Life has a lot of trial and error to it so it's good to know that building wealth comes with instructions.
The rules are fixed, except those that have anything to do with super.
More frustrating is that the earlier you invest or protect yourself financially, the better - but that's when cash is at its tightest.
The good news is that debt isn't always bad, a mortgage can be your best friend if treated the right way, and super isn't the be-all and end-all for a comfortable retirement.
So what should you be doing when?
Turns out not that much.
There's no rush even to pay off that HECS debt, you'll be pleased to hear.
Advisers say it's a cheap form of credit from the government - you won't get that again - so it's better to use any spare cash on other things, preferably an investment or savings.
Besides, the discount for paying off amounts of $500 or more has been halved to 10 per cent.
''Paying HECS off faster only means you're going to have to wait longer to build up a deposit for a home,'' says the managing director of BFG Financial Services, Suzanne Haddan.
Still, you're not going to get off that lightly.
This is the age to get life, income protection and health insurance because you'll pay a lot more later when you might really need it.
''You're at your healthiest now and they can't take the umbrella away when it's raining once [insurance] is in place,'' Haddan says.
She says a neat trick is to do your insurance through your super fund, so your employer's contribution is paying for it, leaving more cash for you. But salary sacrificing into super is for the oldies, although there is a generous scheme if you earn less than $31,920 a year, whereby the government pays up to $500 into your fund if you contribute $1000 in a year.
But if you do have spare cash, remember the golden rule of compound interest: the earlier you invest, the longer your money is working for you and the better it'll do.
And you should aim to buy a property - if not to live in, then at least as an investment.
The best way to save for a home is a first-home saver account, whereby the government puts in 17 per cent (capped at $1020 a year) and earnings are taxed at a flat 15 per cent.
Both partners can have their own accounts, doubling the amount the government is handing over. The only catch is they come with strict rules, such as not being able to touch the money for a few years, and aren't offered by all the big banks.
You can find a list of the relevant providers at apra.gov.au.
These are the start of what will become the ''debt years''.
Again, there's no need to put more into super but you need to find out which investment option of your fund you're in.
This is no time to be too conservative. If you haven't ticked an option you'll be bundled into the balanced fund, which is designed for 60-year-olds.
Go for growth - that is, mostly shares - rather than cash or bonds. The market rises over time so there are plenty of years to recover from any mishaps. Every five years it tends to do it tough.
You'll probably have a mortgage and have started a family.
''The biggest issue is budgeting. That's absolutely critical,'' Haddan says.
''You can't make money out of thin air, so sit down and do a budget.''
Then see if you can pay off the mortgage faster.
Using the offset account of your mortgage is a tax-free way of saving for the kids' school fees, too.
Make fortnightly repayments (which add up to one extra payment a year) and lump sums to get it down and when the school fees are due, draw down the mortgage again.
Education funds are another option, although they tend to be inflexible and come with fees.
The 40s are when you need to give thought to your retirement nest egg.
By all means build up your super by salary sacrificing - you're only allowed $25,000 a year, including your employer's 9 per cent compulsory contribution - ''but it shouldn't be your only strategy because the rules change,'' Haddan says. The compulsory contribution will increase to 9.25 per cent after July 1.
Negative gearing - into property, shares or both - is an alternative worth considering.
Debt that's tax deductible and invested in a growing, income-earning asset can help build a nest egg.
FIFTIES AND OVER
The 50s are when you're at the peak of your earnings and need to start planning your retirement.
Salary sacrifice to the max and pay off any non-deductible debts.
Also review your insurance - apart from health cover, you might not need it any more.
''To hit retirement with no debt is a badge of honour,'' says Mike Ingham of Obelisk Advisors.
''And it gives psychological relief. But depending on your circumstances, some tax-deductible debt can be fine.''
Prepare for retirement by winding down growth investments such as shares and your super option. This should not be held off until your last working year or, worse, the day after you retire.
''Make adjustments to your super and investments at least five years before retirement,'' Haddan says.
''That way if there's a major market crash it doesn't matter because you're going to hold more cash anyway.''
Jess Hill enjoyed maths in high school, started a liberal-arts degree, and now owns an online maths-tutoring business.
''Stuffing around is quite typical of my generation,'' Jess says. ''Somebody said to me 'do what you're good at', but I had no idea maths would be useful."
In fact, she had been tutoring maths to pay her way through university.
"I was getting good feedback from parents, and people were saying, why not do teaching? It's terrible to say, but I thought the pay's so bad and you quickly burn out."
But as she kept going over past exam papers, she noticed students "were getting stuck on the same parts of the question".
It made more sense to record the answers and put them online, so she started hsctutorials.com.au. A year on, it is breaking even.
The 26-year-old says she ''kind of enjoyed the idea of working for myself'', another characteristic of many people about her age.
Although the business has no debt because her father, a software engineer, was able to program her website, Jess has a $25,000 HECS debt.
Renting with a flatmate, she'd like to buy a property and rent some or all of it out.
But even with low rates, Jess says she won't be buying a property soon.
''I'd want to pay the HECS off first. And property is so expensive and you only need a couple of months where things don't go according to plan and you're in trouble."
She has started saving, and at the beginning of each month calculates her food and transport bills, and moves that amount over to her transaction account.
"Two weeks later, after those bills have come out and it's getting close, I'll just pull back and stay at home at the weekend or not buy that extra thing,'' she says. ''You have to be good at a budget when you run your own company."
But forget super.
"I know it's important and I'm putting it off, but that stuff is for the 30s."
Building solid foundations for the future
Your 30s are when many of the big financial decisions loom: mortgage, family and even first thoughts about retirement planning.
At 38, Matt Richardson has chosen to invest in himself - along with three investment properties.
"I'm interested in creating my own wealth. Working nine to five for somebody isn't a way to get rich quick," Matt says.
He runs his own IT project-management business, Partnered Business Solutions, and since he began investing in his late 20s, has three investment properties, all of which he's renovated.
He's also just bought a home in Melbourne's Blackburn that he's renting out. In the future, he plans to knock it down and rebuild. That gives him several income-producing mortgages on the go, with another one planned next year.
Matt uses an adviser from mortgage broker Smartline. ''That way I don't have to deal with the banks, which isn't pleasant - you can drown in their paperwork," he says.
A trust has been set up for his eight-year-old son, which has already grown to $35,000.
Matt is also savvy about super.
"I think about retirement every day I drive into work. But my definition of retirement is to be working three days a week at 60."
In the meantime, he contributes to an industry super fund. This is tax deductible because he's self-employed, although he can't put in more than $25,000 a year to get the concession.
He expects his super to reach $100,000 this year and will look at setting up his own fund.
Mature investments for comfortable retirement
Long before super was made compulsory or, in some cases, women were even offered membership in a super fund, Karen Volpato was making contributions.
Call it an occupational hazard because, at 53, she's just retired after working for super funds for the past 30 years.
That probably also explains why the constant rule changes haven't fazed her.
Unlike most women her age, Volpato was making extra voluntary contributions, and built Australia's first website devoted to women and super, womenandsuper.com.au.
At just 23, she was the corporate lawyer of a small bank when the chief executive asked her to set up the house fund. The chief executive gave her a form to sign, pointing out she needed to join the fund to run it.
Today Volpato says: "I'm very glad that I did join, even though I'm not old enough yet to access my super. It's fab to know it's there."
But having officially retired, "a more hedonistic life doesn't seem to be happening yet''. ''Even one hedonistic week would be good, but I've been approached to do projects," says Volpato, who also won one of 10 government scholarships granted to women to undertake training for super fund directorships.
"Leaving full-time work also really highlights how important your friendships and networks are - to bounce ideas around, to have fun, and to feel an even more integrated part of your local community."
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