Canada | Personal Finance

5 financial mistakes to avoid when you’re young

Expert tips to help set you on the path to better money management when you’re early in your career

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A woman in a red and white striped shirt sits on the floor paying bills on her laptopTracking your spending and earnings is one of the best ways to achieve financial health (Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill)

As a fresh graduate, saving for the future can be hard to envision. But being money-wise in these earlier years can have exponential pay offs in your later years. 

According to experts, there are several spending traps to avoid when you’re early in your career that can help set you up for a more stable financial future.


Spending within your means may seem obvious, but when you’re fresh out of school and looking for a job, this can be challenging.   

“I think a lot of young people, even in university, don't really have steady employment and end up spending more than they would have spent in cash,” says CPA David Trahair, a personal finance expert and author of CPA Canada’s free practical guide, Survive and thrive: Move ahead financially after losing your job.   

Credit cards in and of themselves aren’t bad—in fact they’re a helpful way to establish a credit history—but it’s important to understand what you’re signing up for. High interest rate cards can accumulate debt quickly, if you’re not paying down the balance each month, Trahair says. Spending only what you can afford—or only what you must, where possible—can set people up for better financial health, since they are actively trying to keep balances low. 

If you do find yourself in a position where you need to take on debt, try to use a lower interest rate, point-free card. “The benefit of the points rewards is often less than one per cent a year,” says Trahair. “It doesn't make sense to carry a balance when the credit card rate is as high as 20 per cent or more.” 

Another option is to obtain an unsecured line of credit, he says, to avoid high-interest rate credit cards. However, without having previous past credit to build up a good credit score, a parent may have to guarantee the credit card or loan to qualify the candidate.


While the idea of saving and growing money is attractive, investing money only makes sense if your credit card debt is paid down, says Trahair. 

“When you’re in credit card debt, the company is charging you interest,” he says. “To save, you’re taking money that would otherwise be spent to pay down that credit card.” With companies charging between 20 to 24 per cent interest, credit card debt quickly accumulates.

“People like the idea that they have savings,” says Trahair. “They’ll say, ‘So I owe $10,000, but I have $2,000 of savings. They’re in worse shape than the person that only has $8,000 on that credit card [because of the accumulating interest]. The best investment is paying down that credit card debt.”


Often when you’re young, obtaining a life insurance policy isn’t top of mind—but it should be, says CPA Garth Sheriff, who runs CPD consulting firm Sheriff Consulting.

“Theoretically, it’s when you’re the healthiest,” he says. “You’re more likely to get a lower premium plan and, if you get something that you can lock into, it can also be a savings return vehicle. It's not only a safety net, but it also builds equity.”

Plans such as universal life insurance and whole life, he says, work like investment policy funds that have a cash surrender value—meaning you don’t just acquire funds in death, but the cash value builds up as savings. Each plan has its own risk tier, so be sure to research the appropriate plan and available options, he says. 


Understanding why you are trying to save money leads to a more successful outcome, says Trahair. While this goal may be different for everyone, ultimately, each person has a life target they want to meet, whether it’s buying a home or planning for retirement.

“The best thing you could do for your personal finances is track where your money’s going,” he says. Trahair recommends using free budgeting apps or those available through banking services to help identify spending habits. 

Budgeting, he says, requires historical information. But. if you’re just graduating or starting out on your own, you won’t have this data. If you track your spending even for just one month, you’ll reveal a strong financial picture, as most people tend to have the same habits (save for the odd month where there may be a big-ticket item purchase or vacation, etc.), he says. 

Reducing the number of spending sources is also advised. “If you have three or four bank accounts and three or four credit cards, this exercise is going to be very difficult,” he adds.


This is the least desirable scenario for anyone. Sheriff recommends striving for six months to a years’ worth of funds if possible—and start that saving habit when you’re young. Having a financial safety net has the added benefit of improving your borrowing power in the future. 

“That early time in your life, as you’re building your credit history and your ability to borrow, is really important,” he says. “Even if you don’t know what your plan is.”   

Whether you’re saving for an additional designation or taking a year off, Sheriff says being prepared for the unexpected can help you remain in good financial standing and possibly avoid additional stress and debt, adding, “You never know what life is going to throw at you.”


As a post-secondary student, learn how to better manage your finances to set yourself up for stronger success. No matter what stage of life you’re in, these money management worksheets can help set you on the right track. And find out how best to talk to your kids about money and help set them on the right financial path.