1. Start saving money. Put away $20 a week. Pay yourself with every paycheck. Keep a jar of change on your desk. Give yourself a dollar every time you work out. Ask your company about the ins and outs of 401(k)s. Whatever it takes, it’s better to get a handle on your money now rather than sing all summer, grasshopper.
2. Learn how to do your taxes. There is a land in between handing them off to your parents and being able to afford someone to do your taxes for you, and it is called self-sufficiency. Set up camp there. There’s tons of software and services that will help you. But if you can do it on your own, you’ll never find yourself stuck if you can’t get help one year.
3. As much as it’s financially and otherwise possible, invest in the things that matter. Buy a piece of luggage that won’t fall apart midway through your trans-atlantic trip. Keep an emergency box of bandaids and matches and handwarmers and Plan B — yes, even if you’re a guy. Put emergency numbers in your phone. Research the symptoms of heart attacks and strokes. These may seem like boring wastes of your precious, young time, but these are the things that save lives. More likely than not, your own.
4. Decide that once and for all, you’re letting go of the dating checklist, and practice doing so now. It’s always so tempting to just go after “your type,” but if you keep doing that, you really have no room to wonder why you’re still single. (You are the constant in every relationship you’ve ever been in, after all.) Shake it up a little and date around if you haven’t already found The One. At the very least, it’ll help you refine your list of deal-breakers so that you’re better equipped to know a home run amongst the duds when you see one.
5. Get your medical basics aligned. Get a general practitioner, dentist, eye doctor, gyno — whatever it is you need. Have an initial appointment for a base checkup, and then schedule what matters throughout the year. They’re usually the things that don’t seem important, like full body dermatological checks. The best way to keep yourself healthy is to get attuned to what “normal” feels like to you. Don’t push healthcare off until it’s just sick care.
6. Start eating a few more greens. Try kale, or collards if the whole “kale” train smells like a conspiracy theory. If you can aim to get a little more produce into your diet, that’s always a good idea. I like to do the lazy hack and get a massive salad with tons of different vegetables for lunch every day, so if I’m less than virtuous at either breakfast or dinner, it’s not a big deal. Salads make everything net zero, as everyone knows. (And getting in the habit of eating your fruits and vegetables might not have stuck when you were 6 and just ate your broccoli to get to the ice cream after, so this is good to put into practice all over again.)
7. Find a workout you don’t hate. Whether it’s running, kettle bells, tennis, spin class, acroyoga, a pick up basketball game at the park — whatever it is, if you could see yourself going three times a week without going postal, then you’ve got something good. Your body naturally hits physical peak in your mid-20s, and it’s harder to retain your fitness level (not to mention healthy body percentages) as you age. Put in the work now, and who knows — you might wind up being one of those septuagenarian marathoners who are lapping people literally less than half your age.
8. Do your homework on disease in your family. Keep a sheet of this info around, too, and tell your doctor about all of the things you learn. Research the hereditary effects — not to freak yourself out, but so you can be proactive about your health and stave off problems before they arise. We’ve come a long way with medicine and research, and it’d be a shame to not take advantage of all of those advancements just because we’re ignorant of what runs in our family histories.
9. Begin to put money toward something that will benefit you long-term. Whether that’s your very own house and the land to go with it, the kind of car that is going to last you for years, or even shoes that are going to last through their investment rather than their $30 knock-off, begin investing in things that will actually get you more bang for your buck. (Should you buy those $700 monkstraps if you can’t afford it now? No, but maybe seek a pair on consignment and watch how they outlive every other shoe ever.)
10. Connect with people in your career who can take on mentor roles. And chances are good you’ll find them in the most unlikely places. (And yes, Twitter counts — I’ve connected with tons of people who are doing really amazing things in a number of fields, and their advice and guidance has been instrumental.) Use LinkedIn as constructively as you can, send emails and letters introducing yourself and saying why you’d like to learn from them — most people are really nice, and love to pay it forward to those coming up in the field if they have the time.
11. Make a list of places you want to visit. It’s the vision board principle — collecting your thoughts in one place, and keeping them in a place that you can either see or access easily (Pinterest, anyone?) turns it from just an idea to something you can potentially act on. Saying you want to visit some great place in some far corner of the world is all well and good, but it’s just talk until you put your words into a plan. Write down that dream vacation. Make it real.
12. Invest in actual furniture. God bless IKEA, really and truly, but if you can begin to scour places for solid deals, you’ll wind up with stuff you love — and it won’t disintegrate the minute you try to move even just once. I once found a leather armchair at West Elm for $100, but lots of places are bound to offer steep discounts on stuff because they literally don’t have the room to store it anymore. (Plus, then you can really begin to curate a home as opposed to just a house.)
13. Start living within your means. Not “budget your credit card so that you can pay off your balance and still have enough to eat” but actually within your means. Like if someone took all that pretty plastic away from you tomorrow, would you still be able to make ends meet between paydays? Yeah. Those means.
14. Learn how to cook a meal or two. Buy a cookbook — hell, buy 10 at a secondhand bookshop — and invite people over for a from-scratch meal. Go full on Julie & Julia with it, if you want. (Instagram everything.) Take a specialty class with friends if you can find one in your area. Ask your mom for her recipe for mac & cheese. You know how the saying goes: give a 20-something a pizza, feed him for a day. Teach a 20-something how to make pizza, and well, he might just open an artesian fire-grilled, gluten-free joint where every other 20-something gathers to lo-fi filter brunch. Or something.
15. Let yourself make mistakes, even though you know better — and learn how to be resilient in the face of them for the future. Really. As long as you learn from them, you’re doing something constructive and worthwhile. If you’re making mistakes, at least you’re trying, and if you’re trying, well, chances are very good you’re trying something new, or at least a new way to do the same thing. That’s innovation. That’s not just keeping up with the trend, but getting ahead of the curve.
16. Learn how to be self-sufficient. The point of rock-bottom isn’t to humiliate yourself, but rather a good gauge of how far up you can go from there. (Take it from me: four years ago, I went broke trying to fund my eating disorder, got help for both, and am in a much stronger place than I would have ever expected possible.) I’m not saying you should willingly run yourself into the ground, but if you can manage to figure out the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes plan in case you ever need it, well, you’re better off than a lot of people with no exit strategy at all.
17. Get a therapist. At the very least, find something that constitutes as therapeutic, whether that’s dinner with a friend once a week where you hash everything out, or a group like AA, or something in between. Seek out low-cost therapy if you need it — a lot of therapists and social workers work on a sliding scale — and if you decide you need medication to help out, explore your options. Learning to talk about what you feel and what you need in the moment and how it relates to your past is healthy, and you need to do that work yourself if you want to move forward as a healthy adult.
18. Begin to determine what is important to you. Ask yourself the big questions now, so that while you might not figure out the answers until years later, you know at least which answers you ought to look for. And that way, when you find them as you go through your life, you’ll treasure them all the more.