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A couple decades ago, most 30 and 40-somethings were well established in life with their own families, careers and homes. But in today's society, people in that age bracket tend to take a little longer to grow up.

They hold off on getting married and having children, and are often slower to settle into careers and take the plunge into home ownership. As a result, their finances can also fall behind where they should be.

So what exactly should 30 and 40-somethings have accomplished in order to be considered financially healthy? Following is a checklist, as well as tips for how to reach each goal if you're not there yet:

1. Establish an emergency fund and pay off debts. I recommend putting enough to cover a couple month’s worth of expenses into a basic savings account in case you need it immediately to cover car repairs or other unexpected cost. Designate a set amount each month (or more if you get a bonus or do a side job) to pay off debts such as a credit cards, student loans and car payments.

Put as much money as you can toward the debt with the highest interest rate first while making the minimum payment on the others. Once you’ve conquered the highest interest debt, go to the next until you've paid them them all off. It may seem obvious, but less debt equals more money back in your pocket!

2. Designate at least 10 percent of your income toward retirement. Since pensions are now scarce and the Social Security trust fund will most likely only cover a fraction of your expenses, it’s important to be prepared to support yourself when you're done working.

Some experts recommend the more gross income you earn, the more you should save for the future. For instance, a person earning $40,000 should save 10 percent of his/her income, while someone earning $80,000 should save 13.6 percent.

The best way to reach that goal is to start gradually, even with a contribution of just 2 or 3 percent, and slowly increase that amount over time. Make sure to set specific times where you will increase your contributes in order to keep yourself accountable.

Take advantage of tax-friendly accounts, such as 401(k)s or Roth IRAs, as well as any matching benefit that your employer provides.

3. Put a halt to frivolous spending. While it’s fine to treat yourself every once in awhile, by now you’ve hopefully figured out which purchases make you happy for the long-term and which ones quickly lose their luster.

For instance, it might make sense for you to invest in an expensive, but good-quality camera or a new bike if you think you’ll use it for years to come. Frequently purchasing trendy pieces of jewelry or clothing that could be old news by next season probably isn’t as wise, however.

To keep yourself accountable, track your spending habits in various categories. Free, online tools such as mint.com will help you create spreadsheets and show you exactly how your money is being spent. That way you can make changes and adjustments as necessary.

4. Financially prepare yourself to take care of others. Even if 30 and 40-somethings don't have families of their own, many find themselves financially supporting a younger sibling or parent.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s even more important to establish your own financial stability. Meet with a professional to see how your money can be put to work in stocks and/or mutuel funds so you can multiply your earnings and have money to spare for your loved ones.

Remember, if you truly cannot afford to financially assist your needy family members, don’t hesitate to be honest with them, and look for ways to provide other forms of assistance, such as sharing meals or a roof.

5. Remember to also invest in yourself. As we get older and take on more responsibilities, it’s easy to forget about own hopes and dreams, especially those we had when we were younger and more ambitious.

Regularly write goals for your future in a journal and don’t forget to include the steps you’ll take to get there. Brainstorm ideas with friends and family members about how you will accomplish specific dreams.

Do you want to invent a new product or start your own business or blog? Now is the time to dream big. Network with people that have already succeeded in the area you wish to pursue, and invest in educational materials to advance your knowledge such as classes, podcasts and books.

Ron L. Brown, CFP®

Author Ron L. Brown, CFP®

Ron is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and president of R.L. Brown Wealth Management. He specializes in retirement, estate, and business planning for professionals and entrepreneurs. Ron assists his clients with creating a financial plan to ensure they are able to live their ideal lifestyle during retirement and leave a strong legacy for their family. Ron has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, US News, Yahoo Finance, Investopedia, and numerous other high profile financial publications.

More posts by Ron L. Brown, CFP®

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