Our 20s are a pretty transformative decade. We’ll likely secure our first “real” job, start living on our own and experience a few serious relationships. Adulting full time, for the first time, also means getting our finances in order.
Of course, we don’t need to have everything figured out by 30 (thank God), but checking these goals off the list can help set a solid financial foundation we can build on in the decades to come.
Nobody likes the “B” word, but everyone likes affording things they care about—you know, like rent and food. “Knowing where every dollar goes prior to spending it makes it easier to stretch those dollars out,” says Certified Financial Planner Brannon T. Lambert. “And the sooner you build good money habits, the sooner you’ll be financially stable.”
Get started with this simple formula: Allocate 50 percent of each paycheck to fixed living expenses, 20 percent to goals like saving and debt payments and 30 percent for everything else.
Setting aside a portion of our paychecks for emergencies doesn’t just cover us in case of an unexpected bill (think medical expense or major car or home repair) or a job loss, it also reinforces a lifelong habit: living below our means. By 30, we’re more likely to have big responsibilities like taking care of a home, spouse and/or kids—so having six months’ worth of living expenses banked becomes even more important.
Retirement may be decades away, but our 20s are the perfect time to start contributing to a 401(k), Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or other investment account. Thanks to the power of compounding returns, the sooner we start investing—even if it’s just a small amount—the more opportunity our money has to grow.
Generally, experts recommend saving $1 million for your post-work life, but that number may not be appropriate for everyone. “That’s why I recommend saving at least 10 percent of your salary,” says Certified Financial Planner Andrew McFadden. “That typically helps get anyone on track for retirement.”
Don’t stress if you need to work your way up to that amount. Start by contributing at least enough to recoup any employer match, then increase contributions every six to 12 months.
Paying off debt allows you to truly have control of your life. “In many cases, people would make different choices if their hands hadn’t been forced by overwhelming obligations,” Lambert says.
We often have more flexibility in our 20s when we don’t have a family or mortgage yet—and can live with roommates, cheap takeout and minimal furniture—to funnel a lot toward our debt. At the least, we should have a plan in place to pay it off by our 30s. Generally, paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first is smartest as it saves the most money over time.
A home, a car, a wedding and/or family…they’re all expenses that often require—or, at least, benefit from—having savings ahead of time. Save both money and anxiety by starting to save and invest a few years out for big-ticket goals.
“Charging big expenses is one of the worst financial decisions you can make, unless you have the ability to pay it off right away,” McFadden says. Instead, get a good estimate of your future purchase, and divide it by the number of months you have until you need to lay down the cash. The number you get is how much you need to set aside each month to make sure you’re covered.