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Get Your Game On In Your 30s

Sep 10, 2020 3 min read Ilana Polyak

Key takeaways

  • If you haven’t started saving for retirement, now’s the time.
  • If you already contribute to a workplace retirement account, consider saving more.
  • Set yourself up for career (and financial) growth.



Any new decade of life brings consternation. But there’s nothing quite like turning 30. It’s become the unofficial mark of adulthood, and it’s when many of life’s most important decisions are made. It’s also when you probably become comfortable with more responsibility.

While many people would like to have used their 20s to set themselves up for smooth sailing in their 30s, few may have actually done so. But if you consider that more than 40% of 20-somethings (and a quarter of your own cohort) have no retirement savings at all, the first penny you save for your future could put you ahead of the pack. As your career advances, your purchasing power rises and your responsibilities grow, it’s a great time to catch up to those who started saving when you may have still been establishing yourself. Here’s how:


Focus on retirement savings

While you might have spent your 20s working long hours and being underpaid, it’s in your 30s that your income could start to see a significant boost. And chances are, you’ll need it. This decade may be the first in which you juggle a long list of competing financial priorities—paying down student debt, building up an emergency fund, buying a home, funding a family (from diapers to college diplomas) and, arguably most important, funding your own life after work.

True, thinking that far down the road can be hard. But a retirement that could last as long as your career is the one major life expense which you won’t be able to borrow. And thanks to compound interest, the sooner you start saving, the less you’ll need to save. So if you haven’t already, it’s time to get going.

If you can contribute to a workplace retirement plan, try to have at least 10% of your pay moved directly out of your paycheck and into your account. You’re less likely to miss the money if you don’t see it, and automatic payroll deduction makes it easy to save more when you get a raise or bonus.

If you’re already adding to a workplace account, consider increasing your contributions or saving more through an individual retirement account (IRA). Because workplace plans like 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457s may have a limited number of investment options, an IRA can be a way to diversify your holdings further.


Choose your tax treatment

Tax-favored retirement accounts come in two varieties: traditional and Roth. Both kinds of accounts offer a range of investments, and both can grow tax deferred. But which to choose may depend on your tax bracket today—and where you think it will be when you retire.

You fund “traditional” accounts with pretax dollars—for workplace plans, the money goes in before taxes come out of your paycheck; for IRAs, you can deduct some or all of your contributions (depending on your income and filing status) when you file your taxes. The benefit: You can have more money working for you. Also, for workplace plans, contributions lower your taxable income (and annual tax bill), and every dollar you contribute costs you less than a dollar in take-home pay. The downside: Withdrawals are taxable as regular income. So, traditional accounts make more sense if you expect your tax bracket to be lower when you withdraw (in retirement) than it is when you contribute.

By contrast, you fund a Roth account with money on which you’ve already paid income tax. With workplace accounts (if available), this means your contributions cut your take-home pay dollar for dollar. Benefit: You’ll be able to withdraw your money tax free as long as you hold the account at least five years and meet other criteria. In general, the younger you are and the lower your current pay (and tax bracket), the more you should consider a Roth.

Both of kinds accounts are subject to a variety of IRS rules, including potential penalties for withdrawals before age 59½. But this chart outlines their key differences for the 2021 tax year:


Retirement accounts at a glance


 Retirement Savings Plan Options
  Traditional 401(k), 403(b), 457 Roth 401(k), 403(b), 457 Traditional IRA Roth IRA
Pay taxes now? No Yes No Yes
Pay taxes later? Yes No Yes No
Max contribution (2021)* $19,500 combined* $6,000 combined*


* Those over age 50 can make extra “catch-up” contributions each year, and by age 72 you may have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your accounts, but you don’t have to think about those factors now. Of course, you should discuss your options with your tax advisor.


Set kids up for success

That proverbial weight on your back may be the stress you feel when you have a family to support. It can be a part of entering your 30s—when a mortgage payment kicks in and those kicks in your (or your partner’s) belly signal the need to fund your children’s education. A state-sponsored 529 savings plan enables you to invest for college (or, to a lesser degree, private K-12 expenses), and withdrawals are federal tax free as long as the money goes toward tuition, fees, room, board or other school-required costs. Many states also give tax breaks to residents who save through their plans.

You can open a 529 plan account for as little as $25, then contribute as much as you can afford each month from your checking account automatically. It will feel rewarding as the years go by and that college fund grows.

Of course, saving for college depends on your being there to save. So, to ensure your children have financial support if the worst should happen to you, consider buying life insurance. A 20-year, $500,000 term policy can cost less than $20 a month for someone in their 30s. That can feed, house and help your kids through school if you’re not around.


Time to say ‘give me more’

Besides putting as much as you can into savings, the best thing you can do for your finances in your 30s is to set yourself up for career growth. That’s because the more money you make, the easier it is to save each month.

If you’re in a position at work where your strengths are evident, it’s time to use that newfound visibility to your advantage. By now you know what it takes to accomplish your organization’s goals, and your boss is likely to trust your judgment. So, ask for the resources you’ll need to better do your job. Whether this means more budget or employees or new responsibilities, the worst they can say is, “No.” But at best, you’ll forge a rewarding path forward.

Also, don’t be afraid to keep learning. A career mistake people make in their 30s is to assume they know it all. They don’t. From seeking out a mentor to taking online coursework to studying up for a passion project, you can adapt what you absorb and put it to use at the office (even if your office is at home).


What you can do next

Take steps to take charge of your financial future. Save (or save more) for retirement. Start a college fund if kids are on their way (or in the hall). Get enough life insurance to protect your loved ones. And make your work for you.

Catching up in your 30s isn’t really about meeting a mark others have reached. Instead, it’s about continuing your growth, when life and financial goals become more pertinent and maybe even overwhelming. Prepare now so that you can relax later.

Please consult your tax and legal advisors regarding your circumstances.



Ilana Polyak is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and the financial advisory industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron's, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and CNBC.com, where she is a frequent contributor.


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