Investing 7 Money Lessons Jean Chatzky Wishes She’d Known When She Was Younger

TODAY financial host Jean Chatzky writes a letter to her younger self about what she wished she knew about money upon graduating from college.

By Jean Chatzky Illustration: Sol Cotti
PUBLISHED 07/05/2023 | 4 MINUTES

Dear Jean,

Or I should probably say Jeannie, because that is what everyone called you when you were coming out of college in 1986 (FYI, your college friends still do). Also, if I say ‘Jean,’ you’ll probably think I’m being stern or that I’m annoyed at you. I am not—although I do wish you had learned a few things about your money and career earlier in life. When you were in your 20s, preferably. Early 30s, at the latest. 

Emotionally and financially, we would have had an easier time. So, in no particular order:

  • Save 10% of every dollar you make. And once you’ve nailed the 10% thing, bump it up to 15%. I know it sounds like a lot, but saving money habitually is actually easy (in the future, when you can automate these things, it’s cake), and by doing this now you’re putting future-you in a much better position. This is first on the list because it’s non-negotiable.
  • Then, invest that money in a diversified portfolio of stocks—a low-cost mutual fund will do the trick—and let it be. I know you’re wary. You’re just a few months on the job and the Dow falls 508 points, 22%, in a single day. The markets will come back, and over your life as an investor, they will suffer drops like this every decade or so. Ride them out. As long as you don’t need the money near-term for a down payment on a house, or tuition for your kids (you’ll have two), this is the smart money move.
  • Ask for more money. The guy who will sit next to you in your next job will be making $5,000—maybe $10,000—more than you for doing the same work. Work that, btw, you’re better at. 
  • He’s making more because he asked for it when he got hired. Asking won’t always work (in the future, one compassionate boss will advise you to go out and get another offer just so he can justify paying you more to his boss), but if you don’t ask the answer will always be no.
  • Be an equal partner in the finances. You will marry young. And then—more than a decade later—you will divorce. Only then will you realize how lucky you are to have spent your days reporting on money and finances because you’ll know how to keep your credit up so that you can a) buy a house and b) build a new financial life that works. But you would have been even better off if you hadn’t ceded control of some things (like those aforementioned stocks) to your husband.
  • A couple of things that are a little lighter in nature. Sample sales are not your friend. Actually, let’s not limit it to sample sales: Sales, full stop, are the devil. They get you excited, like great milk chocolate or a really good kiss, and you find them tough to resist even when what’s on sale is not something you want or need. The kitchen, on the other hand, is your friend. You will learn that you love to cook and are good at it. And it will help you keep your budget and the scale in check for decades to come.
  • Last, but certainly not least, trust yourself. Never be embarrassed to ask questions about anything financial you don’t understand. The financial world is one that keeps shifting and changing around you. Asking questions is insurance that you stay on top of things, and that you don’t get ripped off. This is the reporter in you. Make sure you continue to let her out.

Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.

Jean Chatzky is a journalist, personal finance columnist, financial editor of NBC’s TODAY show, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and the founder and CEO of the multimedia company HerMoney.


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