making.

      And yeah I think balance is definitely much less about money and much more about just…living a good life.

  12. This is the biggest problem for me. I am always thinking three steps ahead, which is probably why I married my wife. I really do need to work on that more. I think for me it might be looking at more short-term goals than anything, but the truth is it is something that I struggle with well into my mid-40s.

  13. All of my 20s I was in school or training. I lived off loans, then deferred those loans until my 30s.

    I used some of that loan money to study abroad in London, spend a summer in South Africa, and work for 2 months in the South Pacific. I’m still paying back those (low interest) loans, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

    Throughout my 30s I’ve saved a good 40-50% of my salary, and spent the rest with abandon and without regret (mostly on travel…can you tell I love to travel?). I’m now approaching 40 and in good financial shape.

    Great post!

  14. Many people in the personal finance world will be life long savers and never get out much to experience things. You are right on the money with balance! When I got really interested in the personal finance world I wanted to FIRE. Over the last couple of years my mind has shifted so far away from that mentality. Now I am so excited and more motivated then ever to work forever! I just want to make sure I am working on things that I actually care about. Therefore my balance is FI once I reach this I will pump the breaks, reflect, and then no longer chase the cash.

    1. For sure! I don’t mind working but I could deal without some of the corporate BS that comes up – that’s the joy of being FI. You have FU money to be a bit more picky in the type of work you do. When money isn’t the driving factor you have a lot of leverage.

  15. Great post. Sounds like you had some great experiences and memories! Ahhh to be in my 20’s again haha. No responsibilities and the world is your oyster.

    I don’t regret spending money in my 20’s too. I had some major trips that I spent a ton of money for, such as going to Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan (I think I spent $5000 on that trip), traveling through parts of South America, drunk-cycling through Mendoza wine country in Argentina going winery-hopping (another $5000 trip). Those were some great memories that I still cherish to this day, years later.

    1. Wow, that’s a lot of traveling for sure! I did some traveling but a lot of it was for work and just domestic US travel. Studying abroad was a lot of fun.

      We’re planning a Europe trip now actually 🙂

    1. Yeah it’s definitely about prioritization. We’ll still go out to eat but we don’t really go to bars ever. At most we’ll have a drink or two with dinner, but even then it’s not often.

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