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Meet Cynthia. He’s 56, debt-free, happily married, has two grown children, and has a steady consulting business that pays his bills. There is more. he also has $500,000 in savings. At first glance, his situation seems quite ideal. But Cynthia’s journey was an emotional one, filled with frustration and shame. Let’s just say he wouldn’t mind having a word or two with his younger, more impulsive and spendthrift self; here’s what he would say.

1. Save now to buy later

Cynthia’s first job was in sales and earned her a salary of $200,000. With annual bonuses, he earned more than half a million a year. “The problem was that I had a bit of a game mentality,” he says. Instead of initially building a solid cushion of cash to support his life goals, such as buying a house, he began investing his money in startups. That decision prevented him from saving enough money for a large down payment that could take years. It also means that at 56, she and her husband still rent out their home.

Of course, there are aspects of renting. As a renter, you have the flexibility to move more often, whether it’s for work or a desire to see more of the world. You’re not locked into a 30-year mortgage or paying property taxes or home repair and maintenance costs. The downside is that you don’t build equity in real estate, which is one of the best wealth building strategies.

Lesson: Independence has been central to Cynthia’s decision-making throughout her life, but she now realizes that saving is the first step to achieving that freedom. (Home ownership is also very likely how Cynthia and her husband will spend their nest egg.)

2. A budget doesn’t limit your lifestyle, it sets you free

Initially, Cynthia signed up for several credit cards and did not impose a spending limit. By age 25, she had already racked up more than $200,000 in credit card debt trying to live well beyond her means while still managing mounting student loans. His younger self was a bit addicted to taking financial risks and had an unhealthy relationship with money. Growing up, she also had little or no discussion about money in her family, watching her father pay for things in cash but never understanding how they budgeted, saved or invested.

When he got married, this thought was reinforced. She saw her husband as a kind of trip switch. “Because he was more stable with his finances, I felt I could be more risky. Now we had two bucks to play with,” he shared. It wasn’t until she had children that this mindset began to change. With the added costs of raising two children, Cynthia and her husband found themselves borrowing money to cover day-to-day expenses and their debt mounting. The stress of this affected their emotional well-being and began to prevent them from meeting financial goals they had set for the whole family, such as paying for college.

Lesson: Do you need a budget? Depending on income and family needs, the first 10 percent of your paycheck should go toward debt relief. And make sure you get rewarded for it. Debt reduction can be incredibly motivating, and for someone like Cynthia, it can be key to whether or not you continue with the practice. (Cynthia endorsed the snowball approach.)

3. Gambling is not an investment

Angel investing is a long game and can take seven to 10 years to see a profit. It is incredibly risky and not all investments make money. Many of the startups that Cynthia invested in failed, which hit her hard financially as she often invested every dollar she had into these early stage businesses. “I convinced myself and everyone else that the next big deal was going to pay off the debt,” he says. Ironically, Cynthia had become an expert in high-stakes venture capital investing. But even with a sophisticated understanding of the world of private investing, he lacked a basic understanding of personal financial planning.

Investing gives us a lot of creative freedom to be ourselves, but only when we protect our finances and credit and are well on our way to growing our nest egg wisely. As Cynthia has learned, it’s never too late to go back to investing 101 basics.

Lesson: The traditional investment pyramid suggests that you need a solid foundation of liquid savings or cash first. Having enough cash provides a safety net should we lose our income for any reason. You want a year’s worth of runway for emergencies. The closer you get to retirement, the more you’ll want to have cash accounts that currently earn more than 4 to 5 percent. Only after you have some of your nest egg in safe cash can you consider investing in diversified high-quality, dividend-paying stocks through low-cost index or exchange-traded funds. And if you invest a steady dollar amount each month or year into these tax-deferred retirement accounts, you’ll avoid buying when the market is at its highest point. (This approach is called dollar cost averaging and is one of the most successful, tried and true long-term investment strategies.)

4. Recognize that money is emotional

Cynthia’s addictive behavior was a constant up and down ladder around financial risk taking and clouded her ability to grasp the basics of financial planning. He did not set specific milestones for himself at 30, 40, 50 and beyond. And he wasn’t honest or clear with himself about the steps he needed to take to keep his credit score high, stay out of debt, or save enough to buy a house. The best way to overcome emotional insecurity around money is to look at the factors that drive your spending. Why are you unhappy with your financial situation? What fear affects your decision making? If you’re feeling out of control like Cynthia, it’s finally time to consider contacting a financial planner.

Lesson: A good financial advisor makes you think about how you frame your money. They can teach you how to develop your own philosophy and best practices around spending and investing, and create a realistic plan for your day-to-day finances and long-term goals. “I know now that I could have done both. I could protect myself financially and still be an independent risk taker. The key was to protect my finances first and take risks later. In that order,” says Cynthia.

Pam Kruger is an investor advocate, personal finance journalist and author. He is also the founder and CEO Wealthramp: and podcast host, Friends talk about money.

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