Americans reveal ideal ages for financial milestones

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Few 25-year-olds can say that they’ve paid off their student loans and started saving for retirement. Cody Clegg has done both.

He set up a budget that allowed him to quickly wipe out $16,000 in student debt. And since his company offered to match retirement contributions, he has about $33,000 socked away in a 401(k).

“Engineering jobs tend to have a pretty high possibility of earning a pretty good salary, but on top of that I focused really hard on eliminating all of my student loan debt within one year of graduating,” says Clegg, a manufacturing engineer in Augusta, Georgia. “I was just setting up the budget to make sure I’m minimizing debt and maximizing my potential to invest.”

Age may be nothing but a number. But we can use it to track our progress toward reaching certain goals. And according to a new Bankrate survey, how old you are, where you live and how much money you make can determine how soon you’re hoping to reach certain financial milestones.

Lofty financial goals?

It’s normal to get a driver’s license at 16 and to go off to college at age 17 or 18. But if you’re wondering about the right time to get a first credit card or retire, you might get different responses depending on who you ask.

Members of every generation agree that 21 is the ideal age for someone to buy or lease their first car. And everyone except the oldest Americans say you should buy your first home at age 28. The Silent Generation says 26 is the ideal age to be a first-time homebuyer.

But the younger you are, the more likely you are to say that it’s best to retire earlier. According to Gen Xers, it’s best to retire at age 60.

Whether reaching a milestone at a certain age is realistic depends on your own personal circumstances, experts say. More importantly, you have to think about how much money you need to save in order to accomplish your financial goals according to your timeline, says Chantel Bonneau Stewart, a wealth management adviser at Northwestern Mutual in Los Angeles.

Buying a first home

Buying a home at 28 could be a realistic goal for some people, Stewart says. But many Americans find the idea of entering the housing market at a young age challenging.

Today, the median age for first-time homebuyers is 32, according to the National Association of Realtors. More than half (52 percent) of lower-income individuals who earn less than $30,000 per year think that it’s best for new homebuyers to be at least 30 years old. You’re also more likely to say that it’s best to wait to buy a house if you live in a region like the Northeast, where the cost of living in many places is high and affordable housing may be out of reach.

If you’re hoping to get a mortgage and buy a home as early as possible, see if you qualify for local programs that offer down payment assistance. And find out if you qualify for an FHA loan, which allows homebuyers to make a down payment as low as 3.5 percent. But that doesn’t work in every housing market, Stewart says.

Opening a first credit card

The ideal age for getting a first credit card is 22, according to Bankrate’s survey. That age is a bit high, says Kevin Morrison, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

“I would think that the majority would start opening as they enter college or during college or get their first job right out of high school,” he says. “So I would think it would be the 18-19 range.”

Compared to their parents and grandparents, millennials are more inclined to say that it’s best to open a credit card at a younger age. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) think it’s best to get a credit card before turning 21. Only 37 percent of older folks feel that way.

While millennials have shied away from taking on credit card debt, they seem more open to using credit cards to make purchases.

“I think what we’re seeing is that millennials are hesitant to incur credit card debt. But the aversion to credit cards as a method of payment is something that seems to be diminishing,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst. “When you look at the success of the Chase Sapphire Reserve and a lot of that is attributed to a huge adoption rate among millennials.”

When to retire

Younger Americans are hoping to retire in their early 60s, according to Bankrate’s survey. For millennials, 61 is the ideal retirement age. But half of baby boomers think it’s best to retire at age 65 or older. Nearly 1 in 5 (17 percent) Americans ages 73 and older say you should wait until you’re at least 70 to retire.

“Reality begins to set in as you advance toward retirement age,” McBride says. “I think that’s why you see those in the Silent Generation having the highest age estimate and the boomers being the next highest. A lot of those Gen Xers and millennials that say 60 or 61 today, they may put a different number on that and in another 20 years.”

Men and women also disagree about the right time to retire. The ideal retirement age for a man is 60. For a woman, it’s 62.

“Men might be more optimistic about their financial future because first of all, we still have a wage gap in our country,” says Edythe M. De Marco, a managing director and wealth management adviser in Providence, Rhode Island.

Women, on the other hand, may have to think about making sacrifices or eventually dropping out of the workforce to care for young children or an aging parent.

“I’m painting with a broad brush, but for many women that’s a realistic consideration,” De Marco says.

Failing to save for retirement at an early age is Americans’ biggest financial regret, a recent Bankrate study found. And saving for retirement can be difficult today when fewer people have pensions, there are concerns about Social Security and people are living longer, says Bill Losey, owner and president of Bill Losey Retirement Solutions in Greenwich, New York. The average life expectancy for Americans today is over age 78.

If you’re hoping to retire early, it’s best to start aggressively saving for retirement at an early age. You’ll also have to make paying off credit card debt and mortgage debt a top priority, Losey says.

This study was conducted for Bankrate via landline and cell phone by SSRS on its Omnibus survey platform. Interviews were conducted from June 27 – July 2, 2018 among a sample of 1,001 respondents. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 3.77% at the 95% confidence level. SSRS Omnibus is a national, weekly, dual-frame bilingual telephone survey. All SSRS Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population.