The 3 biggest money decisions you'll ever make

Some factors that influence your financial success are beyond your control.

Older people tend to be richer than younger people. White U.S. households, on average, have many times the wealth of black or Hispanic households. Those born into the top or bottom economic strata typically stay there.

But the decisions you make about three key areas in your life can have an outsize impact on whether you're able to build financial stability.

How much education you get. People with more education tend to earn more money and accumulate more wealth. The gap between the most educated Americans and everyone else has widened considerably in recent years.

Median annual incomes for families headed by people 40 and older - when most have completed their educations - generally declined from 1989 to 2013, according to a study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The exception was for people with graduate or professional degrees, whose median income in that time grew 4 percent, to $116,265. (The numbers were adjusted for inflation.)

Changes in wealth were even more dramatic in that 24-year period. By 2013, median net worth:

Soared 45 percent, to $689,100, for those with graduate or professional degrees.

Rose 3 percent, to $273,488, for those with two- or four-year degrees.

Dropped 36 percent, to $95,072, for those with high school diplomas.

Fell 44 percent, to $37,766, for those who didn't finish high school.

Not every degree pays off in higher earnings, and some well-paid jobs don't require advanced degrees. If you're considering getting more education, the U.S. Department of Labor (https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/) has helpful information, including which master's degrees pay off best, certificate programs that lead to good jobs, and data on the fastest-growing occupations.

Whether you marry (and stay married). People who marry and don't divorce have about double the net worth of their peers who never wed, according to Jay Zagorsky, an economist and research scientist at Ohio State University, who studied the financial patterns of thousands of adults born from 1957 to 1964.

That means married couples typically have about four times the wealth of households headed by single people. Single people's wealth typically rises slowly over time, while that of couples usually spikes after marriage.

Zagorsky says being married "is a wonderful way to increase your net worth," but warns against getting hitched with the sole idea of getting rich. "If you decide you've made a mistake, divorce is going to destroy your wealth," he says.

The net worth of people who divorce starts to plunge four years before the split, Zagorsky's research published in 2005 found. Ten years later, divorced men and women are still worse off financially than the never-marrieds.

Whether you own a home. The decision that can have the biggest impact on your wealth is whether you buy a home - and hang on to it. The wealth gap between homeowners and renters is enormous. The median net worth of the nation's homeowners in 2013 was $195,400, compared with $5,400 for those who don't own, according to a Federal Reserve Board survey. Rising home values can build wealth, of course, but so does the forced savings aspect of owning a home.

Accumulating down payments and paying down mortgages will increase homeowners' equity - and thus their wealth. Renters could build similar wealth, or even more, if they invested in the stock market the equivalent of a down payment plus any savings from renting instead of owning. Few do so.

The relationship between homeownership and wealth held true even in the years surrounding the mortgage crisis, which wiped out trillions of dollars in home equity and caused more than four million Americans to lose their homes, researchers for Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies found.

Homeownership resulted in somewhat less wealth for minority and lower-income families, but the "gains are on average still positive and substantial," the researchers wrote. Unlike marriage, homeownership typically doesn't leave people worse off if it can't be sustained. Those who rent again are generally left with about the same amount of wealth they had before buying the house.