Turning 30 convinced me to make 3 smart financial moves I'd been avoiding for years, and I'd tell anyone to do the same

elizabeth aldrich costa rica

Courtesy of Elizabeth Aldrich

The author in Costa Rica.

They say it's important to set financial goals for the future, but it's hard to plan for a future you can't imagine.

For most of my life, I had no clear picture of what adulthood would look like for me. I didn't want kids, actively opposed marriage, and wasn't interested in buying a homeAdvertisement

I had lofty ambitions of traveling to every country in the world or becoming the next great American novelist, but no tangible career goals pegged to titles or ladder-climbing. 

Nothing I wanted looked anything like the lives I saw adults around me living, which made me dread turning 30. I cried on my 26th birthday because I was finally closer to 30 than 20.

When I graduated from college, I spent some time bouncing around jobs aimlessly and wandering around the country in between them without any clear direction, although I did have fun. 
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Eventually, I quit my job with meager savings to road trip around the U.S., and then again to backpack around Central America. I went nearly $10,000 into credit card debt, twice, and never saved money for anything but travel, but I wasn't too bothered by it. 

It was as if I believed my life would just end after my 20s. Spoiler alert: It didn't. But my admittedly immature outlook on money did.I never used to build long-term savings or invest because I didn't have the typical goals of starting a family or buying a house. As I got older, I realized that financial stability and freedom can be used for all kinds of things and that I could leverage savings to build the life that I want, even if it's a nontraditional one.Advertisement

I realized that fun didn't have to end with my 20s

Eventually, I turned 28, and then 29. And as I approached 30, I realized something that probably shouldn't have shocked me, but it did: I was getting "old," and my life was still fun. In fact, as the clock struck midnight and I officially entered my 30s, I felt my life was the best it had ever been.

As I got older, I realized that I didn't have to cave to the pressures to have a "normal" adulthood. I turned 30 unmarried, child-free, and partying it up at MTV Spring Break in Cancun - a fact that would have made my 14-year-old self squeal with joy. 

I make my living as a writer, I live in a foreign country, and in my 30th year, I traveled to more than a dozen countries.Advertisement

Setting financial goals for my 30s and beyond

Now that I'm finally seeing that I can have any future I want, no matter how unconventional, I've got lots of ideas of how I'd like to pass my 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. 

In my 20s, I was fine living low-budget, because my idea of fun was traveling in hostels and going to cheap concerts and dive bars with $1 whiskey shots. As I enter my 30s, my tastes have gotten markedly more expensive. 

Not only can I no longer stomach bottom-of-the-barrel liquor or spend my travels sleeping in un-air-conditioned rooms filled with sweaty backpackers, but I have ideas of fun that look more like investments and require long-term savings. Advertisement

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I would love to take more writing classes and maybe pick up painting as well. Writer's retreats are calling my name from Iceland to Mexico, and I have several book projects I want to complete. 

I wouldn't mind buying some land to cultivate, and starting my own business - perhaps a small bed and breakfast with a coffee shop, or a hostel and brewery combo. All of these require me to save money.Advertisement

I made 3 goals: Pay off debt, build an emergency fund, and start investing

Just shy of my 30th birthday, as all of this started to come into focus, I made three financial goals for myself: pay off debt, build an emergency fund, and start investing, in that order.

I'd already been using multiple balance transfer credit cards to pay off what started at about $10,000 in credit card debt for several years. Unfortunately, balances on other cards started going up as I was paying off my original debt, so I still had about $6,000 left to pay off when I got serious. I vowed to stop using my credit cards until I got all of my balances down to zero, and I put all of my disposable income toward paying them off. I set up automatic payments on all of my credit cards so that I didn't have any excuses for not putting my money toward them.Advertisement

When I only had $3,000 left, I received an email from my father saying he was giving me $10,000 of the money my grandfather, who had recently died, left to him. The old me probably would've spent that money on an epic trip, but the almost-30 me was feeling grateful and not wanting to let it go to waste. 

I used $3,000 to paid off my credit cards and $3,000 to buy an old used car because I'd recently moved to a new country and didn't have a car at the time. Then, I put the remaining $4,000 in a high-yield savings account, which became the beginning of my emergency fund. Not a penny was spent impulsively.

By the time I turned 30, I was debt-free and had built up a $15,000 emergency fund. Now, as I'm nearing the end of my 30th year, I'm still debt-free, I've got $30,000 in my emergency fund and $5,000 in a self-investment fund, and I've started investing in Vanguard index funds to build my net worth. Advertisement

Maybe one day I'll use my savings to open a hostel or a bed and breakfast, or maybe I'll use it to go on a round-the-world trip in retirement. I'm still not locking myself into one life plan, but now, I've got options.

I've managed to save money this year by following a lot of different tips and tricks. I set up automatic deposits into my high-yield savings account, and I've minimized my fixed costs by living in a low-cost-of-living area while maximizing my income by working online as a freelancer. 

However, the most important step to reaching these goals was changing my mindset around money. Money can give you the power to create your own life, even when, or perhaps especially when, the life you want doesn't go down a traditional path.Advertisement

Talk to a financial planner today to set - and reach - your money goals. SmartAsset's free tool can connect you with a qualified professional »

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