A Letter to My 18-Year Old Self

by Shawanda Greene

Okay. I'm not 18 in this picture, but it's the youngest digital picture of myself I can find.

On August 2nd, Sarah over at The $60K Project published A Letter To My 18-Year-Old Self. Immediately I thought, “What a great idea?!”

I’ve written letters to my future self, but never considered telling the thinner yet chubbier cheeked younger me how to manage her life. Obviously, there’s nothing we can do to change the past. However, reflecting on the choices you made – good or bad – may remind you of the decisions you must make in order to craft your desired life going forward.

I told Sarah I’d steal her idea. As a woman of my word, here I am – stealing Sarah’s idea.

Dear Shawanda,

First, let me say you’re awesome, and you’re only getting more awesome.

You’re young, but you make really good decisions – mostly. When you’re tempted to make those not so good decisions, the 29-year old smarter and more fabulous version of yourself, i.e., me, will try to coax you toward the right path. That’s the purpose of this letter.

What You Did Wrong

Prepare a budget for goodness’ sake! It’s easy. Write down how much money you have coming in, and subtract how much money you have going out. Refusing to write down your monthly cash inflows and outflows allow you to live in a dream world where you dine out frequently and wear clothes you can’t afford.  Maybe you want to ignore the reality that you earn very little money, but denial doesn’t prevent you from racking of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. And you will.

Don’t decline COBRA. In December 2006, you’re going to quit your job and let your health insurance lapse. What are you? Stupid? Fortunately, you won’t experience any major medical setbacks, but we aren’t always so lucky. Pay the three hundred and something odd dollars for the health insurance you’ll need to protect your physical and financial health should a major illness arise.

Listen to that old guy at the lumberyard who tells you blogs are the next huge thing. It’s natural to think older people are clueless when it comes to technology, but don’t be so quick to disregard their advice when it comes to the subject matter. The old guy knows what he’s talking about. Start a blog in 2004, and get a head start monetizing it.

Enter Your Name and Email Below and Click

Buy gold. It feels icky just saying it, but I must. Around 2004 or 2005ish, your brother, whom’s financial acumen you have zero respect for, will tell you to buy gold. Turns out, that was really good advice. Although you can’t afford to purchase and harbor gold bars, at least look into investing a few dollars in a gold ETF. It won’t kill ya.

Ignore financial experts who tell you to invest only enough of your salary to maximize the company match on your 401(k) contributions. Ideally, you’ll invest any additional retirement funds in a Roth IRA. But actually, you’ll spend the excess money on foolishness, because you’re not going to open that IRA until three years after you begin your professional career. Your 401(k) options are limited, but you’ll be better off doing what’s good, investing 12% of your salary not 6%, than you would if you don’t do what’s great.

Stop shopping for recreation. Target and Wal-Mart are not playgrounds for aimless adults. If you’re bored, volunteer, read a book, anything but spend money. You won’t use most of the crap you buy, and you’ll end up throwing it out or giving it away every time you change addresses. By the way, you’ll move six times before you turn 30. Think of all the waste!

Don’t bother applying for food stamps. With scholarships, grants, student loans, AND an $8 an hour secretarial job, the government won’t think you’re pathetic enough to receive them. Get used to being disgusted with how government insists on investing the most money in nonproductive citizens.

Don’t borrow so much in student loans. It’s unnecessary. If you prepare a budget like I told you, you’ll see you have enough to live on. Okay, maybe not enough to comfortably live on, but you won’t starve. Well, you won’t starve to death.

Get more sleep. You’ll go through a phase of getting drunk and staying out late. It’ll be a blast. But here’s the problem: your carefree antics will prevent you from staying awake in your 8 AM, Macroeconomics class. You’ll ace three exams, flunk one, earn a “B” grade, and never forgive yourself. I’m not sure you’ll ever be delivered from the vice of inadequate sleep. Almost 12 years later, and you’re still averaging only 5 or 6 hours a night.

What You Did Right

As indicated earlier, you’re not a complete idiot. You stayed focused and disciplined. Which was absolutely necessary in order to keep your scholarship.

Yeah. You graduated with a little student loan debt, but things could’ve been much worse if you’d borrowed to pay for tuition, fees, and text books. Read about other ways to reduce college debt here.

Thank you for acknowledging you have no clue what your major should be or what professions interest you. Starting your college career undeclared was a great idea. After much research and self discovery, you’ll choose a field of study that meshes with your skills, interests, and desire to obtain a well paying job after investing 4 years of some of your best years in college.

When people tell you Betsy, your beloved 1995 Geo Prizm, looks like crap and you should get a new car, you’ll reject their idiocy outright. Besty was a wonderful gift from your mother that’ll serve as a reliable and energy efficient means of transportation for many years. Be forever grateful for your mother’s generosity. She didn’t have much. Betsy will be dented on all sides, and a paint job wouldn’t hurt, but you won’t dare pay for any aesthetic repairs. Good job.

Very Truly Yours,

Shawanda Greene

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Hough August 15, 2011 at 2:57 PM

You did pretty good as an 18 year-old. Most people make much bigger mistakes when they are young.


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:47 PM

I was fortunate to not make too many big, dumb mistakes when I was young. I've been interested in personal finance since I was in high school so I knew deep down what I should do. Even if I didn't always act as if I did.


1step August 15, 2011 at 5:15 PM

what a great letter! I think it really shows some major lessons you've learned and how you've grown as a person. hindsight is 20/20 right :)


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Yeah it is. That's why it's so important to not beat ourselves up when we make mistakes.


Doctor Stock August 15, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Great idea. This is an actionable idea that I can't wait to explore. Thanks for the inspiration.


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:48 PM


I say that like I came up with the idea. Hehehe.


My University Money August 15, 2011 at 7:38 PM

This is a great idea for a post! I may steal it myself in the near future if you don't mind! Just out of curiosity, did your brother actually have legitimate reasons for buying gold back in 2005, or was it just a lucky guess?


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:53 PM

I vaguely recall him explaining why I should buy gold, but I wasn't really listening. My mind wasn't open. But even if my brother's reasons for investing in gold were completely asinine, a gold ETF would've added more diversity to my portfolio. I should've thought of it from that angle.


My University Money August 17, 2011 at 3:48 PM

Definitely a good point. I just know that it seems like people are coming out of the woodwork now saying that they seen this coming. I fully expect in 3 years the blogosphere will be full of people who claimed that everyone should have been shorting gold in 2011 (disclosure: I am definitely shorting gold and advocating everyone else do the same over the next few years, just take a look at historical averages.


FamilyMoneyValues August 15, 2011 at 10:30 PM

Nice post idea and well executed. It's great that you didn't just beat your younger self up – you pointed out the good things along with the things your older self would have preferred your younger self had done.


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:56 PM

Let's hope I keep that attitude going. Being too hard on yourself is counterproductive and can cause you to abandon your goals when perfection proves impossible – and perfection is always impossible.


@DebtChronicles August 15, 2011 at 11:30 PM

I really like reading posts along this theme….my letter would be really short:

Dear Travis:

Stay away from the Citibank stand in the Student Union your freshman year at college. Stay away from all of them. Seriously. You'll thank me one day.


Shawanda August 16, 2011 at 10:59 PM

Now, that's funny. My first credit card was with MBNA. They got me with a t-shirt.


Shannyn@FruBeautiful August 23, 2011 at 10:33 PM

AH, loved this! Maybe I'll *have* to steal it from both of you! Poignant post…. lord knows, if we only knew then what we know now!


Mark A. Morales October 15, 2011 at 1:14 AM

We did something like this in elementary. Once our letter was finished we handed it back to the teacher and she said she was going to send them to us in 8 years…..I still haven't recieved my letter and I'm dying to know what I wrote in it!


free7 January 31, 2012 at 4:48 AM

haha… have you got idea for your 60-Year Old Self …

very cool article


ImpulseSave April 3, 2012 at 10:38 AM

If only we all knew to buy gold back then! This is a great article – I think you have such solid advice. I wonder if other 18 yr olds can read this now and learn from your past. Such solid advice!


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