June 3, 2015 / 4:46 PM / 5 years ago

Stern Advice: Peak 30-something

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Maybe it is time for a millennial remake of that 1980s boomer angst television show, “thirtysomething,” because there are more 30-year-olds in the United States than ever before.

Shoppers browse in an IKEA store in Wembley, north London January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Within nine years, almost 45 million Americans will be in their 30s, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. As their parents did a generation ago, they are starting to settle down and buy houses and cars.

But unlike their parents, they are toting heavy college debt burdens, juggling $200+ cell phone and Wi-Fi bills, and facing a financial marketplace far more complex than when Hope and Michael Steadman, the central characters of “thirtysomething,” first started worrying about being too materialistic. (The generations do have something in common: watching a TV show just to make fun of it is still popular.)

Today’s 30-somethings may be smarter about money than their parents were: They are not calmly expecting any large institution to take care of them, and they know they have to compete with the biggest cohort ever in a challenging job market, said Catherine Hawley, a Monterey, California, financial adviser who has many 30-something clients.

So old financial advice will not apply. Here are some fresh new money rules for the latest greatest generation.

- Be strategic about your career. “Our greatest asset is our ability to earn money,” said Sheryl Garrett, a Eureka Springs, Arkansas, fee-only financial adviser. Think carefully about what you want your future work life to look like, and invest time and money into getting there. Keep up your schooling and your skills, network via social media and professional organizations.

- Open a Roth IRA, even before you feed an emergency fund. The Roth individual retirement account is one of the best tax-favored saving mechanisms around. Once you put money into a Roth, it can grow without the earnings ever being taxed if they are not withdrawn until you are 59-1/2. Over decades, that is an enormous benefit.

If you are cash strapped, you can jump start your savings by using a Roth IRA as your emergency fund, too, at least until you have enough money to fund both retirement savings and emergency savings, suggests Hawley.

That is because there are no penalties for withdrawing the money you contributed to your Roth in the first place. You can start your Roth and know that in an emergency situation - job loss or health crisis, for example - you could get at the money you invested. Of course, it is better not to tap the Roth, but this double-counting strategy is better than not having one in the first place.

- Order your debts. If you are still carrying credit card debt, pay it off as quickly as possible. Do not be in such a rush to pay off student loan debt, especially if it consists of federal loans with a relatively low interest rates. Pay your monthly minimums on those low-interest loans while you build up savings and pay off other debts first.

- Get the 401(k) started. You still have a lot of time for compounding of income to work in your favor, but only if you start soon. Aim to put 10 percent of your salary into your retirement.

- Those 529 plans? Meh. Invest money in a state-sponsored college savings plan, and you will save taxes on the buildup in that account. Some states also offer a tax credit for a portion of those contributions. But you give up a lot for that. You give up liquidity at a time when you might also need to buy life insurance, save up for a home down payment and pay for a car seat and diapers.

“The 529 plans would be way down my list of my priorities,” said Garrett, who admits she does not have one for her child. It is not that they are a bad idea, just that they are hard to fund at a time when there are so many other financial goals and investments to make.

If you live in a state that offers a tax credit for 529 plans, you can set one up in your own name (to maximize the tax breaks), name your child as a beneficiary, and use it to sweep financial gifts for your child, without shorting your own retirement or other savings plans.

Reporting by Linda Stern; Editing by Richard Chang

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