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5 Smart Money Moves for Young Adults

Dan Caplinger
February 28, 2013

Financial advice is only useful if it's relevant to your own particular situation. The right move for someone twice your age may be totally wrong for you, while your best financial move may be completely inappropriate for someone else.

To reach as wide an audience as possible, we've spent the week looking at people in different age groups and coming up with tips for them to follow to improve their financial situation. After having given tips for retirees, near-retirees, and middle-aged investors earlier in the week, today's focus moves to young adults and their particular financial needs and challenges.

Just starting out
In stark contrast to those who are close to retirement, young adults have a huge number of short-term and long-term financial needs with minimal resources to put toward them. The biggest challenge that most people face as they start out in their careers is finding the best uses for your money. Especially if you've lived a frugal lifestyle throughout your college years, the temptation to splurge with your newfound paycheck can be almost irresistible. But with time on your side, anything you manage to save can have a much bigger impact on your future lifestyle than if you wait until later to address your long-term goals.

Finding the right balance is tough, but following these five ideas is a good place to start.

Idea 1: Get familiar with finances.
Millions of young adults come out of school with no knowledge of personal finance at all. If you're one of them, don't be embarrassed -- but don't accept your ignorance. Take steps to find out everything you need to know about money.

The Motley Fool's 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly are a good place to find out how to get started with the ins and outs of investing. For more basic advice on debt, savings, real estate, and taxes, the Fool has free resources to help you learn what you need to know. Either way, getting familiar with all the money issues that you'll face throughout your life will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

Idea 2: Address bad debt first.
It's an unfortunate fact of life that most young people now start adulthood with debt. For certain types of student loans, home mortgages, and other low-interest debt, paying down balances over time is both practical and prudent.

But credit card debt is another matter. Even after taking substantial losses during the financial crisis, big card-issuing banks JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), Citigroup (NYSE: C), and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) have all rebounded sharply due largely to falling credit card delinquency rates and high interest rates. There's no investment you can make that will dependably produce returns of 15% to 20% -- even shares of those banks' stock! -- but paying down high-rate credit cards gives you exactly that payoff. Take advantage of it.

Idea 3: Start small and build on saving.
When you're young, building a habit of saving is more important than the amount that you save. A good way to start is to save a tiny amount of your paycheck -- as little as 1% -- and put it into a 401(k) account at work or an IRA. Then, when you're fortunate enough to get a raise, boost your savings by half your extra pay. That way, you'll enjoy the fruits of your career success but also ramp up your long-term saving. It may seem insignificant, but later in life, you'll be amazed how much t