Numbers and I don’t get along. I’ve always cringed at math in any form—third-grade multiplication and bank statements alike. Now more than ever, though, I know I need to master money management. We should embrace our youth and relish life, but not at the expense (literally) of our financial futures.
While it’s natural to associate money-saving with retirement, it’s not the right mindset. Wealth manager David Mirabito advises his clients: “Don’t think of retirement as the finish line. Financial independence means being able to generate enough wealth to cover your expenses without relying on income from your job.”
Healthy financial habits might not be enjoyable, but they will help you live without financial regret. It doesn’t take an accountant’s acumen to spend and save responsibly. Despite my fear of numbers, even I have a grasp on my finances. You can, too. Here are fifteen ways you can make your pennies profitable, starting now.
01. Know your monthly costs.
Certified Financial Planner David Blaylock recommends outlining your monthly fixed expenses, monthly variable costs, and net income. I categorize my known fixed expenses and subtract them from my monthly income. My primary spending categories are rent, food, clothing, fitness, entertainment, and utilities. When possible, I give myself a reasonable “fun fund.” The remaining goes straight to savings (more on that later!).
02. Hold yourself to a set spending budget.
Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly—whatever works for you. I have a monthly budget. Knowing what funds are coming in and out lets you set a realistic budget to avoid overspending on anything you can’t afford. Once you start watching your wallet closely, you may be surprised—and possibly alarmed—at what you discover about your spending habits. Worry not! Any shocking realizations will help you fine-tune your spending.
03. Save each month.
Tuck away a consistent amount each month specifically for the long term. Create a savings account to earn interest. It’s standard to save 10 to 15 percent of your income starting in your twenties. Before you conclude that you don’t have enough to save, think about what you can cut out, such as ordering takeout or salon visits.
You can personalize your savings benchmark based on your preferred retirement age and lifestyle using tools such as Fidelity’s savings tracker. Turned off by the word “retirement”? Call it your happiness fund, living-well-always fund, or global-travel fund—whatever inspires you to save up for it.
04. Fund your emergency account.
Calculate your monthly expenses (rent, utilities, food, etc.), and save a portion of your paycheck in an emergency fund that you can dip into in case you lose your job, get into an accident, or otherwise have an unfortunate event. Finance expert Dave Ramsey notes, “A fully funded emergency fund is three to six months of your personal expenses set aside in a savings or money market account.”
05. Pay off your credit cards.
A 2015 credit card debt study published by CardHub last month reports that “the average household with credit card debt now owes $7,879—the highest amount since the Great Recession.” It may feel overwhelming to think about how you’re going to pay off your plastic, but dedicate yourself to making incremental progress toward your credit cards without adding to your debt. “When you ditch the small debt first, you see progress,” Ramsey notes. The best way to get rid of debt is in small steps, which Ramsey calls the Debt Snowball Method. The idea is to pay off your smallest debt first, and then work your way up. The satisfaction of paying off a bill in full motivates you to continue this habit with your larger debts.
06. Dive into a 401(k) or an IRA.
Heard the terms 401(k) or IRA tossed around? A 401(k) is a tax-deferred retirement plan (read: You don’t get taxed on contributions made today) sponsored by employers. Many employers also match your contributions up to a certain amount, so don’t miss out on free funds. If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement program, open up an Individual Retirement Account, which is also a tax-deferred account, so your savings go in pre-tax and grow tax-free until retirement.
07. Negotiate your salary.
One of the biggest changes you can make financially is to have more coming in. Because most of us are just starting out in our careers, it’s natural to undermine our worth when it comes to salary. Don’t shrink from fighting for the salary you deserve. What’s the worst that could happen? Your boss shuts you down but realizes you’re not a pushover. Your prospective employer says no, and you accept the original offer or look elsewhere.
I’ve done this twice and, luckily, was successful both times. I made a case to one of my bosses for a raise and negotiated a higher salary when offered a new job. Admittedly, I was scared! Just remember that it’s business as usual. People negotiate all the time. You’re worth the ask.
08. Learn spending discipline.
Spend less than you can afford—even less than your budget allows. Mirabito encourages his millennial clients to “try to live on less for a short time so that you can expand your lifestyle later.” Frugality will train you to take a less-now-more-later approach to money. It’s easy to rationalize small spends, especially when all it takes is a swipe. But a $2.50 morning coffee adds up to $912.50 a year. And $50 on one trendy style choice each month brings you to $600 a year. For perspective, equate money to your time. Figure out how much you earn hourly or per project. Then you can tie an expense in the context of your time to decide whether it’s worth your hard-earned dollars.
09. Get your belongings insured.
Ramsey advises, “You should never own or rent property without having yourself covered in the case of a fire, flood, burglary, or some other disaster. Renter’s insurance is relatively cheap to get, so make sure to have some. When buying homeowner’s insurance, get one that has guaranteed replacement costs.” Guaranteed replacement costs insure the value of your home in case it goes up after you took out the policy.
10. Start investing in stocks.
Ramsay says, “Once you pay off your debts, don’t give yourself a raise! Get on an investment plan, and invest the extra money.” Investing your excess cash in stocks through a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund is smart, as it gives you a diverse set of investments in an easy vehicle. Generally speaking, having stock when you’re young is a good bet, as you’ll have lots of time before you need to cash out for your investments to appreciate, and in case there are losses, you also have time to weather bumpy times. Understand your basic investment options, and then find a financial adviser you can trust.
11. Set a dream splurge goal.
You can save for fun things, too! Give yourself a long-term splurge goal for one, five, or ten years down the line. Whatever you dream about owning or doing one day—a home, a tropical vacation, a designer piece—will motivate your savings efforts. Post a photo of it somewhere prominent. Your ideas may change over time, but keep the inspiration and the fund going, and you’ll be prepared for whatever they might be.
12. Invest in long-term insurance.
We all know that we should have health insurance in case we have a major medical issue. But have you thought about long-term disability or life insurance? These insurance options cover 70 to 100 percent of your yearly income in case you become disabled or pass away. LTD is actually more important to have when you’re young—if, say, you become disabled in a car crash, you’ll have many years of supporting yourself and your family ahead of you. Experts recommend that you have eight to ten times your yearly income set aside in a long-term life insurance policy that your family can invest to replace your income if you die.
13. Set a budget for charitable giving.
Whether it’s your church, a local food bank, or a human rights organization, choose a cause you’re passionate about, and commit to a recurring or one-time donation. Use your earnings to help others less fortunate—within your means, of course. I contribute regularly to my home parish and support my friends’ fundraising initiatives when I can.
14. Reevaluate your budget regularly.
Reevaluate your budget each month to make sure that it’s working and changes with your lifestyle. Did your rent go up? Did you get a raise? Revisit your budget to be realistic about what you can and can’t spend in the following month. I recently moved out-of-state and my fixed expenses changed, so I reworked my budget to fit my new needs.
15. Ask for help.
If you’re struggling to wrap your head around your finances, ask for help. There may be someone in your life who has the know-how to help you out. Or it may be worth getting an expert’s advice. Author of Slash Your Debt Gerri Detweiler suggests, “If you find yourself letting important financial decisions go because you just don’t seem to get around to them, you might want to talk to a financial planner to get those jobs done.”
When it comes to these fifteen financial goals, we’ve all got work to do. Start by choosing one or two to focus on each month. By next year, you’ll be surprised by just how much you’ve matured as a financially empowered woman.
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