Your guide to financial decisions, decade by decade

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Most of us know that making smart financial choices is a valuable lifelong skill. But often this is an education that a lot of us could’ve used even earlier – when we were kids and just beginning to understand the huge role that money plays in our lives.

And while priorities will change as we get older, especially as we approach life-altering milestones like having children or buying a house, the guiding principle essentially remains the same – balancing our short-term needs with our long-term goals.

To that end, we’ve devised a financial checklist for all ages – a decade-by-decade signpost of where and when to put your financial focus, just in time for #FinancialLiteracyMonth in April.

Check back on the blog throughout the month of April because we’ll be digging deeper into each decade with additional tips on what to watch out for, and also what you may want to avoid.

Kids (or their parents)

  • Allowance: many children will probably start asking for an allowance by the first or second grade. It can be a great way for children to start learning the value of money, including how to save for bigger goals and the downside of impulse buying.
  • Start saving for your children: when your child starts kindergarten, the clock is ticking – you have 13 school years until your first college tuition payment. Start a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan as soon you can.
  • Bank account: introduce your kids to banking by opening their own savings accounts and encouraging them to deposit larger amounts received for birthdays or other special occasions (a great way to encourage saving and the concept of “earning interest” is to say you’ll match x% of the amount they deposit in their savings account).

For a more detailed dive into the pre-teen years read our follow-up post.


  • Credit and debit cards: as young adults, your children are probably ready to learn how credit works. Add your kids as authorized users on your cards to allow them to build their own credit. Let them make supervised transactions and get in the early habit of paying off all charges each month.
  • Here’s a low-risk way to teach the concept of interest: Offer your teenager a chance to earn interest on their allowance if they wait longer to collect it. For example, if they get $5 a week, tell them they’ll get $25 if they wait to collect at the end of month.
  • Get to work! Money has to come from somewhere! If their schedule allows, encourage teens to pick up a part-time job after school or especially during the summer.


  • Get your own credit card with a low credit limit, say $500, to start building up a credit history and a good credit score. Remember to pay off your balance every month to avoid accruing interest.
  • Start keeping a budget make sure you allocate your take-home pay every month to cover your fixed and discretionary costs.
  • If you’re buying a car, keep it affordable – don’t put yourself in a hole by aiming too high. If you’re getting a car loan make sure you know these 5 tips first.
  • Build a rainy-day fund to offset any significant surprise expenses with the goal of saving three months of your salary.
  • Start saving for retirement: Max out any employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s. If possible, also contribute to IRAs. To learn more about different retirement accounts go here.
  • Track your credit score by getting a free report every year. Learn the factors that affect your credit score, and work to maintain or boost your score. Get your free TransUnion credit score here.


  • If you’ve started a family, it’s time to think about life insurance. Get a policy that’s enough to cover expenses for your spouse and children through all college graduations. Read PolicyGenius’ 5 tips for first-time life insurance shoppers.
  • Stay disciplined with your credit: It can be tempting at this age to think you aren’t living the life you deserve. Remember that the worst fate is to be burdened by crippling debt later on.
  • Consider an overview of your career: Are you on track with your original employment path? Now could be the time for a change.
  • Is it time to buy a house? Does renting still make sense? Many online rent vs. buy calculators help you decide the better option. Work toward shoring up your credit score in case you’re close to applying for a mortgage.
  • Start investing your extra savings if you can. Remember the power of compound interest and how it pays to start investing early!


  • Zero in on your savings rate, since you may be halfway to retirement. If some debt has piled up, re-work your budget to begin paying it down as fast as you can. Make saving for retirement a priority. If you’ve just recently had children or have younger children, start or boost your children’s college savings now.
  • This is a decade when many people consider getting a financial advisor to help achieve long-term goals. Consider doing this in your 30s if it makes sense for your financial situation. If cost is a concern, one affordable way to start investing is using a roboadvisor. Check out our top 6 roboadvisors roundup post.
  • If your earnings potential has grown and your kids are out of school, you might be able to supplement your income with additional investments in a brokerage account. Consider sticking with index funds that track the overall market (lower risk) instead of individual stocks, and which will also likely mean lower trading and other transactional costs.


  • Goals are made, but life happens. This is the decade to ensure that your retirement won’t be delayed. Use an online retirement calculator to see what income you can expect right now. Is it enough? Take advantage of catch-up retirement fund contributions available to those over 50.
  • Cut the (financial) cord: Your children may be out of the house and out of school, but that doesn’t always mean the financial cord has been cut. If you’ve paid for college but are still offering your kids some financial support, think about a plan for when that should end. Both sides will likely be served best in the long run.


  • There’s no law that you have to retire. If you love what you’re doing, keep doing it. Plus, every year that you delay retirement means your nest egg gets to keep growing – not to mention that delaying your draw on Social Security until 70 will maximize your monthly benefits.
  • Plan for your long term health need by considering long-term care insurance.
  • Sign up for Medicare once you stop working full time.

There’s no perfect formula for what you should do to keep your financial house in order, but this list is a start.

What else should one consider every decade of your life? Share your tips in the comments below.

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