by Mandi Woodruff
As the youngest daughter of two borderline baby boomers, like many other Generation Yers, I grew up watching my parents spend cash faster than they made it and had no concept of financial planning whatsoever.
When I scored my first full-time job after college, I'll never forget the rush I felt seeing all those numbers fill up my bank account. I bought new furniture for my apartment, stocked my closet with fancy new work clothes, and spent paydays filling my shopping cart on Amazon.com.
Ten weeks later, my entire department was laid off.
At that point, I had no savings, my credit score was crap, and I had absolutely no backup plan. I scraped by for two months with a few freelance jobs until I took a $10,000 pay cut just to get by.
Things finally turned around, and a couple years later, I found myself in the same place as many of my friends in their mid-twenties. We're paying rent comfortably for the first time and are able to start building our nest eggs. The problem is many of us have no idea how to start doing it.
Rather than turn into some sort of cautionary tale for future generations, I decided after my last birthday that I was going to take a good hard look at my finances.
I asked for tips from a trio of financial whizzes who broke down a few actions us 20-somethings can take today to start to getting our money on the right track. Here's how I did it and you can too.
Know your numbers
I have something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder from my days when I was in constant fear of over-drafting my account or bouncing my rent check.
But Chris Hobart, president and CEO of Hobart Financial Group, said knowing how much debt you have is the first step to chipping away at it.
I laid out how much I owe in student loans and on my two credit cards, set up auto-payments for each, and worked out a plan to start paying off more than my minimum payments each month to get rid of the debt faster and cut back on interest.
Get your credit score — every year
When my bank only gave me a $300 limit when I applied for a credit card as a college freshman, I didn't know someone had stolen my identity and had taken out a $12,000 Chase credit card. The person maxed the card out and defaulted on every payment, dragging my credit score down to the pits.
I got my first credit report only two years ago and that's when I found out. I was able to have it erased, but some damage was already done. During college, I was constantly turned down for credit limit extensions which hindered my opportunity to really build up my credit.
Avoid this by checking your credit report annually at Experian.com, Transunion.com or AnnualCreditReport.com.
Clean up your accounts
When I lost my credit card in January and was issued a new one, I went weeks before realizing my auto payments weren't being debited from my checking account and that my credit card was way overdue.
I could have avoided this if I'd simply checked my account once or twice a week to be sure everything was in order.
Now I watch my accounts like a hawk and updated them with my current email address so all my important bank alerts come to my primary email.
See that savings account? Use it.
The fail safe rule for savings is to have at least three months' worth of cash for an emergency fund, but Hobart recommends saving up for six months, given the current economy.
"Before you even start worrying about a 401(k) or investments, you should have emergency savings," he says.
Until recently, my savings account was more of a formality than anything else. I probably had $5 in the thing just to keep it active, but I started automatically shifting 10 percent of my income there per month.
Use that dirty B-word: Budget
As a reformed Groupon addict, nothing makes me less excited about finances than the idea of having a budget.
But it's a necessary evil and disciplining myself in how I manage my cash. An easy way to do so this is to set up a handful of savings accounts for different goals, says Casey Weade, a financial planner.
Have money auto-deposited from your checking account before you even have the chance to touch it, he says. You'll never miss it and your nest egg will grow.
Adjust your expectations
When I turned 18 and could start applying for credit cards, I just knew I wanted things. Lots of them.
"This is a very dangerous mindset," Hobart says, and it's commonly found among children of baby boomers. "Kids say they want their parents' life right away and they're willing to go into debt to get it."
I'm shooting for reachable financial goals now, like saving for a nice vacation and paying off my student loans, rather than beating myself up because I haven't bought a house yet.
Don't let terms like 401(k) scare you
Nothing sounded more grown up and terrifying to me than the idea of getting a 401(k).
But setting up a 401(k) with your employer is one of the first things you should do when you've got your first full-time job, says Scott Holsopple, president and CEO of Smart401k.
Ask your human resource department about a matching 401(k) plan and sign up if the company offers it. Otherwise you're basically turning down free money. If they have a matching plan, then contribute the maximum amount, Holsopple says.
Caution: If you're barely scraping by, it might be better to use a regular savings account that you can easily access for now. You'll lose money if you try to withdraw from your 401(k) before you retire.
Face it: Eventually you'll need to retire
Retirement, believe it or not, is something we should be thinking about now. But full disclosure: I couldn't have told you what an IRA even was or why we need one until I chatted with Weade.
He advises us to ask our employers about setting up a specific type of retirement fund, called a Roth IRA.
With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on the money you put into your retirement account now. When you're ready to start using the fund once you've retired, the money is tax-free. This type of IRA is ideal for 20-somethings, Weade says.
"We've still got 30 to 40 years left to go before we even touch that money," he says, which gives it plenty of time to grow in value.
Find a mentor
Treat your finances like your career and find a mentor, Weade advises.
Like many 20-somethings, I can't afford to hire a pricey financial planner, so I turned to family for advice. My uncle is a pro at all things banking and he isn't afraid to give me tough love.
When he found out I was laid off and had no savings to lean on, he told me straight up what a moron I was (you know, in a loving way).
Needless to say, he's been checking up on me ever since.