Retirement planning for 20-somethings

5. Get educated

Meanwhile, don't be embarrassed to admit that financial talk can seem confusing. After all, financial know-how is not genetically encoded and, unless someone has taken the time to teach you about finance, you'll need to do a little learning. And now that you're starting to make and save money, this is the perfect time to educate yourself.

More than a third of companies now offer employees access to advisers who can help choose investments that will be most appropriate, according to Hewitt. These advisers can explain what holdings are in a particular fund and why they'd recommend one investment over another. Read books, articles or financial Web sites. The more you know, the easier it will be throughout your career to make solid, informed decisions.

"I think the reality is most parents are more inclined to talk to their kids about sex education than talk to them about finance or saving for retirement," says Jones. "That's just not a conversation people have, so a little Finance 101 is probably a good idea."

6. Build a strong defense with an emergency stash

What's next? Start amassing an emergency fund so you don't have to rely on credit cards -- and possibly bury yourself in debt -- in the event that your car dies, your roommate comes up short on rent or you suffer some other financial mishap. Ideally, you'll stash up to three months living expenses, but the important goal is to save something. You can help stay on track by having automatic deposits made to your emergency account.

In the meantime, keep an eye on spending. Those splurges can add up fast and will prove to be a huge drain on future savings. What's more, if you pile on debt, you'll wind up wasting a lot of money on interest and fees that could be better spent elsewhere.

7. Avoid debt

If you're really struggling to stretch the paycheck to set something aside for retirement, this is the time to make some changes.

Give your budget needs a major overhaul. Consider getting a roommate or picking up an extra job for the time being. Big changes now, coupled with consistent saving over time, will reap huge rewards down the road, says Jones. He speaks from experience. Jones took a year off from college to work so he could pay off credit card debt. It wasn't easy but, he says, "I graduated debt-free."

Lamb has already seen how a little financial discipline reaps big rewards.

"Making my bills is my No. 1 priority before anything else. I don't buy new clothes. I cook at home. And I don't drink, which is a big money-saver. People go out and will spend $100 on alcohol in one weekend. I don't do that," she says.

Yet she does let herself have occasional "big purchases," like a house recently bought with her fiance.

"I really wanted one," she says. "And I made it my goal."


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