8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
Your 20s: Planning pays off richly
Live cheaply as long as you can. Newly minted adults tend to overestimate how far their paychecks will go and blow too much on apartments, cars, wardrobes, eating out and all the other trappings of grown-up life. A smarter approach: Keep living like a broke college student for a few more years. You'll get a better handle on what you can really afford and be able to free up more money for real adult goals, like retirement and health insurance. Speaking of which . . . .
Get health insurance. You're one accident or illness away from financial disaster if you don't have coverage. If your employer doesn't offer insurance, try to buy an individual policy. Opting for a high deductible can keep the monthly premium down but still offer you protection from catastrophic medical bills.
Shovel money into your retirement funds. If your employer offers a 401k or other retirement plan, sign up for it and contribute as much as you can. If not, start contributing to a traditional or Roth individual retirement account. Aim to put aside 10% to 15% of your gross pay. Contributing every dime you can now will give you flexibility when you're older, either to retire early or to cut back your contributions so you can cover other expenses (like future children's college educations) without derailing your retirement plans.
Take a chance. You're young, so you have decades to ride out the stock market's ups and downs. Consider putting 80% or more of your retirement funds into stocks or stock mutual funds to take full advantage of their potential for growth. If investing baffles you, consider opting for a "lifestyle" or "target maturity" fund: You pick a target retirement date and let experts do the rest.
Be strategic about debt. Pay off those credit cards and resolve not to carry balances in the future, because the interest you pay is money down the drain. Then focus on paying off private student loan debt, which typically carries a variable rate. But don't necessarily rush to pay off federal student loan debt or mortgages, which tend to be relatively cheap and tax-deductible. Instead, make sure you're contributing the maximum to your retirement accounts and have your other financial bases covered before accelerating payments on those debts.
Pay attention to your credit scores. Credit scores are the three-digit numbers lenders (and others) use to help gauge your creditworthiness, and they're key to your financial life. You'll pay higher interest rates and have more trouble getting loans if your scores are poor, and bad credit can cost you jobs, apartments and higher insurance premiums. Pay your bills on time, keep credit card balances low, and apply for credit sparingly to keep your scores in good shape.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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