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The Advice I Wish I Had Received in My Teens

written by: Tim Plaehn•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 9/11/2012

When are high school students taught how to handle money? If you don't learn soon... it may be too late, too quickly.

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    What School Doesn't Teach Kids

    As high school grads enjoy the last summer before college or getting a job, I want to discuss some thoughts I now ponder, 30 some years after high school, about topics I wish someone had sat me down and tried to fill my brain with when I was a know-it-all 18-year-old.

    First a word on the teens and money point: The article noted that college freshmen receive up to eight credit card offers in the first week of school. Three-quarters of college freshmen show up to school with at least one credit card already, and the average balance on those cards is $2,200. With facts like these, it is apparent that when you are sending your kids off to college is not the time to start to discuss credit cards and the appropriate use of money. That talk probably should happen before they start high school.

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    The Path to Little Success

    The bit of knowledge I missed learning in high school was what it takes to become truly successful. Some would consider what I have done with my life a success, but it is just in the last few years - I am now a few years past 50 - that I have seen what I missed over the decades where I could have improved my lot in life a lot.

    I was the smart guy in a small high school. I was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy, majored in mathematics, graduated and went off to fly jets.

    Nine years of Air Force service allowed me to fly the hottest fighter in the sky, and become an instructor pilot in two different aircraft. Along the way, the Air Force sent me to accident investigation school where I learned all of the different ways an airplane could crash.

    Then came Mistake Number 1. I decided it was time to leave the Air Force and pursue another career: I wanted to be a financial planner.

    Little did I know that financial services is primarily sales work. I thought I could build a customer base with my knowledge of investments and other financial products (Mistake Number 2). I worked as a mutual fund salesman and stock broker for most of a decade before I decided if I was going to be in selling, other products would be easier to sell.

    So off I went to sell cars and trucks. I enjoyed this type of selling and logged in another decade, spending most of the experience on the commercial side, selling light and heavy trucks to businesses. It was interesting and challenging work, but I managed to repeat Mistake Number 3 several times. I would become dissatisfied with my current employer or location and move on to another job, a couple of times to another state.

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    A Writing Career

    Starting a personal blog in my spare time led to my next and current career as a full-time writer. I really enjoy the freedom to stay at home and write all day. However, I spend a lot of time thinking about all those life changes outlined above. They led to financial hardship -- flat broke and then some a couple of times. Saving money and then using all the savings on the next career a couple of more times. Needless to say this was not the life I pictured for myself when I knew it all at ages 18, 22, 30 and 45.

    This career is as a self-employed, independent contractor. At this point, I am benefitting from my range of job and career choices to date. I can write with knowledge and experience on a wide range of topics. The point of this discussion is to show how far from your original education you can end up in life.

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    Lessons to Be Learned

    The lessons I have learned from this journey, and wish I had an inkling of 30 years ago are:

    • Smart only takes your so far -- it can be quite a ways -- but eventually you must have a plan when things get difficult.
    • A true career path means staying in a job long enough to earn some promotions, then use those promotions for better positions in the same company or with another company.
    • The self-employed, break-the-mold, find a new way to do things is the hardest path of all. The Don Quixote thing can work in the modern, connected world, but it is easier if you have a base of knowledge, experience and money.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics has compiled data for young baby boomers entering the work force starting in 1979. The average number of jobs held between the ages of 18 and 44 was 11. The BLS stated they were unable to define and track career changes, but this many jobs over 26 years probably indicates a fair amount of full career changes. Even middle-aged workers continue to have a large number of relatively short-term jobs.

    I grew up in a society where job hopping was not this frequent, and I had little inkling of how job hopping -- by choice or necessity -- would become a major factor in today's work environment.