The 5 Biggest Financial Mistakes I Made in My 30s

A woman sitting at her kitchen table reviewing paper bills with a laptop open in front of her.

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Making a mistake used to embarrass the ever-lovin’ daylights out of me. It took me a while to figure out that mistakes can be one of the best learning tools in life. I can't exactly say that I’m proud of the missteps I’ve made through the years, but I can tell you that I’ve learned from them.

Financially, I can look back and pinpoint my 30s as the decade I learned the most. And yes, it’s because of the number of world-class mistakes I made. In no particular order, here are my top five.

1. Embraced lifestyle creep

I loved everything about my 30s. Every. Single. Thing. I loved having kids at home, work I enjoyed, and finally -- after getting married as a teenager -- having money to spend. My husband and I darn near killed ourselves getting through college while working and raising two babies. In our 30s, it all seemed to come together.

I got to write and he steadily moved up the ranks in the auto industry, first becoming a plant manager and then a vice president of operations. And with every success came a bit more money. We celebrated by spending like sailors on leave.

Rather than earmark new income for investments or retirement, we bought stuff we could have easily lived without. At first, it may have been because we went so long without having money. But after a short time, it just became irresponsible.

It's one of the biggest regrets of my life. Today, we live below our means and watch what we spend, but what I wouldn't give to have that decade back. If we'd taken each raise and invested it we wouldn't have to put so much energy into investing today.

I've learned that when we have holes in our lives that we try to fill with "stuff," we're never satisfied. And the things we buy, whether it's a boat or a hot tub, eventually become junk.

2. Tried to impress people

I liked having the nicest house in our neighborhood, and I liked being able to spruce it up whenever the mood struck. I remember having neighbors over for a pre-Christmas dinner and going out to buy holiday-themed dinner plates. Honestly, what was I thinking? I'm a terrible cook and Santa's face on a plate was not going to make the food taste any better.

Everything -- from the cars we drove to where I bought the kids' clothes -- were meant to impress. But why? Why would I want to be around anyone who only liked us if we had enough money to waste?

Of all the bad habits I took into my 30s, this is probably the first one I grew out of. People care about you or they don't. All the personal belongings in the world cannot change that fact.

3. Swam in optimism

I was in my early 30s when I decided to create a long-term budget. I sat down and figured out how much money we would have in 10, 20, and 30 years. I factored staying in our house, receiving annual raises, and big fat bonuses for my husband.

And then everything went south. But more on that in a moment.

4. Charged like Thurston Howell III

The above-mentioned hoping to impress people led to obnoxiously high credit card bills, but I thought it was okay. Again, as an overly optimistic 30-something, I was certain we would always have the level of income required to pay the cards off in full.

5. Never prioritized saving

I was convinced that the American auto industry would remain strong and my husband would always have a great job. Saving for a rainy day was an afterthought. If there was money left at the end of the month, I'd tuck it away, but saving was never a priority.

It took a Great Recession to prove how foolish I'd been. My husband's industry took a nosedive, plants closed, and we found ourselves starting over. Writing is my passion but it was not a lucrative job. I scrambled to find a way to make more money.

Suddenly, all those bad habits of my 30s came home to roost. We were afraid we wouldn't have enough saved to carry us through the downturn and even small credit card bills felt huge. I quickly realized how irresponsibly optimistic I'd been. It's one thing to hope for the best, but I'd never learned how to plan for the worst.

As embarrassing as my mistakes may be, they are not without value. Here's what I learned during that decade:

  • Never charge more than you can pay off at the end of the month.
  • No one who matters cares what you own.
  • Every promotion, raise, bonus, tax refund, or inheritance presents an opportunity to secure your financial future. Spending it on non-necessities adds nothing to your life.
  • With practice, saving money feels better than spending.
  • When optimism blinds you to reality, you're living in a fantasy.

The big lesson learned during my 30s is that financial freedom means not worrying about money.

When my end comes, I'm not going to care about a boat, clothing, or a fancy house. All that has ever mattered are the people in my life. And that may be the best lesson of all.

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