16 Common Mistakes Young People Make

Over 31 million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 live in the United States. As any of us who have lived through our younger years can attest, that’s more than 31 million opportunities for mistakes.

Even though mistakes are a part of life regardless of one’s age, young Americans’ mistakes often have the potential to have huge consequences for their future.

These are some of the most common mistakes young people make, as seen through the eyes of my now wiser thirtysomething lens.

1: No Emergency Fund

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Twenty-two percent of Americans have no emergency fund, and given that building savings takes time, young people make up a significant portion of that statistic. However, not having savings to fall back on can lead to crippling credit card debt.

Based on a 2023 Bankrate survey, 33% of Americans would have to borrow money if they had an emergency expense of $1,000 or more, including via a credit card or personal loan. Even if a young person can’t quickly save for the recommended three to six months’ worth of emergency expenses, building the habit of putting a little bit away into savings each month is vital.

2: College Is the Only Way

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Many young people have parents who grew up in a generation where college was viewed as the way to earn a comfortable living. While that may have held truth back in the day, the math doesn’t always add up nowadays.

According to the Education Data Initiative, a four-year public college education cost an average of $26,027 per academic year in 2023. A private university education was even more expensive, averaging $55,840 per year for a student living on campus.

The most gut-wrenching part is that many students graduate college with low-paying job prospects. In contrast, students who attend a trade school or get a certification can often make as much, if not more, money than college graduates for a fraction of the cost.

3: Relying on Credit Cards

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Many young people swipe their credit cards without considering the financial consequences of their future. Statistically, Generation Z has the lowest credit card debt, at $1,963. But they also have the lowest average credit card limits.

Fast forward to the millennial generation, and the average credit card debt increases to $4,322. Generation X is in even worse shape, with $7,155 of credit card debt.

The bottom line? Young people who get into the habit of relying on credit cards to cover what they can’t afford set themselves up for financial trouble. If only we could convince young people that spending more than what they can afford to pay off on their credit card is detrimental to their financial future.

4: Caring Too Much About the Wrong Things

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Young people tend to care a lot about things that tend to fade with age. Namely, what others think of them. According to Deep Eddy Therapy, there’s science behind why this is.

Difficult social experiences during childhood and adolescence can subconsciously cause young people to care too much about what others think. Being bullied, left out of cliques, parental neglect, and humiliation in front of others are all situations that a young person carries with them into adulthood, shaping the way they think and interact with those around them.

5: Not Matching Their 401(k)

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Taking an employer up on a 401(k) match is like receiving free money. Unfortunately, many young people pass up this opportunity in the name of having a little extra income in the present.

Let’s say a young person could receive a 401(k) employer match of $1,336 per year. After 20 years of contributions and compounding, that could be over $42,800 in free money they’re leaving on the table. And since salaries typically increase with time and, thus, the amount of money one can contribute to the 401(k), the lost opportunity is likely far higher than this.

6: Driving Recklessly

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Parents often make it well-known to their children that car insurance premiums are higher for young people. However, since teenagers usually don’t pay for their car insurance, they may not drive as carefully as they should, which can be a habit that carries over into adulthood.

Reckless driving doesn’t only involve high speeds. Studies show that fatigue-driven drowsy or sleepy driving is more common in young drivers than older drivers. Other contributing factors to reckless driving when one is young include cell phone distractions, eating in the car, and interacting with other passengers.

7: Being in a Hurry

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Perhaps being in a hurry is another young person trait that transfers from one’s childhood. After all, many children look up to kids older than them, wanting to be in the next grade, turn an age when they can get their driver’s permit and vote.

However, having this rushed mentality can be a disservice to young people. For example, even though it takes an average of one to two years to receive a promotion, they might get discouraged when they don’t get promoted as quickly as they’d like.

They also might be in a hurry to buy a home, find a partner, and other “American Dream” tasks that society has led them to believe they need to achieve early on in life. But as many older people would advise, slowing down and enjoying life as it plays out is often the better route.

8: Giving Up Too Quickly

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Instant gratification is something that many young people were accustomed to during their childhoods. They may have been allowed to eat whatever junk food they wanted, play video games until late at night, and buy clothes they wanted online with the click of a button using their parents’ credit cards.

However, some young people become so used to instant gratification that it can cause them to give up too quickly when things don’t go their way. And let’s face it: Many things don’t go one’s way in adulthood.

Young people aren’t entirely to blame for giving up quickly on things, though. According to Psychology Today, each time a person makes an impulsive, instant gratification behavior, it reinforces their brain pathways to do that same behavior in the future. Each time an impulsive behavior is reinforced, it becomes more difficult to break the pattern.

9: People Pleasing

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No one should live their lives being rude to others. However, abiding by other people’s wishes all the time also isn’t healthy. Nonetheless, when young people enter the workforce, they often go through a people-pleasing phase as they learn to navigate the grown-up world.

People pleasing often derives from the fear of abandonment from peers, colleagues, or a job altogether. Although young people pleasers often have a good heart and good intentions, it can be at the sacrifice of their own mental well-being. As many older people can attest to, people pleasing isn’t worth it.

10: Lack of Personal Responsibility

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Blaming one’s parents might be the cool thing to do in high school. But it doesn’t fly as a young person. Taking responsibility for your life and actions is the epitome of being a grown-up, something that often takes younger people time to get the hang of.

Researchers believe that a lack of personal responsibility can foster negative teaming experiences at universities and in the workplace. Poor interpersonal communication is also a by-product, which can cause a slew of issues for young people as they try to make their way into the “real” world.

11: Spending Too Much Time on Social Media

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Young people grew up with social media. But spending hours per day on social media can be an extra big disservice as they transition from their teenage years to their twenties.

Studies show that social media can increase the chances of depression and lower self-esteem. Transitioning from living with parents to being on one’s own is difficult enough; adding the potential for mental health and self-image issues as a result of excessive time spent using social media isn’t what young people need.

12: Renting What They Can’t Afford

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Yes, most of us prefer to have our own space in the best part of town. But for most young people starting their careers, renting their version of an ideal apartment right away isn’t practical.

Just because a young person can technically afford monthly payments on an expensive apartment doesn’t mean they should do it. If emergency expenses come up, they could end up having to use credit cards as a crutch to get by. Furthermore, many apartment complexes have hefty fees for breaking a contract early.

13: Adhering to Mortgage Payments

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Although paying mortgages on time is better than paying them late, young homeowners often miss out on the opportunity to reduce their mortgage length and the total amount they owe by paying once per month. Instead, they’d be wise to make biweekly mortgage payments.

Making half-payments every two weeks means that they’ll pay 13 full payments per year instead of 12, with the extra money going towards the principal. That reduces the amount of interest they end up paying.

For example, if a young person has a $439,453 30-year mortgage, making biweekly payments would allow them to pay it off in only 23 years. The best part? They’ll pay $327,470 instead of $439,453.

14: Living To Work

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It’s easy for younger people to pour themselves into their first jobs. They may put their hobbies and friend get-togethers aside to do so. But as so many older people would advise, putting in excessive hours of work month after month isn’t worth it.

The good news? Surveys show that there’s a greater emphasis on work-life balance in recent years. There’s even been a push for a 4-day workweek, although the U.S. is likely still far from making that the norm.

15: Minimum Payment Failures

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Many older people wish they could turn back time to advise their young selves this: Just because you can pay the minimum payment on a purchase doesn’t mean you can afford the item.

Not only is paying the minimum payment on, say, a credit card not truly affording the item, but a person in debt often has minimum payments that increase with time. Some of this is because minimum payments often go towards paying the interest, and some of it is because credit card companies may increase one’s balance, encouraging more spending.

16: Worrying Too Much About Mistakes

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Everyone makes mistakes regardless of their age. But when people are young, it can be easy for mistakes to consume them.

Most mistakes can’t be undone, but they can be learned from. So, instead of rehashing how they should have done something differently for the umpteenth time, young people would be better off accepting a mistake for what it is and not going down the same path next time.

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