My 20s were a good time. I had fun, I laughed a lot and I accomplished plenty. But while some people say that 20s are to have fun and 30s are to learn the lessons, that’s a lie – my 20s were fruitful in lessons, some of them taught in a way I’d rather spare you from experiencing. So here it goes: the important lessons and how they really landed for me. And not one of them is about keeping a budget.
Don’t trust others with paying shared bills
I used to share a house with two close friends. One of them volunteered herself for the responsibility of sorting out our council tax. Council tax is a significant expense in British households and frankly if you mess up, your local council will come for you. This friend was also a student and therefore sent her student details to the council so that they can apply relevant tax breaks and received back acknowledgement of receipt for her details and the request. However, after that she stopped opening letters from them. We only realised something was off 3 months later – I can’t remember who opened the correspondence but it was a second summons letter and a court warning, this time sent to all three of us instead of just her. Long story short – you are only eligible for a tax break if your whole household is comprised of students (ours was not). We ended up being ineligible for paying the bill in instalments, had to pay the whole year upfront plus over £200 in additional fees. She paid the £20 summons fee herself and ended up with a ding in her credit score. For a household of three 22-year-olds barely making the minimum wage this was an awful experience. Ever since, in every household I ever lived in, I need to see all bills I might be liable for. And you should too.
Ask and you might just get
I was pretty young when I started my first ‘real’ full time office job. Right about the same time I finally decided what I wanted to study, got accepted into a university and realised that part time work is going to be a problem. So for the first couple of months I kept my mount shut and worked in my new full time job, made friends and got on just fine. However, 2 weeks before my course was due to start I had to tell them.
…did you ever get shouted at in work for having ambitions? Let me tell you that if you ever do, you’d better stand your ground and remember why you’re doing what you are doing. I walked out of that hour long, very loud and overly public argument with a new opportunity. In between the shouting, meanness and siblings-level insults, I asked if they could change my role to part time, since they told me in my recent review that I was much more efficient than the previous person in the job. They did – the job sustained me well through 3 years of undergraduate study. But I wouldn’t have gotten it if I didn’t ask for it.
Once in a while money does come easy
I worked at the same small firm throughout university. At my very last Christmas party with them, while I was already working through my notice period, the MD decided that it would be funny if he bet me £50 on whether I could get his boss, let’s call him Mr T, to dance.
Now let me paint you a little picture – Mr T was not a well-liked man at the time. He was the new owner, he was pushing people to make money really hard and he had a tendency to say really inappropriate things. Like asking me if I paid for university by being a stripper (in response I told him I was a Pole dancer*).
I had a vague idea of his intentions – ‘get the kid of the party to make the old man seem likeable’. I went up to Mr T, whom with I was sharing a dinner table anyway and invited him, and the other 6 people we were sitting with, to hit the dance floor. 10 minutes and one short dance party later I was £50 richer. To be honest I wanted that man to have a good time at the party because everybody deserves good memories from an office party. But I also was itching to get dancing anyway after being sat for the 2 hours the meal was being served during, making this £50 the easiest money I have made in my whole life.
Over the years I collected a whole pocket of stories where fate just threw spare change at me – returning people’s lost property and them forcing £20 in my hand, helping a random old lady in my street carry her shopping home only to be asked to house sit for money while she’s visiting family, buying a coffee for a person behind me and winning a gift card because I was their hundredth customer that day… In short, money sometimes just finds us, and it finds us faster if we’re doing something nice for somebody else.
*this is a true story. He knew I was Polish and the response made him (and half of the office) laugh, diffusing the tension. He was perfectly appropriate in all interactions from that point on and we developed friendship of sorts.
Watch the company you keep
I am not proud of this, but I used to pay less attention than I should to people I’m friends with. And this has landed me in a very embarrassing and expensive pickle.
Here’s what happened. A friend of mine invited me for a shopping trip – since we were both broke, alas her style was better, she suggested a certain well known fast fashion chain with a blue logo. I could afford spending some money there at a time, so I agreed. After maybe an hour or so of browsing we went into the changing rooms together, but to checkouts separately. She was faster, so she waited by the door. As we were exiting she asked me to hold her tote bag for a moment which I did – only to be grabbed by a security guard the moment I stepped through the exit. Turns out the bag was filled with goods she didn’t pay for. And I accidentally became her accomplice. In that moment I understood how she was always well dressed while being broke – and that this incident is going to cause me trouble.
And the trouble it cased was this: the security marched us to a room in the back, searched our bags (the fact that I had a receipt for my purchases did nothing to help), took our IDs and threatened us with the police and criminal record. While that never materialised, 3 weeks after the incident a letter did – demanding a damages payment. I can’t remember how much exactly that was, but it was more than £100. That money had to come from somewhere, so it came out of my personal spending, costing me two months of being a hermit. But it sure taught me that I’d rather be a hermit than keep company with people who cannot be trusted.
Always have enough to be your own hero
This story is the last one for early 20s, and likely the one which influences my decisions the most to this date.
For my 25th birthday I organised a trip to Marrakesh for my at the time boyfriend of 4 years and me. One afternoon halfway through the trip I left my handbag with him, and later in the day realised that 50 dirham (approx £5) was missing from my wallet. I put it down to my tardiness and not checking the change – I was footing the bill with him to pay me back on return.
The rest of the vacation went fine, aside from me getting a stomach bug keeping us at the resort pool for a couple of days. By the time we were on our last evening however, I was feeling well and we ended up going to the Jemaa el-Fna open market for dinner. Cash only. When the bill came, I was 40 dirham short – my boyfriend pulled out a 50 note and asked me what I would have done if it wasn’t for him. I didn’t ask him if he stole money from my purse, but I think my face said it all. He literally tried to play my hero on my dime, and in that moment I realised that I never want to be in a position where I can’t bail myself out from a bad situation. And this is why no matter how much you love your partner, how much you trust them, you should always have your own money – it’s hard to be your own hero without that.
And yes, we decided to go our separate ways within weeks from landing back in the UK.