Welcome to Reality
By John Brummitt
Have you noticed how the characters on television can work low-paying jobs yet still afford to live in nice, downtown apartments? Or even be unemployed for seasons and still not be kicked out of their homes? Even if you have not noticed the huge difference between real life and your favorite show, chances are you have been affected by it. As kids growing up watching television, we build ideas of what it means to “arrive” in life. I have noticed more and more people, especially people in their 30s, struggling financially as a result of this mindset.
They think that by the time they reach the age of 30, they should have a home, a family, and everything should be smooth sailing. Welcome to reality! For most of us, mistakes and decisions made between the ages of 18 and 25 have affected us far greater than we could ever have imagined.
Sometimes, we end up paying for decisions made during the first five to ten years on our own until close to retirement (and sometimes into retirement). Decisions such as how to finance our education, weddings, credit cards, and housing have lasting effects on our lives.
We know we need to go to school, so we take out loans to pay for it. We are told, “Don’t worry about it; you don’t have to pay on them until you are out of school and have a job.” We never look to see how much those loans will end up costing us, or if the careers we start—if we get to start—will earn enough income to cover those payments.
The same goes for weddings and marriages. Television shows dream weddings and honeymoons in exotic locations, but they rarely show us the price tags that go with them. Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying you shouldn’t have a nice wedding or honeymoon, but consider the cost of a 20-minute ceremony and remember you are still just as married, even if you don’t fly the family to an all-inclusive resort at the beach. The same goes for the honeymoon; you should have one, but plan for something that fits your price range. Finances are the number one cause of divorce in the U.S., so don’t start your marriage by stepping out in the wrong direction.
Credit cards are a totally different (and dangerous) animal. Stay away from them until you have control of your finances and a stable income! In a perfect world, never put anything on your credit card that you can’t pay off by the end of the month. (Even in an imperfect world this is the smart practice.) Credit card debt accrued in your early 20s can stay with you late into your 40s if you are not careful. Be wise with your credit cards. They will cause problems if you do not pay them off every month.
When it comes to housing, what we see in shows and movies—enormous, well-decorated homes owned by characters working minimum wage jobs—is not reality. We see where our parents live and what they have now, and for some reason we think that is where we should start. Again, 20- to 30-year-olds are the worst about thinking they need big houses that come with huge mortgage or rent payments. Follow the general rule of thumb. Thirty percent of your monthly income is an “affordable” rent or mortgage payment. If you have other debt such as student loans or credit cards, your 30% will need to be adjusted downward.
Some people may be thinking, “There is no way I can find a place for less than 30% of what I make.” Welcome to reality. Either get a roommate to share the expenses or get a second job to make up the difference. Both can be hard, but this is reality, not a TV sitcom.
Don’t let the first five years on your own ruin your finances for the rest of your adult life! Parents, talk to your children and encourage them not to make the same mistakes that millions of young adults make every day. Television and media have led us to believe it is normal to have it all without ever having financial troubles that can’t be solved in a half hour, but that is not reality…and reality is where we live.
About the Writer: A 2004 graduate of Welch College, John Brummitt is Chief Financial Officer for the Board of Retirement. Learn more: www.BoardofRetirement.com.