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Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow.

In your 20s? Master the basics of personal finance today to get yourself on the right track

Eva-Katalin

If you're a young adult just starting out on your own, lots of things are shouting for your attention, from a new job to confusing money concepts.

For instance, why should you save for something 40-plus years away? More than a quarter of Gen Zers think investing for retirement isn't important, according to the personal finance site Nerdwallet.  

But if you want to actually retire someday, start saving now. It takes decades of planning and investing to get there. 

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Learning to manage money may seem like it doesn't apply to you, but it does. You need the same core principles of financial planning — investing, risk management, estate and tax planning — as someone 10, 20 or 30 years older, says Paul Gaudio, a certified financial planner at Bryn Mawr Trust in Princeton, New Jersey.

Living on a starting salary, you may have to be deliberate in the choices you make so you can meet your monthly bills and get through your days, says Chris Kampitsis, a CFP at the Barnum Financial Group in Elmsford, New York.

"We all have choices to make," he said. "For some people, it's living in the suburbs and moving to the city when they get their financial feet under them."

Live on less

FG Trade

"The biggest thing, from Job One, if at all  humanly possible: Immediately start putting 10% of your money into your 401(k)," Kampitsis said.

The strategy is more important than the amount: If you can't do 10%, then do 5%. And if you can't do 5%, save 1% or 2%, and set a goal of raising the amount.

Learning to live on less than you make from the start of your career means you'll never feel hamstrung by lack of money.

Doing this now is far easier than it will be in 10 years to 15 years, when you could be dealing with wedding costs, mortgages or children.

Winner takes all

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Learn to get the most out of your employer benefits.

Save enough in your 401(k) to get the employer match, if there is one. Otherwise, you're walking away from free money.

If you feel squeezed by setting aside money for retirement, here's a government gift: the saver's credit, for those with 401(k) plans or individual retirement accounts who aren't dependents on someone else's tax return and earn under a certain limit. 

The maximum saver's credit can be as high as $1,000 for single filers and $2,000 for married-filing-jointly. To claim this tax break, you file Form 8880 with your tax return.

Risk management

Even if you don't think you have much of value in that first apartment, get renter's insurance.

You'll want to be covered in case of fire or theft, and you can get a rider to cover any special things, such as a piece of expensive jewelry, a valuable painting or a laptop.

The average cost is about $17 a month — a small price to pay, considering what could happen in case a neighbor lets their bathtub overflow.

Card sharp

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Most recent college graduates don't understand how credit cards work, Gaudio says.

If they had a credit card account in college that their parents paid for, they may not even have seen the bill. In that case, they've learned to see it only as a way to pay for things.

Learn to use credit responsibly. Gaudio recommends using credit cards only for emergencies. For everyday spending, turn to debit cards, cash or checks. "That way, the balances never build up," he said.

Be budget-conscious

You may wonder how to manage monthly bills and save up a cash cushion on a starting salary.

There's a simple strategy: Learn to budget.

"There's a million ways to create a budget, and I always encourage people to create one," Gaudio said.

List your fixed expenses, subtract from your take-home pay and look at the difference. That's your discretionary income, and it allows you to make decisions about what you can and can't afford.

Treat that emergency savings amount as a fixed expense, like rent or your student loan payment.

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