Ask Brianna: How do my finances compare with my peers'?

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FILE - This April 2017 file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Brianna McGurran, a columnist for personal finance website NerdWallet.com. "Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column for 20-somethings, or anyone else starting out. (NerdWallet via AP, File)

"Ask Brianna" is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

Q: It seems like I'm falling behind my friends financially. They take nicer vacations and drive more expensive cars than mine. How am I really doing compared with others my age?

A: It happens every morning, from Wichita to Washington: We wake up feeling good. We pick up our phones and scroll through Instagram.

We guess at the carat weight of a college friend's engagement ring and marvel at a cousin's shiny new truck. We're lifted into tornadoes of jealousy over photos of a friend's puppy. We puzzle over how they afford it.

But this social media highlight reel leaves a lot out.

"You don't find people posting about missing a rent payment," says Doug Amis, a certified financial planner and president at Cardinal Retirement Planning, Inc. in Cary, North Carolina.

KNOW WHERE YOU REALLY STAND

If you're under 35, here's how your peers are really doing, according to the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances :

The median income for families with a head of household under 35 was $40,500 in 2016. Nearly half of families under 35 had credit card balances, with median debt of $1,400 per family. About 42 percent of families under 35 had retirement accounts, and their median value was $12,300.

Lastly, about 45 percent of families with a head of household under 35 had education debt. The median amount was $18,500 per family, but the amount varies widely by income level and highest degree attained.

FOLLOW RULES OF THUMB, NOT INSTAGRAM

You won't find a real answer to how you're doing in a Federal Reserve survey or a social media feed.

You will find it by measuring yourself against rules of thumb, refined over decades and endorsed by financial pros, that point the way toward true financial health. Start with these:

—Do you have an emergency fund of at least $500? It should eventually include three to six months of basic expenses.

—Are you paying down high-interest debt, like credit cards and personal loans? That should come before attacking lower-interest debt like student loans.

—Do you spend less than you earn? A budget based on the 50/30/20 rule can help: You'll spend no more than 50 percent of after-tax income on necessities, no more than 30 percent on wants and at least 20 percent on savings and debt repayment.

—Do you follow the 28/36 rule? Lenders use this to qualify you for a mortgage, but Amis suggests it's also a helpful way to assess cash flow even if you're years from buying a home. Housing costs should be less than 28 percent of your pretax income. With other debt payments, like credit card, car or student loan bills, the total should come under 36 percent of pretax income.

—Do you save for retirement? Socking away 10 to 15 percent of your pretax income is the goal.

These guidelines are aspirational. But your progress toward them is a better measure of whether your money is working for you than surveys or Instagram. In the end, your financial well-being boils down to whether you can meet your basic needs today, plan for a better tomorrow and enjoy life as you go.

SET YOUR OWN GOALS

While these best-case scenarios might not seem feasible right now, don't wait to start saving until you can set aside the amount you feel you're supposed to, says Emily Guy Birken, author of "End Financial Stress Now ." For instance, save even 1 percent of your income for retirement if that's all you can afford. Increase the amount by 1 percent every six months as you get accustomed to having less in your paycheck — or at least whenever you get a raise.

And most importantly, set your own goals — when to buy a house, say, or how quickly to pay off student loans — based on what you value most. While some friends may take fancy vacations, they may also have massive credit card debt you don't know about.

Besides, Birken says, "Would you really choose to have all of their problems, and have all of their foibles, flaws and issues, just because they've got one thing you don't have?"

___________________________________________________

This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Brianna McGurran is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: Score your financial health

https://nerd.me/financial-health-quiz

Federal Reserve Board: Changes in U.S. family finances from 2013 to 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances

https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/scf17.pdf

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