Money is everywhere. You can’t escape it.
Musicians have written hundreds of songs about money. It has inspired countless film makers, book writers, poets and painters. Most religious texts counsel and command their followers on the dos and don’ts of money management.
Pop culture, social media and mass advertising are awash in money messages. About having too little or too much. About greed and poverty. About how to spend, save and invest. About the satisfaction it can bring or the troubles it can cause.
With all that we see and hear about money every day, few people have mastered their money. We tend to let money control our lives instead of enriching them.
Despite what some believe, mastering one’s money doesn’t require a finance degree or expert investment strategies. It takes short-term and long-term planning, the discipline to stick with those plans, and the right attitude.
Here are 12 personal finance tips to get you started, with inspiration from a few song lyrics, book passages, and movie quotes about money.
1. Get a personal finance education
“It takes talent to make money. It takes brains to keep money.” — Robert McCall, in the movie The Equalizer 2
Mastering anything in life requires knowledge. Fortunately there are a number of resources available to help you learn basic financial concepts, including books, podcasts and blogs. The time you invest in understanding how to improve and maintain your financial health will be time well spent.
2. Check your credit score and improve it if necessary
“I don't know what they want from me
It's like the more money we come across
The more problems we see”
— From the song, Mo Money Mo Problems, by The Notorious B.I.G.
Checking your credit score is like getting a physical. It’s a way to understand your overall financial health.
Your credit score informs lenders and other interested parties of your credit risk. It is based on a number of factors, including how much debt you have relative to your income, and whether you’ve paid past debts on time.
Many people assume their credit is fine. Others avoid checking because they know it’s not.
What you don’t want to happen is to be close to buying a house, car or other big-ticket item and discover you have poor credit. This will either prevent you from borrowing money from traditional lenders, or cause you to pay a higher rate of interest than you would have with good credit.
Another reason to check is that there may be inaccurate information adversely affecting your credit score. A checkup may also reveal identity theft.
If your credit score is poor, there are ways to improve it, such as lowering your credit card balances, paying your bills on time, and fixing any errors on your credit report.
3. Create a budget
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need.” — Tyler Durden, in the movie Fight Club
It’s easy to spend every dollar we earn. American culture encourages overspending on luxury cars, large homes, the latest technology, frequent dining out, and lavish vacations.
No matter how much or how little you earn, you need to save money. Having money in savings helps you deal with emergencies and unbudgeted needs. It also minimizes the need to borrow money and pay interest on credit cards.
Saving money is easier if you know where and how much you spend on household items, bills and other expenses. Set a budget that includes savings and unforeseen expenses, and stick to that budget no matter what tempts you to overspend.
4. Consolidate personal debt and credit cards
“I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain't it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me
That's too bad”
— From the song Money, Money, Money by ABBA
One way to extend your budget and reduce your expenses is to consider consolidating your current debt.
If you have several personal loans, medical bills, and/or multiple credit card balances, you should consider consolidating those unsecured debts into one loan.
In addition to simplifying your life to one monthly debt payment, you can also potentially lower your interest rate and the amount of money you spend each month on loan payments.
Debt consolidation can be done through:
- Transferring debt from high-interest loans and credit cards to a low-interest credit card
- Taking out a debt consolidation loan and using the loaned funds to pay off the balances on your unsecured debt
- A home equity loan if you have sufficient equity in your home
5. Measure your money in hours
“No amount of money ever bought a second of time.” — Tony Stark, in the movie Avengers: Endgame
One way to better understand the value of your money is to measure it in hours worked instead of just dollars.
When you’re giving in to an impulse purchase, consider how many hours you worked to make the money to pay for the item. When you think about the time and hard work it took to earn that cash, it might make you think twice before letting it disappear for something that brings short-lived joy.
6. Contribute to a 401(k) or IRA
“Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust.” — From the book The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Time is money. This old cliche is still very relevant when it comes to saving for retirement. The sooner you begin contributing and the more you set aside, the more you will potentially have for retirement.
If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, you should be contributing as much as possible. Take advantage of any matching funds your employer provides as well.
The money you contribute to a 401(k) is excluded from your taxable income. The maximum amount you can save in 2020 is $19,500 if you’re under age 50 and up to the current annual maximum of $18,000 for people under age 50 and $26,000 if you're 50 and older.
In addition to the tax deduction for contributions, 401(k) plans grow on a tax-deferred basis. This means you won’t pay any taxes on the account assets until you begin withdrawing funds in retirement.
If you don’t have access to a 401(k) plan, you should take advantage of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). These plans allow you to save up to $6,000 in 2020 — $7,000 if you’re 50 or older — for retirement.
As with 401(k), contributions to a traditional IRAs are tax deductible and the assets grow tax-deferred until you begin withdrawals.
7. Always have an emergency fund
“A wise bear always keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat, in case of emergency.” — Uncle Pastuzo, in the movie Paddington
One of the easiest ways to lose control of your finances is to be unprepared for an unforeseen events.
An emergency fund is money set aside to help you through unexpected events that can hurt you financially. Having an emergency fund can improve your financial security and minimize the stress of a job loss, temporary disability, or major repair.
Without an emergency fund, you may live in fear of crisis. And if an adverse event occurs, an emergency fund can protect you from having to use credit cards, take out loans, borrowing from your retirement account, or asking friends or family for help.
8. Learn to discern what is not an emergency
“I made one decision in my life based on money. And I swore I would never do it again.” — Billy Beane, in the movie Moneyball
Saving money in an emergency fund is just half the battle. The other half is letting it sit untouched until it’s absolutely needed.
As Dave Ramsay once said: “Christmas is not an emergency. It comes the same time every year.”
9. Help your savings grow
"Let me give you a tip on a clue to men's characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it." — From the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Whether it’s for retirement, an emergency fund, or major purchases down the road, money you save should be invested for two reasons:
- It grows with compounding interest
- It’s less accessible and therefore less tempting to spend
Investing doesn’t necessarily have to mean risky your money in the stock market. You should realize, however, that taking on some risk also means better potential returns.
If you don’t want to deal with losing money in stocks, there are a number of investment vehicles that carry little risk, yet pay a higher rate of interest than standard savings accounts — and certainly better than stuffing cash into a coffee can. These include high-yield savings accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, and Treasury bills. Government bonds and bond funds are also a relatively safe investment compared with equities.
10. Consider the liquidity of your investments
“Dollars are like small fish: difficult to catch, but not to be thrown back except as bait for something bigger.” — Joey Tai, in the movie Year of the Dragon
Liquidity is a way to measure how quickly you can turn an investment into available cash.
A bank savings account is more liquid than most vehicles, since you can easily access the money.
On the other hand, real estate is not a liquid investment because it typically requires a lengthy process to sell a property and collect the funds to use.
11. Budget for charitable giving
"Who, being loved, is poor?" — From the book, A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
Giving to charity has obvious benefits for the organization or cause receiving the donation. But financial giving also provides a number of benefits to the giver, including:
- The joy of helping others
- Improving personal money management
- Being a positive role model to children and others
- A potential tax deduction if the giver itemizes
12. Buy disability insurance
“Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury.” — From the book, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
What happens if you lose the ability to earn a living? Imagine an injury that prevents you from working. Or consider the effects of an illness that causes you to reduce the hours you work. Even if it’s temporary, the loss or reduction of a regular paycheck could cause financial hardship.
According to the Social Security Administration, about 25 percent of 20-year-olds will become disabled at some point before reaching age 67.
Disability insurance covers the potential loss of income caused by injury or illness. If you are unable to work because of a covered disability, the policy will replace part of your income. You will receive these benefits for as long as you’re disabled or up to a maximum period of time spelled out in the policy.
Having disability insurance means being able to buy food, pay bills, and cover household expenses while you’re unable to work.
Joel Palmer is a freelance writer and personal finance expert who focuses on the mortgage, insurance, financial services, and technology industries. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a business and financial reporter.
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