As you enter your 30s and 40s, you’ve probably had some children and purchased your first house or two. Maybe you’ve been through a career change or two as well. So, you’re becoming more aware of the need for careful stewarding of your finances. You may be moving into your peak earning years, making stewardship even more important. This is also a high expense period of life, so you may be tempted to incur debt (other than a mortgage), to pull back on or quit saving all together, or maybe even put off planning for retirement “until later” since it still seems a ways off. Don’t do it! Keep your spending in check and ramp up your saving and giving if you can.
Here’s the list of things to do from age 35 to 50 (these are in addition to, and build upon, the ones for age 20 to 35):
Build your career through continuous education. In this stage, you may have a tendency to focus on short-term income instead of developing long-term skills. Investing in continuing education can be a very wise long-term investment. Focus on your most marketable skills or acquire new skills that will be in high demand. Many companies offer tuition plans for those who want to pursue additional formal education.
Understand and embrace change. Change will come. You must be open to changing jobs, or even careers, to maintain or improve your earning potential or overall job satisfaction. Don’t fear change, embrace it. On the other hand, avoid endlessly chasing after the “perfect” job; it probably doesn’t exist.
Buy a house you can afford. As your family grows, or you need to move because of a job change, be careful not to buy more house than you can afford. A good rule of thumb is a house payment equal or less than 25% to 28% of your take home pay. Get a 15 year mortgage if you can handle the slightly higher payments. (If you buy a house with a 15 year mortgage when you’re 35, and stay put, it will be paid off by the time you’re 50!)
Increase your giving as your income increases. The best way to do this is by using ratios. If you tithe 10% (and I believe you should), then that percentage of your income will be more as your income grows. Some people add an additional percentage amount to their giving once their basic expenses are taken care of. Do that if you can. Keep an eye on spending to ensure that you have money to give. If you have kept your living expense low but your income has grown significantly, perhaps you can raise your giving accordingly.
Ratchet up your saving rate. Increase your retirement saving rate, if you need to, based on what you can afford. 15% is a good target as a general rule of thumb, but if you’re getting started a little late, 16% to 20% is better. Once you are getting your employer match in your 401(K) or 403(B) plan, work to max out your IRA contributions. IRAs are generally lower cost and have more investment options. Also, both you and your spouse can have an IRA, even if only one of you has earned income.
Start saving for college. Once you’re funding your retirement accounts, start saving for your children’s education, preferably in a tax-deferred account. Use Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) or 529 Plans (known as Education IRAs). I don’t recommend that you sacrifice retirement savings to fund your college accounts.
Monitor and track your investments. If you started early, by now you should have some significant savings in your retirement accounts. Start tracking your savings closely enough to detect if you’re being charged excessive fees, or if your assets have been invested in things you didn’t intend. (It would be better for you to track them more closely, but you may have inadequate time for that.)
Rollover old 401Ks. If you change employers, roll over your retirement accounts (401Ks, 403Bs,etc.) as necessary to keep the number of accounts low so you can keep track of your savings and manage them better. In some cases you can roll them into another 401(k)/403(B), but the better choice is usually to roll them into your IRA (lower cost, more choice). But be careful – you don’t want to pay taxes or penalties, so it’s best to have the financial institutions involved handle it directly for you.
Pay attention to Asset Allocation. Consider your asset allocation (whether in funds or directly in stocks, bonds, or other instruments) to balance risk against yield. If anyone assures you that 15% (or more) per year can be reliably achieved, allocate your assets somewhere else – with someone more realistic (and honest). Even better, do it yourself (if you are comfortable with that).
Review your insurance coverage. At least once every few years, review your insurance to make sure it is adequate. This should include health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, auto insurance, and home-owners’ insurance. You may need to purchase life and disability insurance beyond the minimum that is provided by your employer, especially if you have a growing family.
Consider Umbrella Liability Coverage. As your assets grow, consider purchasing an Umbrella Liability insurance policy. You may be surprised just how little it costs.
Have an updated will. Review and update your estate documents (especially your will) because your family situation almost certainly has changed since your initial version.
Increase your financial literacy. Consider reading one or two good personal finance blogs (such as ), and/or subscribe to at least one financial paper (e.g., The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Money Magazine) and read it regularly to become sensitive to the financial issues you will probably face over the next 20, 30, or 40 years (or so). Books are also an excellent way to increase and enhance you understanding of financial matters. A list of suggested resources is available at RetirementStewardship.com/resources.
Don’t neglect your health. You may feel invincible, but you’re not. By at least age 40 you should be getting an annual physical, if not sooner. You may notice that you’ve put on a few pounds. Now’s the time to do something about it. Eat healthier and exercise. Yes, you’re busy, but find the time to exercise. You need to steward your physical well-being as well. Age will, of course, ultimately take its toll – that’s an unavoidable fact. But if you take steps now, you can reduce aging’s impact, at least in the near term.
Keep your family close. These will be exciting and challenging times for your family. Keep them close. Don’t spend all your time working. Get outside, travel, have fun. Find ways to serve others together. The kids will only be young once, and your husband or wife needs you too.
Stay focused on what’s really important. This can be one of the busiest and most demanding stages of life. It is very important that you keep the main thing the main thing: living for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom. Stay grounded and committed to your local church. Consider how you can use your talents, gifts and resources to serve others in the context of your church and wider community. Don’t let your focus on stewardship get disconnected from the bigger picture of God’s Kingdom.