We all joke about the woes of adulting—but the struggle is so real. This is especially true when it comes to finances, a topic that makes most people cringe.
Sure, dealing with finances is intimidating and scary. We get it. But the sooner you get a grasp on your hard-earned cash, the less stress you’ll have later on. It starts with small changes—all of which you can start this year.
We turned to Catherine B. Allen, a certified financial planner in New Jersey, to give us the lowdown. While learning to be financially smart is a lifelong practice, she explains how these ten goals can point you in the right direction.
01. Be specific.
Like most things in life, the most successful goals start with the details. Simply thinking “I want to spend less and save more!” isn’t enough. Sure, it’s great—but it’s also vague. Instead, Allen suggests focusing on specific, action-oriented goals. “Try eating out only once a week or paying off a credit card,” she says. This way, you can work toward one financial goal that has visible results.
02. Build a budget.
It might sound boring, but it’s totally necessary. “Your savings won’t be really strong without a good budget,” Allen says. “It’s like your core—your workout will not be really effective unless your core is strong.” And while it might seem daunting, there are so many useful resources out there. Allen suggests using a personal finance app like Wally or Level Money. Your bank might even offer one.
03. Start an emergency fund.
Life is unpredictable and crazy. “Be kind to your ‘future self under stress’ and have a savings cushion,” Allen advises. She reminds us that you never know when you’ll get laid off or when your car or laptop will break down. While we can cross our fingers and hope for the best, you just never know. Act accordingly. Setting aside just $20 a week means you'll have $1,040 saved up in one year.
04. Mind your credit.
From renting an apartment to buying a car, your credit score can make or break big life decisions. Allen suggests checking your credit score and learning what everything means. “You can pull your credit report from each of the three U.S. credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—for free once a year,” she says. “Pick a date and visit annualcreditreport.com and pull your report.” Go through them carefully and look for mistakes like duplicate accounts or accounts listed as closed. If your credit score is not-so-great? Research ways to bump up that number, like getting a credit card, increasing your credit limit, or paying your bills twice a month.
05. Deal with debt.
The longer you keep debt around, the more interest you’ll have to pay. That’s basically money you could have kept and saved! According to Allen, it’s best to avoid paying just the minimum payment. “Creditors also look for you to use about 30 percent of your available credit, so work on paying those high credit card balances down,” she adds.
06. Get a company match.
Allen encourages taking advantage of a 401(k)—and similar accounts such as 403(b) and 457(b)—if your company has one, especially if they offer a match. It can make a huge difference if you’re still in your twenties and thirties because you have more time to compound interest. “It will give you a great head start down the line,” she says.
07. Have the ‘money talk’ with your partner.
Whether or not we like to admit it, money can mess with relationships. A Money magazine survey found that 70 percent of couples argue about money over any other stressors. Learn about your partner’s financial habits and goals, especially if the relationship is serious. “If you’re committed for the long haul, your finances will affect each other and your future,” Allen says.
08. Avoid spending temptation.
To start, Allen suggests unsubscribing from emails and skipping lunch break window shopping. Reading a book or calling a friend can also distract you from shopping online. Here’s another tip: “Meet your friend at the park instead of Starbucks!”
09. Celebrate small wins.
Moderation in spending is still important, though. Allow yourself some “just for fun” money. After all, Allen reminds us that being overly strict is a recipe for burnout. Instead, reward yourself in reasonable and healthy ways. Opt for more adventures—such as concerts or mini road trips—instead of possessions; research proves that experiences are better than material things.
10. Look beyond money.
Your financial health doesn’t stop at your wallet. “Do what it takes to take care of your body, mind, career, and relationships,” Allen says. This includes being kind to yourself while you’re young. By doing so, you’ll be sure to feel rich in what matters most later on—your life.
Money problems and bad habits don’t just disappear; it takes work to be fiscally savvy. Now is the best time to take control of your finances—especially while you’re still young. Your future self will be glad you did.
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