Life & Money Advice for a 21-year-old Reader

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4 min read

I recently received the following email from a reader:


“Hi Zach,

I wanted to pop in and say thanks for doing what you do! I’ve been loving the daily blog posts. I wanted to reach out with a question. I’m 21, a junior in college at *************** and I’m considering going into data science but I also want to be an entrepreneur and start my own business. I just don’t know exactly what to start it in.

I’m definitely interested in math and statistics and was inspired by your side hustle post where you shared how you earned money from Craigslist with stats tutoring. I also have some experience programming with Java so I’m considering doing some type of consulting with that.

My net worth is pretty much $0 since I haven’t had a real job yet, but I love the idea of achieving financial independence by age 30. I’m wondering what you think the best path to pursue would be. Should I focus on getting a high paying job straight out of college or try to do freelancing where I have more time to start my own business? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and keep doing what you’re doing!

Cheers,
******”


When I received this email, I couldn’t believe how similar this reader was to myself when I was 21. I also discovered the FIRE community around this same age and had the exact same thoughts as this reader. Should I try to save as much money as possible by age 30, should I start my own business, or perhaps a blend of both?

Over the past three years I’ve gained some clarity around these questions and I’m excited to share some of my insights with this reader who reminds me of a younger version of myself.

Pursue Learning, Discipline, Growth, and Connections

When you’re in college, the idea of graduating and immediately becoming your own boss and earning an income without anyone’s help is enticing. Unfortunately, graduating and entering the real world can present a real wake-up call.

Very few 20-somethings are successful entrepreneurs who earn their own income, not because the world hates 20-somethings and won’t pay them for their work, but because most young people fundamentally lack the skill set and experience needed to earn money working for themselves. 

For example, this reader knows they’re interested in math and statistics, but this doesn’t automatically translate into a clear income path. Having a skill set and knowing how to monetize a skill set are two completely different things.

One quote about income and passion that I constantly think about comes from the CEO of 3D Robotics Chris Anderson:

“Many of us have bought into the cliché ‘pursue your passion.’ For many, that is terrible advice. In your 20s, you may not really know what your best skills and opportunities are. It’s much better to pursue learning, personal discipline, and growth. And to seek out connections with people across the planet. For a while, it’s just fine to follow and support someone else’s dream. In so doing, you will be building valuable relationships, valuable knowledge. And at some point your passion will come and whisper in your ear, ‘I’m ready.’”

As a young person straight out of college without experience, you may not know what your best skills even are. You might be good at math and stats but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to monetize those skills effectively. 

In my opinion, one of the best positions to be in as a recent college grad is one where you can earn an income working for someone else while having the ability to grow your skill set on the job. 

In my first job straight out of college, I earned $52k as a data analyst. This isn’t an insane amount of money, but I had the freedom and flexibility to learn as much as I wanted during my hours in the office. This is helped me grow my skill set, which I later leveraged to land my current job with a salary of $80k

As Anderson said, it’s better to pursue learning, discipline, growth, and connections. These are the areas that will buy your future freedom.

Start Creating

Another piece of advice I’d give this reader is to start creating. Grab a domain name, start a website, and start building shit.

If you want to get into data science, download a public data set and summarize it, visualize it, or build a model with it and show it to the world. Share your code. Share your results. Do this over and over. Your work doesn’t even have to be good at first. You just need to keep creating and building. Over time, your skill set and knowledge will grow.

Money is Only Part of the Equation

This reader sounds like someone who has drive. As I’ve written in previous posts, complete F.I. isn’t necessary for most people who have the ability to achieve F.I. It’s the great paradox. The people most capable of achieving F.I. are the ones who are most likely to be lifelong learners, creators, and doers who don’t have the personality of someone who wants to fully retire and live on a beach.

As I wrote in my FinCon recap post, most people I met at FinCon who had achieved F.I. were still working in some capacity. They were people who enjoyed working as long as they found their work meaningful. 

It’s important to keep in mind that money is only part of the equation. The whole point of stacking savings is to give yourself options in your working life. Focus on finding work you enjoy doing, not just saving a boatload of money. 

Resist the Urge to Participate in the Trophy Game

In your early 20s especially there will be a huge variance among people you know who are landing $80k+ jobs and those who are still working entry-level jobs while living with their parents.

If you’re on any type of social media, you’ll come across subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) flexing from people buying new cars, houses, and other trinkets to show they “made” it. I call this the “trophy game.” People love to show off their trophies that don’t actually mean anything in the long run. Just remember that the shine eventually wears off on these trophies but the monthly bills remain.

The more you can focus on creating things, building your skill set, gaining experience, and saving money, the more freedom you’ll have at 30 than anyone you know.

Enjoy the Ride

With all that said, don’t be too hard on yourself or so focused that you miss out on your 20s. Enjoy the ride. Give yourself permission to travel, go to music festivals, take road trips, go to parties, and make memories. Life isn’t just one big self-improvement game, it’s meant to be enjoyed as well. As long as the core of your life is built on discipline, you can get everything you want without sacrificing your health and relationships.


My favorite free financial tool I’ve been using since 2015 to manage my net worth is Personal Capital. Each month I use their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track my investments and ensure that I’m on the fast track to financial freedom.

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Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.

3 Replies to “Life & Money Advice for a 21-year-old Reader”

  1. Really like this post, Zach. I’ve been coming to terms with this same idea throughout my 20’s (I’m 28 now). I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but I’ve spent my 20’s jumping around and learning new skills. Learn how to manage your finances, grow your income, build relationships and figure out what you’re good at. It’s a recipe for success. Then once we have a better understanding of who we are and what we are great at, then it’s time to start your own business or pursue your “passion”.

    I’ve felt frustrated not feeling like I’m doing work I’m passionate about, but it’s just a sign that it’s time to try something new, or understand that sometimes a job is about what skills you get from it, not changing the world. For most of us, great work comes with hard work and patience.

    1. Completely agree with your last point – great work comes with hard work and patience. Also, passion tends to grow with mastery. The better you are in a certain field, the more you tend to enjoy it and feel passionate about it.

  2. Yes, I remember going thru that same path in my early 20s as well. Trying to get into a field where I can learn enough and then chart my own path was always a goal, but the job I fell into had very very little room to operate in an independent/freelance/contract capacity.

    I remember reading somewhere where Jack Ma outlines the following
    In your 20s – you learn as much as you can
    In your 30s – do what you want to do
    In your 40s – do what you are good at
    In your 50s – teach others what you have accumulated it.

    Of course life is not linear, but it’s a good rough sketch

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