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5 Critical Financial Goals for 20-Somethings

Dictionary.com describes "adulting" as "an informal term to describe behavior that is seen as responsible and grown-up...such as paying bills and running errands." That makes life after college sound pretty darn boring, doesn't it?

But here's a nuance you won't find in the dictionary. When you master the financial aspects of adulting, being a grown-up becomes a lot more fun. There are few things in life more liberating than financial independence, after all.

The truth is, the adulting habits you develop today will either put you on course for financial freedom or leave you struggling to get by. If you prefer the financial freedom option, here are five money goals to get you there.

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1. Launch your career

Want to know a foolproof way to save lots of cash? It involves increasing your savings deposits every time you get a raise.

Get into this habit now while you're young, and saving for retirement will be a breeze. Of course, this works best when you've already positioned yourself on a career path that leads to regular income increases. If you're in a dead-end or part-time job today, get motivated to land yourself a full-time role with growth potential.

2. Live well within your means

Living within your means is a key aspect of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement. Proponents of FIRE accumulate massive bank balances by living frugally and saving half or more of their income. Their goal is to reach financial independence and retire in their 40s or 50s.

It may not be realistic for you to save half of your income today. But if you are living on your current income without incurring debt, you'll be able to save much more as your income grows.

According to SmartAsset, the average salary for U.S. workers aged 20 to 24 is $29,770 annually. That average jumps to $51,272 for workers aged 35-44, an increase of $21,502. Keep your lifestyle in line with your entry-level paycheck, and yes, you eventually could save 40% or 50% of your income.

3. Contribute to a retirement account

When you're 25 years old, you are in an enviable position to save for retirement. Here's why. If you start saving today, the earnings from your deposits over the next 40 years will far exceed the deposits themselves.

Say you contribute $500 monthly to a retirement account that earns 7% annually on average. That 7% is a good target, because it's roughly in line with the long-term average growth of the stock market. After 40 years, you'll have $1.3 million. And of that $1.3 million, $1 million of it is growth and only $240,000 came out of your pocket.

The picture looks much different if you wait until you're 40 to start saving. Now you only have 25 years before retirement. To accumulate $1.3 million in 25 years with the same 7% growth rate, you'd have to deposit $1,600 monthly.

The lesson? Save now, while time is on your side. Target a contribution of 15% of your income to a 401(k) or IRA.

4. Save for emergencies

Having an emergency fund protects you from debt when bad things happen. Job loss, car wrecks, health issues, sick family members, or any other unfortunate circumstance can cut your income or increase your expenses. If you don't have cash on hand to stay afloat, you'll turn to debt -- which can weigh you down financially for years.

Plan on saving 5% of your income in a cash savings account to hedge against emergencies. Once the balance reaches enough to cover three to six months of your living expenses, you can choose to keep saving cash or increase your retirement contribution instead.

5. Learn to budget

You may be wondering how you're going to cover your living expenses, retirement contributions, and emergency fund deposits off your entry-level paycheck. That's where the skill of budgeting comes in.

When you don't budget, you're only loosely aware of how you spend your money. That makes it tough to change your habits. But once you start monitoring how and when you spend, you can easily identify places to cut back.

Start by pulling out three months of bank statements and reviewing every transaction. Add up your expenses and include your retirement contribution and emergency fund deposit. If the expense total is more than your take-home pay, look for areas to cut back.

You'll probably find that the biggest savings opportunities lie in expenses that are part-need, part-want. Examples are haircuts, food, and cars. You need haircuts, but you don't need to pay $100 for each one. Food is obviously necessary, but you don't need to eat out or buy branded goods. And you might need a car, but it doesn't have to be a fancy, new one.

Set spending limits by category and challenge yourself to stay within them. You can employ a budgeting app like Good Budget or Clarity Money to keep you on track.

Master your money now

In reality, the more mundane aspects of adulting are the very skills you need to create an amazing life. Become a master of budgeting and saving, and you also become a master of your own destiny.

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