Getting started as a saver and investor can be a tricky balancing act. You have bills to pay, student loans to settle, and a career to jump start. You have to create a cash cushion for emergencies at the same time that you are being urged to salt away money for a far-off retirement date. Here’s some smart advice on how set your priorities.
Adapted from “101 Ways to Build Wealth,” by Daniel Bortz, Kara Brandeisky, Paul J. Lim, and Taylor Tepper, which originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of MONEY magazine.
1. Tuck away a month of expenses.
Even if this means paying off debt more slowly. The money can cover surprises like car repairs. Once you’ve hit that point, says financial planner Matt Becker, focus on the next goal: six months of expenses, to cover you should you lose a job.
2. Juggle emergency saving and a 401(k) by playing it safe.
Until you have six months’ liquid savings (see No. 1), investing isn’t a top priority. But you should put enough into a 401(k) to get an employer match. To partly reconcile the two goals, hold some less risky fare like bonds, says Lillian Wu of Research Affiliates. With taxes and penalties, cashing out a 401(k) is a last resort. But if you’re forced to do it, it’s better to have some safe money.
3. Start first, be an expert later.
Getting going on a 401(k) can feel like jumping into the deep end. How much in stock funds? What about bonds? But early on, saving at all matters more than picking the best mix. Say you put away 6% of your pay, with a 3% match, starting at 25. For 10 years you earn a lousy 2%, and then adjust your portfolio so that you earn 6% for the next 30 years. That wobbly first decade will still have added 47% to your total wealth by age 65.
4. Begin your career in a wealth-building city.
Zillow.com says these metros offer job growth above the median 1.3% and homes for less than the typical 2.9 times income:
Job Growth: 3.3% Housing Cost: 2.5 x income
Atlanta: Home to HQs of Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola and the United Parcel Service
Job Growth: 2.4% Housing Cost: 2.7 x income
Indianapolis: Metro boasts another Best Place: walkable, arts-rich Carmel.
Job Growth: 2% Housing Cost: 2.4 x income
5. Go ahead, have a latte.
Reducing small expenses can’t hurt, but housing is where you can save real money when you’re young. Rent on a two-bedroom, with a roommate, can be 44% less than for a one-bedroom alone, according to Apartment List data.
6. Spend money to invest in yourself too.
Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have found that most Americans get their biggest raises during their first decade in the workforce. So lay the groundwork for wage growth early. Don’t be afraid to shell out some money for a business communication class, technology training, or an additional job certification, says Michael Kitces, co-founder of XY Planning Network, a group of planners with Gen X and Y clients. A $500 class that leads to a promotion and raise could pay off in compounding returns throughout your career, as future raises build on top of your higher base wage. “It may literally be the single greatest investment you can make,” says Kitces.