Common sense would dictate that becoming financially stable only requires sticking to three rules: Spend less, save more and don't go into debt. But no matter how simple it might sound, a lot of us are still just groping around in the dark (or groping around in our pockets for a few quarters so we can go out and buy toilet paper).
Whether we're 18, 25 or 35, it's often tough to figure out what financial goals we should be setting and meeting for ourselves. How can we determine whether or not we're financially healthy, especially given how different everyone's income and debt is?
David Weliver, founder of the website Money Under 30 and a personal finance guru, said the definition of financial success is fairly relative, so there's no one way to determine whether or not you're financially successful at a given age.
"Money should only be one of many measures of success people should look at," Weliver told Mic. "Being healthy, having strong relationships and doing meaningful work are all equally important."
That aside, there are certain benchmarks you can look at when assessing your level of financial success. "We should look at how well you manage money, not how much of it you have," he said. "And I do think everyone should strive to manage their money well at as early an age as possible."
Alexa von Tobel, award-winning author and CEO of LearnVest, agreed that while there's really no litmus test for financial stability, there are a few key things you should aim to accomplish at every major life milestone — from when you've just graduated college to when you've just gotten married.
"Your 20s and 30s are a great time to define what financial success looks like for you," von Tobel told Mic. "Like it or not, money is a tool that can help you achieve your goals. If you start by establishing clear goals, you'll then have something to track your progress against."
If you never have more than $9 in your bank account and you constantly have to Venmo your rent to your landlord, here's a quick 'n' dirty guide to how you should be managing your $ at any age.
In your late teens/early 20s, you should be...
Making a detailed plan for how to fund your education. As the costs for higher education continue to skyrocket, it's important to really consider what your plans are going to be and how you can expect to pay tuition as well as support yourself. Don't take loans if you can avoid it because student debt, once taken on, will follow you.
"If you're able to look into the future and understand what it will take to repay student loans, you're ahead of most," Weliver said. "Outside of student loans, however, if you're avoiding other borrowing, [such as] revolving balances on credit cards or big car loans, that's good."
In your 20s, you should be...
Paying off your debts and saving for retirement. When a lot of us enter our 20s, we're already saddled with thousands in student loans. Von Tobel stresses that this is the time to start paying off debts accrued — not just from school, but credit card debt as well — and to begin thinking about saving for retirement. It might seem early, but it's a prime opportunity for you to get ahead of the curve.
"Here's the thing: You have a huge advantage right now. Time is on your side, so the earlier you start contributing, the longer you'll have for compounding interest to do its work," she said.
One of Von Tobel's favorite tips to fatten your savings account is to design a budget and stick to it. She recommends the "one number budgeting strategy," which involves subtracting your fixed expenses, your goal contributions and your non-monthly expenses from your take-home pay and dividing the remainder by four.
"That's your 'one number' to track each week," she told Mic. "You can spend it however you'd like, while knowing that your goals and expenses are accounted for."
In your 30s, you should be...
Continuing to save, particularly if you want to take on a mortgage. Let's be real, most of us are barely earning pennies in our 20s — especially in this ultra-competitive job market.
"In a lot of ways I think '30 is the new 20' in that, compared to 50 years ago, many adults today are just starting to earn a decent wage [and beginning] to get settled with their lives," Weliver said.
In an ideal world, you're entering your 30s relatively debt-free and you're able to take on the financial responsibility of a mortgage. More importantly, you're really building your savings.
"I've said before that a good goal by 30 is to have saved a year's worth of income, but that assumes you started working no later than 23 or 24," Weliver said.
Von Tobel also stressed the importance of continually building up savings. She points out, however, that your 30s are still a time of transition: If you're in a position where you're trying to build a life with your partner, for instance, it's important to ensure your financial goals are aligned.
"Set aside a quiet time for you to have a serious conversation about money [with your partner," she said. "Talk about everything from your spending priorities, to your immediate and long-term goals, to how you will divide your financial to-dos and track your budget."
If you're considering taking on a mortgage, that's going to require a little more hustle. Von Tobel recommends setting aside as much as 20% of your income to save for a down payment before you start shopping for your new pad.
All in all, maturing financially means taking thoughtful, strategic steps towards stability. Aim to save, build your credit score, don't build unnecessary interest on debt, and really weigh out every investment you plan to take on, whether it's post-graduate education or a new car. Just remember that no financial plan looks the same, and that money is only one way to measure success. (All things considered, it's a pretty good one, though.)