By Sara Bristoll, Margie D. and David Kexel

Your personal financial journey is full of choices – should you take the fork in the road to the left or the right, brake or accelerate, try a shortcut or stay on the main road. And during your travels, you’re sure to see a detour or two and encounter a few potholes. Whether you’re just starting out or cruising toward retirement, here’s our top advice for smooth travels.

Starting Your Journey
You’ve just graduated, and you’re eager to start your adventure on that road called life. Money is tight, and your future is too far down the road to see clearly. But you’ve got one big advantage going for you, and that’s time.

1. Start saving now (while time is on your side). In theory you know you need to save for the future and start a rainy day fund, but the reality is there never seems to be a lot of extra money left over each month. Start small by saving whatever you can – try $20 per week – to build a starter emergency fund of at least $1,000.

2. Use your employer’s 401(k) plan. Sign up for your company’s plan as soon as you’re eligible. If your employer matches a percentage of your contribution, make sure you’re saving enough to receive the full match! Otherwise, you’re walking away from free money.

3. Know what you’re spending. While controlling your spending might seem difficult, getting a snapshot of your spending is easier than ever with apps and tools that group your spending into categories. Try Mint.com or Money Management (available inside CU Online or the Mobile App).

4. And spend less than you earn! Write out how much you need each month for your fixed expenses like housing (rent, utilities) and your car payment, student loans, etc. Next, decide how much you want to set aside for savings and how much you can spend on your variable (other) expenses like eating out, travel, etc. The total should be less than or equal to your monthly income.

5. Remember to update your spending plan. Your finances can change faster than you think. Make changes like contributing more to your “savings bucket” as you pay off and reduce your “debt bucket.”

6. Pay down debt, fast! Come up with a strategy to pay off your debt as quickly as possible. Find a way to bring in some extra cash – sell stuff you no longer want or need, make and sell crafts, or get a side job. Use any extra funds to pay down this debt.

7. Rein in household expenses. Experts suggest your rent or mortgage payment should not exceed 35 percent of your net income (after taxes). If your rent is high, consider getting a roommate, finding more affordable housing or moving back home (if your parents will let you).

8. Explore student loan forgiveness programs. The Federal government offers programs that will wipe out all or a portion of your student loan debt depending on your field of study and employment after college (e.g., teaching or practicing medicine in underfunded communities, volunteer work, military service, etc.).

9. Find unique ways to save. It can be hard to resist going out with your friends. Finding new ways to save can help free up some cash for going out. Learn how to use coupons at the grocery store. Eat dinner before meeting friends and order a light appetizer or side salad at the restaurant. Split a plate with a friend – dinner portions are usually large enough to feed two to three people.

10. Write a will. It may seem morbid, but if you unexpectedly died, do you care who gets your money, property or guardianship of your children? If you answered yes, you need a will to spell out your wishes. While you’re at it, complete a living will and medical power of attorney so you can outline what measures you would want taken to save your life and who can make decisions about your care if you were unable to do so.

Marriage & Family Life
Now that you’re comfortably traveling along your financial highway, at some point it may come time to merge finances with that special someone. Maybe you’ll even load a kid or two into the back of your crossover SUV. (Unfortunately, the sports car is no longer a practical choice!) While this stage can happen at almost any time in your life, these tips will prove useful in navigating joint accounts and child expenses.

11. Be on the same page. When you’re considering getting married and co-mingling finances, start by having a money date with your potential spouse. Be open and honest about your current financial situation, expenses and your goals for the future. Do you want to stay at home with the kids? Are you looking to buy a house next year or in 10 years?

12. Find a solution that works for both of you. There are pros and cons to using a joint account, individual accounts or a combination of the two. Find a solution that satisfies both your needs while keeping money management tasks as simple as possible.

13. Utilize a spending plan. Come up with a comprehensive spending plan. This can seem daunting at first, but you’ll thank each other for it later. Start by tracking all of your purchases – save receipts, use a spreadsheet or find an online tool like Money Management to help you. Once you know where you’re spending your money, decide as a team where you could be cutting back to save more.

14. Set boundaries. Decide on a purchasing threshold. For example, if your limit is $100, you or your partner do not have to discuss any purchase under $100 before making it. Anything over that is off limits until you’ve both discussed and agreed upon the purchase.

15. Beef up your emergency fund. Stress is already high when the unexpected happens – having an emergency fund will help take the edge off some of the financial anxiety. If you haven’t done so already, build an emergency fund equal to six months of expenses.

16. Thinking of having kids? Adjust your spending plan early on in the pregnancy (or before) to account for normal costs of kids. Before these costs come in to play, you can redirect the funds to your savings account or to pay down debt.

17. Make tough decisions now. While thinking of the sudden death of you or your spouse may be difficult, it’s important to consider the consequences. If something were to happen to you (or your partner), would the other person be able to cover all of the household expenses on his or her income alone? A life insurance policy can help protect those that matter most; getting adequate coverage is essential.

18. Update your beneficiaries. If you already have a life insurance policy, make sure you update your beneficiaries to your partner and/or children. While you’re at it, follow through with updating beneficiaries on any investments, accounts, retirement plans and trust accounts.

19. Start saving for college early. College expenses are at all-time highs in the United States. Help your child offset those costs by starting a savings plan. A 529 plan offers some tax advantages (consult your tax adviser to find the best plan for your family).

20. Don’t go at it alone! Your family and friends can contribute to your child’s education through programs like UPromise. With UPromise, a percentage of purchases made through registered cards are deposited into an account for your child.

Midlife Money Moves
Life is hectic. You’re raising a family, managing your home and working to advance your career. While you may want to put your financial life on cruise control, it’s important to pull off the road from time to time and check under the hood of your finances.

21. Use debt payments differently. Once you’ve paid off your student loans, credit card debt or vehicle loan, make the most of that extra monthly money. Fully fund your emergency fund if it’s lacking, increase your 401(k) contributions, open an IRA or stash cash for your kids’ education.

22. Balance retirement and college savings. Don’t neglect your own retirement to pay for your children’s higher education expenses. You only have one opportunity to save for retirement. College degrees can be paid for with scholarships, grants or student loans. If you can afford both, great! Otherwise, don’t jeopardize your retirement, unless you expect your kids to support you in your golden years.

23. Manage your career. Your earning power is your greatest asset. Sharpen your skills by attending helpful seminars or earning certifications that make you more attractive to employers. Keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date; recruiters use it to regularly identify qualified candidates. Sign up for job alerts from Indeed.com or other sites. You never know when a bigger or better opportunity might come along.

24. Divert bonuses and raises. You may be tempted to spend that great bonus you just received or buy a bigger home because you got a hefty raise. Avoid the temptation. Go ahead, treat yourself to something special, but save most of the extra income by increasing retirement contributions or opening an IRA. See if your employer offers automatic increases to 401(k) contributions that coincide with annual raises.

25. Don’t neglect home repairs. Expect to spend about 1 to 4 percent of your home’s value each year on repairs and maintenance. Failure to maintain your home could result in its overall depreciation. If you’re a homeowner, it might be wise to set up a special fund – separate from your emergency fund – just for home improvements.

26. Invest in your health. Regular exercise and eating well will not only help you look and feel better, but can also help reduce medical expenses and the cost of life insurance. You’re likely to get better rates on a term life policy if you’re a non-smoker and free of any chronic but preventable illnesses like heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.

27. Choose an HSA. If your company offers a high-deductible health plan and you and your family are in good health, you could save on monthly health insurance premiums with one of these plans. Plus, you may be eligible to set aside tax-free money in a health savings account, which can be used for future medical expenses.

28. Review insurance annually. While sticking with the same provider for home, auto and life insurance may be convenient, it could be costing you money. Review policies annually to ensure you’re not overpaying. Plus, it’s a good time to make sure you have adequate coverage and your beneficiaries are up-to-date.

29. Adjust your portfolio. If you’ve set your investments on auto-pilot, you could be placing your retirement at risk. It’s important to rebalance accounts annually to ensure you have the right mix of stocks, bonds and cash accounts. Target-date investment funds might be a good solution because they keep accounts in balance and become more conservative as you age. Also, keep an eye on your portfolio’s expense ratio, which can put a huge crack in your nest egg.

30. Stay the course. You can’t escape the daily news regarding stock market gyrations. With 25 to 30 years until retirement, your best bet is continuing your pattern of regular contributions and staying the course with your investment choices. Trying to time market fluctuations is usually a losing proposition.

Preparing For Retirement
As you journey down the road toward retirement, your goals and expectations are visible on the horizon. Your years of careful planning seem to be paying dividends, but there are still many miles ahead. Use this time to put savings into overdrive and prepare for future medical expenses, new living arrangements and end-of-life planning.

31. Boost your retirement. At age 50 the catch-up provision kicks in, meaning you’re eligible to save an extra $6,000 in your 401(k) account on top of the $18,000 limit for those under age 50 (2015 and 2016 limits). For IRAs, you can sock away an additional $1,000 for 2015 and 2016.

32. Plan for medical expenses. According to Fidelity Benefits Consulting, a 65-year old couple who retires in 2015 will need an average of $245,000 to handle 20 years of out-of-pocket retirement health costs. Prepare for these expenses by contributing to a Health Savings Account (if you qualify) while you’re employed or maintaining part-time employment after you retire to gain access to your employer’s healthcare benefits.

33. Pay off your home. Set a goal of paying off your mortgage before you retire. Strategies include making an extra payment toward the principal balance every year or refinancing to a 15 year (or shorter) term. In either case, you could be mortgage-free by the time you retire, and you’ll save thousands of dollars in interest costs.

34. Consolidate your accounts. If you’ve worked for several different employers, it’s likely you have multiple retirement accounts. Simplify things by rolling old 401(k)s into a single IRA account at one low-cost, no-load mutual fund provider. You’ll likely get more investment choices and have a better overall understanding of where you stand with your retirement planning.

35. Consider long-term care insurance. Depending on how large a nest egg you’ve built, long-term care insurance may be a good bet to protect your assets in the case of a lengthy, debilitating illness. It’s best to begin investigating your options when you’re in your mid 50s and while you’re still in good health. Work with a trusted adviser to weigh the pros and cons.

36. Review and update your will. If you haven’t reviewed your will in a while, be sure to take a closer look, ideally once a year. If you’ve divorced and remarried or you’ve expanded your family, it’s likely your will no longer reflects your wishes.

37. Downsize your home. A larger home may have made sense when you had several kids at home. If it’s just you and your spouse now, consider selling and moving to a smaller, less expensive home. You can put cash in your pocket and save on the cost of taxes and upkeep.

38. Delay retirement. You can start collecting Social Security at any age between 62 and 70, but the later you claim, the higher your monthly benefit. According to the Center for Retirement Research, you could boost your monthly benefit by at least 75 percent by retiring at age 70 instead of 62. Plus, by delaying retirement you have more time to save and grow existing assets.

39. Manage your withdrawals. When beginning to draw on your retirement funds, the traditional recommendation is to limit your first-year withdrawal to 4 percent and then adjust the amount each year based on inflation. Depending on your situation and nest egg balance, this may or may not be a good plan. Consult your financial adviser to map out a strategy.

40. Save your family some grief. The death of a family member is a difficult time, with many decisions having to be made under stressful circumstances. Make things easier for family by talking about your wishes in advance and giving them a written copy of your preferences. In addition, have funds set aside to cover your expenses. Prepaying expenses might seem like a good idea, but it could be an issue if the funeral home you choose expires before you do.

This article is intended as general advice and may not be applicable to every situation. Consult a trusted financial adviser to develop a plan specific to your needs. Arizona Federal members have access to financial professionals who can assist with questions regarding investing, insurance and credit challenges. Call (602) 683-1000 to get started.