Hey, It’s OK If You Don’t Have Perfect Finances by Age 30

published Oct 11, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Ah, turning 30—what an infamous milestone. For many, this birthday is a time to reflect on your life so far. It can feel like a crummy reminder that youth has an expiration date, and that all the choices you made in your twenties have very real consequences. 

On the flip side, it’s also just a number. 

While it may seem like someone in their thirties should have a house, a spouse, a kid, and maybe a decent investment portfolio, that’s just not the reality for most. Plenty of people in their thirties are still figuring things out, and scores of successful 40- and 50-year-olds didn’t get serious about their finances (or their careers) until age 30 rolled around.

If you don’t have perfect finances by the time you turn 30, don’t waste energy beating yourself up. There are better ways to achieve your goals. Here’s what to focus on instead.

Stop comparing yourself to others

Brent Perry, a financial planner with Piedmont Financial Advisors in Indiana, recommends not comparing your financial health to that of those around you, especially when it comes to assuming things on social media. You never know exactly how the people you follow are financing those expensive purchases, high-end dinners, or lavish vacations.

“They may have a sizable inheritance or are in the process of digging themselves into a huge debt hole,” he says.

Joe Saul-Sehy, host of the “Stacking Benjamins” podcast, didn’t start getting out of debt until he was 35. At the time, he felt far behind his peers, but now realizes that he had plenty of time to catch up. So, instead of comparing yourself to others, try to beat your own personal benchmarks. 

“A great way to save toward your goal is to challenge yourself to beat what you’d done the month before,” Saul-Sehy says.

For example, if you saved $500 in a retirement account last year, try to save $1,000 this year. Once you reach that, try to save $1,500. 

Focus on what you can do

It’s easy to feel hopeless about your financial situation if you’re living in a studio apartment while your friends are buying houses. But feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t lead to change. You have to think about what you can do to improve your situation.

If you’re a teacher, wondering about that six-figure job you don’t have is fruitless. Instead, make a list of what you can do. Can you tutor on the weekends to earn extra money? Can you teach driver’s ed or SAT prep in the summers?

Anytime you start feeling frustrated, make a list of tangible tasks that can actually change your life. Create goals that are specific and actionable, like investing 10 to 15 percent of your salary for retirement, or maxing out your IRA contributions every year.

Know you can turn things around

If you’re a 30-year-old and constantly see headlines like, “I saved $1 million by 31” or “I paid off my mortgage at age 35,” it’s all too easy to think that you’re behind the curve. You might even assume that it’s impossible to catch up.

But Perry says that it’s entirely possible to make up for lost time if you start investing for retirement in your 30s. 

“In the beginning it may seem impossible, and progress may be slow,” he says. “Discouraging setbacks will occur. But with a plan, financial security can be vastly improved.”

Start small. Start contributing to an employer-sponsored 401(k) if you have one. If you don’t, open an IRA at a robo advisor like Betterment or Wealthfront

Create a budget and make room for your new financial goals. You may have to cut expenses. Big changes, of course, will have the most impact, like moving to a smaller apartment or refinancing your car loan to a lower interest rate. 

If you’re still stuck or are worrying about what to do, find a professional who can help. Talk to a fee-only financial planner about which retirement accounts to open, the right mix of stock and bond funds to choose, and any other questions you have. Knowing how to invest properly will have a huge impact on your nest egg.

Lastly, don’t try to hack the system if you feel like you’re behind. Buying into get-rich-quick schemes or investing in Bitcoin or CBD stocks isn’t the best way to earn more money. 

“I’d say that there’s always a temptation to try to ‘catch up,’ but you’re just in the first few miles of a marathon,” says Jim Wang of Wallet Hacks. “You could sprint and maybe catch up, but you could also hurt yourself. You have a long way to go, so don’t risk trying for a big win when you don’t really need it.”