23 Ways to Build Wealth in Your 20s
Get in the habit of spending and saving wisely in your 20s and you’ll be on solid footing when you’re older. Use our tips for how you can build wealth, starting now. You can thank us later.
Your 20's are a period of fun, experimentation, and finding a footing.
But being a 20-something is not easy these days.
In between paying off student debt and looking for steady employment, 20-somethings have enough on their plates in the here and now without having to worry about their financial future.
Unfortunately, the decisions you make in your 20s can have long-term effects on your finances for the rest of your life.
You can't go on forever with an entry-level salary. Your dreams are going to evolve, to that first house, a big vacation (or several!), and retiring off into the sunset. The only way you can make those dreams come true is to build up your wealth as soon as possible.
We are letting you in on 23 research-proven ways to start building a strong financial foundation in your 20s.
Setting the foundation
1. Make a financial plan
What is your target salary? How much money do you want to have in the bank at age 40? When do you plan to retire?
These are important questions to ask yourself if you want to build wealth and increase your net worth.
The answers to these questions are called your goals.
In a study published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that athletes who set goals prior to training were more motivated and more likely to be able to self-regulate to pull off their goals than those who didn't have a plan in mind before a game.
Entrepreneur Mark McCormack explains the same concept in his book What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. In a study of Harvard Business School graduates, the ones who had concrete goals when they graduated earned 10 times more than their peers a decade later.
If you're not sure what the answers to the above questions are yet, don't fret. Nobody has it all figured out in their 20s, and your goals are likely to change over time. But you'll NEVER achieve your financial goals by winging it. How can you take a road trip without a map?
So set some goals and make a timeline (use pencil if you want for now) for how you'll get there.
2. Pay off your debt
If you're still making payments for the bachelor's degree that was meant to be your golden ticket to wealth and riches, don't feel bad - you're just one of the 40 million Americans who has student debt.
And if the debt you carry is because of overspending on your credit card, you're not alone there either - 54 million American households owe credit card debt.
But that doesn't mean you can't get rid of the shackles of debt.
View paying off your debt as your highest priority - higher than setting money aside - and you'll be better off in the long run.
The way to do so is to look beyond the minimum payment due on any of the debt you owe.
Need some cold, hard facts?
If you owe $14,718 at 13.04% APR and make only the minimum payment each month, it will take you 31 years to pay off your debt in full, and you'll also have spent $16,772 in interest.
That's money that could have been invested in the stock market, saved for retirement, or used to buy a house!
3. Choose your friends carefully
Ever been pressured by a friend to buy an outfit way out of your budget because it'll be just perfect for the upcoming girls' night out?
Ever been invited to an expensive birthday dinner and had to split the bill equally (even though you drank water and didn't even try the oyster appetizer)?
A survey conducted by the American Institute of CPAs revealed that 78% of millennials use their friends' spending habits to determine their own.
Two-thirds want to keep up with their friends' living locations, 64% try to keep up to date with their wardrobe, and 66% feel a need to keep up with the latest and greatest tech gadgets and restaurants.
It's not a coincidence that same percentage of millennials use credit cards or receive financial help from their family to maintain their lifestyle.
If your peers are influencing you to spend more than you can afford, your friendships are undermining your efforts to build wealth. Learn to say no, and accept that if your social circle doesn't understand your long-term goals of attaining financial security and building wealth, it's time to find new friends.
4. Find the right romantic partner
Just like your friendships can impact your long-term financial goals, so do your choices in romantic partners.
For instance, dating a high-maintenance person who requires lavish dinners and expensive gifts is going to take money away from your rainy day fund. It may even get you further into debt if you're not careful.
The stakes are even higher if you plan to get married. With marriage comes joint bank accounts, shared mortgages, and even shared debt. (Although marriage could improve your financial state too. Sociologist Jay Zagorsky found that married people experience a 77% increase in wealth over single people, and their wealth increases by 16% each year.)
A study by Kansas State University's School of Family Studies and Human Services found that arguing about money is one of the top predictors of divorce, regardless of the couple's income or net worth.
Before you take the plunge and say "I do," make sure you've been fully transparent with each other about your financial situations, and that your views toward money align. Your financial success may depend on it.
Being strategic about your career
5. Pick a higher paying career
If we could only go back in time and warn our 18-year-old selves that a major in archaeology would lead us to waiting tables at the neighborhood diner and living paycheck-to-paycheck, we'd be in a very different place right now.
Luckily for us, we live in the land of opportunity, where being in your 20s still means time to take your career in a different direction, with a whole new perspective.
This time around, you have a better idea of how much income you need to cover your necessities and your goals for the future.
So if you're thinking about a new profession, you can take the salary potential into consideration.
Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, says "once you’ve graduated from college and are past those first few jobs, it’s time to consider your longer-term goals. Use those first experiences to help you uncover what you really want to work on in the future. In many cases, this may require a major career shift."
Some careers, like teaching, will be very difficult to get you over the $70,000-a-year mark, while other careers have a base salary of $90,000. According to the list of the best jobs compiled by Careercast, mathematicians, actuaries, and computer engineers make more than $90,000 on average.
Making a major career shift may require extra schooling, certification, or new skills, but with some effort, you can be on a more lucrative career path. It's never a bad thing to invest in learning, and it's much easier to switch careers in your 20s than later in life.
6. Do something that you enjoy
But don't switch jobs just because of the potential paycheck (becoming an actuary isn't for everyone, after all). If you truly like what you do now, you should be able to reach your full earnings potential.
According to psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi, who wrote The Psychological Wealth of Nations: Do Happy People Make a Happier Society, happy workers are more energetic, more productive, miss work less, and are better liked by their supervisors, which makes it more likely that they will find professional success.
Madhu S. Mohanty's research also shows that people with positive attitudes earn more money. The economics professor's research indicates that loving what you do every day will make you better at what you do, which will naturally lead to a higher paycheck.
True, you can build wealth without loving your job, but the road to riches will feel much longer and more tedious. And plus, you may just be plain miserable every day.
7. Do something that you're good at
But what if you haven't found your passion yet?
There's no need to panic at the last tip. Many 20-somethings don't know what they're passionate about.
In that case, we're going to tell you to find what you're good at.
According to Cal Newport, author of the book So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Search for Work You Love, the strongest predictor of a person considering their work their "calling" is the amount of time they've spent at their job.
Basically, this means that even if you started out at a job you don't enjoy, you become more passionate about it the longer you stay in the field. It's also beneficial from a professional and financial standpoint.
If you've spent time honing your skills in marketing, you're probably very competent and thus much more valuable to future employers. Your value as a marketing manager grows exponentially the longer you work in that field, which Payscale.com estimates will increase your earning power in that position by more than 70% in 10 years.
In short, being good at your job helps you capitalize on your professional skills so that you can reach your financial goals faster.
8. Commit to a career path
If your value as an employee increases the more experience you have, you're not doing yourself any favors if you change career paths like a pair of shoes.
Your 20s are a time for trial and error, and it's understandable that you may not find your calling fresh out of college. Doing some soul-searching and trying out different gigs might be fun, but too much of it is definitely not good for your bank account.
Psychologist Meg Jay wrote in her book, The Defining Decade, that around 2/3 of a person's lifetime wage growth occurs in their first 10 years in the workforce, and most people's salaries plateau around their 40s. That means that the later you start your career, the less time you have to hit a six-figure income.
While it's important that you don't settle for a career that makes you miserable, you should also make it your top priority to find your professional niche. Find your professional groove early on and you can spend the rest of your career climbing the ranks, gaining valuable experience, and earning more as a result.
9. Consider getting more education
Conventional wisdom has told us that the higher your level of education, the more money you'll make in your lifetime.
A report published by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that high school grads make around $1.3 million in their lifetime, but those with bachelor's degrees make nearly double that amount.
Unless you're the next Mark Zuckerberg and can become a billionaire without a college degree, consider doing some research to see what the job prospects and earning potential are in your desired field of study.
For example, a bachelor's degree in engineering is worth far more than a bachelor's degree in English. A master's degree in early childhood education might seem like a good idea when you're unemployed and looking for work, but the low job prospects and low starting salary of $36,700 can put you into prolonged debt that will derail your path to wealth.
So before you quit your full-time job and fork over the dough to get a degree, do the math. If the costs don't add up, find a better (and more affordable) way to get your foot in the door.
10. Don't be afraid to ask for a raise or promotion
In your late 20s, if you have managed to stay at the same job for a while, it's time to muster up some courage and talk to your boss about a raise or promotion.
A recent survey by Payscale found that people are afraid to ask for raises because they don't want to seem pushy or are worried about losing their job.
Does this sound like you?
But look at the results:
Of the 31,000 workers they surveyed, only 43% asked for a raise, but of those who asked for a raise, 44% received the compensation they desired. 31% received an amount different from what they asked for, and only 25% didn't get a raise at all.
So don't be afraid to speak up. The odds are on your side.
But never go in blind. Here's how to have a successful raise negotiation: make a list of all your achievements and how you've improved your company's bottom line to prove to your boss that you add value.
If you need extra motivation, remember: You can't increase your net worth on an entry-level salary.
11. Quit your job if it isn't helping you get where you want to go
And if you're not getting the salary you desire/think you deserve, quit.
Experts argue against staying at a job for too long because it can decrease your overall lifetime earnings. Raises are based on a percentage of your existing salary, so you'll have a tougher time getting financially ahead unless you leave and start over somewhere else.
As a new hire in a similar position elsewhere, you could receive a 20% increase in salary and get raises from there, versus staying put and getting a measly 3% cost of living raise every year.
While frequent job-hopping isn't a good idea, staying at the same job in the same position can hurt your employability and financial well-being. If you feel that you're underappreciated, underpaid, and under-stimulated in your current job, it might be time to move on to bigger and better things.
12. Negotiate your starting salary
So you applied to your dream job, nailed the interview, and finally arrived at the most dreaded part of the process:
The salary negotiation.
This is a scary part of the process that makes everyone uncomfortable, but it's a must if you want to earn what you're worth.
In her book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, economist Linda Babcock wrote that of the MBA students who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, 57% of men negotiated their starting salary, compared to only 7% of women. While women tend to sell themselves short more than men do, both sexes have some work to do in recognizing their own worth.
If you're worried that negotiating your salary with a potential employer will offend them, don't be!
A survey conducted by Salary.com found that 84% of employers expect potential hires to negotiate for higher pay.
Managing your money
13. Track your spending
Do you really know where your money goes every month? Every last dollar?
A cocktail here, a gourmet pastry there, a new pair of shoes ... these are all little things that may seem cheap at the moment, but can add up and leave you with an empty bank account at the end of the month.
Keeping track of how much money you have and how you spend it will highlight some bad habits that you never knew you had.
Researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng studied the effects that self-monitoring had on people's financial habits, and found that when people were required to write down their purchases, they not only spent less, but drank less, smoked less, and ate healthier food.
The simple fact is that in order to build wealth, you need to spend much less than what you earn (obvious, right?). So keep track of your spending and you'll have less unplanned purchases, which takes money away from your savings or investments.
14. Make a detailed budget
Everybody knows that in order to save money, you need to stick to a budget. But how many of us truly follow it month-to-month?
A recent Gallup poll shows that only 1/3 of Americans actually keep a detailed budget, and most of those who do have an annual salary of $70,000 or more.
In other words, the people who are probably in most need of a budget don't follow one.
Get in the habit while you're still young and you'll have money to show for it when you're older. Start by tracking your expenses and coming up with a fixed amount that you can put in your savings every month.
It goes without saying that discretionary spending, which might include dinner out with friends or new clothes, should be your last priority. In their book, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan, authors Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi suggested using a 50/20/30 rule to guide your budgeting - 50% of your paycheck should go towards necessities, 20% towards savings or debt repayment, and 30% towards discretionary spending.
Other budgeting tools, like the ones reviewed here, are easy to use and can help you keep track of your money, spend it wisely, and save it consistently.
15. Cut out bad habits
Have you ever calculated how much your guilty pleasures cost you each month?
How many times do you really need to visit the fancy café on the corner? And is it necessary to buy a new outfit for every social event you attend?
If these things don't fit into your budget, cut them out. Even if you think you can afford them, calculate how much you could save each month by cutting back or refraining from buying them altogether.
Would that money be better used for investing in your future? According to a survey by Wells Fargo on consumer habits, the average American spends $21 on coffee a week, which adds up to $1,000 a year!
Your long-term goals are a lot more important than the short-term fix that a pair of jeans or morning latte brings.
16. Live within your means, or even below it
Here's a shocker: Rich people make a point of living below their means.
They may know something you don't, as Steve Siebold found after interviewing millionaires from all over the world for his book How Rich People Think.
Stop thinking you're better than everyone else and you may benefit financially. Such thinking may involve cutting back on splurges and spending more wisely.
The Wall Street Journal estimates that you can save 29% off the cost of brand-name products by buying store-brand or generic products, and a survey by Integer Group, shows that 64% of consumers think that brand-name products aren't necessarily of better quality.
If you think that you're above couponing, consider these statistics:
According to a Deals.com survey - college grads are 78% more likely to use coupons, and people who make more than $100,000 are 200% more likely to partake in couponing. The Inmar Consumer Trend Report estimated that consumers saved an average of $1.27 for each coupon used in 2013.
All those deals add up, giving you more money to save for your future. And there's no shame in that.
17. Make smart consumer choices
Sometimes being frugal is in our best interest, but it shouldn't come at the cost of quality.
I'm sure we all know too well the danger of buying a Forever21 shirt, only for it to come apart after only one season of wear.
The low price may be tempting, but you'll be out buying all the same stuff again within a year. This is even more true for big-ticket items like electronics, appliances, cars, and homes. You might end up spending more on the maintenance if you skimp on quality than you did to buy it!
Take for instance, cars:
Consumer Reports compared the initial costs of popular car models and calculated how much each cost over a 5-year period based on depreciation, fuel costs, insurance, maintenance, and repair. They found that although some models seem cheaper up front, their cost over time can sometimes surpass more expensive models by more than $2,000.
Being a smart consumer means doing your research and making choices that will help you save more money for the long term.
18. Negotiate prices
I bet you didn't think that we live in a bargaining economy.
But believe it or not, you can sometimes haggle your way to lower prices - you just have to ask.
Negotiating for a service, like for your cell phone, cable, plumbing, gym membership, or insurance rates, could knock off 30% from your bill. A survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that only 1/3 of respondents negotiated with their cable service provider, but nearly 50% of those who did reduced their monthly bill.
Some experts even suggest bargaining in major retailers by looking for merchandise with defects, asking the salesperson if there are any discounts available on big-ticket items, or taking advantage of price-matching policies.
Another survey by Consumer Reports found that while only 48% of consumers tried to negotiate for goods and services, 98% received a discount at least once.
Negotiating prices may not feel glamorous, but the money you can save over time is well worth it.
19. Save for retirement
You're young, healthy, just starting your career, and have plenty of time to save up for retirement, right?
A recent survey by CreditDonkey shows that 80% of people don't feel that they're doing enough to save for retirement, and 55% believe that they won't be able to retire comfortably. Another survey reveals that 79.8% of people between the ages of 18-24 are not currently saving for their retirement at all.
If you fall into one of these categories, do the math:
If you make $40,000, save 10% of your income in a 401(k) plan, and take advantage of your employer's 50% matching program, you could have $3.9 million saved by the age of 67, versus $2.5 million if you had started at age 30.
That's a pretty big incentive to start saving as early as possible!
If you save consistently and take advantage of your employer's contribution matching program, you'll see your retirement fund grow exponentially over time. For help in choosing a retirement account, read up on some advantages and drawbacks here.
Growing your money
20. Put your money in a money market account or CD
Ok, you're not going to get rich quickly by putting your money in a money market account or a CD, but at the very least, you'll safeguard yourself against the temptation to spend your savings and you'll make interest on it.
Money market accounts require a higher balance than regular savings accounts and limit the number of withdrawals, but they pay a higher interest rate. Average interest rates range from 0.08% to 0.83% as of March 23, 2015.
Think of it this way:
Open an account with $5,000 and add $150 each month with a rate of 0.25% for five years, and you'll make $118.42 in interest. That may not seem like a big deal, but it's better than the average 0.05% you'd get with a regular savings account.
A certificate of deposit is a low-risk way of investing money and earning interest over time, but the caveat is that you can't access the money for a set amount of time without paying a penalty. When the CD matures, you'll get all your money back and then some.
A typical 5-year CD has an interest rate of 0.79%, which means that with an initial deposit of $5,000, you'll end up with $200.65 extra from interest. If you're an impulse shopper, a CD is a good way of tying up your money so that you don't spend it.
You may not see immediate results with money market accounts or CDs, but consider it getting your feet wet before you go to the major leagues of stocks and bonds, where real wealth can be made.
21. Invest in the stock market
To increase your net worth, it's not enough to just save money.
You also have to be aggressive in growing your money so that it can make a passive income.
The word "investing" can strike fear into the hearts of many millennials, especially after witnessing the thousands of people who lost their life savings in the recession of 2008. A recent CreditDonkey survey shows that 37% of Americans surveyed are still afraid of investing in the stock market.
However, if you are cautious and smart, you can be successful in the market.
Experts advise investing newbies to start out with index funds because they are inexpensive, low maintenance, and carry lower risk.
According to MarketWatch, although you won't get rich quick with index funds, they can add up to 1 or 2 points to your annual return and are recommended by investor extraordinaire Warren Buffet.
You have many options for investing your money, but we advise you to learn about them first. To learn more about investing, read our tips for beginning investors here.
22. Consider home ownership
Even if you're not rolling in the dough just yet, you should be thinking about buying a home or investing in property to build equity.
Although consumer confidence has been low since the housing crisis, home ownership is still considered an effective way to build wealth and increase your net worth.
In a study out of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, researchers found that the net worth of homeowners is significantly higher than renters, specifically because they are forced to save for a down payment and make monthly payments on their mortgage.
Of course, with any investment, there are risks involved in purchasing a home. Properties aren't guaranteed to increase in value over time, and failing to make mortgage payments can result in foreclosure and a lower credit score.
Like with any other investment, information and careful planning are the best ways to ensure that your investment becomes an asset, not a liability.
23. Start a business
Do you think you have the next million-dollar idea?
Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone, but it's one of the best ways to take control of your financial future. Even better, you don't have to use your own money if you're able to secure investments from other sources.
You don't need to create the next Facebook in order to be a successful entrepreneur. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that small businesses without any employees made $989.6 billion in revenue in 2011, and small businesses as a whole produce a GDP of around $6 trillion.
While we don't want to downplay the hard work that goes into starting a business (after all, only 50% of new businesses make it to the 5-year mark), we also don't want to discourage would-be entrepreneurs from pursuing their dreams.
For example: Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, grew up in a working-class family and now has a net worth of $1.1 billion. Ingvar Kamprad also lived a humble life in Sweden before founding IKEA, and has a net worth of $6 billion.
So who knows? Your life may become the next rags to riches story, if you're willing to take a risk.