Image: Couple and cash © Big Cheese Photo, Jupiterimages

If you're in your 20s and broke, you're in very good company.

Incomes are low, debts can be high, and many households headed by 20-somethings live on the financial edge, according to the Federal Reserve's 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, released every three years.

For example:

  • The median income for families headed by people aged 20 to 29 was just more than $30,000 in 2007, according to Federal Reserve statistics, compared with medians of $54,000 for those in their 30s and more than $60,000 for those in their 50s. In inflation-adjusted terms, median incomes for 20-somethings didn't budge from their levels in 2004, the last time the Fed conducted this survey.
  • Thirty percent of 20-somethings made $20,000 or less.
  • 20-somethings were more than twice as likely as older folks to have a negative net worth; one out of four families headed by people aged 20 to 29 owed more than they owned. For those with a positive net worth, the median wealth was $7,060; including everyone brought down the median to just $6,400.
Net worth by age group
Age Median Top 25% Top 10%
20 to 29 $6,400 $35,000 $132,000
30 to 39 $51,200 $184,000 $436,000
40 to 49 $133,100 $371,000 $840,000
50 to 59 $229,300 $605,000 $1,350,000
60 to 69 $256,300 $710,400 $2,030,000
  • More than one-third of 20-somethings had education loans. The median amount owed to student lenders was $13,000, a sharp increase from the previous Fed survey in 2004, when the median amount owed was $9,200.
  • One out of 13 families headed by 20-somethings was at least 60 days late on a bill. Only folks in their 30s had a higher delinquency rate, with 9% of that group 60 days or more late.

Worse, all of this was compiled before the economic downturn wiped out savings and brought a wave of unemployment and foreclosures. Many of those already close to the edge now face financial disaster -- and the young are most likely to be on that edge.

Get your act together now

But there is also good news if you're in your 20s: Time really and truly is on your side. If you get your act together now, you can achieve financial independence decades ahead of your peers who keep muddling from paycheck to paycheck.

Consider this: Someone who puts $4,000 a year into retirement accounts starting at 22 can have $1 million by age 62, assuming 8% average annual returns. Wait 10 years to start contributing, and you'd have to put in more than twice as much -- $8,800 a year -- to reach the same goal.