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Save while you’re young or pay later

Interested in saving up $349,000 in 40 years? Financial editor Jean Chatzky shares smart advice on how to invest and cut back on unnecessary spending.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

There are a million reasons most 20-somethings don't put saving at the top of their lists, and many of them are completely understandable. For starters, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average college graduate has $19,000 of debt — not including credit cards. The pay at most entry-level jobs barely covers fixed expenses like rent, insurance and utilities. And the things we typically save for — retirement, medical emergencies and that first home — seem as if they're light-years away. But the benefits of saving early and often are undeniably huge. You hear it from your parents, from your human resources department and from personal-finance gurus like me. You probably even understand it. It's finding the money that poses a problem.So you have to look harder, and perhaps make a cut here or there. Pack your lunch. Take the bus and save on gas. Basically, think twice about every bill you pull out of your wallet — and where it's going. And just like that, you've scrounged up an extra few dollars a day, an extra $100 a month. Invest that each month starting when you're 25, and you'll have a cool $349,000 in 40 years. That's because one of the biggest perks of starting early is that you can actually put less away each month. That $349,000 assumes that you never up your contributions. But as your income climbs, the contributions should, too, adding to that pile of cash. Soon enough, you'll be able to bank on retiring with a million dollars in your account. Sound like something you could get into? Here's how to get the ball rolling. Split your focusDebt can be a pretty heavy weight on your shoulders, and it usually makes sense, both financially and emotionally, to eliminate it as fast as possible. But student loans are relatively cheap debt, meaning you can stretch them out over time and pay them off slowly. Do that, and you'll have money left over to start an emergency savings account. "You need to divide your time between debt and savings. If you neglect the savings, you put yourself further into the hole," says Brian T. Jones, author of "Getting Started: The Financial Guide for a Younger Generation" (Larstan Publishing, 2006). If you don't have liquid savings to fall back on when your car breaks down or your pet needs to see the vet, those bills are going to go on a credit card. That doesn't mean you should stash emergency cash in a jar or under your mattress. Your best bet is to put it into an online savings account, which tends to yield more interest than what's offered by your local bank. Check out to find some of the best deals out there. Just try itMany companies have switched to a system of automatic enrollment when it comes to their 401(k) programs, meaning that when you fill out your new-employee paperwork, the default option is to participate. You can still opt out, but why not give it a go for a month or two and see how it suits your budget? "Most people think of this as running a marathon, not a sprint, so it's OK to pace yourself and do a little bit at a time," says Jones. If you allow your employer to invest a small percentage of your paycheck each month, you very likely won't even notice it's gone — particularly because you're in the throes of adjusting to a new salary anyway. Plus, there's a good chance your company will match a portion of your contributions. Who doesn't like free money?Consider an IRAIf your company doesn't have a 401(k) program, you can still go it alone — you just won't get those matching dollars. A Roth IRA is a great option for younger investors. For starters, most probably meet the eligibility requirements when it comes to income (less than $110,000 for singles, and less than $160,000 for married people filing a joint tax return). But the Roth is also a bit more lax as far as withdrawals. "You can take out up to $10,000 to buy your first house, and you can use the money for education costs. You don't have that kind of flexibility with the traditional IRA," explains Mark Bruno, author of "Save Now or Die Trying" (Wiley, 2007). Once you've opened your Roth IRA, put it on autopilot so a certain amount is transferred from your checking account each month. Not only will it make saving the money a no-brainer, but many financial institutions will also lower their minimum initial investment if you sign up for an automatic contribution plan. Make it easy on yourself
You don't have to know the ins and outs of the market to be a good investor. For the most part, it's best to be hands-off. Bruno suggests something called life-cycle retirement funds, which take most of the work off your hands. "They are basically one-stop-shopping funds, because they've got exposure to stocks and bonds," he says. At the start, the emphasis will be on stocks, because they're risky and you have more time to make up for any losses. As you creep toward retirement age, they'll rebalance to focus on bonds and play it safe. All you have to do is pick the fund with the date closest to the year you plan to retire.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for “Life” magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .