There is such a thing as a second chance — and even a third and fourth chance. And, thankfully, that good fortune can also extend to our finances.
You can make a fine mess — whether it's getting into too much debt, making such ill-advised money moves as tapping your 401(k) like a piggy bank, or buying more house than you can afford — and still have the opportunity for a financial makeover.
And it doesn't matter if you're in your thirties, forties, or fifties either — it's never too late to hit the reset button. So to celebrate the spirit of rebirth on this first day of spring, we reached out to those who can speak from experience — Certified Financial Planners™ — to show us how people in each decade can work to recover from a big money mistake and start anew with a clean financial slate.
Hitting the financial reset button in your thirties
Thirty seems to be the age of the wake-up call. Many people float through their twenties, focusing on careers, dating, traveling and generally living — and spending — like there's no tomorrow.
The end result?
"They have racked up credit card debt, and the idea of budgeting and saving is non-existent — not to mention that repaying student loan debt is still looming," says Melinda Kibler, a Certified Financial Planner™ with Palisades Hudson Financial Group.
Often, the rude awakening comes around the age of 30, when financial milestones — say, buying that first home and having that first baby — suddenly bring finances to the forefront.
So how do you get back on track?
"The best way to move forward from debt and poor spending in your twenties is to create a plan — and stick to it," Kibler says.
Step one: Assess your finances
Review your spending habits, and focus on separating your necessities from your luxuries. If you habitually find that you have days at the end of each month and a lack of funds to properly budget for them, start reducing your discretionary spending — and also look for ways to cut expenses on your necessities list.
This can be as simple as making small moves — like switching to a cheaper cable package — in addition to big ones, such as renting a less expensive apartment. Ultimately, making both big and small changes will allow you to create a workable budget, with the goal of keeping your spending within limits for the long term.
Step two: Deal with your debt
You should pay off credit card debt as soon as possible, starting with the card that has the highest interest rate. The quicker you pay these off, the sooner you can start improving your credit score — and the better off you'll be when you apply for a mortgage or other loan.
Similarly, now is also the time to focus on your student loan debt. Despite the fact that student loans carry typically low interest rates, tackling them should also be part of your overall plan to get your debt under control.
If you haven't taken advantage of loan consolidation yet, research the pros and cons — and also look into the various federal student loan payback plans available to borrowers. Although most people choose to repay their loans on the standard, 10-year plan, other options, like those based on income, can make repaying student loans easier on the wallet — and lower your risk of default.
As for credit card debt, the best way to break your dependence on plastic is to build an emergency fund, so you don't need to rely on credit cards to cover expenses that you didn't budget for. An emergency stash of at least six months of living expenses can help cure the gotta-grab-the-card-again problem. You can start that fund using your tax refund or any bonuses that you receive — and then commit to automatically deposit a set amount of money from each paycheck into your emergency fund. Even if it's a small sum, it will build up faster than you think!
Hitting the financial reset button in your forties
The clock is ticking. You blinked, and there you are at 40 and perhaps not so fabulous — at least when it comes to your finances.
Maybe you've been putting all of your efforts into paying down debt or you've been living beyond your family's means. Regardless of what may have led to your shaky financial picture, the truth is that you probably haven't gotten around to socking away very much cash for your future. Bottom line: Now is the time to change course, making saving your top priority.
Step one: Get real about retirement
"Retirement is closer than you think," says Michael Kresh, a Certified Financial Planner™ with Creative Wealth Management, LLC. If there's a 401(k) or other retirement plan at work that you haven't been participating in — and especially if your company offers a match! — sign up today. Even in your forties, you have another 20-plus working years to grow your money.
And if there's no retirement plan at work, Kresh suggests putting the most that you can into a Roth IRA if you qualify, or a Traditional IRA if your income is well into the six figures. "You won't get a tax deduction, but you will thank your lucky stars when you're able to take that money out at retirement tax-free." Another good move: Talk to a financial advisor about how best to ramp up saving for retirement.
Step two: Rethink your lifestyle
If you tend to equate success with all of the stuff that you've accumulated, it's time to retool that thinking. "If you have a lot of 'stuff' and not a lot of investments, you're headed for financial trouble," Kresh says. "Stuff costs money, but it cannot be converted into future income. You can't retire on your Beatles collection."
You may think that you deserve a luxury car when you're in your forties, but if you can't afford it, be realistic. "Don't feel good because you just got a new car," Kresh says. "Feel good because your investments just reached a new high."
Living for today in your twenties is one thing, "but doing so when you are 40 or 50 is asking for trouble," he says.
Step three: Stay focused on saving
"Fortysomethings often try to accomplish too much with too little," says Travis Freeman, a Certified Financial Planner™ with Four Seasons Wealth Management. "Many families feel they can pay for college for multiple children, save for their retirement, buy adequate insurance, drive nice cars and save for a lake house — all at the same time. Typically, it can't happen. You must prioritize your goals or risk missing all of them."
If you're in your forties and living some version of the above scenario, now is a good time to consider finding a financial planner who can help set you straight, get you on a budget that you can live with, map out a strategy for paying down debt — and create a path that leads to that ideal retirement.
Hitting the financial reset button in your fifties
Instead of hitting the reset button, you may feel like hitting the panic button. Somehow, you've come this far — yet you're still sucking at the credit card bottle like a newborn, and you have too little saved for emergencies and retirement.
"As retirement age grows closer, there is even more pressure now than in your forties to make up for the years you did not save for retirement," Kibler says.
Step one: Make up for lost saving time — stat
In a word, it's time for drastic measures to right the wrongs.
"Making major changes to your spending will be difficult in your fifties — but not as difficult as life could be without a nest egg at 75," Freeman says.
To get where you need to go, you may need to consider more significant changes, like downsizing your home to put extra cash away each month. And if you can't negotiate a raise at work, "think about a part-time job that would be enjoyable," Freeman says. "And then save every penny of that extra money."
The bottom line here is not only to save but save more. "Maximize your retirement account contributions," Kibler says, adding that at 50, you can take advantage of catch-up contributions. For 401(k) and profit-sharing plans, you are able to contribute an extra $5,500 annually, in addition to the $17,500 you're allowed when you're younger than 50. Similarly, you can contribute an extra $1,000 annually to your traditional or Roth IRA when you hit 50, totaling $6,500 of contributions.
Another important consideration at this stage in life is to "maintain a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds," Kibler says. While you want investments that grow, you don't want to go too aggressive, since you'll have less time to recover should the market drop.
Step two: Act like a grown-up
Put the kibosh on any foolish spending in the form of too many nights out, trips you can't afford, sticker-shock home upgrades and whatever else is on your "simply must have it" list.
Then take that money and "consider increasing the funds you set aside for future medical expenses," Kibler says. And be sure to review your life insurance needs and explore long-term care insurance now, since it's far cheaper to buy in your fifties than in your sixties or later.
And if you've fallen short in meeting your own financial goals not because of bad habits but because of a big heart, it's time to push others to also adopt more grown-up behavior. Translation: If you're still helping out your adult children, realize that, at a certain point, "helping starts morphing into enabling," Kresh says, and it's time that they learned to fend for themselves.
At 50, you may not be able to get back that 20-year-old figure, but you can get your finances back in tip-top shape — at any age.
More from LearnVest…
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why does Fareed Zakaria still have a job?
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
- 4 simple steaks you can cook in a pan
- Does solar energy have a battery problem?
- 7 common estate-planning mistakes
Subscribe to the Week