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Financial Planning in Your 20s: The Essential Checklist

By
Samantha Rose
Samantha Rose covers financial literacy for the educational arm of OppLoans. Her work focuses on providing hands-on resources for high school and college-age students in addition to their parents and educators.
Updated on May 5, 2021
Financial commandments for your 20s.

Your early 20s are a time for growth. New friends, new jobs, new towns. But with so many firsts, mistakes are only natural. 

Financial mistakes, however, can be costly. 

Student loans. Credit card debt. The 20s can be a rocky road to financial health. That’s why financial planning as a young adult can equip you to handle life’s financial twists and turns. You don’t need to know everything — but the essentials will provide a solid foundation. 

Here are eight steps to take now.

No. 1: Hone financial decision-making

Humans are impulsive. We make decisions based on emotion — often without thinking them through. Add in the fact that American culture is consumeristic. This is bad news for our finances. Learning how to follow a process can aid you in making smart financial choices.

Take a pause before any large purchase. Decide if it’s an expense that will bring value in the long term. No? Consider setting aside your money for a better purchase. Or simply saving it for the future.

“The best advice I would give a younger version of myself would be to take a pause before any purchase and really consciously decide if that’s something that I will value in the long term,” says Madeline Pratt, founder and CEO of Fearless In Training and Womxn Talk Money. “If the answer is no, take that money and set it aside in an investment account so the returns it makes can pay for the things that I truly value in the future.”

No. 2: Secure an income 

Your 20s are a time to find yourself, do meaningful things, and earn a living. Emphasis on earning a living. You can’t spend money without an income. An income, or the money you earn, will determine your quality of life. 

Find and secure an income — through traditional employment or self-employment. And then make sure to have a plan B by protecting your income.

“It’s important because your income is the foundation of your entire financial house,” says Travis Price, a licensed income protection agent. “If your income fails and your savings become depleted, your house crumbles.”

There are two primary tactics to protect your income. 

First, create an emergency fund. An emergency fund is money set aside for emergencies, including a car repair, medical cost, or loss of employment. The purpose of an emergency fund is to bridge the gap during a period without income or in the event of an unexpected cost.

Second, consider disability insurance. A short- and long-term disability system can ensure that you don’t have a drop in income if you can no longer work for an extended period of time, Price says.

No. 3: Create a budget

Budgeting is often a struggle, but if you can master it as a 20-something then you’re set for life. 

“Developing a budget that you can follow” is crucial to building a financial foundation, says Haley Tolitsky, a CFP with Cooke Capital. 

A budget is a financial plan based on your income and expenses. It is flexible and allows prioritization during different stages of life. Pay off debt. Save up money. Invest for the future. There’s a budget for that.

Envelope budget

The envelope budgeting method tracks income and expense categories. Place cash in envelopes and only spend from the designated category each month.

80/20

The 80/20 budget divides income into two categories: savings and everything else. It prioritizes savings and allows freedom to spend the remainder however you like.

50/30/20 

The 50/30/20 budget divides income into three categories: needs, wants, and savings, respectively. It focuses on broad expense categories, instead of tracking pennies.

Once you choose a budget, the process is typically the same. 

“Determine your monthly income and essential — rent, utilities, groceries, phone bill, etc. — versus non-essential — dining out, entertainment, shopping, etc. — expenses,” Tolitsky says. “Set a goal to save a specific dollar amount each month in a separate high-yield savings account for your emergency fund and keep contributing until you reach 3-6 months of living expenses.”

Are you ready to commit to overhauling your finances? A budget will ensure you don’t fall back on negative habits. Pick one and give it a try.

No. 4: Set savings goals

Savings goals create a path to the financial future you want, whether you save for a short-term goal, like vacation, or a long-term goal, like retirement. Spend your 20s creating several savings goals for your financial future. 

Setting and achieving financial goals takes patience. So trust the process — and time.

One of the easiest ways to save is to pay yourself first. This means prioritizing savings in your budget. Take the human element out of the equation. To do so, set up automatic deposit.

“As soon as you get paid, transfer a portion of your income to your savings, investment, and/or retirement accounts, depending on your financial goal,” says Brianne Soscia, CFP with The Wealth Consulting Group.

Track your savings goal amounts and watch as you achieve each one.

Another option is to focus on your retirement plan. If you have an employer retirement plan, contribute enough to max out any employer match program.

“These contributions will come out of your paycheck automatically, ensuring that you pay yourself first,” Soscia says.

No. 5: Pay off debt

Debt is pervasive. It can follow you into your 30s, 40s, and beyond. 

Debt actively reduces your overall net worth. It can also negatively impact your credit score — like high credit card balances and missed payments. And most life milestones require a credit check. Buying a car? Credit check. Buying a house? Credit check.

Don’t let debt disrupt your financial success. Spend your 20s reigning in your debt. By paying it off, you’ll gain financial freedom — and even better, peace of mind.   

List all of your debts in one place. Differentiate between high-priority debt, like credit cards, and low-priority debt, like student loans. Create a repayment plan to tackle your debt head on. There are two popular debt repayment strategies:

Snowball method

The snowball method pays off debt in the order of smallest to largest amount. The borrower gains momentum as each easily tackled balance is knocked out. Roll the money used for payments into the next smallest balance, and so on.

Debt avalanche method

The debt avalanche method pays off debt in order of the highest-interest to lowest-interest debt. By prioritizing high-interest debt, the borrower will save money on interest payments.

One of the issues borrowers face is a lack of professional advice on how to manage student loans.

“If a borrower has federal student loans, they have nine different options to select from,” says Fred Amrein, CEO and founder of PayForED. “If they get married and they both have federal loans they could have 126 option combinations. A simple change could be worth thousands of dollars a year in cash flow.”

No. 6: Start investing

Investing is key to building wealth. And time is on your side in your 20s. 

“Time being on your side is key when it comes to building your wealth in your 20s,” says Janine Rogan, CPA and CEO of The Wealth Building Academy. 

Why? That’s the magic of compound interest. Compound interest is interest earned on interest. Basically, it’s the reason why investments earn more money over time.

“Starting to invest and earning returns on small amounts will compound [throughout] your life,” Rogan says.

But before you start investing, it’s crucial that you’re financially prepared. Consider these four signs you’re ready to invest:

  1. You have a long-term financial plan and strategy.
  2. You have a healthy emergency fund.
  3. You had a recent increase in income.
  4. You’re well-researched and prepared to invest.

Investing all depends on timing and your unique financial situation. These signs are a good step to getting your finances in order. But consult a financial professional for comprehensive investment advice.

No. 7: Negotiate salary

The best way to increase your income in your 20s comes from changing jobs and negotiating a higher salary. Yes, salary negotiations can be uncomfortable. But not doing so could leave money on the table.

“Even leaving as little as $5,000 on the table in your first salary negotiation can have a ripple effect that has a net impact of leaving six to seven figures in money on the table over the course of your career,” says Lauren Hasson, founder of DevelopHer.  

So how do you negotiate a salary? Follow these tips. 

  • Do your research on your industry, role, and qualifications. What is the average salary expectation for someone in your position? 
  • Create a compelling case. Why do you deserve greater compensation? How have you directly impacted the business?
  • Be prepared to answer difficult questions. How are you advocating for yourself and your contributions?
  • Consider the whole package. Is a salary increase the only compensation you’re interested in? What about benefits, including time off or an annual bonus?

There are several perks to successfully negotiating salary and receiving a higher compensation. You will feel more confident. You will have greater workplace satisfaction. And most importantly, you will positively impact your lifetime earnings.  

No. 8: Take advantage of employer benefits

Salary is important. But there are other factors that play a role in your overall take-home pay. Benefits, for example, are a huge incentive. So make sure to learn about your employer’s benefits package and take full advantage of it.

“This can be confusing to navigate at first, but most employers provide education and resources around this – you need to spend the time to use them and learn your benefits,” says Matt Elliott, CFP at Pulse Financial Planning. “Unique benefits are becoming more prominent to attract young employees especially in the tech space, and every plan is different so check with your HR department and co-workers about your specific benefits package.”

There are two common employer benefits to consider:

Health benefits plan

An employer-sponsored health benefits plan will keep you healthy and save on out-of-pocket costs on coverage. “If you’re eligible for an HSA [health savings account] through your employer, this is another top program to take advantage of,” Elliott says. It allows employees to fund health costs with pretax dollars.

Retirement plan

An employer-sponsored retirement plan is an easy way to start investing in the future. And if the company offers a 401(k) match take it — that’s free money.

Bottom line

The early 20s are the right time to create a financial plan. Take action with our essential checklist to aid your journey to financial health.

Article contributors
Matt Elliott

Matt Elliott is a CFP based in Rochester, MN, serving clients locally in-person and virtually nationwide. Elliott founded Pulse Financial Planning, which provides financial planning and investment management to help individuals and healthcare professionals organize, invest, and protect their assets. 

Lauren Hasson

Lauren Hasson founded DevelopHer to help fellow female professionals advance their careers, stand-out in their field, and negotiate for the salaries they deserve. Her work with DevelopHer has been featured in the international IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine; she has been hired by top companies like Google, Dell, Intuit, Armor, and more to train and inspire their women; she also received the Women in IT Awards Silicon Valley “Diversity Initiative of the Year” Award.

Madeline Pratt

Madeline Pratt is the founder of a creative consultancy, Fearless Foundry, and Womxn Talk Money, an online network for female and nonbinary financial professionals to connect. Pratt is an outspoken force for promoting education and equality in business, and she spends her time creating content and programs to make the working world a place where women are seen, heard, and supported.

Travis Price

Travis Price is a licensed life and senior health insurance agent located in Traverse City, Michigan. He is licensed to offer insurance programs in Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Iowa, Illinois, and South Carolina. He has been representing the insurance needs of seniors since 2012. Visit his website to learn more.

Janine Rogan

Janine Rogan is a chartered professional accountant and the founder and CEO of The Wealth Building Academy, a financial literacy company focused on educating millennials to put their best financial foot forward. Based in Calgary, AB, she has spent the past 10 years sharing her financial acumen with thousands of individuals through local workshops and international speaking engagements.

Brianne Soscia

Brianne Soscia is a certified financial planner, financial advisor, and founder of the Financial Yogi. She currently holds her Series 6, 7, and 63 licenses through LPL Financial, and Series 66 license through both Wealth Consulting Group and LPL Financial, as well as her life and health insurance licenses. She specializes in working with individuals, families, and business owners in the areas of retirement planning, investment management, asset protection, and college savings.

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