First things first: a few financial basics
1. Create a financial calendar. If you don’t trust yourself to remember to pay your quarterly taxes or periodically pull a credit report, think about setting appointment reminders for these important money to-dos in the same way that you would an annual doctor’s visit or car tune-up. A good place to start? Our ultimate financial calendar.
2. Check your interest rate. Q: Which loan should you pay off first? A: The one with the highest interest rate. Q: Which savings account should you open? A: The one with the best interest rate. Q: Why does credit card debt give us such a headache? A: Blame it on the compound interest rate. Bottom line here: Paying attention to interest rates will help inform which debt or savings commitments you should focus on.
3. Track your net worth. Your net worth — the difference between your assets and debt — is the big-picture number that can tell you where you stand financially. Keep an eye on it, and it can help keep you apprised of the progress you’re making toward your financial goals — or warn you if you’re backsliding. We explain more here.
How to … budget like a pro
4. Set a budget. Period. This is the starting point for every other goal in your life. Here’s a checklist for building a knockout personal budget.
5. Consider an all-cash diet. If you’re consistently overspending, this will break you out of that rut. Don’t believe us? The cash diet changed the lives of these three people. And when this woman went all cash, she realized that it wasn’t as scary as she thought. Really.
6. Take a daily Money Minute. This one comes straight from LearnVest Founder and C.E.O. Alexa von Tobel, who swears by setting aside one minute each day to check on her financial transactions. This 60-second act helps identify problems immediately, keep track of goal progress — and set your spending tone for the rest of the day!
7. Allocate at least 20% of your income toward financial priorities. By priorities, we mean building up emergency savings, paying off debt and padding your retirement nest egg. Seem like a big percentage? Here’s why we love this number.
8. Budget about 30% of your income for lifestyle spending. This includes movies, restaurants and happy hours — basically, anything that doesn’t cover basic necessities. By abiding by the 30% rule, you can save and splurge at the same time.
How to … get money motivated
9. Draft a financial vision board. You need motivation to start adopting better money habits, and if you craft a vision board, it can help remind you to stay on track with your financial goals. Here’s how to create one.
10. Set specific financial goals. Use numbers and dates, not just words, to describe what you want to accomplish with your money. How much debt do you want to pay off — and when? How much do you want saved, and by what date? It’s a method that helped this couple pay down $40,000 of debt.
11. Adopt a spending mantra. Pick out a positive phrase that acts like a mini rule of thumb for how you spend. For example, ask yourself, “Is this [fill in purchase here] better than Bali next year?” or “I only charge items that are $30 or more.” Read more about this and nine other good money habits.
12. Love yourself. Sure, it may sound corny, but it works. Just ask this author, who paid off $20,000 of debt after realizing that taking control of her finances was a way to value herself.
13. Make bite-size money goals. One study showed that the farther away a goal seems, and the less sure we are about when it will happen, the more likely we are to give up. So in addition to focusing on big goals (say, buying a home), aim to also set smaller, short-term goals along the way that will reap quicker results — like saving some money each week in order to take a trip in six months.
14. Banish toxic money thoughts. Hello, self-fulfilling prophecy! If you psych yourself out before you even get started (“I’ll never pay off debt!”), then you’re setting yourself up to fail. So don’t be a fatalist, and switch to more positive mantras.
15. Get your finances – and body — in shape. One study showed that more exercise leads to higher pay because you tend to be more productive after you’ve worked up a sweat. So taking up running may help amp up your financial game. Plus, all the habits and discipline associated with, say, running marathons are also associated with managing your money well.
16. Learn how to savor. Savoring means appreciating what you have now, instead of trying to get happy by acquiring more things. Check out these five tips for making savoring work for you.
17. Get a money buddy. According to one study, friends with similar traits can pick up good habits from each other — and it applies to your money too! So try gathering several friends for regular money lunches, like this woman did, paying off $35,000 of debt in the process.
How to … amp up your earning potential
18. When negotiating a salary, get the company to name figures first. If you give away your current pay from the get-go, you have no way to know if you’re lowballing or highballing. Getting a potential employer to name the figure first means you can then push them higher. Learn more in Negotiating 101.
19. You can negotiate more than just your salary. Your work hours, official title, maternity and paternity leave, vacation time and which projects you’ll work on could all be things that a future employer may be willing to negotiate. Read on for tips.
20. Don’t assume you don’t qualify for unemployment. At the height of the recent recession, only half of people eligible for unemployment applied for it. Learn the rules of unemployment.
21. Make salary discussions at your current job about your company’s needs. Your employer doesn’t care whether you want more money for a bigger house — they care about keeping a good employee. So when negotiating pay or asking for a raise, emphasize the incredible value you bring to the company.
How to … keep debt at bay
22. Start with small debts to help you conquer the big ones. If you have a mountain of debt, studies show paying off the little debts can give you the confidence to tackle the larger ones. You know, like paying off a modest balance on a department store card before getting to the card with the bigger balance. Of course, we generally recommend chipping away at the card with the highest interest rate, but sometimes psyching yourself up is worth it.
23. Don’t ever cosign a loan. No, really — don’t. If the borrower — your friend, family member, significant other, whatever — misses payments, your credit score will take a plunge, the lender can come after you for the money, and it will likely destroy your relationship. Plus, if the bank is requiring a cosigner, the bank doesn’t trust the person to make the payments. Don’t believe us? Read this cosigning horror story. Bonus tip for parents: If you’re asked to cosign a private loan for your college student, first check to see if your kid has maxed out federal loan, grant and scholarship options.
24. Every student should fill out the FAFSA! Even if you don’t think that you’ll get aid, it doesn’t hurt to fill out the form. That’s because 1.3 million students last year missed out on a Pell Grant — which doesn’t need to be paid back! — because they didn’t fill out the form.
25. Always choose federal student loans over private loans. Federal loans have flexible terms of payment if your employment dreams don’t exactly go according to plan after college. Plus, federal loans typically have better interest rates. So be smart about the loans you take out — and try to avoid these other big student loan mistakes.
26. If you’re struggling with federal student loan payments, investigate repayment options. Just call up your lender and ask whether they offer graduated, extended or income-based plans. Read more about these options here.
27. Opt for mortgage payments below 28% of your monthly income. That’s a general rule of thumb when you’re trying to figure out how much house you can afford. Learn more about this number here. And then indulge in some voyeurism and see what other couples can afford.
How to … shop smart
28. Evaluate purchases by cost per use. It may seem more financially responsible to buy a trendy $5 shirt than a basic $30 shirt — but only if you ignore the quality factor! When deciding if the latest tech toy, kitchen gadget or apparel item is worth it, factor in how many times you’ll use it or wear it. See some examples. For that matter, you can even consider cost per hour for experiences!
29. Spend money on experiences instead of things. Putting your money toward purchases like a concert or a picnic in the park — instead of spending it on pricey material objects — gives you more happiness for your buck. The research says so.
30. Shop solo. Ever have a friend declare, “That’s so cute on you! You have to get it!” for everything you try on? Save your socializing for a walk in the park, instead of a stroll through the mall, and treat shopping with serious attention. And read on for four other tips for avoiding contagious bad money behaviors.
31. Spend on the real you — not the imaginary you. It’s easy to fall into the trap of buying for the person you want to be: chef, professional stylist, triathlete. So follow these six steps to stop overspending for your fantasy life.
32. Ditch the overdraft protection. It sounds nice, but it’s actually a way for banks to tempt you to overspend, and then charge a fee for the privilege. Find out more about overdraft protection and other banking mistakes to avoid.
How to … save right for retirement
33. Start saving ASAP. Not next week. Not when you get a raise. Not next year. Today. Because money you put in your retirement fund now will have more time to grow through the power of compound growth.
34. Do everything possible not to cash out your retirement account early. Dipping into your retirement funds early will hurt you many times over. For starters, you’re negating all the hard work you’ve done so far saving — and you’re preventing that money from being invested. Second, you’ll be penalized for an early withdrawal, and those penalties are usually pretty hefty. Finally, you’ll get hit with a tax bill for the money you withdraw. All these factors make cashing out early a very last resort.
35. Give money to get money. The famous 401(k) match is when your employer contributes money to your retirement account. But you’ll only get that contribution if you contribute first. That’s why it’s called a match, see? Read about 401(k)s and other types of retirement accounts here.
36. When you get a raise, raise your retirement savings too. You know how you’ve always told yourself you would save more when you have more? We’re calling you out on that. Every time you get a bump in pay, the first thing you should do is up your automatic transfer to savings, and increase your retirement contributions. It’s just one step in our checklist for starting to save for retirement.
How to … best build — and track — your credit
37. Review your credit report regularly — and keep an eye on your credit score. This woman learned the hard way that a less-than-stellar credit score has the potential to cost you thousands. She only checked her credit report, which seemed fine — but didn’t get her actual credit score, which told a different story.
38. Keep your credit use below 30% of your total available credit. Otherwise known as your credit utilization rate, you calculate it by dividing the total amount on all of your credit cards by your total available credit. And if you’re using more than 30% of your available credit, it can ding your credit score. So read about the best way to pay your credit card bill — and find out if you should ask for a credit increase.
39. If you have bad credit, get a secured credit card. A secured card helps build credit like a regular card — but it won’t let you overspend. And you don’t need good credit to get one! Here’s everything you need to know about secured credit cards.
How to … get properly insured
40. Get more life insurance on top of your company’s policy. That’s because the basic policy from your employer is often far too little. Not convinced? Read how extra life insurance saved one family.
41. Get renters insurance. It, of course, covers robberies, vandalism and natural disasters, but it could also cover things like the medical bills of people who get hurt at your place, damages you cause at someone else’s home, rent if you have to stay somewhere else because of damage done to your apartment — and even stuff stolen from a storage unit. Not bad for about $30 a month! Learn more about how renters insurance can cover you.
How to … prepare for rainy (financial) days
42. Make savings part of your monthly budget. If you wait to put money aside for when you consistently have enough of a cash cushion available at the end of the month, you’ll never have money to put aside! Instead, bake monthly savings into your budget now. Read more on this and other big savings mistakes — and how to fix them.
43. Keep your savings out of your checking account. Here’s a universal truth: If you see you have money in your checking account, you will spend it. Period. The fast track to building up savings starts with opening a separate savings account, so it’s less possible to accidentally spend your vacation money on another late-night online shopping spree. Find out more basics of saving in our Savings 101 tutorial. In fact, we also recommend that you …
44. Open a savings account at a different bank than where you have your checking account. If you keep both your accounts at the same bank, it’s easy to transfer money from your savings to your checking. Way too easy. So avoid the problem — and these other money pitfalls.
45. Direct deposit is (almost) magic. Why, you ask? Because it makes you feel like the money you shuttle to your savings every month appears out of thin air — even though you know full well it comes from your paycheck. If the money you allot toward savings never lands in your checking account, you probably won’t miss it — and may even be pleasantly surprised by how much your account grows over time. Find out other ways to get your emergency fund started.
46. Consider switching to a credit union. Credit unions aren’t right for everyone, but they could be the place to go for better customer service, kinder loans and better interest rates on your savings accounts. Find out if you should make the switch.
47. There are five types of financial emergencies. Hint: A wedding isn’t one of them. Only dip into your emergency savings account if you’ve lost your job, you have a medical emergency, your car breaks down, you have emergency home expenses (like a leaky roof) or you need to travel to a funeral. Otherwise, if you can’t afford it, just say no. We explain more here.
48. You can have too much savings. It’s rare, but possible. If you have more than six months’ savings in your emergency account (nine months if you’re self-employed), and you have enough socked away for your short-term financial goals, then start thinking about investing. Here’s why.
How to … approach investing
49. Pay attention to fees. The fees you pay in your funds, also called expense ratios, can eat into your returns. Even something as seemingly low as a 1% fee will cost you in the long run. Our general recommendation is to stick with low-cost index funds.
50. Rebalance your portfolio once a year. We’re not advocates of playing the market, but you need to take a look at your brokerage account every once in a while to make sure that your investment allocations still match your greater investing goals. Here’s how to rebalance.