Advice to Self: Five Financial Tips by Joe Orozco

From the Editor: Joe Orozco of Northern Virginia is an Intelligence Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Originally from Texas, Mr. Orozco received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Administration and later pursued a Master's degree in Congressional and Presidential Studies. He is an avid writer, incredible father, and natural leader. Aside from devoting his days to ensuring ethical practices are executed within our nation's law enforcement agency, Joe spends time reading political and economic blogs, coordinating a leadership institute within the Virginia affiliate, and sharing his wealth of knowledge and advice with loved ones. This month, Mr. Orozco showers us with tips and tricks on properly balancing our personal finances.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say to yourself knowing what you know now?

At thirty-six, I'm not looking for nursing homes any time soon. Yet Ive been around the block enough times to have made my share of mistakes. I wish I had been smarter in a few key areas, and if I had to pick the most influential of these areas, personal finance would be it.

So, in no particular order, here are the five tips I would have emphasized to my eighteen-year-old self.

1. Invest Early

Retirement? Are you kidding? I barely started college!

I know, in college it's sometimes hard to think a few weeks ahead, let alone a few decades. Here's the thing: medical advances being what they are, you will likely enjoy many years beyond your working career. The earlier you start investing, the more cash you'll be able to draw from when you need it. There is magic in compound interest, the kind of magic that really does make your money work for you. Investing in something like the stock market is a great strategy for saving for the long-term, because you are not counting on this money to buy books, pay tuition, or even cover a vacation. Retirement savings is what you'll lean on to survive when you are no longer capable, or willing, to work for a paycheck.

Why invest in something like the stock market? It generates better interest than your typical savings account, say seven percent versus less than one percent. Sure, sometimes the market goes sideways, and you'll hear people freak out over how much money they've lost. But, the reason you use this as a long-term strategy is because the market moves in cycles. It took a hit in 2008, but over the past decade it has largely been doing well. Believe it or not, the stock market is more likely to secure your financial future than something like social security, a program that really will run out of money unless legislators on both sides do something to preserve its long-term sustainability.

2. Save Your Money

Um, you just talked about saving money for when I'm old. Whats the difference?

Retirement savings are savings you will not touch until you retire. Traditional saving is the money you put aside for short-term goals like paying for national convention, buying a new laptop, updating your wardrobe, etc. It's best to keep these funds in a savings account since you may need fast and easy access.

Part of what you ought to consider doing with a savings account is using it to create your emergency fund. How much you put into said fund depends on your current lifestyle, your income, and your financial obligations. When I talk about financial obligations, I don't mean students who also happen to be raising families. Taking care of a guide dog is a financial obligation. Paying for medical bills can be a financial obligation. The idea here is to create enough of a reserve that if something dramatic were to happen tomorrow to alter your daily schedule, you have a few months of savings built up to be self-reliant. You will not always be able to count on family support to get you through unexpected rough patches, and rough patches are inevitable for all of us.

3. Budget Everything

Two things: First, keep track of all your spending. This includes things you buy using credit or debit cards but especially things you buy using cash. You're not going to get a clear idea of where all your money is going if you cannot easily identify your spending patterns. Your memory will not be reliable, because as humans, we tend to downplay things we might feel a little ashamed about.

Second, follow the simplest budget format that will make the most sense to you. I used to run elaborate spreadsheets that tracked expenses, dates, amounts, cost categories... The more information I required myself to note, the harder it became to make time to keep myself accountable.

If you're going to use apps like Mint to keep track of your expenses, just be aware of the privacy risks you run with dumping your bank access into a third party.

4. Pick Your Weakness

People assume being money conscious means absolutely no room for fun. On the contrary, if you know you have a weakness for eating out, then save up your money in a way that makes it possible for you to enjoy that activity. You'll spend more on restaurants but maybe less money at the mall. If you enjoy traveling, perhaps you spend more money on hotels but maybe less money on home decorations. There's always a tradeoff.

Mind you, that doesn't mean you should splurge on your greatest weakness. Just because you enjoy technology does not mean you need to buy the latest model. You should always research well-respected reviews and do a price comparison, but you might feel more inclined to stick to a realistic budget if you know you will be rewarded with what you enjoy most.

Take it a step further, and identify specific points in which you will reward yourself. Work hard Monday through Friday, and then give yourself a break on Saturday to order that pizza you've been craving. Part of this is psychological. If you do a thing too often, that thing will cease to be a reward and just become a part of your routine. Your budget will be the unbiased record of how well you are spending your cash.

5. Pick Good Career Stepping Stones

You can't really do a whole lot with finances if you aren't, you know, creating finances?

Use your time in college to identify opportunities that will expand your future network. I thoroughly enjoyed speech and debate competitions. It gave me communication skills I still lean on today, but if I could do it over, I would have considered getting myself more involved in political groups where my analytical skills could have been applied to real world scenarios. If you are strong in math, you might entertain ideas of joining some sort of math club on campus, but what if you were to join a business group instead?

Time is precious when you are younger. Use this time to get involved in volunteer opportunities for which you may not be able to make time when you get older. These opportunities will build up your resume, strengthen your work ethic, introduce you to a variety of people, and create the kind of network you may one day rely on to find your dream job.

Bonus Tip

Open a credit card early. Your credit score will be partially calculated based on the length of your credit history, but be very careful not to spend more than you possess. Do not carry a monthly balance. If necessary, keep the credit card tucked away until you are able to pay what you charge.

Final Thoughts

Being financially responsible does not mean you have to be a cheapskate. There is a difference between being a cheapskate and being frugal, and frugal people tend to end up living very comfortably without making huge sacrifices. If you plan well for your future, if you set aside money for those inevitable emergency situations, and if you use a budget to keep track of all of it, you will never have to be overly dependent on anyone. The people you do rely on should be people who share your ambitions, who understand your passion and want to see you get ahead in your future career. And, if you take away nothing else from this blog post, remember that while it is never too late to start being smart about your finances, it is always so much better when you start early.

Suggested Reading List

You can find these titles on Bookshare. These are books I have read at least once and plan on rereading again in the future.

  • Millionaire Teacher, by Andrew Hallam
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens, by David Gardner
  • Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
  • The Bogleheads' Guide to Retirement Planning, by John Bogle
  • Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill