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Financial Firsts: When Do People Take Their First Financial Steps?

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Financial First Steps: It’s About Getting Informed

Most Americans start making important financial decisions, such as getting a credit card, at a relatively early age. In fact, a new AARP survey finds many young adults take these steps without being well informed, triggering lasting consequences.

More than six in 10 adults (63%) got their first credit card before they turned 25, including 41% who did so before age 21, according to the national survey conducted in August of adults age 25 and older. When considering the decision to get a credit card, 41% turned to a family member or a friend, most often a parent (26%) for information and advice.  Yet 36% report they reached the decision about applying for credit entirely on their own.

Regarding banking, 85% opened a checking account before the age of 25, including 70% who did so before age 21.  About 30% of women and 21% of men had their own checking accounts before they turned 18.  About three in ten (29%) made decisions about their first checking accounts independent of any outside advice. Those who did consult with others most often asked family and friends (58%), including 47% who turned to parents.

Education regarding both credit terms and leasing agreements may be especially useful for young adults as they begin to establish themselves financially. The survey reveals 80% first paid rent for a place to live before age 25 and more than half (58%) bought their first home before the age of 35.  

The vast majority of those who have saved for retirement started doing so at work; employers are the most common source of information about retirement savings, AARP finds. Half of Americans (50%) started saving for retirement before age 35, and three-quarters  (73%) who have socked away money for later in life started in an account provided through their employer such as a 401(k). Men were less likely to start retirement saving through their employer (65%) compared to women (80%). Just 23% of retirement savers started their saving in an account that they set up on their own, such as an IRA.

The survey results underscore the need for employers to remain involved in the retirement savings process and communicate effectively about the choices available to workers. 

The survey was conducted August 16-20, 2018 online and by phone using NORC’s Amerispeak Panel. The sample included 946 adults age 25+ and the data are weighted by age, gender, education, race, ethnicity, and census division against the February 2018 Current Population Survey to reflect the U.S. population. For more information contact S. Kathi Brown at For media inquiries contact


Suggested Citation:

Brown, S. Kathi. Financial Firsts: When Do People Take Their First Financial Steps? Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2018.

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