You know the saying, "Life is a marathon, not a sprint"? Well, it's actually a good money mantra too.
Translation: All too often, we race through the nitty-gritty details of our finances and neglect to focus on crucial to-dos in the process — like saving for retirement long before those golden years approach.
But if you adopt a marathon approach to money, it can allow you to take a more holistic look at your overall financial picture to see how decisions that you make in your 20s and 30s can impact your 40s, 50s, and beyond.
Of course, no matter how old you are, financial health usually boils down to the same three basic goals: paying off credit card debt, growing your emergency fund, and saving for retirement. But the way you approach these tasks — and other money priorities — may change as you age.
That's why we tapped Natalie Taylor, a CFP® with LearnVest Planning Services, to help make it simpler for you to begin taking more of a marathon tact with your finances by highlighting three of the top money to-dos she believes should be on everyone's radar in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
Three of the top money to-dos for your 20s
This is the time when you should be laying the groundwork for a bright financial future, Taylor says. One of the best ways to start? Consider creating a budget and tracking your expenses — then test it out for several months to make sure it's realistic for you, adjusting it as need be. "This seems like a basic step, but a lot of people miss it," Taylor adds.
The reality is that your finances are likely a lot simpler now than they will be in the future, when you may be juggling priorities like saving for a down payment on a house while also starting a family. So this is why your 20s are an ideal time to establish good money habits — like getting that emergency fund going — that can help carry you through the next decades.
1. Tackle credit card debt
It's easy to think that delaying debt repayment until you're older and making more money is a good idea, but this strategy rarely pans out. Because as you make more, your expenses usually increase too.
"Instead of renting, you're now going to buy a house, or you're combining finances with a partner, or you decide to have a family," Taylor explains. "All that extra money that seemed like it would make things so much easier suddenly isn't there."
This is why now is the time to work on breaking the credit-card-debt cycle for good — but make sure you're approaching this goal strategically. A common mistake to avoid? Making giant repayments when you haven't properly budgeted for them.
It may seem like a good idea, but you risk running out of cash and then having to withdraw it from your savings account, or worse, running up your credit card bill again just to stay afloat. Instead, take a more measured approach, and be realistic about how much you can afford to repay at once — then stick to the plan.
2. Start an emergency fund
While you're busy paying down your debt, don't forget what you should be building up: emergency savings. To help accomplish this goal, Taylor suggests setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck into a high-yield savings account, so you aren't tempted to spend that money before you can save it.
Ideally, you should aim to have six times your take-home pay saved up in your emergency fund. But if that figure seems too lofty a goal, your number-one priority is to save one month's worth of income. (We hereby give you permission to focus on this goal even before working toward others, like paying more than the minimum on your credit card bill.) Then graduate to a goal of three months' worth of pay — and build up from there.
3. Get in the habit of saving for retirement
At this point in your life, retirement is far off, and your 401(k) probably isn't the first place you want to put any extra hard-earned cash. But it can be important to start saving as early as you can: Even small amounts can make a big difference over time, thanks to the beauty of compound returns.
Start contributing a percentage of your paycheck that feels reasonable to you, and then plan to increase it by 1 percent every six months until you max out. And don't forget to fully take advantage of an employer match if your company offers one — otherwise, you're leaving free money on the table, and trust us, you'll probably need it later.
Three of the top money to-dos for your 30s
During this decade, your financial goals are likely to get a bit more complicated. Many people are still paying off credit card debt and student loans, working on building emergency savings, and kicking retirement savings into high gear — while also saving for a house down payment and perhaps thinking about starting a family.
So what's the secret to juggling it all?
You can't just work on one goal at a time, but you also don't want to spread yourself too thin, Taylor says. "I look at income like a fire hose," she explains. "If you try to fill too many buckets, none of them are going to get very full."
So she suggests narrowing it down by focusing on your biggest three or four goals. If you haven't mastered the big three — paying off credit card debt, building an emergency fund, and minding your retirement savings — then those should automatically be your top priorities. But once you've addressed your basic financial security needs, you can start contributing to other goals, like saving for a house or your kids' college.
1. Continue to hack away at debt
This story was originally published on LearnVest. LearnVest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.
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