No, I haven’t hit all of these big financial milestones at 30. Here’s why that’s okay
I’m turning 30 today, and according to standards set forth by leading personal finance experts, I’m a failure.
Though I’ve been investing in a 401(k) since I got my first full-time job at 22, I haven’t managed to save the equivalent of my annual salary. I don’t own a home. And though I’m happily partnered, I’m nowhere near ready to get married. Don’t ask me about kids.
There are, I’m sure, a hundred and one ways I could have hit all of these milestones by now: by making every single cup of coffee at home, by cutting out all superfluous expenses, by learning to code. But if you’ll pardon the pun, I don’t put much stock in those standards.
Turning 30 holds an almost mythical place in modern American culture. It represents the age at which you are officially an Adult with a capital A, when you are supposed to have everything figured out: career, family, finances.
And when you don’t check all of these boxes by 30, the guilt and anxiety can be overwhelming. It’s enough to induce an existential crisis.
“Thirty is so intense,” says Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, a personal finance expert and host of the Money Confidential podcast. “There are impossible expectations, and it’s so loud.”
This is partly because money is deeply tied to self-worth and self-respect in American culture, says Megan Moore, vice president of customer acquisition and loyalty at Fidelity Investments. It can be hard to picture a different kind of success when we’re telegraphed the same standards over and over. Any deviation feels like a failure.
But there’s a reason why so much personal finance advice ignites fury on the internet. Broad advice has a place in the discourse—you can’t account for every single unique financial situation in one article—but it often comes across as tone-deaf, given, well, everything that’s going on in the world. Even when it’s offered with the best intentions, general money advice just doesn’t work for many of us.
Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to “determine what their needs are and really personalize” what success means, says Moore.
“Money is a tool [you use] to live the life you want to live,” says Moore. “We don’t expect any two peoples’ lives to be the same, so we don’t expect their financial lives to look the same.”
Of course, to live the life you want, you probably need money. Personal finance best practices can be helpful: Start (or keep) investing. Spend less than you earn. Avoid high-interest debt at all cost.
“We should all reflect on the emotions we have around money, what some of those triggers are, to form good habits,” Moore says. “Understanding yourself and how that plays out into your finances and how you’re managing your money really can help you figure out how to move forward, no matter what point you’re at.”
But can we also give ourselves a break? Your life and your career don’t end at 30. If you’re lucky, there’s a long road after that.
“Personal finance and financial wellness are really a journey,” says Sofia Figueroa, a financial planner at Ellevest. “It’s an ongoing practice that takes time to get comfortable with and refine. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do every single thing right the first time.”
Believing that you need to have everything figured out so early works to our detriment, argues O’Connell Rodriguez.
“If a house before 30 is success, then I’m not considering whether I can really afford this house, or if I really want to live in the same place for the next five years,” she says. “That pressure can backfire for a lot of people. It causes them to jump into things just to create that sense of forward momentum.”
Rather than look at your career, finances, and personal relationships as problems to be solved by an arbitrary deadline, remember that you still have decades ahead of you.
“In my experience, the people who are finding a lot of success or fulfillment still deal with that pressure to have things figured out, but we also have a more flexible, longer-term view,” O’Connell Rodriguez says. “That’s really, really hard.”
If you’re approaching one of these milestone birthdays, take time to ask yourself what it is you want, and what you need to get there. It’s more important to figure out your own core values—and act accordingly—than it is to accomplish things because your parents, a personal finance personality, or some list on the internet told you to, argues Figueroa.
Because having a house at 30 doesn’t automatically make you a success. You get to determine the milestones for yourself.
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