Follow these essential steps to simplify your personal finances and ensure a worry-free future
You shell out cash and swipe a credit card on a daily basis, but money can still be a taboo topic. “Since personal finance is not taught in most schools, most of us never learn anything about money before we dive into handling it,” says Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest, a financial planning website. And that’s a recipe for financial disaster. Follow these essential rules to make your money work for you, at any age.
Tracking your cash is the first step to getting your finances in order, says von Tobel. “Just like keeping a food diary helps you stay on track with a diet, logging your spending will help you stay on track financially,” she says. Start with a money-managing app like LearnVest. It’ll link to your bank account and give you a window into your spending. You can set up a budget to quickly see how your spending stacks up against your goals. You’d be surprised how much seemingly small charges (yes, those $2 ATM fees!) can add up.
Divide your take-home money (what’s left after taxes) into three categories, says von Tobel: essentials, lifestyle, and the future. Fifty percent of what you bring home should go toward life’s must-haves—a roof over your head, groceries, utilities, and transportation. Send 20 percent to a savings account or a retirement fund (more on that later!), and no more than 30 percent to your lifestyle budget: shopping, travel, a gym membership, and general fun. [Tweet this tip!]
Don’t ditch your a.m. coffee run habit to save cash if you look forward to it: Just as starvation diets don’t keep the weight off in the long run, cutting something you enjoy spending money on can backfire, says Sharon Kedar, author of On My Own Two Feet: A Modern Girl’s Guide to Personal Finance. Just indulge accordingly: List out the leisure items or activities you’re spending money on and cut back on the one you like (and benefit from) the least. (If you go to the gym once a week, but love running outside, you could probably cancel that membership.)
You might not be thinking about your 60s in your 20s—but you should. In fact, saving for your work-free future is one of the most important financial decisions a 20-something can make, says von Tobel. Do it right by starting with the basics. Most companies offer a 401(k) or 403(B) program. Enroll and make sure to look for a matching program—it’s essentially free money. Another option: a Roth IRA, where you put after-tax dollars. “When it comes time to retire, you can withdraw tax-free,” von Tobel says. Finally, a traditional brokerage account is a good choice once you max out your 401(k) and IRA accounts, adds Kedar.
Saving money isn’t easy: 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2013 survey by BankRate.com. But the easiest way to throw money in the piggy bank may involve an actual piggy bank. “Every time you come across a five dollar bill in your wallet, throw it in a jar instead of spending it,” von Tobel says. [Tweet this tip!] When you think you need a new outfit or the air conditioning gives out, you’ll have a little extra cash to lessen the blow.
Not physically seeing where your money is going (ahem, credit cards) can be toxic for saving plans. But sometimes it helps: Automating your saving can mean major moolah over time. Set up a monthly transfer of a portion of 15 to 20 percent of every paycheck, von Tobel suggests.
Studies have shown time and time again that money leads to fights in marriages, divorce, and general life stress. But having a fight over money is better than having no money at all—and better than never broaching the topic, says Kedar. You should know each other’s credit scores, salaries, and any debts. (For a smooth conversation, try this financial compatibility quiz from Kedar’s book Get Financially Naked to find out how you and your partner’s spending philosophies align.)
“If you ever need to leave your job, your home, or your partner, for whatever reason, this will put you in a position of power,” says Kedar. Over time, you should aim to have enough for three to six months’ worth of living expenses.
Fess up: Do you know your credit score? Besides being informed about the status of your credit, knowing your number will also keep you in the loop of any superfluous cards open in your name (like that random Banana Republic card). [Tweet this!] If you find your score is on the low side (you should aim for above 760), improve it by first paying down your credit card debt, even it’s $50 a month, says von Tobel. Keep your score high by never missing a payment or bill, and if you have made late payments, call your creditor to ask to have the late fees removed. If the lender agrees, your credit score will likely rise.
It’s best to have one credit card you use and one for emergencies, says Kedar, as well as a debit card for withdrawing cash. Fewer cards can help you stick to a budget, since the more cards you have, the more money you’re likely to spend, she says.
If you’re on a cancelling spree, make sure to keep your oldest card around. The further back your credit history goes, the better your score, says Kedar.
Long-term (five or more years), the stock market has historically performed well, says Kedar. So if you have money to invest (it should be less than 5 percent of your net worth and money you won’t need within the next five years), go for it. No idea where to start? Kedar suggests investing in an index fund, such as the S&P 500, which is essentially a basket of stocks that gives you a small piece of ownership in the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S.
Don’t buy a house unless you’ll live there for at least five years. This timeframe minimizes the chance your house value goes down, so you won’t lose money when you sell, says Kedar. Make sure you have enough money for a 20-percent down payment. And keep your mortgage simple: Kedar recommends a 30-year fixed mortgage.
It costs about 3 percent of a home’s purchase price to maintain a house annually, says Kedar. So if you spend $200,000 on a house, expect to pay about $6,000 a year in maintenance.
Writing your landlord a check every month isn’t necessarily throwing money away, says Kedar. In fact, it can be a smart way to save if you don’t have enough to buy. Just keep in mind that housing-related expenses should amount to only 25 percent of your income. (If you make $50,000, aim to spend around $12,500 on your yearly rent.)
Most women don’t, says Kedar. Studies have found that 20 percent of adult women say they never negotiate salary at all, even when it may be appropriate. And even if women do negotiate, they don’t ask for much: 30 percent less than male peers. Prepping for the big meeting? Make sure to highlight your contributions and commitment to your company, suggests Kedar.