Your 20′s were fun, maybe too fun.  Now that the dust has settled and you’re part of the real world, here are eight crucial financial moves you must make this decade:

1.  Invest in Yourself

This is the time to separate from the pack.  Spend some of that hard earned money wisely to gain the advanced education, industry certification or specialized job skills necessary to make yourself more qualified, more marketable and ultimately indispensible.

Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce 2011 study found workers with Graduate Degrees make as much as $35,000 more in the same field as their counterparts with only Bachelor’s Degrees (http://cew.georgetown.edu/whatsitworth).

Just because that diploma hangs on your office wall doesn’t mean you’re done learning.  Do what your colleagues won’t do and spend the extra money and time to collect more arrows in your quiver.

2.  Establish an Emergency Fund

Human nature seeks immediate gratification.  True financial security and success comes from training yourself to delay that gratification until a future date.  Having an emergency account for those unexpected expenses keeps you from borrowing and gives you invaluable peace of mind.

This can be a daunting task so start your emergency fund with small amounts at a time.  Make your morning coffee at home four days a week and splurge only on Friday.  Nix all those cable channels you never watch.  Skip the lunches out every day and bring food from home.

Now put these savings into a new account labeled “Emergency Savings.”  You’re less likely to pull funds from this account frivolously when you’re constantly reminded that it’s for emergencies only.

3.  Stick to a Budget

It’s not sexy but a little self-control and discipline will make your 40′s and 50′s much more enjoyable.  Add kids, school costs, summer camps, etc. and the cushy lifestyle of your 20′s will be a distant memory.  Prepare for this in advance by understanding where your money goes and what you can do to keep more of it.

Setting a budget is more an exercise in discipline more so than tracking every single penny.  There are tons of budget software programs and expense tracking sites out there.  My personal favorite is Mint (www.mint.com). An old saying that rings true to this day says “First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”

4.  Maximize Retirement Savings

If your workplace offers a matching 401k or similar program, you’re a fool to give up free money.  Take advantage of this gift.

Once you’ve contributed enough to get the match and you have an Emergency Fund established, you should consider diverting more towards your retirement accounts.  In traditional 401k, IRA and similar retirement accounts, your investments grow tax deferred until you take income during retirement.  Ask your investment professional about where your money is being invested and pay attention to fees.  You don’t need to be an expert but you need to take responsibility and understand what’s going on — this is your retirement after all.

There are hundreds of calculators you can test but suffice it to say that waiting until you’re 40 to start these retirement savings will leave you at a terrible disadvantage.  Albert Einstein was spot on when he pegged Compound Interest as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

5.  Manage Financial Risks

Forget about that fancy car you’re driving, the purse collection and your “priceless” vinyl collection.  Your single most valuable asset is your future earnings potential – your ability to make money.

You insure that car, those records and you’d have a conniption if something happened to your handbag.  So why not protect yourself in the same way?

Review your disability and life insurance protection for the sake of your current or future family.  Often times the coverage offered through employee benefits may not be sufficient.  Take a few minutes to complete a disability or life insurance needs analysis and see for yourself (http://www.lifehappens.org/insurance-overview/life-insurance/calculate-your-needs/).

6.  Take Control of Your Credit Cards

This one is simple.  Not easy, but simple.

Carrying credit card balances forces you to pay high interest rates, which, in turn, creates even higher credit card balances.  Break this vicious cycle and use credit cards only when absolutely necessary.

Don’t misunderstand me.  Credit cards serve a very useful purpose but they should be treated as a tool, not the tool.  I speak from experience in saying it’s easy to swipe the card and not think about the consequences.  Do that enough in your 30′s and you can kiss retirement goodbye.

7.  Understand Good Debt and Bad Debt

In your 30′s, assume debt with extreme caution.  If you’re like most of us 30 somethings, you still have some cleanup from your 20′s to address — don’t make the problem any worse.

Taking on Debt for a quality home purchase, higher education or similar future-focused asset may be wise.  Borrowing money at high interest rates for a new car, those designer shades or for your dream vacation almost never makes financial sense.  The real danger is that these short-term decisions are often the more fun and offer instant gratification but leave you reeling afterwards (see #7 above).

General Rule:

Good Debt = used as leverage towards improved value long term

Bad Debt = used in lieu of cash savings you don’t have to buy something you can’t afford whose value will never be greater than at the time of purchase

8.  Give Back

This may seem crazy or even impossible given the constraints of your everyday life.  Trust me when I say you’ll get more in return than you can ever imagine by giving to those in need.

Make a regular donation to your favorite local charity.  Don’t have one?  Use a resource like Charity Navigator (http://www.charitynavigator.org) to find a cause near and dear.

If money is tight, consider volunteering your time or your expertise to and organization in need.  Public Relations?  Graphic Designer?  Appliance Technician?  All charities, nonprofits and organizations for the greater good need these services just like any other business.

Arthur Ashe famously said “From what we get we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

 

Everyone lives a different life and should take their own personal circumstances, careers and families into consideration before making any significant financial decisions — in your 30′s or at any other time.  Consider meeting with a financial professional who may be able to help shape good money habits in this crucial decade.

Featured photo credit: Gratisography via gratisography.com

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