By Brad Beckstrom
Photo credit: morguefile.com
My nephew wants to live lean. He’s twenty-something and still in college. He’s moving to a new town and asked me for advice. First, I’ll tell him be careful what you ask for, you’ll often get it.
So, here goes. My advice, not in any particular order.
Get some roommates.
New in town? Get a roommate. If you’re in college, I recommend you avoid expensive campus housing and meal plans and opt for a near campus rental. When I was in college and working my first job, I opted for two roommates. While this is often not ideal, it allows you to rent a small townhouse or slightly larger apartment and save money at the same time.
With three people chipping in for the bills, everything becomes a bit more affordable. If you’re lucky, you may meet some friends for life, as I did on several occasions. Good roommates are sometimes hard to find but it’s easier now to explore options with Craigslist and social media. I found the best roommates are often someone I’ve already met, possibly someone I worked with at a restaurant, or met at school.
At first, avoid year long leases, if you can. Try to find an existing two roommate set up that’s looking for a third. This way if things don’t work out on your first try you’re not locked into any long-term situation.
I stuck with the roommate set up for years, even after I started my own company and had purchased other homes. I kept the first home as a rental, replacing myself with another roommate when I moved on. I had a roommate until I got married.
Roommates can be a pain, so you have to really work at it until you find a great setup. Once you find it, volunteer to help out with the bills and track things using Mint.com or apps like Splitwise. A simple shared Google docs spreadsheet is great if you have multiple folks adding items to the document.
Work in High School and College.
My grades were just below a 3.0 at a midsize state college, but I was offered the first three corporate jobs I interviewed for. I was hired and put to work for a boss who was Princeton grad, and coworkers who went to Dartmouth, Duke, and Notre Dame. My point of difference was not the name of my university or my GPA, it was my work experience in college and high school. Interviewers were impressed with my proven work ethic. Very few of those Ivy League types had worked two jobs in college and started a travel business.
Some of the best experience can be found working in a restaurant. I started in some smaller restaurants at the beach then worked in larger chain restaurants that were busy, and that meant good tips. You also meet a ton of people. People that became lifelong friends and roommates worked with me at the restaurant. You may even be able to get some management experience, or work as a trainer. Finally, working at restaurants three or four nights a week, frees up some time for internships and other student activities.
Photo credit: krosseel from morguefile.com
Avoid Large Student Loans and Loans in General.
Student loans have gotten out of control. Mark Cuban says the “easy money the government funnels to college students is no different than the policies that caused the housing bubble”. He’s right. It’s better to choose a more affordable school and keep student loan debt to a minimum or zero.
Speaking of loans, don’t even think of buying a new car, even after you graduate. There is a glut of perfectly nice three and four year-old cars coming off of leases out there. In college, I recommend riding a bike is much as possible, ridesharing, and walking.
Become a Minimalist
The more stuff you have, the more time you need to take care of your stuff. Mo Stuff = Mo Problems. Just buy what you “really” need. Use tools like Craigslist to find necessities like furniture, bikes, pots and pans, mobile phones. Becoming a minimalist allows you to focus on experiences rather than stuff. Think about it as traveling light. Less stuff makes it easier to move and be open to opportunities.
Avoid Plans and Packages
Avoid expensive recurring charges like cable packages and mobile phone plans that include a shiny new device. Buy an affordable mobile phone or a gently used one. This will allow you to take advantage of a lot of the $25 per month unlimited plans that are out there. The iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S are great phones and there is a glut of them out there after the latest iPhone 6 upgrade cycle. Watch out for anything that involves recurring charges like satellite radio, furniture rentals, online subscriptions, bill me later type plans. Beat them back with a stick. It’s a trap!
Take Care of Yourself.
Even with new affordable care, healthcare in this country is outrageously expensive. Taking care of yourself is one way to beat this system. Everyone should have catastrophic coverage but focus on getting an affordable plan that gives you the very basics. Think long-term, if you start regular exercise now your healthcare costs will be lower throughout your life. Most younger people think they’re indestructible. Don’t think this way, you’ll regret it later.
Learn to cook some basic healthy stuff, like steel cut oatmeal. Ease up on the junk food, and don’t get too excited about half-price beers. All things in moderation. For entertainment become an expert on local dives.
There’s also other hidden benefits to focusing on fitness. You’ll find that you need less new clothing and that even gently used clothing from a thrift store will look better if you’re in shape and feel good about yourself.
I can’t stress this enough. Everything listed here should lead to some savings. The most important thing is to bank is much money as you can beginning in your 20s. After you accumulate a three month emergency fund, take your savings and put them in a low-cost index fund from Vanguard. More on low-cost investing here.
Finally, since you’re going back to college, I’ll send you off with some required reading.
Everything That Remains
A memoir about minimalism. And quick and interesting read that you can get through in a few hours. Think of it as a how-to on minimalism with an entertaining story thrown in.
Your Money or Your Life.
A personal-finance classic from the early 90s that taught me more about the working world and personal finance than any other book or course I took in college.