MONEY Aging

Why Confidence May Be Your Biggest Financial Risk in Retirement

portrait of aging woman
F. Antolín Hernández—Getty Images

Seniors lose ability to sort out financial decisions but hold on to the confidence they can get it right.

You think it’s tough managing your 401(k) now, just wait until you are 80 and not quite as sharp as you once were—or still believe yourself to be.

Cognitive decline in humans is a fact. It starts before you are 30 but picks up speed around age 60. A slow decline in the ability to think clearly wasn’t an issue years ago, before the longevity revolution extended life expectancy beyond 90 years. But now we’re making key financial decisions way past our brain’s peak.

Managing a nest egg in old age is the most pressing area of financial concern, owing to the broad shift away from guaranteed-income traditional pensions and toward do-it-yourself 401(k) plans. Older people must consider complicated issues surrounding asset allocation and draw-down rates. They also must navigate an array of mundane decisions on things like budgets, tax management, and just choosing the right cable package. Some will have to vet fraudulent sales pitches.

About 15% of adults 65 and older have what’s called mild cognitive impairment—a condition characterized by memory problems well beyond those associated with normal aging. They are at clear risk of making poor money decisions, and this is usually clear to family who can intervene. Less clear is when normal decline becomes an issue. But it happens to almost everyone.

Normal age-related cognitive decline has a noticeable effect on financial decision making, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, finds in a new paper. Researchers have followed the same set of retirees since 1997 and documented their declining ability to think through issues. Despite measurable cognitive decline, however, these retirees (age 82 on average) demonstrated little loss of confidence in their knowledge of finance and almost no loss of confidence in their ability to manage their financial affairs.

Critically, the survey found, more than half who experience significant cognitive decline remain confident in their money know-how and continue to manage their finances rather than seek help from family or a professional adviser. “Older individuals… fail to recognize the detrimental effect of declining cognition and financial literacy on their decision-making ability,” the study concludes. “Given the increasing dependence of retirees on 401(k)/IRA savings, cognitive decline will likely have an increasingly significant adverse effect on the well-being of the elderly.”

Not everyone believes this is a disaster in the making. Practice and experience that come with age may offset much of the adverse impact from slipping brainpower, say researchers at the Columbia Business School. They acknowledge inevitable cognitive decline. But they conclude that much of its effect can be countered in later life if problems and decisions remain familiar. It’s mainly new territory—say mobile banking or peer-to-peer lending—that prove dangerously confusing.

In this view, elders may be just fine making their own financial decisions so long as terms and features don’t change much. They will be well served by experience and muscle memory—and helped further by smart, simplified options like target-date mutual funds and index funds as their main retirement account choices. The problem is that nothing ever really stays the same. Seniors who recognize the unfamiliar and seek trusted advice have a better shot at keeping their finances safe throughout retirement.

Read next: Why Your Employer May Be Your Best Financial Adviser

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your Employer May Be Your Best Financial Adviser

150121_RET_ADVISOREMPLOYER
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Employers are offering more than 401(k) advice. They are adding financial wellness programs that help workers budget, save for a home, and more.

Large employers are taking on the roles of retirement adviser and financial educator in increasing numbers, new research shows. This is welcome news, because the federal government and our schools have not done a great job on this front, and individuals generally have not been able to manage well on their own.

Employers have been tiptoeing into retirement planning for workers for years as part of their 401(k) plan benefits. Typically, the advice has been offered in the form of printed materials and online informational websites. More recently, personalized advice has become available through call-in services and, in some cases, face-to-face meetings with planners arranged through work.

But what started as help with, say, settling on a contribution rate and choosing appropriate investment options has evolved into a more rounded service that may offer lessons in how to budget and save for college or a home. A breathtaking 93% of employers intend to beef up their efforts at helping workers achieve overall financial wellness in a way that goes beyond retirement issues, according to an Aon Hewitt survey.

This effort promises to fill a deep void. Just five states require a stand-alone personal finance course in high school, and just 13 require money management instruction as part of some other class. Meanwhile, the Social Security and pension safety net continues to grow threadbare. Someone has to take charge of our crisis in financial know-how.

Employers don’t relish this role. It comes with lots of questions about fiduciary duty and liabilities related to the advice that is proffered. Yet legal obstacles are slowly being cleared away to encourage more employer involvement, which is coming in part out of self interest. Financially fit workers are more productive and more engaged, research shows.

A company that offers a financial wellness benefit could save $3 for every $1 they spend on their programs, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report. These programs also reduce absenteeism and worker disability costs. That’s because money problems may cause stress that leads to ill health. So helping employees improve not just their retirement plan but their entire financial picture makes sense.

Among the upgrades most popular with employers, Aon found:

  • 69% offer online investment guidance, up from 56% last year, and 18% of the rest are very likely to add this feature in 2015.
  • 53% offer phone access to financial advisers, up from 35% last year.
  • 49% offer third-party investment advice, up from 44% last year.

Aon also found that 34% of employers have cut their 401(k) plan’s administrative and other costs, compared with just 27% a year ago. This echoes a BrightScope study, which found that employers generally are beefing up investment options while reducing fees in their 401(k) plans. In all, it seems employers are embracing their role as financial big brother—for their own good as well as the good of their workers.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Secure Your Finances When Reality Doesn’t Bite

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 22-year-old college grad with a six-figure income and minimal student debt. I have no car and live with my parents. Is there something I should do now to lead a secure and fiscally responsible life? My father gave me the name of his planner but he was of little help — Timothy

A: Given your age, healthy salary, low expenses, and minimal debt, you’re financial situation is pretty straight forward. “There is a time and a place to work with a financial planner, and now may not be one of them,” says Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver.

If you still want some guidance, you may have better luck getting referrals from friends or colleagues. “A planner who’s a good fit for your parents may not be a good match for you,” she adds.

In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can be doing to improve your financial security. The biggest one: “Save systematically,” says Kirchhoff. If you start saving $5,500 a year, even with a conservative 5% annual return, you’ll have nearly $600,000 when you turn 60. “That assumes you never increase contributions,” she says.

It sounds like you’re in a position to save several times that amount now that your expenses are still low. Make use of your current economic sweet spot by taking full advantage of tax-friendly retirement vehicles, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can sock away up to $18,000 a year in such a plan, and any contributions are exempt from federal and state taxes. If your employer offers matching benefits, contribute at least enough to get the most you can from that benefit.

Your 401(k) plan likely offers an allocation tool to help you figure out the best mix of stocks and bonds for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Based on that recommendation, you’ll want to choose a handful of low-cost mutual funds or index funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in the United States and abroad. “You can make it as complicated or simple as you like,” says Kirchhoff.

If you want to keep things simple, look at whether your plan offers any target-date funds, which allocate assets based on the year you expect to retire (a bit of a guess at this point) and automatically make changes to that mix as that date nears. Caveat: Don’t overpay to put your retirement plan on autopilot; ideally the expense ratio should be less than 1%.

Now, just as important as investing for retirement is making sure you protect that nest egg from its biggest threat: you. Build an emergency fund so you won’t be tempted to dip into your long-term savings — and owe taxes and penalties — if you lose your job or face unexpected expenses.

“A general rule is three to six months of expenses, but since his expense are already so low, he should aim to eventually save three to six months of his take-home pay,” says Kirchhoff, who recommends keeping your rainy-day fund in a money market account that isn’t tied directly to your checking account.

With the extreme ends of your financial situation covered, you’ll then want to think about what you have planned for the next five or 10 years.

Is graduate school in your future? What about buying or renting a place of your own? Once you get up to speed on your retirement savings and emergency fund, you can turn your attention to saving up for any near-term goals.

You might also consider eventually opening a Roth IRA. You’ll make after-tax contributions, but the money will grow sans tax, and you won’t owe taxes when you withdraw for retirement down the road. (Note: You can save up to $5,500 a year in a Roth, but contributions phase out once your modified gross adjusted income reaches $116,000 to $131,000.)

A Roth may not only save you more in taxes down the road, it also offers a little more flexibility that most retirement accounts. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase, without tax or penalty, if you’ve had the account at least five years. Likewise, you can withdraw contributions at any point, for any purpose.

What about the student debt? Depending on the interest rate and whether you qualify for a tax deduction (in your case probably not), you could hang onto it and focus on other financial priorities.

That said, if you can make large contributions to your 401(k) plan, build your emergency fund and pay off your student debt at a quicker pace, says Kirchhoff, so much the better.

TIME

This Is The Dumbest Reason You’re Losing Money

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Your inaction could cost you big

Interest rates might be low, but they’re not going to stay that way forever. And when they do rise, the chance to save a bundle will vanish. In spite of that, most Americans won’t take advantage of this window of opportunity.

A new survey from HSH.com, a site for comparing and calculating mortgage rates, finds that only 9% of Americans plan to refinance a mortgage this year, while only 30% say they’re going to pay off credit card debt.

This means we’re leaving money on the table in a big way. “Given that most credit cards are variable-rate, a rising interest rate environment would tend to be more costly over time, so there is even a greater benefit to retiring balances as quickly as possible,” says HSH.com vice president Keith Gumbinger. When the prime rate goes up, so will your monthly rate, even if you haven’t added to your overall balance.

“As far as mortgage refinancing goes, it’s a matter of opportunism,” Gumbinger says. “At the moment, fixed mortgage rates are at about 20-month lows, and very close to as much as 60-year lows.” While there are more variables to consider when refinancing, such as if your credit is good enough to qualify for the lowest rate, how much equity you have in your home and whether or not you plan to stay in that home for a while longer, Gumbinger says the opportunity for greater savings — and month-to-month cash flow — can make refinancing worth it under the right circumstances.

Even though Americans might be aware of their collective inertia when it comes to taking these steps, Gumbinger says the actual number of people who make a proactive improvement to their finances is likely to be low. “Even the best intentions are rarely realized, and over the course of the year there are likely to be many distractions,” he points out. For comparison, last year only 24% of us paid off credit card debt, although 15% did take advantage of low rates to refinance a mortgage.

Unfortunately, it’s not even like we’re socking away the money we do have for the future. The survey finds that only a third of Americans say they’re going to save for retirement this year. That’s an improvement from the 27% who say they did last year, but it’s still low.

“The calendar continues to work against you in the battle to amass assets,” Gumbinger warns. “Incomes are growing again, so if IRA [or] 401k contributions have been on the minimal side over the last few years, here’s a bit of a chance to play catch-up.”

MONEY long term care insurance

The Best Moves to Make So a Nursing Home Doesn’t Bankrupt You

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 62 and my wife is 58. We are considering buying long-term care insurance. However, we are also wondering if we have enough assets to self-insure. We have more than $2 million and no debt. We plan to retire to North Carolina, where long-term care costs are considerably less than in New Jersey. Would you be able to help us make this decision? – Bob Hyde, Flemington, N.J.

A: The decision is understandably difficult. A nursing home, assisted living facility, or home health care can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, and no matter where you live, a lengthy illness could quickly deplete your savings. But long-term care insurance policies are expensive and restrictive, and insurers are hiking premiums as people live longer and require more care than insurers anticipated.

The high cost is one reason fewer than 8% of Americans have long-term care insurance. Many people mistakenly believe that Medicare will cover long-term care needs. The reality is that most people use their own resources to pay, and when those assets are exhausted, they turn to Medicaid.

There’s no easy answer to the best way to plan for long-term care needs, even as people grow increasingly worried about having enough money to cover the cost of a protracted illness.

A recent study has some good news and some bad news on this front. While previous research seemed to overstate the duration of care for people who need it, the risk of requiring care at all may be higher than previously thought.

According to the study, by senior economist Anthony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research, U.S. nursing home stays are relatively short: 11 months for the typical single man and 17 months for a single woman. But the risk that an older person may one day need some kind of nursing home care is considerable: 44% for men and 58% for women.

In your case, you have substantial savings for retirement and no debt, so that should make it possible to self-insure without jeopardizing your retirement lifestyle, says Tom Hebrank, a long-term care insurance specialist and financial planner in Atlanta.

But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision, Hebrank says. You could, for example, buy more limited coverage and plan to pay the rest from savings. That would bring the cost of insurance way down.

A couple your age would pay about $7,700 a year for a policy that would cover three years’ worth of nursing care and provide a 5% compound annual increase in benefits to keep up with inflation. If you reduce the amount of inflation protection to 4%, your annual premium drops to $6,000; at 3% it falls to $3,500.

Another way to reduce the cost of a policy is to cut the daily benefit from, say, $150 to $100. Or you could limit the number of years benefits are paid. A policy that covers three years will be about one-third cheaper than one that provides unlimited benefits, according to the American Association of Long Term Care Insurance. How much you can afford depends on your retirement income. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) suggests that you spend no more than 7% of your income on premiums.

You can get free quotes from the American Association of Long Term Care Insurance to price out different options.

When deciding whether or not to buy long-term care insurance, you should also consider how liquid your assets are and whether you want to preserve money for your spouse or heirs. If the bulk of your wealth is tied up in your home, it won’t be easy to tap if you need quick access to the money for medical bills. Long-term care insurance is another way to preserve your assets and protect a surviving spouse who may also need care down the road, Hebrank says.

For some people, having long-term care insurance buys peace of mind, so it seems worth the price. “They don’t want to be a burden to their spouse or kids,” he says, “so even if it’s expensive, they feel better knowing they have coverage.”

Get more answers to your questions about long-term care insurance:
What should I look for in a long-term care policy?
How much will a long-term care policy cost?
What’s the best age to buy long-term care insurance?

Read next: 5 Ways to Tell If You’re Really Ready to Retire

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The U.S. could improve its counterinsurgency strategy by gathering better public opinion data from people in conflict zones.

By Andrew Shaver and Yang-Yang Zhou in the Washington Post

2. The drought-stricken western U.S. can learn from Israel’s water management software which pores over tons of data to detect or prevent leaks.

By Amanda Little in Bloomberg Businessweek

3. Beyond “Teach for Mexico:” To upgrade Latin America’s outdated public education systems, leaders must fight institutional inequality.

By Whitney Eulich and Ruxandra Guidi in the Christian Science Monitor

4. Investment recommendations for retirees are often based on savings levels achieved by only a small fraction of families. Here’s better advice.

By Luke Delorme in the Daily Economy

5. Lessons from the Swiss: We should start making people pay for the trash they throw away.

By Sabine Oishi in the Baltimore Sun

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY retirement planning

5 Secrets to a Happy Retirement

Hammock underneath palm trees
Jason Hindley—Prop Styling by Keiko Tanaka Keep a smile on your face once your working years are over.

Sure, a fat nest egg and good health help. But there are less obvious ways to make sure your post-work life is a happy one.

Retirement ought to be a happy time. You can set your own schedule, take long vacations, and start spending all the money you’ve been saving.

And for many retirees that holds true. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people tend to start life happy, only to see their sense of well-being decline in adulthood. No surprise there: Working long hours, raising a family, and saving for the future are high-stress pursuits.

Once you reach age 65, though, happiness picks up again, not peaking until age 85. In a recent survey of MONEY readers, 48% retirees reported being happier in retirement than expected; only 7% were disappointed.

How can you make sure you follow this blissful pattern? Financial security helps. And good health is crucial: In a recent survey 81% of retirees cited it as the most important ingredient for a happy retirement. Some of the other triggers are less obvious. Here’s what you can do to make your retirement a happy one.

1. Create a predictable paycheck. No doubt about it: More money makes you happier. Once you amass a comfortable nest egg, though, the effect weakens, says financial planner Wes Moss. For his recent book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The 5 Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees, Moss surveyed 1,400 retirees in 46 states. The happiest ones had the highest net worths, but Moss found that money’s power to boost your mood diminished after $550,000.

“Once you reach a certain level, more money doesn’t buy a lot more happiness,” says Moss. Similar research based on the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found a dropoff in happiness with extreme wealth; after you’ve amassed some $3.5 million in riches, more money doesn’t increase your happiness as much.

Where your income comes from is just as important as how much savings you have, says Moss. Retirees with a predictable income—a pension, say, or rental properties—get more enjoyment from spending those dollars than they do using money from a 401(k) or an IRA.

Similarly, a Towers Watson happiness survey found that retirees who rely mostly on investments had the highest financial anxiety. Almost a third of retirees who get less than 25% of their income from a pension or annuity were worried about their financial future; of those who receive 50% or more of their income from such a predictable source, just under a quarter expressed the same anxiety.

You can engineer a steady income by buying an immediate fixed annuity. According to ImmediateAnnuities.com, a 65-year-old man who puts $100,000 into an immediate annuity today would collect about $500 a month throughout retirement.

2. Stick with what you know. People who work past 65 are happier than their fully retired peers—with a big asterisk. If you have no choice but to work, the results are the opposite. On a scale of 1 to 10, seniors who voluntarily pick up part-time work rate their happiness a 6.5 on average; that drops to 4.4 for those who are forced to take a part-time job.

The benefit of working isn’t just financial. It’s also a boon to your health—a key driver of retirement happiness. The physical activity and social connections a job provides are a good antidote to an unhealthy sedentary and lonely lifestyle, says medical doctor turned financial planner (and Money.com contributor) Carolyn McClanahan.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that retirees with part-time or temporary jobs have fewer major diseases, including high blood pressure and heart disease, than those who stop working altogether, even after factoring in their pre-retirement health.

Switching careers in retirement, though, isn’t as beneficial. Retirees who take jobs in their field reported the best mental health, says lead researcher Yujie Zhan of Canada’s Laurier University, perhaps because adapting to a new work environment and duties is stressful.

3. Find four hobbies. Busy retirees tend to be happier. But just how active do you have to be? Moss has put a number on it. He found that the happiest retirees engage in three to four activities regularly; the least happy, only one or two. “The happy retiree group had extraordinarily busy schedules,” he says. “I call it hobbies on steroids.”

For the biggest boost to your happiness, pick a hobby that’s social. The top pursuits of the happiest retirees include volunteering, travel, and golf; for the unhappiest, they’re reading, hunting, fishing, and writing. “The happiest people don’t do things in isolation,” says Moss.

That’s no surprise when you consider that people 65 and older get far more enjoyment out of socializing than younger people do.

4. Rent late in life. In retirement, as in your working years, owning a home brings you more joy than renting does. But as time goes on, that changes. Michael Finke, a professor of retirement and personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, analyzed the satisfaction of homeowners vs. that of renters from age 20 to 90-plus and found a drop late in life, particularly after homeowners hit their eighties.

The hassles of homeownership build as you age, Finke notes, and a house can be isolating. Most people want to stay put in retirement. Yet, says Finke, “you need to plan for a transition to living in an environment with more social interaction and less home responsibility.”

5. Keep your kids at arm’s length. Once you suddenly have a lot more time on your hands, your closest relationships can have a big impact on your mood. According to an analysis by Finke and Texas Tech researcher Nhat Hoang Ho, married retirees, particularly those who retire around the same time, report higher satisfaction than nonmarrieds—but only if the couple get along well. A poor relationship more than erases the positive effects of being married.

Children don’t make much of a difference, with one twist. Living within 10 miles of their kids leaves retirees less happy. “People overestimate the amount of satisfaction they get from their kids,” says Finke. The reason is unclear—could being a too accessible babysitter be the problem?

MONEY consumer psychology

7 Reasons to Pretend You Make Less Money

Trick your brain and your wallet will follow.

We all know you can get in financial trouble by pretending to have more money than you actually do — and most of us know that you can’t make an educated guess at someone’s salary by checking out the car they drive. So you can appear to be wealthy even if you’re not. But can you get ahead by telling yourself (and intimating to others) that your paycheck is smaller than it actually is? There are some pretty compelling reasons to do it, and you could find yourself in a far better position than if your paycheck just barely covers expenses.

Here are some reasons to consider pretending your paycheck is just a bit smaller than it really is.

1. Sock Away Money in an Emergency Fund

If you don’t have an emergency fund (or even if you do), you can pretty much count on having an emergency. Car transmissions break, you need to travel unexpectedly or someone in your family ends up needing help. Experts recommend six to 12 months’ worth of expenses in your emergency fund. If you don’t yet have that, you may want to make sure you have access to credit. (You can check your free credit report summary on Credit.com to get an idea of how you would be judged by potential lenders.) But having the money saved is a better alternative.

2. Pay Down Debt Faster

If you pretend you make, say, 10% less than you actually do, you can probably cut expenses to accommodate the reduced pay. But the money you will save isn’t pretend — and you can send it to your creditors, reducing or eliminating debt much more quickly. This little fib helps keep your spending in check, which will free you to direct the money someplace else, making some other dream a reality more quickly. You can even figure out a timeline for getting out of credit card debt with this nifty calculator.

3. Save for a Down Payment or Your Kid’s College

Whether you’re looking to buy a house, educate a child or take a trip around the world, your dream is likely to require a significant chunk of change. And one way to get that is to pretend that earmarked money does not even exist. You can have it transferred into a designated account the same day you get paid so that you are not tempted to use it for the heavily discounted camping equipment that you know about because the advertisement for it popped up in your inbox. (Another money-saving hint: Most of us will spend less if we unsubscribe.)

4. Put More Money in Retirement Savings

Retirement seems a long way off when you are in your 20s, and it is. But most people’s expenses grow with time (particularly if you choose to raise children). It is not going to suddenly become easier to save more, at least not until you have far less time to do it, and the money has less time to grow. How many people have you heard complaining that they wished they hadn’t saved so much for retirement?

5. Friends Won’t Pressure You to Splurge

We’re not suggesting you do away with little luxuries altogether. You and a friend want to go get manicures? Go for it (sometimes). But think about whether all of your get-togethers need to involve a meal out, shopping or manicures. Maybe they made a resolution to move more. Walks can do double duty to help get your body and finances in better shape. And if your friends know you are on a beer budget, chances are they won’t assume you have a champagne salary.

6. Friends & Family Won’t Consider You a Human ATM

Do you often or always pick up the tab for groups because you can afford it? If you say, “my treat” too often, it’s possible you’re sending a signal that because you have more, you have an obligation to share it with your friends and family. You may feel that way as well, and if you do, you would be especially wise to pretend you have a little less money than you actually do. If you do choose to give or lend money to friends and relatives, make sure everyone is clear on what is a gift and what is a loan. Money misunderstandings have the potential to damage relationships.

7. Your Income Could Drop

It’s easy — and tempting — to think your salary will be on an upward trajectory from your first day of work until your last. (Don’t the retirement calculators assume that?) And who plans for a furlough or the loss of a big client? During hard times, it’s not unheard-of for companies to levy across-the-board salary cuts. And if you’re acting as if you make every dime that you actually do, it will be harder to adjust than if you’ve been acting as if you made less.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Millennials

How to Set Financial Priorities When You’re Young and Squeezed

man counting coins
MichaelDeLeon—Getty Images

You have a lot of demands on your money—and not a lot of it. Here's what to do first.

The most financially challenging state of life is not retirement, it is early career.

That’s the time when your salary is still probably low, but you have the longest list of expenses: career clothes, cell phone bills, your first home furnishings, cars, weddings, rent—need I go on? You probably don’t have enough money to pay for all of that at once, unless your parents have set you up very well or you are a junior investment banker.

The rest of us have to make choices with our limited “discretionary” income. Here is a rough priorities list for newbies who have shopping lists that are bigger than their bank accounts.

First, feed the 401(k) to the match, not the max. If your employer matches your contributions, make sure that your paycheck withdrawals are high enough to capture the entire company match. That is free money. If you have enough money to contribute more to your 401(k), that is a good thing to do, but only if you’re able to cover other key expenses.

Invest in items that will improve your lifetime earning power. A good interview suit. An advanced degree. The right electronic devices and services for the serious job hunt.

Pay off credit card balances. Chasing those “balance due” notices every month will kill just about any other financial goal you have. If you’re carrying significant credit card balances, abandon all other extra savings and spending until you’ve paid them off, in chunks as large as possible.

Put money into a Roth individual retirement account. The younger you are and the lower your tax bracket, the better this works out for you. Money goes in on an after-tax basis and comes out tax-free in retirement. You can withdraw your own contributions tax-free whenever you want. Once the account has been in existence for five years, you can pull an additional $10,000 out, tax-free, to buy a home. It’s nice to have a Roth, and the younger you start it the better.

Save for a home down payment. Homeownership is still a smart way to build equity over a lifetime. New guidelines will once again make mortgages available to people who make downpayments as low as 3%. Even though interest rates are still at unrewarding lows, it’s good to amass these earmarked funds in a savings or money market account.

Pay down high-interest student loans. If you had private loans with interest rates over 8%, find out whether you can refinance them at a lower rate. If not, consider paying extra principal to burn that costly debt more quickly. Don’t race to pay off lower-interest student loans; the interest on them may be tax deductible, and there are better places to put extra cash.

Buy experiences, not things. Still have some money left? Fly across the country to attend your college roommate’s wedding. Take road trips with friends. Spend money to join a sports team, theater group, or fantasy football league. Focus your finances on making memories, not acquiring things—academic research holds that you get more happiness for the dollar by doing that, and you’ll probably be moving soon anyway.

Buy a couch. For now, make this the bottom of your list. Sure, everyone needs a place to sit, but there’s nothing wrong with living like a student just a little bit longer. If you defer expensive things for a few years while you put money towards all the higher priorities on this list, you’ll be sitting pretty in the future.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that Roth IRA holders can withdraw their own contributions at any time and do not have to wait until the account is five years old.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com