Don’t make these 6 money mistakes in your 30s, says former JPMorgan retirement expert

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Wondering how you can set yourself on the path to financial stability

As the former head of retirement at JPMorgan Asset Management, I saw many paths to retirement and the crucial steps — or missteps — that people made at each stage of their investment journey.

Here are six key financial mistakes I've seen folks in their 30s make, and why you should avoid them:

1. Not having an emergency fund

Having an emergency fund is key to avoid debt later in life, when retirement goals should be front and center.

Ideally, this account should cover three to six months of living expenses so you can ride out any unexpected events such as a job loss or costly medical issues.

It's wise to put your emergency fund in a savings account, not an investment account, so you can access it immediately and not have to worry about a downturn in the markets affecting how much money you have.

2. Being underinsured

Many people don't like to buy insurance because it means paying for something they hope to never use. 

But the consequences of being uninsured are so large that they can wipe you out financially. One medical emergency or accident on the job, for example, can change your financial trajectory.

The types of insurance that people don't have to buy, but that I highly recommend, are:

  • Term life insurance, to replace your income for a spouse or kids in the case of death.
  • Health insurance, to ensure that a major medical bill doesn't force you into bankruptcy.
  • Disability insurance, to ensure that you and your family can maintain your standard of living if you are injured or unable to work.
  • Renter's insurance, if you don't own your home, so you can replace your belongings in case of theft or damage from a fire, flood or other catastrophe.

3. Making minimum payments on high-interest debt

If you have high-interest rate student loans (at an interest rate above 5.8%), personal loans or credit card debt, I always suggest paying them down as aggressively as possible before you focus on low-interest rate student loans, car loans or a mortgage.

In fact, it might make sense to only make the minimum payments on lower-cost loans until you get rid of the high-cost loans. The faster you can pay those off, the more money you'll have to put towards other financial goals that become increasingly important as you progress in your 30s.

4. Buying too much house

Given the crazy increase in house prices this year, the temptation to stretch and take on a bigger mortgage than you expected is high. But you need to make sure that your housing budget includes room for things like unexpected repairs, maintenance and potential changes to your future income if you start a family. 

Home ownership is gratifying and can lead to wealth creation, but that's not guaranteed. What is guaranteed, though, is that you'll have to spend a lot more on your house than just the mortgage payment.

5. Not aggressively saving for retirement

When you're in your 30s, retirement can seem far away. But every dollar you save for retirement now will have 10 to 20 extra years to accumulate compound interest than money saved in your 40s and 50s.

If you work for an employer with a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, save at least enough to get the employer match. It's the only guaranteed return on your savings you'll ever get. If your job doesn't offer a 401(k) plan, set up an IRA that will automatically move money from your checking account on payday.

If you aren't maxing out the contributions you can make, promise yourself that you will increase the amount you save every time you get a raise. 

6. Saving for your kids before saving for yourself

Once you become a parent, it's natural to want to put your kids' needs in front of your own. But saving for your children's college education before you save for your own retirement is a huge mistake. 

There are many ways to pay for college, such as scholarships and choosing less expensive schools or loans. One of my kids went to a public university, and the other received academic scholarships at a number of schools. But there's no way to pay for retirement other than saving.

Anne Lester is the former Head of Retirement Solutions for JPMorgan Asset Management's Solutions group, where she advanced the firm's market-leading retirement investment product offerings and thought leadership agenda, developing investment products integrating anonymized data and insights from behavioral economics. Follow her on Instagram @savesmartwanne.

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