33 Things I’ve Learned In 33 Years

All the life advice and happiness tips learned from 33 years of life, 18 years of school, and 35 countries of travel. Click through and learn from my mistakes!

Tomorrow, I turn 33.  I plan to celebrate this fact by poking around the museums of Stockholm, eating a lot of carbs and cheese, giggling over drinks with a few Swedish friends, and then calling my favorite people in America very, very late at night.

I also thought I might resurrect (and revise) the most popular blog post I’ve ever written.  Because we all love lists and advice don’t we?  I’ve added two more things that I’ve learned in the last two years – and I can’t wait to hear all your wisdom in the comments!

So, here are 33 things that I’ve learned over the past 33 years.

1. Trust your gut. Really.

If you think he likes you, you’re probably right. If you think he’s cheating, you’re probably right. If you think she’s going to be your new BFF, (this time with feeling!) you’re probably right.

2. Sunscreen. Always.

SPF 15 indoors, SPF 30 outdoors. I’ve been wearing sunscreen every day since I was 19 and I still get carded. I think this actually has more to do with the bouncers hitting on me, but I’d like to share the credit with this moisturizer + sunscreen recommended by my dermatologist. 2,000+ 4.5 star reviews on Amazon!

3. If you’re lying in bed worrying about it, get up and write it down

If I don’t do this, my night will quickly devolve into cyclical thoughts of doom and anxiety. Just get out of bed, write down the thing that you’re worried about, write down a few ideas to deal with it and then go the eff back to sleep.

4. Processed carbohydrates and sugars are yucky

It’s not hard to switch to whole wheat bread and noodles or substitute honey/maple syrup/raw sugar for the white stuff. It’s yummy and you’ll feel heaps better!

5. Maintaining friendships (and making new friends) is an active process

Stop waiting for them to call you! Think of something fun to do, call your friends and go do it. Also, stop sitting in your apartment, devotedly wishing that you knew more cool people. Surprisingly, this will not get you any closer to making new friends. Go places where like-minded people hang out, talk to new people at parties, initiate. Show your friends you love them.

6. Uncomfortable underwear can ruin your day

At least they can ruin mine. So don’t wear your sexy-times underwear on the day you have to walk ten blocks to work. (These are the best underwear I’ve ever owned and they’re the only ones I buy now!)

7. It really doesn’t matter what you major in

What does matter? The internships you get, your work ethic, your interpersonal skills, who you know. So go ahead and get a BA in Studio Art! As long as you complement that with work experience at a graphic design studio, a museum and an ad agency.

8. Create an active lifestyle

I don’t go to the gym every day. Or, um, ever in the summer. But I walk to work and to the market and just about everywhere within a three-mile radius. If you make daily activity a habit, you won’t have nearly as many moments of “how did I inadvertently gain 30 pounds?!” or “why can’t I walk up a flight of stairs?!”

9. Learn to enjoy your own company

There will be times in your life when you really want to see that movie, check out that new boutique, go to Thailand and no one wants to go with you. Bummer! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go by yourself and have a good time. Take baby steps and work up to doing the big stuff on your own.

10. Don't allow outside sources to determine your self-esteem Click To Tweet

I’m still working on this one. But I think it’s important to realize that just about everything in life is relative – depending on your surroundings, you could be the hottest/smartest/highest paid girl in the room.

But if you walk next door? Maybe it’s different story. It’s important to have faith in your abilities and strong suits – regardless
of how they compare to others.

11. Find out what colors and styles work (and don’t work) on you. Style accordingly.

I look good in gold and browns and corals. I look good with long, wavy hair. I look good in boat neck, three-quarter length tops. It took many, many unflattering photos to figure this out.

12. When in doubt, make the effort

You will never regret wearing that nice outfit, buying the thoughtful gift for the friend you haven’t heard from in a while, over-tipping. If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll know you did your best.

13. Cook at home.

Seriously. You will save one million dollars. You will maintain a healthy weight. You will impress your friends.

14. There are 300 million people in America. And 6,000,000,000 in the world.

I promise you, you’ll love someone else. You’ll meet new friends. You’ll find co-workers and neighbors that are awesome. If it’s too hard (or if someone is making you feel bad) walk away. There are a million other people out there who won’t make you feel bad!

15. It’s easier to make money than memories

Are you throwing up in your mouth right now? I am a little bit. But it’s true. Don’t take the extra shift at work and miss your friend’s awesome end-of-the summer barbecue. If all your friends are springing for a weekend at a cabin near the Canadian border, save up for a few weeks and make it happen.

You won’t remember the two weeks of eating in and watching library DVDs, but you’ll remember three days of fun with your buddies. And there are lots of ways to have a social life and still save money!

16. You can find common ground with just about anyone, anywhere

Regardless of a person’s gender, age, race or religion there are common denominators to the human experience – falling in love, being homesick, laughing at baby animals. You don’t even need to speak the same language to share an appreciation for these things. You’d be amazed how far you can get with most people just by smiling and asking them questions.

17. Don’t buy the cheapest version. Buy the second cheapest.

This trick has saved me a lot of money. And many hangovers. Usually the cheapest version of something (vodka, eye shadow, shoes) is noticeably dicey. But the second-cheapest? Not so bad! And it’s possible to make cheap things look nice!

18. Make an extra copy

Of your keys, your lease, your birth certificate, your social security card. Then give said copy to someone trustworthy.

19. Floss.

Seriously. It’s pretty gratifying in a slightly disgusting way.

20. Consider second hand, for just about everything

98% of everything I own is second hand. My blow dryer, my picture frames, my sheets (not as gross as you’re imagining). They cost a fraction of what I’d pay for them new, and no one’s the wiser. At least until I tell the internet that I sleep on used sheets. Here’s how to thrift like a champ.

21. Excuses are embarrassing

With the exception of excuses like “my grandma died” most excuses are embarrassing for everyone involved – the person giving them and the person listening to them. ‘I just don’t know where to start,’ ‘I’m tired,’ ‘it’s too expensive’ really just translate to ‘I’m not making it a priority’. See? Embarrassing, right?

22. Don't ask a question if you're not prepared to hear the answer Click To Tweet

If you ask your friend “Do I look fat in this?” you best be prepared to hear that it’s not a super flattering look on you. If you ask that guy you’ve been seeing for five months “Where do you see this going?” you need to know he might respond in stutters, back-pedaling and comments about “keeping it light.” Don’t ask if you don’t really, really want to

23. Engage in calculated risk taking

Dancing on the table, taking a spontaneous road trip by yourself to a neighboring state, trying a new type of ethnic food – it is unlikely that any of these things will kill you. But they will probably make you more interesting.

24. Learn how to live well within your means

Make a budget and stick to it. Pay off your credit cards every month. Learn to cook for yourself. Get a bike and use it (then you won’t need a gym membership or all that gas for your car!) Cancel the cable. Split internet with a neighbor. Consider second hand. You’d be amazed how painless saving money can be! Just put your money where your happy is!

25. Learn some basic photo editing skills

Because that photo from your vacation would make a great Facebook profile photo if you didn’t have that giant zit, right? Photoscape, Picnik and Gimp are all great options!

26. If you don’t know what you say, silence is always an option

I learned this from my friend Ellie, who used this approach to deal with unruly patients during her years as a nurse in NYC. If someone says something you don’t like (and don’t know how to respond to) just stare at them and don’t say anything. Totally. terrifying. And totally effective!

27. If you don’t know, ask

Because that thing that people say about assuming (it makes an ass out of you and me)? That’s true.

28. Do something different with your weekends

After a week in the cubicle farm, I know it’s tempting to spend your weekend watching DVDs, running errands, going to house parties and nursing hangovers. But doing the same thing every weekend gets old. And you won’t return to work reinvigorated or inspired.

You don’t have to do anything earth shattering – have a sleepover with old friends, go camping in a State Park, rent bikes and ride through your city, try a new ethnic restaurant, look up the top tourist sights in your city and check them out. Milk those two days off for all they’re worth! Here are 17 little ways you can mix up your daily life.

29. Stay in touch

In the age of skype/facebook/texting there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t maintain regular contact with your childhood bestie or that cool girl from your freshman comp class. Maintaining and fostering friendships is super important. Also, you’ll have more couches to crash on when you go traveling!

30. Find a creative outlet

Most of us aren’t 100% creatively fulfilled by our day jobs. Even those of us who work in creative fields! Engaging different parts of your brain (and different parts of your personality) is hugely, hugely gratifying. Seriously, you cannot overestimate how having a good hobby can change your life. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that after I started blogging, I needed less sleep and was a much happier person. Truth.

31. Act like you know what you’re doing

You can pretty much conquer the world with a confident walk, a well-thought-out outfit and confident demeanor. We teach people how to treat us and when you show people that you’re a force to be reckoned with, they’ll believe you.

32. When you ask friends or family to do things for free, you end up paying in stress and time

Of course, we can’t all afford to hire movers/painters/accountants/etc.  But when you ask your cousin to photograph your wedding or your college roommate to design your website or your little sister to help you move – what you don’t spend in money you just might spend in missed deadlines and ruined carpet. Our friends and family love us and want to help.  But it’s not the same.  And you know it.  If you can, pay a stranger to do things for you.  Then you won’t feel bad complaining.

33. Most things in life will cost twice as much and/or take twice as long as you thought Click To Tweet

Particularly travel or home improvements or building up a client base.  There are always unexpected fees and raised prices.  Have a backup plan!  Or budget way, way more time and money than you think you’ll need and you’ll be presently surprised when things come in ahead of schedule and under budget.

What about you?  What have you learned so far?  What do you wish someone would have told you?
Photo by Fabien Delétraz on Unsplash

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  1. auroralapetite

    I think trusting your own gut feeling about a situation is the best realisation I've had. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, get out of there; if you think there is more to a situation than is apparent, there probably is; and if you think something will make you happy, your gut instinct is normally right about that too.

    A lesson I realised last weekend was that if I tidy up after myself and put things away after using them, I don't spend as much time cleaning then at the weekend.

  2. The Craft-Arty Kid

    Sarah, you are my new older blog sister who I shall look to for life advice.
    I do have two older sisters but the oldest is 26 so they're both still figuring stuff out.

    You speak some truths worth remembering!

  3. margosita

    The corollary to "20. Consider second hand, for just about everything" is that getting 98% of your stuff second hand means you should feel free to spend the money on the other 2% to make it quality stuff. If it something that you will use (nearly) every day, it's worth it do the research and pay a little more for exactly the right thing. For me that meant putting down a few hundred dollars on a brand new couch when I moved into my apartment. This time I skipped the Good Will and Salvation Army and went for the Room and Board outlet, where stuff is still pricey at half-off. But because the majority of my apartment is hand-me-down and second-hand, I had the money. And I'm no longer apologizing for lumpy or sagging seating when friends come over! Win!

  4. Anonymous

    Happy, Happy, Happy Birthday, Sarah!!! Sounds like it will be a great one! Enjoy your travels, and thanks for the list… I love a good list, you know. All the best & safe travels, m'lady. Love from Chi-town, Rebecca

  5. ilovemyvintage

    could not have said it better myself!i turned 33 a couple of months ago and its as if you put on paper (or on your most) almost everything that i was thinking too!
    happy birthday,wishing you only the best 😀

  6. Cassie @ WittyTitleHere.com

    Happy birthday, Sarah! Great list. Srrsly about the undies. Save the cute stuff for evening fun time. Otherwise, it's just butt floss.

  7. Rachel @ Existation

    Awesome list! I'm about to be 26…and there are definitely many things I still have to work on. Much love from a MPLS girl living in LA! Happy birthday!

  8. Hannah

    Happy Birthday, Sarah!

  9. Kate J

    When I'm 33, I hope I'm this awesome, tbh! Great post, Ms. Von Bargen!

  10. impybat

    Happy 33rd, Sarah. And yes to all of this, especially (for me)#32.

  11. Ben and Brandy

    Love this. It's amazing how often I need to be reminded of these things. ESPECIALLY the work vs memories rule. Very true.
    Happy happy birthday!!

  12. Amber Goodenough

    Happy Birthday! I just turned 33 a few months ago. So far so good! I would agree with every single one on this list. Especially number 32. Helping out with family. Just this morning I passed my Dad's request off to someone else. Feels great! haha! Enjoy your day!

  13. Sarah Von Bargen

    You guys are too, too sweet! You've seriously made my pre-birthday-day! <3

  14. Natalie Sisson

    Oh brilliant I started reading this great post while shoving a bounty bar in my mouth – but I promise i had just chicken and broccoli for dinner and I use honey as a sweetener… Happy birthday girl and keep making these fab lists

  15. Sara Rose

    LOVE IT. Happy birthday!

  16. Dara

    Delurking to wish you a happy (early) birthday 😀 This is some solid advice. I'm going to try and keep #23 in mind especially – calculated risks make life a lot more fun. Also, #7 about it not mattering what you major in is totally true. I'm an art history major working as a web developer!

  17. The Curious Cat

    Happy Birthday lovely! Always enjoy reading your blog! 🙂 So wise! xxx

  18. Nicki

    Excellent, as always.

  19. Kimmy Bird

    Great advice! I still need to learn some of these, which is why I'm bookmarking this list. I DO love secondhand things. The only thing I won't buy second hand is underwear. Although, just because it's secondhand and cheap doesn't mean you NEED it, which I'm still learning.

  20. Young Werther

    Simply brilliant and sage!

  21. myjampackedlife.com

    wonderful list. take nothing for granted as easily as things/people come to you they can and will be taken away/leave you is something i would add to the list.
    happy birthday. one of my besties is also born today and is also 33…

  22. diana

    happy birthday, sarah! your blog is amazing, I feel like I actually started to know you bit by bit, and I am sure many readers feel as if you were a close friend. I wish you all the best, the health and opportunity "to explore strange new worlds and new civilisations" as a trekkie would say, may you be surrounded by lots of love and amazing people!

  23. lissymissy

    Happy Birthday doll! Totes gonna eat bday cake and celebrate your awesome existance xo

  24. hjemkomsten

    Loving this post! Happy birthday :))

  25. Tiff

    Happy Birthday! I love this post. #s 12 and 24 really hit it home for me, though they're all pretty dead-on. 🙂

  26. angelindisguise

    completly nailed that list!! especially the one about excuses…. I'm a teacher and have to deal with it all the time (maybe I'll just print your wise words on a poster…. <3)

    Happy birthday!

  27. withbigyellowdogs

    That last one…. about things costing twice as much and taking twice as long. Heck, now I can stop feeling so horrid about not getting things done due to lack of time and money. Thanks Sarah, have a lovely birthday lady!

  28. Kate

    I am smarter after reading this. Thanks!

  29. Nova

    Such great advice. Number fifteen is hitting pretty close to home for me. I missed basically this entire summer working six days a week and taking on extra shifts on some of the Tuesdays I was supposed to have off. The summer flew by, I missed out on everything. Never. Again.

  30. Tsipa

    I love this list! But I'm wondering: how have you gone about finding out what looks good on you? I'm 31 and I have a few clues, but I'm still trying to refine my look (and stick to one hair color, for that matter). Any suggestions?

    • Alaurable

      Heya, I'm sure you would prefer to hear from the lady herself but I just wanted to give my two cents… Something I do for hair / makeup etc. is find a celebrity that looks kinda like me (face shape, eye shape etc.) and see what they do – they have access to the experts in the business so they know what they're doing. I then google pictures of them and see where they look great and what they did and copy!

  31. Damaris Chamorro

    Cool! I´ve learned a lot. i´m turning 30 this December.

    Thanks for sharing,


  32. Anonymous

    There's actually 7 billion people in the world.

    Great post tho!

  33. this is lemonade

    Happy belated birthday! I love number 26. I have experience of utilising eyebrow movement to enhance the effect 😛
    This list is interesting, entertaining and oh so true! Good question…what have I learnt? Better give that some thought!

  34. Gemma

    AMEN to number 6!

  35. Jen

    Great list!! I can also add; Invest in a quality mattress and good shoes, because if you're not in one, you're in the other.

  36. Zena

    Great list, you´ve inspired me. My own list would be much longer as I am quite older than you, but one of my learnings would be: don´t be too concerned to please others, because this can be a trap that can ruin your live.

    Happy belated birthday, your site is fantastic, I will follow you

  37. Ana

    This is a list that is both useful and original. I feel a real person behind it, and I like that person and her lessons. Bookmarked 😀 !

    And happy birthday 🙂 !

  38. Ashley @ Alizabet.com

    GREAT article! I am feeling so inspired! This post definitely makes me want to live in the city even more so than I already do! I even just mapped out my commute to work if I bike or run… a 7 minute drive versus a 20 minute bike ride? Winters here in Arizona would be great for bike riding, and I would burn 200 calories a day doing so! Thanks so much for being so awesome! I'm excited to add your blog onto my daily reading list 🙂 Thanks to GalaDarling.com for linking to your blog!!!

  39. Anonymous

    I love this. Happy birthday Sarah.


  40. Anonymous

    Excellent advice. Happy bleated birthday!

    A few more specifics, which apply to those situations that sometimes come out of the dark side, the first 2 of which your gut would probably back up anyway, though sometimes when faced with extreme situations it's hard to think:

    1) Always insist on 3 days to read over any contract. If they don't want give you it, something's amiss. Insist on the 3 days or pass on it. Accept no BS.

    2) Stick to your guns, and never cop to something you did not do, unless it's something really, really minor that ultimately doesn't matter. It might not even turn out easier, in the long run. A lot of people who took plea deals and were later proven innocent by DNA had a hard time even getting the new evidence heard because of their previous guilty pleas.

    3) Don't ever expect sympathy from those who don't care about you. Don't beg. Ever. Nothing gives evildoers more enjoyment than seeing their victims beg, and nothing stops them in their tracks better than facing them with courage. Bullying is the play-acting of a coward. Remember that always. Cool heads prevail.

  41. A Sunny Disposition

    Thankyou so much for this Sarah! I found this from a link on Gala Darling.

    You are exactly one day older than me – I turned 33 on the 30th August! And every single point I totally agree with. It's going to be an interesting year. I find myself to be so much more centered. I don't get as stressed or anxious about little things any more. I remember to breathe through things. I'm bookmarking this page to serve as a regular reminder 🙂 x

  42. Sabrina

    I would have to add believe what people tell you about themselves. Believe a guy you just started dating when he tells you he doesn't want to settle down. Don't think you're going to be the one he picks to settle down with. Believe someone when they tell you they are not going to change, no matter what it's regarding. Believe them and make your own plans and decisions accordingly.

  43. Begooo

    This is my favorite post EVER! Thank you so much for this. Really.


  44. Jude Crowe

    First off, belated happy birthday. Second, i love how we both(others) love to manage our money well. I can't even let my friends off of he hook whenever they plan on splurging their salaries on expensive coats that they never wear. A shame for my brother though. He's the only male shopaholic that i know. His only consolation was that his girlfriend went with him to coach him through getting a decent mercedes car leasing. If he had managed to ruin that deal up he'd be the only dentist i know that rides a dud to work.

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  49. noha

    I am 33 too this year and I came across your post:) can't agree more with most of what you said.
    I wish someone has told me to keep more connections from the past. When I younger, I didn't care about keeping people in my life. So with time I lost my school friends, then I lost my college friends.. trying to make it up now with work colleagues.

  50. Anonymous

    floss and mouthwash….. also even for guys, watch out for uv damage !

  51. Amber

    Great read – thanks for sharing this one out again! One thing I’d add is to ask for what you want or need, instead of thinking people should just know and then pouting when it doesn’t happen. This has changed my life.

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