What You Should Be Doing with Your Money in College, in Your 20s, and in Your 30s

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By Patricia Garcia

With the massive amount of financial advice out there (solicited and otherwise), it can be hard to figure out exactly what you should be doing with your money at any moment in time.

While it’s always wise to save and never too early to start investing, for many of us, those money milestones are still far from a possibility. Even so, there are still ways to lay the groundwork for a healthy financial future; it all begins by creating realistic financial goals early on.

We asked financial planner Bobbi Rebell, author of How to Be a Financial Grownup, for her tips on the best financial decisions you should be making during different stages of your life. Here, we break it down by age group.

Educate yourself during your college years
(18 - 22)

Going off to college and figuring out how to pay for it is one of the biggest financial decisions a person can make in their lifetime — and it happens before we’re even legally allowed to drink! Therefore, it’s crucial for prospective college students to think carefully about their decisions going forward.

“For many young people, an uneducated decision made by them, or their parents, at age 18 can haunt them for years to come,” says Rebell.  “Be careful of seemingly easy money private loans that have high interest rates. Take the time to learn about all the options you may have, including scholarships and grants. If you have to take out loans, go in with your eyes open and be pro-active in how you plan to pay them down as soon as possible so they don’t hang over you more than needed.”

Be selfish when you’re starting out your career
(23 - 26)

While post-grad life often means a low-paying salary and the first of many student loan bills, it's also a period in time when a person is likely responsible only for themselves. Use this time to be completely self-centered about your financial decisions and prioritize paying down your debt as quickly as possible.

And even though you’ve only started your career, Rebell also recommends to start thinking about retirement now. “As crazy as it sounds, focus as much as possible on starting to save for retirement,” she says. “A small amount of money now will compound into an impressive number down the road. Consider after-tax vehicles like Roth IRAs and Roth 401Ks if you are eligible. And no matter what, put away at least what your employer will match.”

Ask for more once you hit your stride
(26 - 30)

Once your career starts taking off, it’s important to focus on earning more money down the line. Don’t be afraid to ask for a raise if you believe you are due for one. And if you’re interested in doing something other than your day job, now’s the time to start trying out a side hustle. “But beware of expenses that may creep up as you earn more money,” Rebell warns. “Make sure you are paying yourself first and are automating your savings and investing.”

And don’t forget to budget in some room for fun. “At this point it is more than ok to set aside some money to travel and just live your life,” she adds.

Start acting like a grownup with your money
(30+)

The majority of life’s landmark moments, such as getting married, having a baby, or buying your first home, tend to happen during your thirties. That means it’s imperative you not only start acting responsibly in your personal life but in your financial life, as well.

Rebell recommends you start focusing on long-term planning. “First of all, make a will. Then assess your insurance if anyone depends on you,” she explains. “If you have kids, start that 529 savings account to save for college. And think seriously about where you want to live.” If you think you’re going to stay long in one city, ownership is always a better bet than renting.

Remember it’s never too early to get serious about your money. As Rebell puts it: “A financial grownup is someone who is making deliberate, pro-active, and informed decisions about their money, no matter what stage of life they are in.” 

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CareerEsther Sasouness