Do you want to rock your personal finances in your 30s? Of course you do! I am going to give you a step by step plan and tons of actionable tips to make sure you are on the right path to crushing your personal finances in your 30s.
Let’s paint a picture of the average thirty-something couple that wants to desperately get ahead now that they are in their thirties so they don’t have to worry about their retirement nest egg. They want to crush their personal finances in their 30s but need to make some changes to get there.
The story of Sarah and Jack.
Sarah and Jack are both 35 years old. They live in a typical average-sized home with their two kids and dog. Their neighbourhood is filled with people just like them – thirty-somethings with kids, two cars, a nice home, etc, etc. Kids are everywhere and the school is just down the street. They have good-paying steady jobs and like to do lots of activities with their kids. Their kids are in lots of sports and music lessons, they go camping, and they go on one nice trip each year to Hawaii.
Financially, Sarah and Jack feel they are doing okay. They were smart in their twenties and made some great financial moves. Before they had kids, they knew their financial situation well as it was very simple.
But after having kids, life of course got exponentially busier and budgeting and monitoring their overall financial situation took a back seat. Also, they now have a lot more expenses such as childcare, kids’ activity costs, birthdays, etc.
Here is the jist of their financial situation:
- Emergency Fund: They have 3 months of expenses saved up based on their budget before having kids. They have left it in a savings account and haven’t touched it in a few years.
- Debt: The only debt they have is their mortgage because they took care of their student loans long ago.
- Vehicles: They have two vehicles that are fully paid for. One is 11 years old and the other is 9 years old.
- Credit Cards: They are able to pay off their credit card every month.
- Retirement accounts: They have saved an equivalent to close to one time their current annual salary in their 401Ks (U.S.)/RRSPs (Canada). However, they are currently only contributing about 8% of their gross income to their retirement.
- Other Savings: They have $10,000 saved in their tax-free Roth IRA (U.S.)/TFSA (Canada).
- College Savings: They contribute $250 each month to their kid’s invested college funds. Their current total is $25K and they have another 10 years before their oldest is off to college.
- Mortgage: will be paid off in 13 years if they continue with their current payments and interest rate. They don’t plan on moving.
Their current financial situation looks decent but Sarah and Jack feel like they need to make some improvements to feel more secure.
We are going to get into these improvements in a minute.
Before I do that, I want to talk about YOU.
Does Sarah and Jack’s story resonate with you?
If not, you might be feeling that by reading this you are way behind.
That’s okay if you do, because I know you can get caught up if you really put your mind to it. You know this too.
So, go through this guide with a fine-tooth comb and evaluate your situation. Once you have conquered the plan that is laid out for you in this post, come back to this one and get started.
Here we go. Back to Sarah and Jack.
Here are the financial focus areas for your 30s:
1. Make-over your budget.
If you haven’t had a good hard look at your budget in a while, go through it in detail.
It’s really important to ensure that if you have had some major life events (ie, marriage, kids, etc) that have changed your income and/or spending patterns, you are accounting for these in your budget.
For instance, Sarah and Jack have had a couple of kids since creating their original budget. Therefore, when their kids were babies Sarah took maternity leave. As a result, she didn’t bring in much income for a while. She went back to work three days a week.
Also, they now have the following additional costs:
- Part-time childcare: $650/month
- Birthday parties: $600/year
- Other kids birthday parties: $200/year
- Kid’s sports (swimming, soccer, baseball): $1000/year
- Christmas: $700/year
- College savings: $250/month
That’s a total of $13,330 per year in extra expenses! Yikes!
Once Sarah and Jack re-evaluated their budget, they realized they have lifestyle creep. Their lifestyle has elevated but their budget can’t support it if they want to up their money game and focus on their long term financial health.
They are not living below their means. They are living at their means.
Meaning there isn’t much left at the end of the month. However, they are not in debt (other than their mortgage).
So, they went through every line item on their budget and were able to cut back in a number of areas particularly with food through diligent meal planning, eating out less, taking lunches to work, switching their home and auto insurance to a less expensive provider, price comparing for pretty much everything, buying used, selling their unused stuff, cutting back on luxuries like nails, golfing, trips to the toy store, etc.
After making changes to their budget, they were able to cut out 10% and put that savings into a savings account. This amounts to approximately $700/month = $8400 per year!
They left in a bit of a slush fund for unexpected expenses so they can stick to their budget.
This leads to the next step…
2. Beef up your emergency fund.
Personal finances in your 30s are tough. We have a lot going on in these years and they tend to be very expensive with mortgage payments, kids, etc. But we have to plan plan plan to make sure we don’t get off track overall and mess up our bigger goals such as retirement. The single best way to give us piece of mind is to have a really healthy emergency fund because life happens!
If you have emergency savings from many years ago before life got crazy, check that account and see if you feel comfortable with it.
Ask yourself how you would feel about your emergency savings if one of you lost your job or worse, someone in the family got sick. How many months would you get out of it?
The thing about emergencies is that they tend to come out of the blue – they are unplanned. However, if we plan financially for them we take the money stress out of the equation.
Personally, the need for a healthy emergency fund became very real for me recently. Our friend’s 5 year old was diagnosed with cancer and is undoing chemo and radiation. His medication alone is $1600 a month! Then there is 30 weeks off work, hospital parking, and so on.
Take Sarah and Jack.
They saved up 4 months of expenses before having kids. Now that they have kids, they have extra expenses.
Also, Sara and Jack did a gut check. If one of them were out of work it would likely take much more than 4 months to find a comparable job given their professions and the economy.
As a result, they decided they need to add $10,000 to their emergency fund as soon as they can. This is a high priority.
This will give them a $35,000 emergency fund which is equivalent to 5 months of full expenses without changing their lifestyle any further. They could probably get 6 months if they made additional cuts.
If you don’t have any emergency savings, don’t worry but do take immediate action. You might need to make deeper and more drastic cuts for a while to get your emergency savings up to snuff. You might need to put off that trip and that renovation you have been wanting to do forever. But remember, these big sacrifices are temporary.
3. Re-evaluate your S.M.A.R.T. money goals (i.e, 3 to 5 years).
Here is a reminder of SMART goals:
- Specific (Clear and well defined)
- Measurable (Includes exact amounts and/or dates)
- Achievable (Small stretch which means you can definitely accomplish your goal but it will stretch you just a little bit)
- Relevant (Consistent with your life goals)
- Time-bound (Set a deadline)
This is CRITICALLY important.
Have you ever heard the phrase “what gets measured gets done?” This something we say in HR a lot because it’s true. This phrase applies perfectly to setting goals and budgeting. When you have a realistic number to achieve, you will do it.
If you are like Sarah and Jack, you likely have some big goals lingering in the back of your mind like having to buy a bigger vehicle to accommodate your growing family, setting up a college fund, paying off your mortgage early, or taking an awesome trip without going into debt.
Once you have your SMART Goals, you need to review them EVERY month and track your progress. Adjust where needed because sometimes life happens.
Lastly, only focus on up to four goals at a time.
If you spread your cash too thin over too many goals, you likely won’t get very fair. Progress will be abysmal and you will get frustrated.
Sarah and Jack have set the following goals for the next five years:
Goal: Add $10,000 to their emergency fund.
Goal 2: Save $1000 for Disneyland trip.
Total Savings Goal: $11,000 ($917/month)
How they will do it:
- 10% budget savings: $700/month: approximate savings of $8400.
- Cheaper Hawaii vacation: book a cheaper hotel and go for 10 days instead of 2 weeks: $1000.
- Save tax returns: $1500
- Sarah’s annual bonus after taxes: $1000
- Jack’s overtime: Varies
Total Savings Opportunity: $8,400 + $1,000 + $1,500 + $1,000 = $11,900
Notes: This is going to be tight but Sarah and Jack are going to try to save even more than normal on their vacation by cooking their own meals. Jack hopes to get some overtime which is very likely but not a sure thing. Also, since re-creating their budget, Sarah has found a cheaper hair stylist.
Goal 1: Save $13,000 for a new vehicle.
Goal 2: Save $3000 for Disneyland trip.
Total Savings Goal: $16,000 ($1,333/month)
How they will do it:
- 10% budget savings: $700/month: approximate savings of $8400.
- Save pay increases, overtime, bonuses, and tax returns. Approx. savings: $2500
- They have decided not to go on their annual hot vacation this year. Instead, they will save this money up for their Disneyland trip which they have decided to take in 3 years not 2 to allow them more time to save. Instead, they are going to visit family that lives 8 hours away by car as their vacation this year which will cost very little. They will drive and stay with their relatives. Savings: $4000
- Daycare: Both of their children are in school now and only need before and after school care. Therefore, their daycare costs have gone down from $650/month to $450/month! Savings: $2400
Total Savings Opportunity: $8,400 + $2,500 + $4,000 + $2,400 = $17,300
Notes: There is a lot more wiggle room than the previous year but Jack and Sarah know they need to keep to their budget and continue to look for ways to save. One additional way they have found to save is by changing the oil in their vehicles themselves.
Goal 1: Save $7000 for new vehicle.
Goal 2: Contribute 10% of their gross income to retirement. This amounts to an extra $3,500.
Goal 3: Save $3000 for their Disneyland trip they plan to take next year.
Total Savings Goal: $14,500 ($1,208/month)
How they will do it:
- 10% budget savings: $900/month: approximate savings of $10,800.
- Use pay increases, overtime, bonuses, and tax returns: $3000
- Annual vacation: Instead of going to Hawaii they decided on going to Mexico instead as it is much less expensive! $3000
Total Savings Opportunity: $10,800 + $3,000 + $3,000 = $16,800
Did you notice?
Did you notice that Sara and Jack’s “Total Savings Opportunity” is always higher than their “Total Savings Goal?”
Yeah that was on purpose because life can bring up unexpected expenses and we don’t want to get down on ourselves if we can’t make a goal because of something outside of our control. Make sure your goals are realistic!
- Increase retirement fund contributions to 12% as a percentage of gross (before-tax) income.
- Start saving for another new-to-them vehicle.
- Start contributing more to their tax-free savings account (Roth IRA (U.S.)/TFSA )(Canada).
- Increase monthly college fund contributions by $100.
- Increase retirement fund contributions to 15% as a percentage of gross (before-tax) income.
- Continue saving for a new-to-them vehicle.
4. Stretch your vehicles. 🚗
One of your biggest expenses yet one of the fastest depreciating assets we can buy. That’s depressing.
Stretch your cars out until you absolutely have to buy a new-to-you one.
Sarah and Jack are living it right now. Their vehicles are getting old: 9 and 11 years old so they are savings for a new one. The 11-year-old vehicle is starting to look pretty rough with a couple of small dents and some rust but it still works just fine!
Once they have the money saved, they will leave it in their account until they need to get a new one.
It is hard to not give in to temptation and buy a nice new shiny vehicle like everyone else. However, Jack and Sarah are focusing on the day when they will walk into a dealership and tell them they are paying in cash! 💃 Now that is worth the wait!
5. Check your disability & life Insurance coverage.
If others depend on you (spouse, children, aging parents) financially, you need to ensure that if something were to happen to you, your dependents will be okay.
First of all, how much disability coverage do you have through your employer? Evaluate if what you have is enough. If not, check to see if there are options for additional disability insurance. Usually, benefits plans have an employee-paid premium option for critical illness insurance.
If your employer has nothing or you are self-employed, look into private disability insurance.
Sarah and Jack both looked at their disability coverage through their work. Jack’s is excellent but Sarah’s isn’t as good because she only works 24 hours per week. They are going to leave it as is for now as it would likely be enough.
Often employers will have life insurance as part of the benefits package but it is likely not going to be enough to set your lovely people up. If you have external policies as well, now is the time to look at how much would be left to your loved ones. If is enough? If you don’t think so, get a quote to increase it.
At the very very least, ensure that you have a policy that will cover the costs of your funeral so you don’t leave your loves with this burden!
Check out this post by Wealth Simple titled A Totally-Not-Boring Guide to Life Insurance. It breaks it down nicely.
Sarah and Jack felt their life insurance wasn’t sufficient. They both have policies for $500,000. They have decided to increase both to $750,000 to feel more secure.
6. Increase retirement contributions to 15%.
This is your RRSP (Canada) or 401K (U.S.).
Focus on the percentage you contribute, not the dollar amount.
The reason is that you are saving for retirement based on your lifestyle. 15% contributions should allow you to save and not have to change your lifestyle much when you retire. As your earnings goes up, so does your savings.
Calculate what percentage of pre-tax dollars you are currently contributing. If you are nowhere near 15%, re-evaluate your budget and see what you can do. Remember to set SMART Goals. If you are currently contributing 7%, getting a goal to immediately move to 15% is not SMART.
If you have company matching, cha-ching! Free money! Take advantage of that!
The good news is if your employer contributes 5% for example, you only need to contribute 10%.
7. Start a tax-free savings account.
If you don’t already have one, start one! These accounts are beautiful!
You invest with after-tax money but whatever money you make is tax-free!
- In the U.S, this is a Roth IRA.
- In Canada, this is called a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA).
The other great things is if you use this account to augment your traditional 401K/RRSP when you retire, the money you withdraw will help to offset any potential tax surprises.
If income taxes go up when you start drawing on your 401K/RRSP, there will be less money to live on than you expected. Whereas you have already paid the taxes on the money in your tax-free savings account.
Kids’ Education. 🧒
So, we love our kids and we don’t want them to go into debt to get a good education. We want to help set them up for success, right? Of course! HOWEVER…
It CANNOT be at the expense of our retirement!
Otherwise, we truly will burden them and potentially undo all that hard work to begin with if we spend our retirement money on our kid’s college.
Because if we don’t have enough to live on when we are really old, that burden will fall on our kids.
Here is the priority level:
- Your retirement
- Kids education fund
Advance your Career.
Work at gaining the skills to advance your career and increase your income.
If you haven’t received feedback from your manager about your performance, ask for it! Tell them you are interested in advancing your career. How will they know if you don’t tell them.
Take control of your career! Don’t wait for opportunities to come along, SEEK them out.
Think about what books you can read or what courses will be helpful to get the knowledge and skills you need to advance.
Just be very careful about courses. Fancy MBA programs don’t always pay off.
Now that both Sarah and Jack’s kids are in school, Sarah has decided to go back to work full time which will greatly impact their income. She is also hoping to move into a management position in the next couple of years.
8. Buying a House. 🏡
If you haven’t yet bought a house, don’t max out what the bank is willing to give you. They are usually willing to give way more than a person can actually afford. Don’t be tempted to buy more than you can handle in the long term.
Once you are in your house that you can afford, don’t move! Stay there and make the most of it.
9. Get a Will.
Oh my god, if you don’t have a will and have people who depend on you, run out and get a will like now! It can be expensive to get it done through a lawyer so call around and get quotes. Save up for it (quickly) and get it done.
I can’t vouch for the legal will kits but if you have your own business and/or investments, I wouldn’t risk it. Get a professional.
10. Keep your Money Invested.
Here is a great quote by Warren Buffett to make this point:
“If you aren’t thinking about owning a stock for 10 years, don’t even think about owning it for 10 minutes.”
Don’t freak out if your investment accounts lose for a while. This is normal. You have to be patient and play the long game.
Since you have an emergency fund, you should NEVER dip into your retirement money until you are actually retired.
11. Be patient.
If you aren’t where you want to be, you need to give yourself some grace. If you are doing all that you can focus on progress, not perfection.
12. Stay focused.
Don’t let all the luxury vehicles and fancy houses get you derailed. Keeping up with those around you is a surefire way to leave you scrambling later in life. There is likely not going to be anyone to bail you out. you wouldn’t want that anyways. Keep your eye on the prize. Review your budget constantly, track your progress towards your goals every month, once you have crushed a goal add a new one. Keep going. Your future retired self will thank you.
13. Don’t forget to live.
Be intentional about your life and your spending. If you want to take a vacation, make sure you can afford it. You can do this if you make changes in other areas.
Sarah and Jack still went on vacations. The difference between them and others is they planned far in advance for theirs by saving money and cutting back on everyday stuff that doesn’t bring happiness to make sure they could do it without wrecking their big financial goals.
There is no point in never spending any of that money until you retire or you will find that life has passed you by.
Call to Action
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your finances, take a deep breath and start from step one of budgeting. This might take you a while to figure out because it isn’t easy. Once you are done step 1, move onto the next step and so on and so on.
Drop me a note and let me know how it goes!
I sincerely hope you found this post to be helpful and I deeply appreciate you reading it.
If you like this post, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared it!