Dear Helaine: I'm in my late 20s and got a bit of a later start in my career than I would have liked. I finished college about a year and a half ago, and got my first salaried job at the age of 26.

I thought when I got a job that didn't involve standing behind a cash register I'd have a lot more money to play with, but it really doesn't seem that way. After rent, bills, putting away money in my retirement and savings accounts every month, it seems like I have almost nothing left over. I've invested a bit in the stock market, but I don't really have time to research stocks, so most of my choices have been bad ones.

I'm starting to feel a bit of panic when I think about all the things I am supposed to be able to afford as an adult, like a house and raising children. My savings account stands at $5,000. A modest home in my area costs no less than $400,000, so even a down payment is a long way off.

I'll be 30 before I know it, and I feel like I should have more to show for myself. How do people handle these kinds of major expenses? I know the easy answer is to invest, but as I said, I'm not good at that. -- Late Starter

Dear Late Starter: When it comes to housing, you are hardly alone. The median age of a first-time homebuyer is 31 years old, partly as a result of higher costs. But don't despair! It's likely you'll be able to save more money as your salary increases, as long as you don't give in to upping your expenditures along with your enhanced paycheck. And while putting 20 percent down on a home is ideal, it's certainly not mandatory. In fact, the majority of people who buy a home with a mortgage put down less than that sum. It's possible you'll be among them. It's also possible your salary will increase, and you will be able to save up the requisite sum.

When it comes to stocks, you don't need to be good at stock-picking to invest in the stock market. In fact, that's completely the wrong way to think about it. I'm assuming that if you are investing via your workplace retirement account, you are likely putting your money in a target date fund or an assortment of index funds. That's how you should invest on your own, too. Enough with the stock-picking! Studies show less than 1 percent of us can beat the stock market averages year in and year out, and that number includes professionals who invest for a living. Don't try to beat them.

Finally, don't be so hard on yourself. Saving $5,000 in little more than a year after graduating college is quite an accomplishment. I'm officially impressed, and I bet more than a few readers of this column are too. Keep up the good work!

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