Money

7 hard truths about money that everyone should learn in their 20s

Your 20s aren't exactly simple, especially when it comes to money. After all, odds are you're on your own financially for the first time but you were never taught the fundamentals of personal finance.

The good news is, managing your money doesn't have to be complicated.

Financial planner and New York Times columnist Carl Richards boils down everything you need to know about personal finance into simple graphs and diagrams. Personal finance app Albert, which provides simple money advice and lets you act on it from your phone, does the same with cartoons.

Here are seven hard truths about money that every 20-something should accept, with illustrations courtesy of Albert.

If you don't pay yourself first, you may never pay yourself at all

Pay day is exciting, but it can also trigger overspending.

The first thing you should do when your check clears is pay yourself. Most experts recommend setting aside at least 10% of your pretax income in a tax-advantaged retirement account.

The easiest way to do that is to make the transfer automatic — meaning, have your contributions automatically taken out of your paycheck and sent straight to your retirement account. After all, you can't spend what you never see.

Saving without a plan won't cut it

"You would never spend a bunch of time and energy worrying about whether you should take a car, train or plane without first deciding where you are going," writes Richards. "Yet we spend countless hours researching the merits of one investment over another before we even decide on our goals."

Just as with a trip, you need to decide where you want to go with your money. You need financial goals.

Richards recommends writing down your specific goals and then ranking them in terms of importance. "Sometimes you will have to deal with something that is urgent, like paying off a credit card bill, so you can move on to something really important, like saving for retirement," he writes.

Debt doesn't disappear on its own

Whether it's medical bills, credit card debt, or student loans that have you in the red, create a plan for how to get back into the black. The longer you wait to pay down your debt, the more you'll owe, thanks to interest.

You can start tackling your debt one of two ways: Pay off the highest interest rate debt first, or pay off the things that have the smallest balance first.

Prioritizing the debt with the highest interest rate means you'll pay less over the life of your loans.

The second option ranking your debt in order of size and starting with the smallest debt is a strategy that personal finance expert Dave Ramsey calls the "snowball method." The idea is that each time you pay off one form of debt, you build momentum, which helps you tackle the next biggest, and so on.

You probably won't beat the market

"Finding the next Warren Buffett is not impossible. But it is highly improbable," writes Richards.

He compares investing to golf: "What if you could make par (a great golf score) every time you played? ... In investing terms, making par is comparable to buying a low-cost index fund."

You may not make any hole-in-ones by investing in low-cost index funds, which are broadly diversified and hold many stocks, but you also probably won't lose money rapidly or dramatically. Plus, Buffett is a fan. As he told John C. Bogle in "The Little Book of Common Sense Investing," "By periodically investing in an index fund, the know-nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals."

When it comes to expenses, expect the unexpected

"No matter how hard you try to avoid them, there will always be unexpected expenses," writes bestselling author Ramit Sethi in "I Will Teach You To Be Rich."

There are two types of "disruptive expenses" that can wreck your budget, says Sethi: Known irregular events, like holiday gifts or vacations, and unknown irregular events, like parking tickets or unpredictable medical bills.

The best way to handle these expenses is to prepare for them by working them into your budget. If you know holiday gifts are going to cost you about $300, start setting aside $25 each month starting in January so you're fully prepared come December.

Sometimes you have to spend money in the moment to save it in the future

"It's tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from Wal-mart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time," writes Richards. "Here is the issue: when we settle for stuff that we don't really want, and instead buy stuff that will be fine for a while, it often costs more in the long run."

Invest in things that have value. In addition to saving you money down the road, this approach will likely make you a more conscious spender and force you to think twice before swiping your credit card.

Spending mindlessly adds up

Whether it's adding a purchase to your Amazon cart or grabbing a coffee on your way to work, it's all too easy to spend mindlessly. But that money leaving your pocket could be directed toward your savings goals or growing substantially in a retirement account.

Bach coined the term "The Latte Factor," the idea behind which is that eliminating your $5 daily latte could help you save quite a bit of money over time. A $5 daily coffee amounts to about $35 a week, or $150 a month. "If you invested $150 a month and earned 10% annual return, you'd wind up with $948,611 in 40 years," Bach notes.

Start by determining your "latte factor," cut back on that expense, and direct the money towards an investment account, Bach suggest: "We all throw away too much of our hard-earned money on unnecessary 'little' expenditures without realizing how much they can add up to."