3 Moves to Build Money Confidence in Your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s

04/30/2015 10:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

The older you get, the more confident you'll feel about your money, right?

Actually, no. According to new research from LearnVest, it turns out that age doesn't necessarily correlate with financial confidence in the way you might expect.

The study, which surveyed more than 100,000 people, found that there's a U-curve when it comes to money confidence by age. Those under 25 actually reported feeling more confident about their finances compared to those in their 30s and 40s.

So what gives?

Well, the findings seem to show that feeling empowered has less to do with how much you make, and more to do with the financial responsibilities you bear.

So the more of them you have as you age -- the mortgage, the college fund, the paltry nest egg, you get it -- the less confident about money you're likely to feel.

Still, every demographic faces its own set of money worries, so we asked financial pros to pinpoint one big challenge that tends to plague people in each decade and offer tips on how to tackle it -- with confidence.

20s Financial Confidence Challenge: Saving on a Starter Salary
In your 20s, you may be getting your first real paycheck -- but it may have fewer zeros than you'd like.

But that didn't stop 39 percent of the under-25 set in the LearnVest survey from labeling themselves as financially confident. Perhaps it's because they're thinking ahead: Government data shows that income grows 111 percent by the time people hit the 25-to-34 age bracket.

Still, the promise of a higher income can be little comfort when you're scrimping. Lauren Ray, a 23-year-old content manager for an SEO firm, graduated in 2013 with more than $55,000 in student loans.

She currently lives with her parents and calculates that it will take her about 17 years to be debt-free. "When I receive my paycheck, the first thing I do is make a payment on my loans," says Ray, who lives in Bensalem, Pa. "It's overwhelming to think about the amount of money I owe -- and the time it will take to pay it off."

Even if it's just temporary, how can you defeat starter-salary malaise?

1. Start paying yourself first -- now. According to a recent study, millennials have a savings rate of -2 percent, which means they are living paycheck to paycheck or going into debt. But fewer family money responsibilities means now could be a good time to get in the habit of diverting money from your paycheck into savings.

"A lot of times [20-somethings] like to spend and then save what's left over," says Daniel Wrenne, a CFP® with Wrenne Financial Planning. "You have to acknowledge that you have to save first -- otherwise you're not going to do it."

2. Start your nest egg, no matter how small. Young people have more time to take advantage of compound growth, so consider funneling whatever you can into a 401(k) or a Roth IRA -- even if it's just 1 percent.

"Then commit to increasing your retirement savings as your income increases with the cost of living," says CFP® Catherine Hawley. "I think you can be really confident if you're saving 20 percent of your gross income. But not everyone can do that starting off, so do what's possible for you."

3. Don't feel pressured to pay off student loans ASAP. Although the stress of your loans might be weighing you down, you don't want to funnel all of your money toward paying down your student loan debt -- to the detriment of making progress on other financial goals.

"Come up with a payment plan that you can actually afford now -- but that also gives you clarity on when you'll pay the loans off," Hawley says. "Your circumstances are going to change, so know that you can always take a different strategy in your 30s."

30s Financial Confidence Challenge: The High Price of Nesting
If you're less concerned with catching the latest indie band and more preoccupied with the color of the nursery, welcome to your 30s -- the decade of "real adult" responsibilities.

Fact: The average age of a first-time homebuyer is 33, and 30 is the average age at which college-educated women first give birth.

The increased financial responsibilities that come with establishing roots could be why those in the 35-to-44 bracket were the least financially confident in the LearnVest study. After all, home, hearth and a growing household all amount to higher expenditures.

So how can a 30-something's finances withstand the pressure?

1. Spend for the life you have, not the life you want. Lauren Bowling was looking forward to entering her 30s with a husband, a new home -- and plans to start a family.

So she and her fiancé bought a 2,000-square-foot, single-family house in Atlanta -- only to call things off three months later.

Luckily, the home was in her name and the mortgage was affordable, but that still doesn't mean she thinks it was the right investment.

"I let romance get the better of me, and we bought a home for the future, rather than what was needed for us at the time," says Bowling, a financial blogger. "It was more home than we needed as a couple. Now I wish that I'd bought something much smaller and in a better neighborhood."

As evidenced by Bowling's story, while it's O.K. to have a wish list, it's important to know when you need a budget reality check.

"Being conservative [with what you can afford] can give you more flexibility if you decide to change careers or spend more time at home with your kids," Hawley says. "Your hands aren't tied by that large mortgage."

2. Inflate your savings instead of your lifestyle. Another reason to keep those housing costs down? Lifestyle creep.

"If you see the money in your checking account, you end up buying the nicer towels, the nicer car -- things that, in the long term, you won't have much to show for," Hawley says. "Those [could be] small increases to your retirement account instead -- that's really where you're going to be growing your wealth over time."

3. Simplify your financial picture. With so many financial responsibilities to juggle, cutting back on the number of accounts you manage can help you keep better track of your financial progress, suggests Wrenne.

That could including rolling over old 401(k)s, limiting the number of credit cards you carry, or using an online tracking tool to see all your finances in one place.

"I think simplification should be a big consideration -- there's no reason to have, say, six checking accounts when two is much easier for you to manage," he says.

40s Financial Confidence Challenge: The Sandwich-Generation Crunch
Once you enter your 40s, you've got a three-pronged potential strain on your finances: college costs, retirement and your parents' care.

The average family has saved just over $15,000 for higher education, according to Sallie Mae data -- which, unfortunately, isn't enough, considering a four-year public university costs almost $19,000 just for the 2014-2015 calendar year.

Meanwhile, Pew Research shows that about one in seven middle-aged adults provides support to an aging parent and a child.

Given all of this, it's no wonder that only a third of LearnVest respondents in the 45-to-54 age range said that they felt financially confident. But how can you when your money worries span generations?

1. Set college expectations early. Only 8 percent in Sallie Mae's college study said they would "limit college choice based on cost."

But if you plan on helping to foot the bill, it's O.K. to tell your kids that the bank of mom and dad has a threshold, says Sheryl Garrett, a CFP® with the Garrett Planning Network.

"The younger, the better [when it comes] to planting the seeds of reality," says Garrett, who's already told her daughter that out-of-state college tuition will be her responsibility. "You can say, 'If I fund college, I'm going to have to rely on you when you graduate.' I'm sure most children would prefer that you take care of yourself."

2. Prioritize the parent money talk. Now is the time to start asking your folks about their finances -- and what they hope will happen as they age. How long do they intend to stay in their home? Can they afford nursing care? Do they have an estate plan?

"You have to be careful in your approach, but you still have to bring it up," Wrenne says. "I always tell clients, 'Blame it on me.' Tell them your planner is bugging you to get this information."

For further ideas on how to broach the conversation, Google "40/70 Talk." It's called that because it's the eldercare discussion you should have by the time you're 40 and your parents are 70.

3. Assess your retirement progress -- stat. Crunch some numbers: Are you on track to replace 85 percent of your income in retirement? Will you have to stretch out your retirement timeline? Are you budgeting for increased contributions?

"Usually the 40s is when people realize that they're either doing pretty good -- or they're way behind and start to get freaked out," Wrenne says.

But that's still better than keeping your head in the sand. "Once you've admitted to yourself that you need to work on your retirement strategy, ask yourself: What do I need to change? Where can I make improvements?" Wrenne says. "Then you can build a new plan going forward and monitor your progress."

50s Financial Confidence Challenge: Prepping for the Retirement Transition
In the LearnVest survey, financial confidence inches back up in the 45-to-54 and 55-to-64 age groups, forming the second half of the confidence U-curve.

That could be because big-ticket financial responsibilities, like mortgages and college costs, start to wind down in your 50s -- even as earning power remains strong.

Of course, there's still your nest egg to think of: 68 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 say they're worried about not having enough for retirement.

"I know I don't have enough saved," says Beth O'Donnell, 54, the owner of a business consulting firm who lives in Philadelphia. "Like everyone else, I got slaughtered in 2008 and have only now regained all I lost. I worry constantly about losing my business -- and therefore my income. At this age, unemployment is long-term and often permanent."

O'Donnell's story begs the question: How can you help boost confidence when retirement looms large?

1. Play catch up. Once you hit 50, you can contribute an additional $6,000 to your 401(k) and an additional $1,000 to your IRA above the current 2015 limits.

Do that every year from 50 to 66 and you've funneled an additional $112,000 into retirement -- not bad considering that doesn't include compound interest or the regular contributions that you're hopefully already making.

2. Be realistic about your exit strategy. Some 50-somethings may view retirement as the only way to end a career they are so over -- but "don't get trapped into retirement as an escape from your job," Garrett says. "That often leads to a decision to retire before you're truly financially ready."

Instead, calculate how your retirement income might change based on several age scenarios -- and remember that working is still a possibility.

"A lot of people don't want to quit cold turkey," Hawley says. "They either want to cut back their hours or switch to a job that reflects a pet passion they can turn into an income stream."

3. "Practice" your retirement. Sometimes the idea of retirement is more romantic than the reality. You may think that beachside cottage is for you, but if you're used to the hustle and bustle of a busy 9-to-5, will you enjoy that investment?

Before you decide how you want to spend your golden years, visit the places you're thinking of moving to, as well as the activities you plan to pursue. How will you spend your time? How will you spend your money? Can you live a simpler life -- or do you need your creature comforts?

"Getting a sense of that change," Hawley says, "will really help you experience [retirement] before you're thrown off the deep end."

This post originally appeared on LearnVest.

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LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the individuals interviewed or quoted in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other's products, services or policies.

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