This guest post from Jen Bevel is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

In just a few short months, I will be — gasp! — thirty years old. Thirty always seems so old when you’re young, but it sneaks up quickly. After reading RJ’s article on Gen-Y Wealth about financial milestones (and J.D.’s follow-up article,) I wanted to take some time to reflect on my own financial milestones. Since I haven’t reached all the milestones, like “Pay off student loans,” my focus is on my milestone mistakes and the important lessons that will undoubtedly shape my thirties.

My Early Twenties
A little background information is needed to understand my situation at 20. I was born to teenage parents in a small, rural town; we never had much growing up, but we also never lacked anything necessary.

Long story short, I was the first in my family to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and I had my heart set on attending a private university in St. Louis that came with a hefty price tag. To get through, I relied on my credit cards and student loans. I began to think of them almost like my own money instead of viewing them for what they really were. I always paid on time and played the 0% APR credit card game for most of my twenties.

At age 20, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain for one semester. I found myself saying the phrase “It’s only money” on multiple occasions as I justified splurges on souvenirs that just collect dust to this day. (Did I really need shot glasses and t-shirts from Hard Rock Café?)

I graduated with honors, and the next day was on a plane to South Africa for a graduate study abroad program. The poverty in Cape Town is beyond overwhelming. On a visit to the townships, I saw a little boy playing with a wooden block, pretending it was a car. I’ll never forget that image, and I wish I could have incorporated his creativity into my own life.

At this time, I was buying books, electronic gadgets, dinners out, vacations, and other non-essentials on credit cards. My graduate program was completely paid for with an assistantship, but I still took out $8500 in student loans just because I could.

My Mid- to Late-Twenties
In one month — March 2006 — I got engaged, bought a house, successfully defended my master’s thesis, and accepted a tenure-track teaching job at a community college. It’s hard to plan a wedding and furnish a new home, but with the bigger paychecks coming in, it’s very easy to justify every little whim.

The debt grew bigger, and so did our ambitions. We bought and “flipped” two homes in our neighborhood using what we jokingly called “O-P-M” — other people’s money. And by people, we mean Bank of America, American Express, Discover, Chase, and all their friends. Fortunately, our hard work paid off, and we were able to start attacking the debt and building savings. I still owe for students loans, and my husband and I recently opened a bakery which required taking on some debt, but our financial picture has greatly improved and we are moving in the right direction.

Lessons Learned
What have I learned over the past decade? Just as J.D. has compiled a list of his financial tenets, I have some of my own:

  • Save and plan. Before leaving for Spain, I cashed in a stack of $50 EE savings bonds that my grandpa had given me every Christmas. It felt good to cash those in for something I really wanted, having resisted cashing them in for Stuff. I really enjoy travel and have learned how gratifying it is to save up for a trip instead of relying on plastic.
  • Think before spending. I love to travel, but my only souvenirs these days are pictures, postcards, and magnets. They are affordable, and I get the pleasure of looking through scrapbooks for the rest of my life. My magnets are a collage of my experiences, and I cherish each one.
  • Experiences trump Stuff. I used credit cards to finance my life through college and my master’s program. While I don’t regret my education, I should have developed a more frugal lifestyle. I wrongly justified using credit cards to buy a lot of Stuff I didn’t need. This is a lesson I don’t want to ever forget.
  • Communicate. My husband did not have any credit card debt or student loans when we started dating. I felt like I was dragging him down. I’ve learned how important it is to communicate financial goals and to be open about the past in order to build a future together.
  • Life is not without risks. Big financial decisions should not be made lightly, and it’s important to make ethical decisions and listen to your gut.
  • Educate yourself. I feel like I had to start from scratch when it came to learning about personal finance in my mid/late-twenties. My parents have made irresponsible financial decisions, but I can’t blame them for my own. I have read Get Rich Slowly and other personal finance blogs and books for a couple years now. I enjoy reader stories, guest posts, and general advice that are all genuine and personal.
  • Money must be respected. Conscious spending, diligent saving/planning, and understanding the difference between wants and needs will make my thirties my best decade so far.

As I reflect on my twenties, I can’t help but think about the post-it note advice my dad gave me before I left for four months in Spain at age 20. The night before I left, he asked to look at the travel book I was taking with me. When I opened the book while in Spain, I found that he’d put post-it notes on different pages that he knew I would look at while traveling. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about these notes, and my favorite one says, “Remember, Jennifer, you will always be happy if you have peace in your heart.”

Making peace with my financial decisions has definitely brought me happiness, and these lessons will stay with me throughout my life.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.