You just celebrated the big 3-0 and you feel that means it's time to get your finances in order. Your pesky student loans won't leave you alone. You worry you will never be able to retire. On top of that, you're still renting and feel jealous of your friend who just bought a condo.
This monumental birthday is a good time to focus on getting on the financial path that is right for you. To get started, here are the five money questions you should ask.
1. Is there a smart way to pay off my student loans?
Yes. If you work for the government or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, any outstanding federal student loans you have after 10 years can be forgiven. Call your student loan servicer to inquire about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. You will also need to qualify for an income-driven repayment plan. This will cap your monthly payments to 10% to 15% of your discretionary income.
You also want to check to see if you have any private student loans. If you do, and your interest rate on those is greater 6%, consider refinancing to a lower rate. Doing this is something that has started to really take off in past few years. It helps borrowers save thousands of dollars through lower interest payments. To get the lowest rates on a student loan refinance, you'll need a good credit score. You can view two of your credit scores each month on Credit.com.
2. How much do I need to set aside toward retirement?
Likely at least 15%. Maybe less, if your employer matches your 401k contributions. Play around with an online retirement calculator, which can give you a more precise number.
If you're in your early 30s and you have already saved about 1x your gross salary in your 401k, you're on track. If you're behind, fear not, you have plenty of time.
If your budget is tight, start with a 3% contribution. You may not even notice the slight reduction in your paycheck. Then increase it by a percentage point every 6 months or once a year.
Consider putting money in a Roth IRA or a Health Savings Account too. Your savings will grow tax-free, if you are eligible and rules are followed. (For guidance, you can consult with a certified financial planner or a chartered financial analyst to help you invest your Roth or HSA savings. Full disclosure: I'm a CFP® professional and CFA charterholder.)
3. It's always better to buy than rent, right?
Not necessarily. Renting may be better if your rent is low enough and you are not sure how long you want to stay in the same location.
Yes, homeownership can be a source of stability, security and pride in this country. After all, it is the American Dream! But do the numbers before you take out your first mortgage. Use an online buy vs. rent calculator. It can help you factor in the costs associated with owning a home, including real estate taxes, mortgage insurance, maintenance and other fees. The longer you plan to stay in the condo or house, the more financially attractive this investment can be.
4. What should I do with my old 401k?
We will likely have 12 to 15 jobs in our lifetime, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means you could potentially end up with more than a dozen old 401k accounts floating around by the time you hit retirement age.
To help you avoid having so many accounts to keep track of, look at the fees in your 401k funds. If you see "expense ratios" more than 0.3%, consider rolling them over to your current 401k plan, if it provides good options. If not, roll it over to an IRA, where you likely have a bit more freedom.
You may also want to consider a target-date fund or consult an investment professional for guidance.
5. Am I financially ready to start a family?
There are a lot of expenses that come along with having a child (the U.S. government reports that raising a kid costs $245,340 from birth to 18 years old). One of those expenses is day care, which can be really pricey. In some places, it can even cost as much as your rent or mortgage.
When you're talking about having a child, create a reasonable budget with your partner. Figure out if you will have enough left to cover child care costs and all the other expenses that come along with children.
Have an honest discussion with each other. Can one of you work from home so you can maintain the same family income while avoiding day care costs? Are you open to hosting an au pair to take care of your child? Think about this expense, as well as the other financial obligations that come along with raising a child, as you and your partner talk about expanding your family.
Being in our 30s is a great time in life. We have the opportunity to plan for our future and our children's, and live to the fullest. Let's plan early and plan smartly.
*Featured in Credit.com and Yahoo Finance
Alvin Carlos, CFP®, CFA is a Financial Planner and Managing Partner of District Capital Management, a new kind of financial planning and investment management firm for the everyday people.