Ask the Question. Start Early. Learn good financial habits.
It seems too much of a cliché that “Youth is wasted on the young,” especially if heard by a 20-something. That being said, the notion of exploration and getting to know yourself during your youth also applies to establishing good money habits early on. Overall there are three basic elements for financial well being: Ask the question, Start early, and Learn good financial habits.
Ask the Question: Asking the right question is the first critical step to creating a financial plan for your particular state in life. "How much should I be saving", "How aggressively should I pay down my debt?", "Where should the next dollar go?", "What planning items should I be thinking of for my loved ones?", "Do I know what I don't know?", "Do we have enough?"... if you're asking these questions, we commend you, you're off to a great start.
Establish Good Financial Habits: This goes hand in hand with starting early. Establishing good financial habits early on is much easier than trying to get caught up later. Be smart with your money - don't rack up a bunch of credit card debt, save what you can, don't buy things you don't need, put away a rainy day fund, think about the future.. Many of us ignore these basic financial planning strategies. Keep in mind, we don't subscribe to the misnomer that some people are "good with money" and some are not. Anyone can learn good financial habits. Saying we simply are not good with finances sometimes feel like an excuse. (Sorrynotsorry, sometimes it's tough love over here.)
Your To-do's by the Decade:
The Money 20s
Watch your spending. Assuming you are most likely making more money than you ever have, you may be tempted to spend frivolously. But hold on, don't do it! Consider your purchases before you make them and establish good spending habits.
Get into the habit of tracking your budget. Yes, you need a budget. Don't have one? Start with tracking your expenses and keeping an eye on how much you're spending on entertainment items like dining out, travel, shopping excursions, etc. From there, build a more comprehensive budget when you are ready.
Pay off debt (especially high interest debt) as aggressively as possible. Credit card debt? Pay this off first and aggressively. And try not to rack up any more. Pay off your credit card every single month. If you can't pay cash for it, you can't afford it. Student debt? Come up with a plan to pay it off next.
Save, save, save. Be aggressive about your saving. Build an emergency cash reserve and start thinking about retirement (No, it's not too early.)
Open a retirement account. You are very likely eligible for both a 401(k) and an IRA. You should open and fund these accounts to the maximum amount each year.
The earlier you start, the better. Especially if changes occur later in life such as a family, college fund(s) and health emergencies, you'll be extremely thankful you already had these in place.
The Dirty 30s:
As you enter your 30s other elements come in to play. The new decade brings new purchases like buying a house, getting married and starting a family. Have basics in place and adjust your budget to include these new expenses, when necessary.
Life changes. House? Kids? Spouse? Career changes? Make adjustments...
Reevaluate your emergency cash reserve. The more risk you have (more mouths to feed) the higher reserve you will need.
Have your estate in order. Will your loved ones be taken care of if you were to pass away unexpectedly?
Get aggressive about saving for retirement. By now, you should have retirement accounts set up and funded. Continue to put as many dollars into these accounts as you can. Be diligent, have a plan and sock away as much as possible. Push yourself to save more each year.
The Hord-y 40s (Yes, that one was a stretch, but hear us out...)
By now debt your debt should be under control. You should feel comfortable about your cash reserve and you should be aggressive about savings.
These may be your peak earning years. The key here is to save and sock away (or "hord"... see what we did there?) as much as you can and get serious about retirement. Try to allocate any new raises toward your retirement.
Maximize your 401k plan contributions and any other contributions you can make into tax deferred and savings accounts.
Revisit lifestyle planning items:
Take another look at your estate plan. It's a good idea to revisit these documents every few years.
The Nifty 50s
Get even more aggressive about saving for retirement. You can take advantage of catch up provisions, where you can contribute even more to your retirement accounts.
Think about what your retirement looks like and discuss it with your partner. Where do you want to live? What does retirement mean to you (some consulting, no work at all, travel etc?) Discussing this long term plan early on can help you know where you're going, and more importantly, how to get there.
Review your long-term care options and know what's best for you.
Make sure your debt, estate and cash reserve are in order.
The financial health race is not about sprinting to the finish line. It's more like a leisurely walk to the end. Starting out at a steady and consistent pace will reap rewards even before the journey’s end.
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