Looking back: 4 money moves I made this year that changed my whole future

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What did your life look like a year ago?

And no, I’m not talking about your embarrassing Facebook status or which cringe-worthy photos you were tagged in. I’m talking about your career and finances: Where were you a year ago, and what were your goals for today?

In this fast-paced world, I’m always looking forward: To the next deadline, event, happy hour or trip. I barely have time to reflect on what I had for breakfast, let alone what life was like a year ago.

It might not be Throwback Thursday quite yet, but with my birthday coming up (the big 2-4!), I’m taking this week to reflect on where I’ve been, how far I’ve come and what I learned along the way. You should do the same.

I remember exactly what I was doing last year, the night before my 23rd birthday. I was trying really, really hard not to cry.

It was like the universe was playing some type of belated April Fools’ prank on me: I had recently been laid off and was barely scraping by on my unemployment insurance. Life was less than great, and to celebrate my birthday, I watched a record number — six! — episodes of “Law and Order” (an accomplishment I’m still kind of proud of). I felt like my dreams of making it as a reporter in New York City were over, and not a bone in my body wanted to celebrate that.

But things changed for me in a New York minute, and my birthday this year will likely involve more mimosas and less moping.

So, what did I learn from the whole experience?

We all encounter setbacks; what will make us successful, though, is establishing good habits despite those setbacks. Here are the biggest money moves I’ve made so far, and ones you should really, really make as well:

1. Establish a savings cushion

Nothing screams, “You should have saved more!” than eating Cup Noodles five nights in a row for dinner. Trust me.

While I try to believe in the power of positive thinking, things go wrong. You might get sick or lose your job, and when that happens, you’ll need some cash to cover your monthly expenses.

Your emergency savings account should have enough to cover four to seven months of expenses. Automate your savings contributions to avoid temptation, and consider it a “peace of mind payment” — you’ll have funds to fall back on when things go awry. Stash it in a high-yield savings account to really maximize your money.

2. Contribute to your retirement fund

Contributing to a 401(k) might sound like something you don’t have to worry about for years. But it’s not. As soon as you’re eligible, you should start making contributions to a retirement account. If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k), consider opening an IRA.

While college was great at teaching me the Pythagorean theorem (because we all know how relevant that information is), they failed to mention the power of compounding interest. Stash that cash now, and watch it grow.

I don’t even miss the portion of my paycheck that goes straight into my 401(k), because I never see it! It might sound like a lame use of your cash now, but when you’re kicking it poolside after retiring early, you’ll be so glad you started socking away cash as soon as you started piling up those paychecks.

3. Start building credit

Millennials have a reputation for being scared of a lot of things. Like commitment and gluten.

Another thing we’re notoriously fearful of? Credit cards. The thought of racking up a bunch of debt you can’t pay off is truly terrifying. But good credit is something you need to have by your mid-20s if you ever want to purchase a home or car (and duh, don’t we all?).

Tackle your fear by choosing a credit card with no annual fee, and then using that card only for one monthly expense you know you can pay off on time, every time. Link your credit card to your Netflix and Spotify accounts, for example, and voila! You’ll be well on your way to building great credit in no time.

4. Get off your parents’ payroll

This one is going to hurt. It just is. But by your mid-20s, you need to strive to be financially independent! Because is it really #adulting if your parents still pay for your cellphone?

It’s satisfying to say you’re totally independent. Also, it’s basically a rite of passage for 20-somethings to complain together about having to pinch pennies. Do you really want to miss out on that!? Getting off your parents’ payroll also forces you to live within your means, which is essential for the state of your finances.

Feeling like a failure because you’ve fallen off your budget or dipped into your savings? Don’t.

Everybody struggles. Everybody has chapters in their story that they’d rather not read aloud. And what you see on social media is somebody’s highlight reel, not their bloopers. When you’re young, it can be easy to forget that.

Last year, my financial situation was bleak. But in one short year, I changed my trajectory by learning from my mistakes and facing my fears. You can, too!

Sarah Berger

I am a journalist and penny-pinching millennial living in New York City on a budget.