Building a Solid Personal Finance Foundation in Your 20s and 30s

Managing Finances and Daily Living in Your Young-Adult Years

Getting a paycheck and having a job requires more responsibility. Be sure to consider these important points when you’re encountering finances in your 20s and 30s:

Protecting Yourself and Your Income

Insurance plays a significant role in protecting your interests, including your health, your income, your property, and so on. Make sure you insure the following:

Praise for Eric Tyson

“Eric Tyson is doing something important — namely, helping people at all income levels to take control of their financial futures. This book is a natural outgrowth of Tyson’s vision that he has nurtured for years. Like Henry Ford, he wants to make something that was previously accessible only to the wealthy accessible to middle-income Americans.”

— James C. Collins, coauthor of the national bestseller Built to Last; former Lecturer in Business, Stanford Graduate School of Business

Personal Finance For Dummies is the perfect book for people who feel guilty about inadequately managing their money but are intimidated by all of the publications out there. It’s a painless way to learn how to take control.”

— National Public Radio’s Sound Money

“Eric Tyson … seems the perfect writer for a For Dummies book. He doesn’t tell you what to do or consider doing without explaining the whys and hows — and the booby traps to avoid — in plain English… . It will lead you through the thickets of your own finances as painlessly as I can imagine.”

Chicago Tribune

“This book provides easy-to-understand personal financial information and advice for those without great wealth or knowledge in this area. Practitioners like Eric Tyson, who care about the well-being of middle-income people, are rare in today’s society.”

— Joel Hyatt, founder of Hyatt Legal Services, one of the nation’s largest general-practice personal legal service firms

More Bestselling For Dummies Titles by Eric Tyson

Investing For Dummies

A Wall Street Journal bestseller, this book walks you through how to build wealth in stocks, real estate, and small business as well as other investments. Also check out Investing in Your 20s and 30s For Dummies.

Mutual Funds For Dummies

This best-selling guide is now updated to include current fund and portfolio recommendations. Using the practical tips and techniques, you’ll design a mutual fund investment plan suited to your income, lifestyle, and risk preferences.

Home Buying Kit For Dummies

America’s #1 real-estate book includes coverage of online resources in addition to sound financial advice from Eric Tyson and frontline real-estate insights from industry veteran Ray Brown. Also available from America’s best-selling real-estate team of Tyson and Brown: House Selling For Dummies and Mortgages For Dummies with Robert Griswold.

Real Estate Investing For Dummies

Real estate is a proven wealth-building investment, but many people don’t know how to go about making and managing rental property investments. Real-estate and property management expert Robert Griswold and Eric Tyson cover the gamut of property investment options, strategies, and techniques.

Title page image

Personal Finance in Your 20s & 30s For Dummies®

To view this book's Cheat Sheet, simply go to and search for “Personal Finance in Your 20s & 30s For Dummies Cheat Sheet” in the Search box.


Your 20s and 30s are such an exciting time. During this period you’re experiencing some dramatic changes in your life, exploring new endeavors, making your way in the world, trying new things, and meeting new people.

But as with anything else in life, your young-adult years can be a scary time as well. Maybe you’ve experienced a failed relationship and a broken heart. You’ve likely had to deal with a difficult boss (or two) or a job (or two) you don’t like — or perhaps you’re in danger of losing your job.

And then there are the money issues. Most of you are out of the nest and out from under your parents’ wings, and your 20s are when you experience firsthand earning your own money and paying your own expenses. This isn’t true for all twenty-somethings, of course, because some young people still live at home or have some financial dependence on their folks — maybe that’s why they bought you this book! No matter your living situation, your early adult years can be a challenging time, but this friendly guide can help make those years a bit smoother financially.

About This Book

Based on my experiences teaching classes, counseling clients, writing articles and books, and corresponding with friends, family, and people through my website, I’ve discovered how important having healthy and strong personal finances is. With that in mind, I wrote this book to help you begin to lay a strong financial foundation. Your young-adult years are the best time to start.

I’ve worked with and taught people from all financial situations, so I know the financial concerns and questions of real folks just like you. Believe it or not, I first became interested in money matters when, as a middle-school student, my father was laid off and received some retirement money. I worked with my dad to make investing decisions with the money. A couple of years later, I won my high school’s science fair with a project on what influences the stock market.

In my 20s, I worked hard to keep my living expenses low and save money so I could leave my job and pursue my entrepreneurial ideas. I accomplished that goal in my late 20s. My goal in writing this book is to give you lots of tools and information to help you get your personal finances in order so you, too, can achieve your goals and dreams.

I also wrote this book to protect you, to watch your back. Hucksters out to separate you from your hard-earned money know an easy mark when they see one, and being young and, therefore, less experienced makes you a target. You’re also at increased risk of “being taken” because your generation spends so much time online where the rules and agenda of many sites and apps are murky or worse. The information and advice in this book can help you identify and steer around common pitfalls and bad deals before you get hit.

Foolish Assumptions

No matter what your current situation is — whether you’re entering the job market right after school, graduating college with or without student loans, living with your parents, or living on your own — I thought of you as I wrote this book. I made some assumptions about you:

This book is basic enough to help a novice get his or her arms around thorny financial issues. But readers who are a bit more advanced in financial matters will be challenged, as well, to think about their finances in a new way and identify areas for improvement.

Icons Used in This Book

The icons in this book help you find information you need:

tip This target flags strategy recommendations for making the most of your money.

remember This icon points out information that you definitely want to remember.

warning This icon marks things to avoid and points out common mistakes people make when managing their finances.

investigate This icon tells you when you should consider doing some additional research. Don’t worry — I explain what to look for and what to look out for.

Beyond the Book

To view this book’s Cheat Sheet, simply go to and enter “Personal Finance in Your 20s and 30s For Dummies Cheat Sheet” in the Search box. There you’ll get quick tips on understanding financial basics, managing day-to-day finances, and growing your money through basic investing.

Where to Go from Here

This book is organized so you can go wherever you want to find complete information. Want advice on minimizing your taxes, for example? Go to Part 2 for that. You can use the table of contents to find broad categories of information or the index to look up more specific topics.

If you’re not sure where to go, you may want to start with Part 1. It gives you all the basic info you need to assess your financial situation and points to places where you can find more detailed information for improving it.

Part 1

Getting Started with Personal Finance


Evaluate your net worth, savings rate, credit health, investment portfolio, and insurance coverage.

Develop a savings mind-set, as well as budgeting and saving strategies.

Conquer consumer debt and recognize the best uses for loans and the types of debt to avoid.

Get and understand your credit report and credit score. Use your credit report and other tools to prevent identity theft.

Chapter 1

Your Financial Checkup


check Determining your net worth

check Understanding your savings rate

check Getting your credit score and keeping an eye on it

check Beginning your investment portfolio

check Protecting yourself with insurance

check Looking at common money mistakes

Where did your childhood and those years go? Was it that long ago that you were concerned with what exams you had coming up, what you might be doing over your summer break, and what kind of job you were interested in and qualified to do?

As a young adult, you wonder where you are going to live, how much a decent apartment will cost, and how much you will actually have left over after taxes and those other pesky deductions are taken from your paycheck. How much will it cost to buy a home that you’ll really want? What are the best ways to save and invest your money?

Those are some pretty big questions that even people 20 and 30 years older than you struggle to answer. You’re wise to be thinking about these topics now. In this chapter, I help you start to answer those questions by showing you how to evaluate your net worth, savings rate, credit health, investment portfolio, and insurance coverage so you can develop and implement a killer plan tailored to your situation.

Calculating Your Financial Worth

Having a sense of what you own (your assets) and what you owe (your liabilities) is important because it provides some measure of your financial security and your ability to accomplish financial goals such as buying a home, starting a business, or retiring someday.

In this section, I define net worth and then walk you through the relatively simple calculations of determining your own personal net worth.

Defining net worth

Your net worth is quite simply your financial assets (for example, bank and investment accounts) minus your financial liabilities (debts such as student loans and credit-card debt). In the following sections, I walk you through how to perform these calculations.

remember When I discuss your monetary net worth, I’m not talking about personal possessions. Your car, clothing, television, computer, and other personal items all have some value, of course. If you need to sell them, you could get something for them on Craigslist or eBay. But the reality is that you’re unlikely to accumulate personal items with the expectation of later selling them to finance such personal goals as buying a home, starting a business, retiring, and so forth. After all, these things are investments that decline rapidly in value after purchase and use.

Figuring what you own: Financial assets

To calculate your financial assets, access your bank statements and investment account statements, including retirement accounts and any other documentation that can help you. You may have only one or two accounts, and that’s fine. Add up all the values of these accounts to find out what you own.

It’s common for most young adults to be in the early stages of accumulating assets. This book helps you change and improve upon that.

In addition to excluding personal property and possessions because folks don’t generally sell those to accomplish their personal and financial goals, I would also probably exclude your home as an asset if you happen to own one. (You can include it if you expect to downsize or to rent in retirement and live off of some of your home’s equity.)

Now, I do have one exception to something that isn’t generally thought of as a financial asset, which you may or may not want to include in this category. Some people have valuable collections of particular items, be they coins, sports memorabilia, or whatever. You can count such collections as assets, but remember that they’re only real assets if you’d be willing to sell them and use the proceeds toward one of your goals.

Determining what you owe: Financial liabilities

Most people accumulate debts and loans during periods in life when their expenditures exceed their income. I did that when I went through college. You may have student loans, an auto loan, and credit-card debts. Access any statements that document your loans and debts and figure out the grand total of what you owe.

Netting the difference

After you total your financial assets and your financial liabilities, you can subtract the latter from the former to arrive at your net worth.


Don’t worry if you have a small or negative net worth (where you have more debt than assets). There’s no point wringing your hands over the results — you can’t change history. And, it doesn’t matter how you compare with your peers even if we can accurately define exactly who your peers are. This isn’t a competition or test.

But you can change the direction of your finances in the future and boost your net worth surprisingly fast to work toward accomplishing your personal goals. First, you have to figure your savings rate and how to increase it, which I discuss next.

Grasping the Importance of Savings

To accomplish important personal and financial goals such as buying a home, starting a business, traveling, and someday retiring, most folks need to save money. Some exceptions do exist, such as those folks who have trust funds or inherit significant-enough sums that they don’t need to save money from their work earnings. But the vast majority of people must save in order to accomplish their goals.

You can’t effectively save for a long-term goal if you don’t know what your savings rate is. When I worked as a financial counselor and taught adult-education money-management courses, I was struck by how few people knew the rate at which they were saving money. Most people can tell you how much they earned from their work over the past year, but few folks really know what portion of their employment income they were able to save. That’s because to have an accurate idea of this percentage, you really need to do some analysis and calculations. The math isn’t that complicated, but it does require some time and effort, especially if you haven’t been tracking your spending or net worth over the past year. In the following sections, I explain a couple of different ways to calculate your savings rate over the past year.

Netting your income and spending

The first way to determine your savings rate is to tally your employment income and expenses over the past year. By subtracting your total expenses, including taxes, from the past year from your employment income, you can arrive at net savings.

The employment income part of the equation is simple for most folks — it’s simply the total amount of your paychecks from work. But unless you systematically track your spending, that piece of the puzzle is a lot more work to figure. I walk you through how to compile your spending in Chapter 5.

Assessing the change in your net worth

If you don’t want to be bothered with the time-consuming task of tabulating your spending over the past year, here’s an alternative method for arriving at your savings rate that may be quicker for you. Follow these few easy steps, and fill in the blanks in Table 1-1.

  1. Calculate your net worth.

    Refer to the earlier section “Netting the difference” for an explanation of how to do so.

  2. Calculate your net worth from one year ago.

    You can determine your year-ago net worth by tallying your financial assets (savings and investments) from one year ago and subtracting your financial liabilities (loans and debts) from one year ago. Don’t count your home as an asset or your mortgage as a liability. Your concern here is financial assets.

  3. Correct for any changes in value of investments you owned the past year.

    Suppose that your net worth today is $15,000, whereas one year ago it was $10,000. You might conclude from the change in your net worth that you’ve saved $5,000 images, but that figure may not be correct, and here’s why. A year ago when you had a net worth of $10,000, you presumably had savings and investments, and those would have changed in value over the past year. Suppose you made some good investments and they produced $1,000 in returns (from interest, dividends, appreciation, and so on) over the past 12 months. Though you’re happy to have made $1,000 on your investments, that money isn’t new savings and shouldn’t be counted in your savings-rate calculations. So you really saved $4,000 images.

    Conversely, if your net worth was reduced over the past year by declines in the value of your investments, you should add back that figure when determining your savings rate. If your investments declined by $1,500 in value over the past year, you really saved $6,500 images. Table 1-1 walks you through this part of the analysis.

TABLE 1-1 Your Savings Rate over the Past Year

Calculate your net worth now and one year ago


One Year Ago

Savings & investments $_______________________________________________

Savings & investments $____________

– Loans & debts $______________________________________________________

– Loans & debts $___________________

= Net worth today $____________________________________________________

= Net worth a year ago $____________

Correct for changes in value of investments you owned the past year

Net worth today


– Net worth a year ago


– Appreciation of investments (over past year)


+ Depreciation of investments (over past year)


= Savings amount


Annual gross income


Savings rate (savings amount divided by your annual gross income)

___________________________________ %

remember If you have debt that you’ve been paying down over the past year, you can count the principal payment reduction on that debt as savings. For example, suppose a year ago you owed $5,000 on an auto loan. Now, a year later, you owe just $4,500. You can count that $500 reduction in what you owe as new savings.

Understanding and Improving Your Credit Score

If you expect to someday apply for a loan of any type and get a competitively low interest rate, you should understand your credit report and credit score and how to improve them. A credit report is basically your credit history, while a credit score is a three-digit score based on the information in your personal credit report. This section highlights what you need to know about your credit score and reports, including how to obtain and improve them. Chapter 4 provides more insight into managing your credit report and credit score.

Deciphering how lenders use credit reports and scores

Most people borrow money at various times in their life, whether it’s to buy a home (or other real estate), to finance a small business, pay for educational expenses, or for other purposes. When you want to borrow money, lenders examine your credit report and your credit score(s) to determine how responsible you’ve been with credit and to help them decide whether they should lend you money (and if so, how much to charge you).

Specifically, lenders examine your history of credit usage in your credit report. This information tells the lender when each of your accounts was opened, what the recent balance is, your track record of making payments on time, and whether you’ve defaulted on any loans. A credit report also tells a prospective lender who has recently accessed your credit report and thus would indicate where else you’ve been applying for credit.

Lenders use your credit score to help them predict the likelihood that you’ll default on repaying your borrowings. The higher your credit score the better, because a high credit score means that you have a lower likelihood of defaulting on a loan. Thus, more lenders will be willing to extend you credit and charge you lower rates for that credit.

The most widely used credit score is the FICO score, which was developed by the FICO company (formerly known as Fair, Isaac and Company). FICO scores range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. Most scores fall in the 600s and 700s, and the median is around 720. You generally qualify for the best lending rates if your credit score is in the mid-700s or higher.

Obtaining your credit reports and fixing errors

You want to get your hands on your credit report so you know what lenders are reviewing. You’re entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report (which does not contain your credit score) every 12 months from each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you visit, you can view and print copies of your credit report from each of the three credit agencies. (Alternatively, you can call 877-322-8228 and request that your reports be mailed to you.)

When you receive your reports, inspect them for possible mistakes. Credit-reporting bureaus and the creditors who report credit information to these bureaus make plenty of errors.

If your problems are fixable, there’s no need to hire someone to do so for you — you can direct getting them fixed yourself, but you will likely have to make some phone calls or write a letter or two. Some credit-report errors arise from other people’s negative information getting on your credit report. This can happen if you have a common name, have moved a lot, or for other reasons. If the problematic information on your report appears not to be yours, tell that particular credit bureau and explain that you need more information because you don’t recognize the creditor.

Creditors are the source of some reporting mistakes as well. For example, perhaps a bill you paid off is still incorrectly being reported as a balance you owe. If that’s the case with your report, write or call the creditor to get the incorrect information fixed. Phoning first usually works best. (The credit bureau should be able to tell you how to reach the creditor if you don’t know how.) If necessary, follow up with a letter or an email. You can also dispute errors online directly with the credit reporting agency.

tip Whether you speak with a credit bureau or an actual lender, make notes of your conversations. If representatives say that they can fix the problem, get their name and extension, and follow up with them if they don’t deliver the promised results. If you’re ensnared in bureaucratic red tape, escalate the situation by speaking with a department manager. By law, bureaus are required to respond to a request to fix a credit error within 30 days. And if you file a dispute and the creditor doesn’t respond, the credit bureau must then remove the derogatory item.

tip You and a creditor may not see eye to eye on a problem, and the creditor may refuse to budge. If that’s the case, credit bureaus are required by law to allow you to add a 100-word explanation to your credit file. Just remember that if you go this route, be factual in your write-up and steer clear of broad attacks on the creditor (such as “their customer service sucks”).

warning Avoid “credit-repair” firms that claim to be able to fix your credit report problems. In the worst cases I’ve seen, these firms charge outrageous amounts of money and don’t come close to fulfilling their marketing hype. If you have legitimate glitches on your credit report, credit-repair firms can’t make the glitches disappear. As I explain earlier in this section, you can easily fix errors on your own without the charge.

Getting your credit score

Many folks are disappointed to find that their credit reports lack their credit score. The reason for this is quite simple: The 2003 law mandating that the three credit agencies provide a free credit report annually to each U.S. citizen who requests a copy did not mandate that they provide the credit score. Thus, if you want to obtain your credit score, it’s generally going to cost you.

One circumstance allows you to get one of your credit scores for free, but unfortunately, you can only do so when you’re turned down for a loan. Current law allows you to obtain a free copy of the credit score a lender used in making a negative decision regarding your desired loan.

For recommended websites to use to obtain your credit score as well as those to avoid, please see Chapter 4.

Improving your credit reports and score

Take an interest in improving your credit standing and score rather than throwing money away to buy your credit score or paying for some ongoing monitoring service to which you may not pay attention. Working to boost your credit rating is especially worthwhile if you know that your credit report contains detrimental information or if your score is lower than 740.

tip Here are the most important actions that you can take to boost your attractiveness to lenders:

  • Check your credit reports for accuracy. Correct any errors, and be especially sure to get accounts removed if they aren’t yours and they show late payments or are in collection. Refer to the earlier section “Obtaining your credit reports and fixing errors” for more information.
  • Pay all your bills on time. To ensure on-time payments, sign up for automatic bill payment, which most companies encourage customers to use. This enables companies to automatically deduct (typically monthly) what you owe from your checking account or to charge that amount to your credit card so you don’t have to remember to pay the bill. (This also prevents you from being charged interest or late fees when you make a payment after the due date.)
  • Be loyal if it doesn’t cost you. The older the age of loan accounts you have open, the better for your credit rating. Closing old accounts and opening a bunch of new ones generally lowers your credit score, so don’t jump at a new credit-card offer unless it’s really going to save you money, such as if you’re carrying credit-card debt at a high interest rate and want to transfer that balance to a lower-rate card (or provide you with rewards/benefits greatly in excess of any costs). Ask your current credit-card provider to match a lower rate you find elsewhere.
  • Limit your total debt and number of debt accounts. The more loans, especially consumer loans (credit cards, auto loans, and so on), that you hold and the higher the balances, the lower your credit score will be. Work to pay down consumer revolving debt, such as on an auto loan and credit cards. See Chapter 5 for more information.

Comprehending Your Investment Options

If you’re like most folks in their 20s or 30s, you may not have saved as much as you would have liked during your early working years. That’s fine for now, because together, we address that in this book. Regardless of how much (or how little) you have invested in banks, mutual funds, or other types of accounts, you want to invest your money in the wisest way possible and have it grow over time without exposing it to extraordinary risks.

In this section, I provide some background to help you understand how to best focus your efforts to become a more knowledgeable and successful investor. (In Part 3, I delve into all the important details of investing.)

Examining Insurance Coverage

Just about everyone dislikes spending money on insurance. Who enjoys thinking about risks and possible catastrophes and then shopping for insurance that you hope will pay some of the bills should said catastrophes strike? Therein lies some major reasons why most people don’t have all the coverage they really need and don’t get the best value when they do buy insurance. But folks who’ve suffered a major loss understand the security provided by a good policy.

In Part 4, I discuss everything you need to know about insurance, including what policies you do and don’t need. Here are the major points to consider as you review your insurance knowledge:

  • Smart shopping: Do you know when it makes sense to buy insurance through fee-for-service advisors and companies that sell directly to the public (bypassing agents) — and when it doesn’t? Do you shop around for the best price on your insurance policies at least every couple of years? Do you know whether your insurance companies have good track records when it comes to paying claims and keeping customers satisfied?
  • Coverage understanding: Do you understand the individual coverages, protection types, and amounts of each insurance policy you have? Does your current insurance protection make sense given your current personal and financial situation (as opposed to your situation when you bought the policies)?
  • Income protection: If you wouldn’t be able to make it financially without your employment income, do you have adequate long-term disability insurance coverage? If you have family members who are dependent on your continued working income, do you have adequate life-insurance coverage to replace your income should you die?
  • Liability protection: Do you carry enough liability insurance on your home, car (including umbrella/excess liability), and business to protect all your assets?