Our twenties and thirties are an exciting time. Most likely we’ve graduated from college or finished up some level of higher education. We’ve gotten our feet wet in the job market, maybe have moved to a different city, gotten married, and potentially started a family.
Young adulthood can also be pretty choppy and uneasy. We have clients to please and products to deliver, housing and new friends to choose, a close relationship to invest in, and sleepless nights with sick children.
Our generation has experienced a huge recession and nasty job market, but also one of the longest bull markets in history and new technologies that make our lives easier. Yes, we’ve experienced a lot in our relatively short lives. But I’d argue there is one thing that our generation wasn’t taught very well: how to properly and thoughtfully handle our finances. Finances influence and impact every aspect of our lives whether we’d like them to or not.
If you missed out on financial education, it’s not too late to learn. Here are nine financial tips to help you flourish in your twenties and thirties.
Decide on Your Values
I’m sure you’re asking, “I thought this was supposed to be about finances, not existential questions and reflection.” It is about finance, but in order to get anywhere with our finances, we have to know where we are going and, more importantly, why. It’s deeper than wanting to be rich. Why do you want to be rich? Why is money important to you? You may never have taken a second to ponder that question before.
Make a list of what really matters in your life. It could be your family, your faith, your health, being diligent and trustworthy, serving others or those less fortunate, or providing a great education for your kids. By going through this exercise, you’ll discover what things are important and what things aren’t. Money has a way of getting into every nook and cranny of our lives. If we don’t have a good filter, we can easily get caught up in chasing after every little thing that comes our way. The purpose is to separate the things that are really important, bring them to the forefront of our minds, and ignore the things that aren’t in alignment with our values. It will save you time, hassle and, yes, money.
Set Some Goals – and Make Sure They are Realistic and Measurable
With your values in mind, set some goals you’d like to achieve in your life. Here we can get into some specifics. Maybe you’d like to get another degree, MBA, or some certification because you value pursuing knowledge and education. You’d probably like to buy a home someday. Some others may include traveling, taking a sabbatical mid-career, or having the option to retire.
I know personally, one of my goals is to earn enough so my wife will be able to spend more time with our kids. This goal is aligned with my value of family.
Without goals, the rest of the following tips wouldn’t be helpful. Sit down and make meaningful, measurable financial goals. You’ll then be able to assess where you’re at and if you’re on the right track.
Important reminder: These don’t have to be written in stone. Life happens, and we have to adapt. Relax and think about these as guesses. As of right now, what sort of things would you like to do?
With these two steps in place, you can now move on to the other financial tips. As long as you agree to keep your values and goals as the filter.
Live Below Your Means
In college, my dorm room faced our athletic teams’ sports facility. The name on the side of the building read “Paul B. Lloyd All Sports Center.” Mr. Lloyd was the CEO of the world’s largest offshore drilling company, and let’s just say he had more than a few nickels in his pocket. When asked how he was able to build his vast wealth, he responded, “My wife and I lived below our means and only spent when we had cash.” This is a simple truth that runs through the veins of people with large financial resources.
By not spending what you make and having some money left over, you are able to use those funds to build wealth. Here’s a simple equation that illustrates this well:
Income – Expenses = Savings ⇒ Investments ⇒ Wealth
What you earn minus what you spend equals savings. By living below your means, you will accumulate savings, which can be invested in a variety of things (your business, financial markets, real estate, etc), which then leads to greater wealth. No matter how much income you make, if you spend it all, then you can’t save, invest and grow your wealth.
While the equation may be simple, it is far from easy. Years of consumption habits and pressures by society to look and act a certain way don’t help you out with living a frugal lifestyle. This is why it’s paramount to have a bigger future goal in mind before you have to make important financial choices. The big picture will help you say no to unnecessary expenses that hurt you in the long run.
Build Your Credit, Not Your Credit Card Balance
Having access to credit is an important piece to your financial life. Most of us are going to have to borrow in order to afford a big purchase like a house. If you don’t have good credit, it is going to be very expensive for you to get a mortgage.
Some people are die-hard no credit card people. I think that is actually wise for some people. It’s better to remove the temptation completely than have it available when you know you’ll abuse it. However, credit cards are not the problem. The problem is we were not taught how to handle credit cards correctly. Most of us were given this pieces of plastic late in our teens, usually with the caveat that it should only be used for emergency situations. This is a horrible precedent to set. A credit card is the very last thing you want to use when you are out of money.
Credit cards are a tool to build credit scores, so you receive the best rates when buying a home or starting a business. They are not to be used to buy things you can’t afford. You should budget your income and expenses so you have enough to pay the balance off each month and avoid any unnecessary interest payments.
Buy Used Cars
There’ll be a temptation to buy a new car as soon as you land your new job or get a promotion. I would encourage you to think twice. That new car smell is nice to breathe in, but there are some large expenses under the hood that make it tough on people just getting started. The biggest cost that doesn’t show up on the sticker price of a new car is depreciation. Depreciation is the value lost as items get older. A new car, on average, loses 11 percent of its value the first day you drive it off the lot. Ever wanted to lose $3,300? Just buy a $30,000 car and drive it 100 feet. Negative returns like these don’t work well for those of us who are building wealth.
This doesn’t mean you should never buy a new car, but be patient until you are in a position later in life where the cost of depreciation won’t make as big of a dent in your net worth.
Attack Your Student Debt
More likely than not, you have a fair amount of student loans. I sure did – over $27,000 to be exact. In our excitement to experience college, taking loans out for school was an afterthought, something that would be handled after we landed that killer job. The reality is whether you landed that job or not, it’s time to pay the piper.
Debt gets in the way of building wealth, so we want to get rid of it as fast as we reasonably can. You should first reserve an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses before paying off your student loans, but once that’s in place, go after those loans. One strategy I recommend is to pay off the loan with the smallest balance first. This allows you to get a quick win and a boost of confidence because you’re one step closer.
Get to Know Your 401(k) Plan
You know that income check that your grandparents got every month from their employer they worked at for 30 years? I think it was called a pension? Those guaranteed income streams from former employers are going out of style. Millennials will be in charge of saving and investing for their own retirement. Instead of a pension, most employers offer a 401(k) for their employees to contribute to out of their salaries.
There are a few important things you need to consider when it comes to your 401(k) plan:
- How should you contribute? The most that you reasonably can. If you’re just starting out, a good goal is to invest at least the minimum that will take advantage of your employer’s matching contribution (if there is one) and then increase it every year.
- What should you invest in? Simplicity is better than a scramble of dozens of mutual funds. Most plans have a target date fund option, which is a great starting point. Choose the target date that reflects the year you’ll reach 65. The fund will automatically start out investing aggressively but slowly become more conservative over time. If you want further help, a financial advisor can assist you in choosing a more specific allocation which may be most appropriate for you.
- When should you start? As soon as possible! Time is money in this case, as compound interest works best over long time horizons.
Know the Difference Between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA
I frequently get asked to explain the differences between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA, and more directly, which is better. Both of these accounts are very important retirement savings accounts that allow you to put away a maximum of $5,500 each year for your retirement.
When you put money into a Traditional IRA, you can get a tax deduction for the year in which you make the contribution. The downside is when you take the money out (after the age of 59.5), the money will be taxed as ordinary income and subjected to income taxes.
When you put money into a Roth IRA, you do not get a tax deduction for the year in which you make the contribution. The upside is that when you take the money out (after the age of 59.5), you don’t have to pay taxes on the withdrawals.
Most likely you’re in a lower tax bracket now than you will be in the future. It would make more sense to do a Roth IRA and forgo the tax deduction now while you’re being taxed at lower rates. The money can then grow tax-free for several decades.
There are some limitations to each type of account, so it would be smart to talk to your tax professional or financial advisor to see what your best option may be and if your situation will cause any contribution restrictions.
Take Baby Steps When Buying Your First Home
Buying a home will probably be the biggest financial decision you make in your life. Therefore, a lot of thought and preparation needs to go into the decision before you sign on the dotted line. If you walk into the home buying process without doing some research beforehand, you may end up with some regrets. Here are some questions you may wish to ask yourself before buying:
- How long do you plan on living in the home?
- What can you afford? Your goal should be a 20 percent down payment to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) and a total housing cost ratio of less than 28 percent (the sum of your monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, and homeowner’s insurance divided by your gross monthly income). This will set a price range for the homes to look for.
- If you were to lose your job, would you (or your spouse) be able to keep paying the mortgage?
- How much in total (interest, fees, principal) will you be paying over the life of your mortgage? How does that make you feel?
- Are you ready for things to break and having to pay to have them fixed either with your time or a professional handyman?