Money Steps to Take Before Your 40th Birthday

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ShutterstockYou should strive to become a homeowner and pay off all your debt before turning the big 40.
By Kimberly Palmer

As we get older, our money responsibilities often increase: As our 30s progress, we might take on a mortgage, support more dependent family members or manage more money in our retirement accounts. To help you navigate these financial milestones, here are 11 financial steps to consider taking before the decade is over:

Create a solid emergency savings fund. Creating an emergency savings fund can prevent you from relying on a credit card and going into debt when unexpected costs strike, says "Today" show financial editor Jean Chatzky.​ "You've got to watch it with the debt," she warns, adding that half of Americans lack emergency funds. "Lack of savings and debt go hand in hand ... an emergency cushion is insurance against debt," she says.

Take out insurance policies. "Insurance is always that thing that we don't think about that we should," Chatzky says. Rental insurance and disability insurance both tend to be "chronically underbought," but taking out policies can end up saving you from financial catastrophe, she adds. She recommends looking into policies offered through work because they can be more affordable.

Automate your retirement savings. Automating your retirement savings -- having money taken out of your paycheck and put into a tax-advantaged retirement account -- makes it easier to save without thinking too much about it, Chatzky says. Since many companies' automatic opt-in programs start at 3 percent of income, you might need to scale it up yourself. If you do it in 2 percent increments, you might not even notice the difference, Chatzky says.

Meet with a financial adviser. While some people prefer to manage their own money, others benefit from a professional's help. "It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the competing expenses," says Suzanna de Baca, ​​vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial. "Sitting down with a financial adviser can help you understand where your expenses are and what is discretionary versus essential, and then you can create the right kind of budgeting and savings plan for you."

Clean up your credit. Kathleen Grace,​ a certified financial planner and author of "Prince Not So Charming," says maintaining excellent credit is important as you progress through your 30s, particularly because your credit report can play a big role when it comes to determining how much you will pay to borrow money for big expenses like a mortgage. She suggests reviewing your credit report once a year to check for errors and paying off your credit card balance in full each month.

Become a tax expert. Learning the ins and outs of income taxes, including any tax deductions and credits that might apply to you, can help you save a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars each year, says certified financial planner Nancy L. Anderson.​ Those amounts can add up over a lifetime, she adds.

Buy a house. This move isn't right for everyone, but it is a smart investment for many 30-somethings, says Bart Astor, ​author of "AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life." Despite the flux in the real estate market, "it's still a good idea for a young person or family. It brings stability," he says. And over time, the investment should grow.

Maximize your company benefits. Many companies provide an additional 30 percent of pay in terms of employee benefits, Anderson says. Those benefits include retirement, tuition reimbursement, pretax transportation benefits, health savings accounts, employee assistance programs, wellness programs, financial planning and more. Since your company is already paying for those benefits, you can take advantage of them to help boost your own wealth.

Write a will. "The single most important financial move you can make in your 30s if you have minor children is to put the time, effort and money necessary into drafting solid estate planning documents," says Tim Maurer, ​director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance of independent advisers. They should be written by an attorney who specializes in estate planning and include advance directives, a durable power of attorney and most importantly, a will.

Teach yourself investing basics. You don't need to become a financial professional, but knowing your way around the stock market will help you make the right decisions for your own long-term savings and investments. Money and retirement expert Kerry Hannon​ recommends, by the National Endowment for Financial Education, for free guides on stocks, bonds and mutual funds. She also suggests taking a personal finance course at a local community college.

Pay off debt. This decade is also the time to make slow and steady progress toward paying off any remaining student loan debts, as well as unloading any expensive credit card and other types of debt. Hannon even opted to cash in her 401(k) plan at age 30 to help pay off her credit card debt, which isn't necessarily the right choice for everyone. Still, becoming debt-free by age 40 is definitely something to celebrate.

Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at
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