Age 21: A Year of Change and Humility

The year I turned 21 was the most tumultuous of my life.  It was a year of surprises and disappointments.  In many ways, that one year shaped my life more than any other and determined the direction of my future.

To quote Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …” 

Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities

The Age of Foolishness

Me at age 21 with my '80s skinny tie

Me at age 21

I bought a sports car.

I had never carried any debt before I bought my Dodge Daytona.  This was my third car and I had paid cash for the first two.  Signing up for 4 years of payments was a totally new experience for me.  It was one I wasn’t prepared for.  Within a year, I was completely broke and the bills were due.  I remember trying to decide if I should pay rent and give back the car or keep my car and move back home.  I eventually paid all the bills and got back on track.  But, I never forgot that crushing feeling of debt.  The four years of car payments were so brutal I became wary of payments and kept the car for 13 years.  I haven’t had a car payment since.

I quit my job.

After taking some programming courses in college, I had an overwhelming urge to quit my boring union job and work in the computer industry.  So, I typed up a resume and got a job at the local ComputerLand store.  I kept both jobs for a month and then I quit my job at the supermarket.  Unfortunately, entry-level commission sales don’t pay nearly as well as the Hiring Manager leads you to believe.  Even worse, I wasn’t very good at sales.  I made only a fraction of what I expected and my income dropped precipitously.

I got a DUI.

This is something I’m not proud of.  But, there is a lesson in my foolishness.  So, I feel obligated to share.  After I turned 21, I liked to hit the night clubs with my friends.  Sometimes, I cruised home after a few too many and thankfully nobody got hurt.  Soon enough, the odds caught up with me and I got pulled over and hauled off to jail.  I ended up walking for six months, while my car sat parked and I made the payments.  I went to court, paid lawyers and attended alcohol school.  I also lost two of my friends in alcohol-related accidents, within a couple of years.  Drinking and driving isn’t worth the risk.

The Age of Wisdom

I started my first investment.

I had always been a good saver as a kid.  But, as an adult, I spent my money as fast as I earned it.  I lived paycheck-to-paycheck, drinking up most of my money on the weekends and scrimping by during the week to make it to Friday.  One day, a friend of mine called and he talked me into attending a meeting.  He was involved with a company called A.L. Williams (now Primerica).  I declined to join the company as an associate, but they did talk me into investing in a mutual fund.  It turned out to be a really bad investment and I was only saving $25 per month.  But, the important thing was that I got started investing.  From then on, I began to save a little bit of my paycheck for myself each month.  This habit grows more valuable every day.

I quit smoking pot.

There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said here, except that I recognized it wasn’t benefitting me in any meaningful way.  So, I quit.  Quitting helped me tremendously in my focus on college.  It also seemed to help me in completing those important little tasks I let slide in the past.  It helped me in my career, as I transitioned into a technical job.  This was the first time in my life I realized I needed to do more than just work and party to get ahead.  As the smoke began to clear, I knew I needed to develop a plan for my life.

The Worst of Times

The combination of mistakes hit me all at once.  I could have easily survived one miscue, but three major money malfunctions were too much for my juvenile budget to absorb.  My flippant attitude and inexperience with finances delayed the reality of my situation, until it became a full-blown crisis.  By then, there were no quick and easy solutions to my problems.  I had to dig myself out of a big hole and it took a couple of years.

I quit my sales job and started working for my brother’s landscaping company, so I could count on a steady paycheck.  I didn’t have to commute to work, which helped with my driving situation.  But, I really didn’t want to be there.  It wasn’t the work I hated.  It was the fact that I had nowhere else to go.  I only hated mowing the lawns, because I failed to gain a foothold in the computer industry.  And, I had all day to think about it.

Six months later, I caught a break and got a job working in technical support for a printer company.  I answered the phone all day, facing a continuous series of baffling technical problems.  It was a high-stress job for low pay.  At least one or two people per day were either screaming into the phone or on the verge of tears.  But, I learned more about computers in the first couple of months than I could have learned in a couple of years of college.

The Best of Times

Two important things happened to me during the darkest of times. 

First, my worried mind was spinning a mile-a-minute, which brought about some important moments of clarity.  This made me realize I was the primary cause of my problems and also the best solution.  I started to think beyond payday and I changed my ways to avoid future problems.  I became stronger and more resourceful.  I counted on myself, instead of leaning on others.

Second, the people who cared about me sensed my desperation and they helped me in ways I didn’t expect.  Two people in particular had a huge impact.  My older brother, who was my boss and roommate at the time, can be extremely critical.  There was nowhere to hide from his lectures, which sliced through my excuses and exposed my habit of blaming others.  My downstairs neighbor comforted me with compassion, wisdom and understanding.  At the same time, she held me firmly accountable for my actions.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that tough times rarely last, but tough people do.  Most problems, whether self-inflicted or caused by circumstance, will often turn around.  The key is to think of solutions, instead of dwelling on problems.

“Although it’s not much fun to go through hard times, sometimes, they are the best thing for you.  They keep you from getting too cocky and from believing the times are always going to be good.”  (Paraphrased from memory)

Rhonda – Former neighbor and second Mom

Recommended Reading

Live Richly – A House of Cards, Part 2
Squirrelers – Financial Goals and Life Choices
Invest it Wisely – My Changing Personality

This post was featured on the Carnival of Personal Finance over at Live Real Now.  This is the Greatest Carnival on the Net.  Check it out.

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29 comments to Age 21: A Year of Change and Humility

  • I feel quite inspired now. I love stories like this. It’s nice to have people care about you enough to kick your ass when you really need it. I try to lecture a few of my financially self destructive friends but I don’t think they pay much attention 🙂

    Anyway, good for you!

    • Ash,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      I also try to help others who are in need of advice and ecnouragement. I figure it’s just a way of paying it forward from everything I received when I was young.

      I have also noticed that many will just ignore my advice and keep doing whatever they want. And, that’s OK, because advice is there to take or leave. Giving advice to young people is like pouring water on a rock, it takes a while to sink in.


      • Hehe pouring water on a rock. I like it. Yeah, I agree. I’m all for letting people make their own mistakes. I’ve made enough of my own and I’ve enjoyed doing it. It’s nice when people do take your advice and end up better for it though. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside 🙂

  • Bret, You just admitted that you are human! And you learned from your troubles. That makes you a success in my book. Great insights.
    Barb Friedberg recently posted..I’M HOMELESS NOW WHAT Blog SwapMy Profile

  • Hi Bret, thanks for sharing your experiences, as well as the link! It reminds me a bit of my letter to my 18 year old self. 🙂 Looking back, you wish you could shake some sense into yourself. Fortunately nothing happened to you that couldn’t be undone with time. You also seemed to learn from your mistakes. The important thing is you had support to get through the tough times.
    Jennifer Barry recently posted..Advice to My 18 Year Old SelfMy Profile

    • Jennifer,

      You caught me on this one. Your post Advice to my 18 Year Old Self was part of the inspiration for my post. Also, I liked JD Roth’s post over at Get Rich Slowly The Worst Job I Ever Had. Both of those posts were so personable and so insightful they just kind of stuck in the back of my mind.

      Recently, I’ve watched some of the young people I know struggling and it triggered all of the memories of my struggles when I was 21. I have told this story a number of times lately and I thought it might help someone who was reading my blog.

      I was worried that my post was too personal and TMI. But, I’d love to help anyone avoid some of the mistakes I made. Advice is cheap, but real-world experience can be invaluable.

  • Great story, Bret. Thanks for sharing.

    It’s true that we often make some mistakes and encounter tough times, but these situations can give us valuable life experience and push us to get tougher ourselves. While we often need to learn some things ourselves, it’s even better to learn vicariously through the lessons of others. That’s why your story and stories like this can be so helpful.

    I did a lessons learned post once, but this is getting me thinking about a different one…..
    Squirrelers recently posted..Squirreling Gone Wild 26- Fooling the Tooth FairyMy Profile

    • I have three older brothers, so I learned a lot of mistakes from watching them. But, some of the worst mistakes, I had to learn on my own.

  • Bret, I have a son near 30 years old that still needs to learn the lessons you did much younger.

    Congratulations on turning your life around!
    Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer recently posted..Find Codes to Save at PromotionCodeOrgMy Profile

    • Thanks Kay Lynn.

      My son is 22 now, so he is about the same age as I was when I made all of these mistakes (and some triumphs) in my life. Luckily, he hasn’t done anything hugely stupid, like I did at his age.

      It’s quite a fine line as a parent between protecting your loved ones and enbling them.


  • Bret, great story! It can be painful to remember how stupid we once were.

    My mom would probably turn over in her grave if she knew all the dumb things I did as a teen.

    Now I have survived both my kids going through the same thing. They, like you, have made it through to the other side….I am forever thankful.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Dr Dean recently posted..Happiness- Osama- Spending- and YouMy Profile

    • Dr. Dean,

      I have one kid on the other side (son 22) and one who is headed into the unknown (daugher 18). She seems to have had her issues early on and is starting to shape up nicely. I still have have my fingers crossed.


  • Hey Bret, it takes a lot of humility and a little bit of courage to be able to fess up to the mistakes that one has made in the past. Many of us have done dumb moves in the past, myself included!

    What’s important is that we learn from them but even more importantly, that we teach others. Sometimes experience is the best teacher, but you can also learn a great deal from the experiences of others.

    Thanks for sharing your story and for the inclusion. 🙂
    Kevin recently posted..Canada’s Conservatives Win 2011 Election and Harper Wins a Majority GovernmentMy Profile

    • Teaching (cautioning) others was my primary motivation for writing this post, even though it ended up being all about me. I hope it has some benefit to others who are facing similar struggles. If not, then at least I hope it was entertaining.

  • Very interesting post. You did a complete 180 on your 21st birthday.
    Mark recently posted..The New Reality- Retirement Planning For Your ChildrenMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Mark,

      Not quite. It took me quite a while before I would even admit to myself that I had some problems. Then, it took me another couple of years before I cleaned up the mess. It was a long process.

  • Hey Bret, I think you did quite well to wise up early on in your twenties. Some of us (myself included) don’t get any smarter until much later in life.
    Andrew @ 101 Centavos recently posted..BBQ Chicken In The SpringtimeMy Profile

    • Thanks Andrew,

      I think I hit the point in my life where something had to change and I was glad it changed for the better.

  • Im not much older than you are, but have made some mistake through life as we all have. Its awesome that you are owning up to your mistakes as well as acknowledge what you have done right.

    Our generation has some rough years ahead of us and I think you will be on the right track.
    Travis@TradeTechSports recently posted..10 Highest Dividend Stocks that Protect against InflationMy Profile

    • Travis,

      Thanks for stopping by. I love the multi-format of your blog.

      Our generation is a conundrum. Some have capitalized on the work ethic and done very well. Others, seem to heading into a world of hurt. Since the current level of entitlements doesn’t seem financially possible for the future, it will be interesting to see what happens to the late boomers.

  • Hi Bret,

    Thanks for your honesty. I don’t think I have ever seen such an open blog post before!

    They took away your driver’s license for 6 months for your first DUI? I wish they would do that now.

    George recently posted..Seven Invaluable Investment ResourcesMy Profile

    • I was worried that it was way too much information. But, once I got going, I figured I may as well go all the way.

      I already had a lot of speeding tickets, so the DUI put me over on points and I lost my license. Walking for six months not only stopped me from drinking and driving, I also learned how to drive the speed limit.

  • I enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me that I too can get through the tough situations as long as I keep looking for the solutions. This post is an inspiration to keep going even when things seem lost.
    Jackie recently posted..Swimsuits For AllMy Profile

    • Thanks Jackie.

      Things are rarely lost. They just seem that way at the time. When you look back and remember the despair, it almost seems ridiculous. But, at the time, it sure can be overwhelming. Definitely keep going. Very few good things come without a challenge.

  • Bret, thanks for sharing man. I went through a lot of crap too growing up, and have experienced much of what you’ve written.

    Nothing bad lasts forever indeed, and we just move on by learning what went wrong. Inspirational!

    Here’s one of my stories for you:
    Financial Samurai recently posted..Following His Dreams To New York CityMy Profile

    • Sam,

      That’s a great story about your Freshman year. I believe everyone will make big mistakes and have to face down tough problems. It’s how we deal with them that determines how we will turn out. I honestly believe parents are too protective of children nowdays and it’s a major cause of the decline in personal responsibility. Everyone expects to get bailed out, instead of sucking it up and overcoming their problems.


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