When you’re in your 30s and 40s, you’re likely well established in your career and may now be undertaking new personal and financial milestones like buying a home, having children or paying off your student loans. And while retirement may feel like a long way away at this point, that’s also something you should be financially planning for. It’s also a great time to pick up healthy money habits and learn new financial skills.
Learn To Create — and Live by — a Budget
“You have to be intentional with your money,” said George Kamel, a personal finance expert with Ramsey Solutions. “Getting on a budget is the foundation of building wealth and understanding where your money is going. I want you to give each dollar you earn (your income) a job. Tell your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.”
This is especially important in your 30s, when you may have competing short- and long-term financial goals — such as saving for retirement or saving for a house — while also paying down student debt, said Lauren Wybar, CFP, senior financial advisor with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services.
“It’s so important to create a budget so that you know where to allocate your income and your savings,” she said.
Get in the Habit of Tracking Your Spending and Expenses
“Find an app that will help you track your expenses,” said Misty Larkins, president of Relevance. “You’re on your phone all day anyway, so make it easy on yourself and use an app to track where your money is going. Some apps will even help you save money through rounding up your purchases to the nearest dollar and putting the extra cents in a savings account.”
Figure Out How To Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
“Your most powerful wealth-building tool is your income, and when you spend your whole life sending loan payments to banks or credit card companies, you end up with less money to save and invest for your future,” said Ramsey Solutions’ Kamel.
Prioritize paying down high-interest debt, said Paul Deer, CFP, vice president of advisory service at Personal Capital.
“If you still have high-interest debt, you may be earning 8% in your retirement account, but might be paying 20% or more in credit card interest. Make sure you’re looking at the total picture across all of your debts and assets,” he said.
Next, focus on paying off student loans.
“In regard to student debt, seek to pay down debt as quickly as possible,” said Vanguard’s Wybar. “Some may want to consider consolidating multiple loans to pay a lower interest rate.”
And if you don’t have debt, do your best to keep it that way.
“Avoid carrying a credit card balance,” said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation. “It can lead to overspending, paying a lot of money in interest and can potentially harm your credit score.”
Learn To Live on Less Than You Make
“This sounds easy, but for so many people it’s not,” Kamel said. “That’s why a budget is so important. Don’t blow your money on stupid stuff.”
Henry Yoshida, CFP, CEO and co-founder of Rocket Dollar, said to get in the habit of learning to live on only 85% of your take-home pay: “Contribute 15% to your savings and retirement in 401(k) [plans], IRAs and then savings generally if 15% of your income exceeds the amount you can put into a 401(k) and IRA.”
Learn To Save Money
“The simplest skill is also the most potent skill,” said Scott Eichler, registered investment advisor, founder of Standing Oak Financial and author of “Don’t Play Chicken with Your Nest Egg.” “If you haven’t learned to save money by the time you are 40, you are in serious trouble. Too often people believe that saving money is a matter of having more wealth, but I’ve worked with people below poverty level that manage to save a little money each month.”
“Saving money is a skill,” he continued. “It is no different than dribbling a basketball. Additionally, it is a skill that you can improve. Everyone realizes that saving money means you’ll have more for retirement; few people remember that saving money also means you’re used to living within your means and are ready for retirement.”
Figure Out How Much You Actually Need To Save For Retirement
“When you’re in your prime of life, it’s easy to think that the future will take care of itself and you can worry about retirement costs as they come up in the future,” said Nate Randle, CEO of Gabb Wireless. “However, if you take the time to sit down and calculate the actual cost of your current standard of living in retirement, you may discover the reality that you may not be as financially prepared as you thought. Having hard numbers in your head will help you prioritize retirement investments.”
Learn How To Make Saving for Retirement a Priority
“Always invest in yourself first by treating your retirement savings like a bill that you pay,” said Mark Williams, president and CEO of Brokers International.
That means prioritizing saving for retirement over other financial goals, such as saving for your kids’ college, said Ramsey Solutions’ Kamel.
“Your kids may or may not go to college, but you will definitely want to retire someday,” he said.
Regular, consistent investing is the key to “retiring with dignity,” Kamel continued.
“But it’s not too late if you’re in your 40s — or 50s,” he said. “Don’t get distracted by market swings or get-rich-quick schemes like buy now, pay later. I recommend investing 15% of your gross income into retirement accounts, like a 401(k) and Roth IRA.”
If you can’t save 15%, at least save the company match, said Vanguard’s Wybar.
“Take advantage of a retirement plan match from your employer — otherwise you are leaving ‘free money’ on the table,” she said. “The power of compounding makes a significant difference down the road, so the earlier someone can start saving for retirement, the better.”
Become an Expert on Your 401(k) Plan’s Benefits
“Take time to understand your 401(k) plan and take advantage of all of its benefits,” Wybar said. “I cannot stress this enough. In addition to the many plans that offer an employer match, some have other benefits, such as an HSA or advice services.”
Be Disciplined About Maintaining an Emergency Fund
“Keep three to six months of expenses in your emergency fund so you’ll never have to dip into your retirement fund or go back into debt when an emergency happens,” Kamel said.
Be sure to keep your emergency funds liquid, noted Brokers International’s Williams.
Learn the Basics of Investing
“Learn the basics of investing, because savings accounts aren’t helping you reach a successful retirement,” said David Meyer, host of the “On the Market” podcast. “You don’t need to become a financial wizard to invest — you just need to learn some simple concepts that can guide your decision making. I recommend starting by reading up on compound interest and the time value of money. Master those concepts, and you’ll be in a great position to pursue your financial goals.”
Cassandra Cummings, wealth and investment strategist and founder of The Stocks & Stilettos Society, recommends investing in low-cost index funds.
Become an Expert on Your Investment Portfolio
Now is the time to familiarize yourself with your investments — which may involve enlisting the help of a pro.
“Meet with a good, trusted financial advisor,” said Ramsey Solutions’ Kamel. “Automate your contributions if you’re not already.”
Learn To Ask For Help When You Need It
“If you don’t have a financial advisor, look into getting one that will guide you through the process of setting up retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA,” said Chalmers Brown, former CTO of Due. “I also encourage you to find an advisor who is familiar with alternative investments as well because those are only growing in popularity. An advisor will help you balance the trends with acceptable risk.”
In addition to having a financial advisor, you should also have a tax consultant and estate planner on your pro team, said Vanguard’s Wybar.
“Especially as you get into higher-income years in your 40s and beyond, this team can provide guidance and optimize financial long-term goals,” she said.
Make a Habit of Checking Your Credit Report
“It’s important to pull your credit report once a year to check for mistakes and errors,” Schwab-Pomerantz said.
Learn To Work Collaboratively With Your Partner
“As you make plans for future purchases and savings, double-check that you and your significant other are on the same page about what you want to do with your finances,” said Steve Gickling, founder of ETLrobot. “It sounds basic, but you may be surprised to find out that you aren’t on the same page, especially if one of you tends to be the go-to finance decision-maker.”
Learn How To Make Passive Income
“Find a way to earn passive income,” said professional keynote speaker John Hall. “That could be through real estate, a side gig or cryptocurrency, as a few examples. Set yourself up for the future by focusing on what could bring in income with little to no effort.”
Learn To Be Intentional and Thoughtful With Your Money
“It’s easy to make financial transactions with a few clicks on your mobile device and move on to the next item on your to-do list. However, I encourage our clients to try to normalize revisiting their finances regularly,” said Michael Liersch, Ph.D., head of advice and planning at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management. “I recommend reviewing your finances daily, but if that seems too daunting, aim for weekly reviews.”
“When we aren’t thoughtful and intentional about our money, we open ourselves up to potentially paying for unused subscriptions every month, overspending by dining out, or even neglecting to catch erroneous or fraudulent transactions,” he continued.
Learn To Ignore Financial FOMO
“Don’t worry about ‘keeping up with the Jones,'” Liersch said. “Through a behavioral science lens, I recognize that we each have unique experiences from childhood through adulthood that influence how we manage money. We may look around and think, ‘Others have so much more than me.’ When we have this mindset, we may rush out and buy a fancy new car as soon as we receive a raise.”
“There is nothing wrong with buying a fancy new car,” he continued. “Yet, before you ‘trade up’ as you receive a promotion, raise or a windfall from tax returns, ensure that any big financial move is best for you now — and your future self, too. Ask yourself, ‘Would I be happy with the big purchase knowing that I may not have enough money in retirement?'”
Get in the Habit of Giving Back
“Be outrageously generous,” said Ramsey Solutions’ Kamel. “At the end of the day, you could be debt-free, have enough savings for emergencies and have great retirement savings — that’ll give you freedom, but it won’t give you peace. When you have no debt, live on less than you make and start investing, you can be as generous as you want to be and help change the world around you.”
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.