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How to Be Financially Savvy and Have Fun in Your 20s

Source: Ester Zepeda

For many young adults in their early 20s, balancing finances and a social life can be a juggling act. With student loan payments, rent, insurance and more, it's no surprise that many 20-somethings push off saving and investing money because they don't know where to start or don't have time for it.

Finding that balance doesn't have to be hard — or time-consuming. You just have to be smart about it. A few steps now can go a long way to ensure that you can be financially secure, prepared for unexpected expenses and still have fun along the way.

The first step many experts recommend: Take inventory.

"Even before you decide what you want to do, or where you want to be in the future, get a really good sense of what your finances look like today," said Shweta Lawande, a certified financial planner at Francis Financial.

That can be as simple as jotting down what you earn, what your essential expenses are (rent, utilities, car payment, etc.), how much you are currently spending on fun things like shopping and going out, and how much you are saving.

One simple way to look at it is the 50-30-20 rule: Spend 50% of your income on needs, 30% on wants (fun) and save 20%. Consider how your math stacks up against that rule and see if you need to make some adjustments.

Lawande recommends organizing what you have in your checking and savings accounts (or any investment accounts) first.

If you're not saving anything right now – you need to start immediately. You never know when unexpected expenses will come up. And, even if you can't afford to save a lot right now – a little each month will go a long way over time. And, if you automate it — have $50, $100 or $200 taken out of your account each month and put into a savings account of some kind — you will never miss it.

"The number one thing I tell everyone to do is automate, automate, automate," Lawande said.

And it's not just savings. Lawande suggests automating as many things as you can, including minimum credit card payments and money in a retirement savings account. That will help you really see how much you have left over at the end of every month for fun – and it will help keep you from spending too much on fun and then winding up in a bind later on.

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Once you get those core steps down, decide what your financial goals are.

"Having fun is definitely a reason we are all out there earning money," said Lauryn Williams, owner and founder of Worth Winning, a financial planning company that helps young professionals organize their finances. "But what we are ultimately trying to achieve with the dollars that we are earning is an important thing to nail down."

Williams suggests deciding the top three things you want to accomplish with your money. Whether it is paying off student loans or traveling to Europe, decide the most important places you want your money to go and then design a budget around it.

Lawande suggests making a step-by-step plan for how your current financial situation can lead to your future financial goal. Small steps are a lot easier to achieve than trying to tackle the whole goal all at once. So, if you want to take that Europe trip, start setting aside a little money for it each month.

Once you figure out how much you are setting aside for savings, you need figure out where you want to put it. You might put it in a savings account to start — just to get it going. Then, you can figure out a few places where you can maximize the return on that money — get that money making more money for you, while you're out having fun or running around Europe!

Maddy Valente, a 24-year-old account lead at All Points public relations firm, has many long-term investment accounts. She consistently puts money into a high-yield savings account, a Roth IRA account, a brokerage account and real estate investments. She tracks her monthly bills and savings – but also sets aside money each week to spend time with friends.

Maddy Valente, an account lead at All Points, a public relations firm.
Source: Nicole Odziewa
Maddy Valente, an account lead at All Points, a public relations firm.

"I actually use Mint, and it keeps track of all my accounts, and it keeps track of my investments," Valente said. "On the flip side of things, I always try to save a day each week, minimum, to go out with my friends. Grab dinner, hang out or whatever it might be, I leave a little bit of room in my budget for that day."

Valentina Zarins, an international student at Sarah Lawrence College, diversifies her income in order to balance saving money and having a social life while in college. She earns money through a variety of side gigs such as modeling, being an extra in film and television shows and participating in focus groups. With a diversified income, Zarins said she is able to make as much money, or as little money, as she needs at any specific time.

"By trying to get more jobs, I've reduced the time that I have to spend in each of them," Zarins said. "I find it insane how, in America, there's a lot of ways to make money."

Jorge Zepeda, a student at California State University, Fullerton, is just 21 years old but his priority is investing his money. He just started investing in the stock market two years ago but has seen his initial $2,000 investment grow to $60,000 by gradually investing more money over time and looking for growth opportunities.

When he first started investing, Zepeda mainly put his money into index funds, which are stocks and bonds that reflect the performance of the market and don't require investors to actively manage the money. Over time though, Zepeda started actively managing his investments and put money into high-growth stocks like Tesla, where his return was 7 times his investment.

Zepeda admits investing is more of a time commitment than some other strategies like just automating your savings.

"It's definitely a lifestyle, but it's worth it," Zepeda said. "You see people going to different places, going out drinking or ordering bottle services, but what are they going to have to show for it 10 years from now?"

He does set aside some money for fun things like eating out, which he enjoys.

Williams said people in their 20s need to remember that having fun while being financially savvy takes sacrifices. If you live in cheaper housing or drive an inexpensive car, then you can have more money to save and invest while also having fun.

"We have to decide: What are the things that are the most important?" Williams said. "If you get a jalopy car or live further out of town than you would like, then you'll have more money to go into town on the weekends and have fun with your friends."

CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Mikaela Cohen is a graduate student at the University of Georgia, pursuing her master's degree in journalism. Her mentor is Patricia Martell. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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