Many young lawyers—especially those working in big firms—are making a salary about which the majority of the world can only dream. But if you don’t think about how you’ll spend your money, you could find yourself feeling broke after you pay rent, student loans, and have a bit of fun each month. I’m sharing the three financial mistakes I see young lawyers make (some of which I made myself as a new lawyer). Avoid these and you’ll be well on your way to financial security.
1. They don’t invest in a 401(k).
When you first begin working, retirement feels light years away. And if you’re working at a big firm, your office may not offer any 401(k) matching for attorneys—mine never did and that’s common in big firms. Set up a 401(k) anyway and max it out as soon as you can. Even without company matching, your funds will grow over time thanks to compound interest. Plus, you won’t pay taxes now on any money you sock away, and let’s face it, if you’re earning a biglaw salary (and thus usually able to max out your 401(k) immediately), you are in a pretty high tax bracket. You may not always be earning this much; for some lawyers, biglaw represents height of their salary, not the floor, meaning they will be in a lower tax bracket later in life when it’s time to withdraw from their 401(k), saving even more money long-term.
2. They don’t invest at all.
As a young lawyer, I avoided mistake number one by maxing out my 401(k) from day one. But I did fall victim to mistake number two by funneling any extra money into a regular savings account for way too long. Traditional advice is to open a savings account to build an emergency fund of about six months’ worth of your expenses. I did that by setting up a recurring transfer of a set amount from my checking account each pay period. The problem is that I kept that auto-transfer going far longer than necessary and past the point of a well-funded emergency fund.
In doing so, I lost out on gains I could have made in the market through interest. The typical interest rate of a savings account is less than one percent, a fraction of the average return in the stock market over the past decade.
My advice to you is to pick an amount you can save per month—even as little as $100—and start socking it away in a post-tax investment account. An index fund is typically viewed as the best option for investment newbies who don’t have a lot of time or experience.
3. They engage in too much emotional spending.
The “treat yourself” mentality is not new to those of us working in demanding professions like the law, and it’s rarely a once-a-year occurrence. Many of us have had those times when we’re way too busy and feel like we deserve a treat after working an especially tough week or month. This feeling is compounded by the fact that when you’re working in a big firm, you often have more money than time. Spending money becomes a way to reward yourself for working long hours or to make yourself feel better about the plans you had to cancel (or never made in the first place) because your workload is too unpredictable. If you find yourself falling victim to emotional spending like this, try taking that money you would spend on a treat and putting it in a special savings fund instead—use it to save for a vacation or other big treat or donate it to a cause close to your heart. You can also try window shopping; sometimes the simple act of putting an item into your online shopping cart or just browsing can scratch that “treat yourself” itch.
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