When you're a child, finances are easy. You get a few dollars from your allowance and that's how much you can spend on whatever you want. Then you grow up and it's a whole different world.
Managing your finances isn't easy no matter how much money you make. We all have multiple bills to pay, financial futures to protect, and goals to achieve. How do you climb all those mountains at once?
It's a skill you need to cultivate over time, but it all starts with developing a system that works for you. Start with these top financial tips for money management.
1. Set a Goal for Your Rainy Day Fund
Your savings is one of the most critical components of your financial well-being. No matter how much money you bring in, we're all at risk for a sudden expense or job loss. But how much do you need?
The advice varies from expert to expert, but a good rule of thumb is to save six months of living expenses. Add up all your bills and essentials, including groceries and incidentals, for each month. Multiply it by six and that's your goal.
Don't get overwhelmed. Just determine how much you want to set aside each month to work toward that goal. Treat that savings deposit like any other bill and pay it when your paycheck arrives.
2. Establish a Reasonable Budget and Track It
Setting a budget is one of those things we all know we should be doing, but few people truly do it. All it takes is an hour or so and simple math to determine how much you should spend on each expense every month.
After you've done that, though, try manually tracking your discretionary budgets. For example, maybe you have a $300 entertainment budget. Each time you spend in that category, write it down and add it to the total.
"Aren't there programs that do this for you?" you might ask. Yes, there are, and they're great. However, many people only check those apps at the end of the month and they say, "Uh-oh, I'm over budget, I guess I'll try harder next time."
Tracking your spending manually makes you more conscious and accountable for each purchase. It's the same reason keeping a food diary has helped countless people lose weight.
3. Know How to Use Debt Wisely
Many people think of credit cards and loans as signs of financial responsibility when they're just the opposite. You may be proud that you hit 25 without ever applying for a credit card, auto loan, or other types of credit. When you go to ask for a mortgage, though, you're likely to get rejected because you have no credit history so the lender doesn't know if they can trust you.
The trick is to know how and when to use credit to your advantage. Sign up for a few credit cards, but wait a year between them so they don't hurt your credit score. Then set rules for yourself about how much you can spend on the card.
Use a similar rule for auto loans. You might have enough saved to pay cash for a vehicle, but it's better to get a loan and use your savings to pay it down. This way, you keep your interest costs low and you get the credit benefits of making consistent payments on a long-term loan.
4. Create a Financial Calendar
Even if you have a great balance of money coming in and going out, it's tough to keep track of all your bills and their due dates. A single missed payment can snowball into late fees, collection fees, interest, and more, not to mention the impact it has on your credit.
To keep it all straight, create a calendar with reminders for when to pay each bill. You could use the calendar on your phone and set up recurring reminders for the same days each month. This reminds you about each bill you need to pay on time.
As you do this, put your bills on the schedule for several days before their due dates. This ensures that your payment will process before the bill is due and it gives you extra time in case you forget.
If you aren't a fan of paying one bill at a time, set a date to pay all your bills. Perhaps every payday, you pay all the bills that are on the calendar before your next payday.
5. Develop a Strategic Pay-Off Plan
The average American has $52,000 in debt. If you're like most, you have debts in several places like credit cards, loans, mortgages, and so on.
Look up the specifics for each of those accounts. Find out the interest rates and current balances. Then, create a priority list for the order in which you want to pay off the debts.
The account with the highest interest rate should be the first you pay off and the others should fall in line. Choose a specific amount to pay toward your debts each month and distribute it accordingly. As you pay off each account, you can put more money into the accounts further down the line.
What if you have multiple accounts with similar interest rates? Pay down those that will have the best impact on your credit. Paying off credit cards will be better for your credit than paying off student loans and auto loans, for example.
6. Take a Five-Minute Money Check Each Day
Have you ever checked your bank account or credit card balance and said, "Wow, when did that happen?" Perhaps it would be better to ask if you've ever checked your accounts without having that reaction.
Instead of those uncomfortable awakenings, take five minutes every day to do a quick check of your accounts. Check your bank accounts and credit card accounts online and scan through your latest transactions.
This has two purposes. First, it helps you keep tabs on your spending so you know your financial standing.
Second, it helps you spot fraudulent charges right away if they occur. The sooner you catch it, the less likely you are to lose money you can't get back.
7. Use a Credit Monitoring System
Credit is tricky. You can't assume you have a strong credit score because you pay your bills on time. There are numerous factors that affect your credit score and unless you're keeping tabs on them all, you can't estimate your score.
There are plenty of credit monitoring systems that charge between $5 and $15 per month. They watch for irregularities in your credit report and provide a full credit report for you every year or so. These programs often show you the positive and negative factors affecting your credit.
This allows you to take knowledgeable steps to improve your credit. The last thing you want is to get a surprise when you try to get a mortgage or auto loan and discover your credit is poor. Plus, these reports help you watch for fraud and identity theft.
8. Make a Priority List
Whether or not you're a fan of New Year's resolutions, we all need goals in our lives and it usually helps to write them down. The same goes for your financial life.
Make a list of financial goals, long-term and short term. They might include paying off individual credit accounts, saving a down payment for a home, saving a set amount for retirement, and saving a six-month rainy day fund.
Then, decide which of those goals is your top priority, then your second priority, and so forth. You want to contribute to multiple goals at the same time, but having your priorities established and written down will help you stay on track.
9. Keep a List of Free or Inexpensive Entertainment
It's often easy to stick to a budget for groceries, gas, and other essentials because they aren't fun to buy. The harder part is managing your entertainment budget without giving in to the temptation of overspending.
If you tend to get bored and spend money because you can't think of anything else fun to do, here's a trick for you. Dedicate time to making a list of free and low-cost things you can do. Include indoor activities and outdoor activities, group outings and fun things to do solo, and so on.
When you're bored or have the urge to overspend, pull out that list. If you load it up with plenty of options, something on there is sure to strike your fancy.
10. Take Advantage of Your Financial Institution Features
Banking customers want more out of their banks, credit unions, and financial institutions today than a simple box to stash their money. As a result, there are countless programs you can get through your own financial provider to help you manage your money.
For example, we offer a reward program for our account holders. We also offer a financial fitness program and other member services to help you save and manage your money in an easier way.
These are free programs ready to go and you already have access to them by being a customer. All you need to do is find out what's available and start using it to your advantage.
11. Maintain One Financial Home
Speaking of banks, it's helpful to have a single financial "home" for as many of your accounts as possible. In other words, aim to have your checking and savings accounts, credit cards, mortgage, auto loans, and other financial products at the same institution.
There are a few reasons for this. First, it makes it easier to manage everything in one place rather than having five different online accounts with five different passwords to track.
Second, you're likely to get a better deal on your banking products this way. When you get a mortgage from the bank where you've held your accounts for decades, you may get a lower interest rate. Banks use this as an incentive for their customers and you're a lower risk to them because of their established relationship with you.
12. Create an Income Plan
Most financial tips deal with saving money, but there's another side of that coin: making money. If you want to keep elevating your financial status, extra income is a great way to make that happen.
Create a plan for your career and your income. Set goals for how much you want to make as the years go on. As you do this, make a list of options for making those goals happen.
Maybe it means you need to ask for a raise. Perhaps you want to increase your income by adding a side gig like turning your hobby into a budding business. You might choose to aim for a particular career trajectory.
Keep this in a place where you can access it and reassess every year or two. This will help you avoid the common problem of getting stuck in an income rut.
13. Say No to (Most) Store Credit Cards
We've all been there. You're at the cash register and the cashier says you can save another 30% if you apply for the store credit card. It's free money, right?
Not exactly. If you apply for new credit more than twice in one year, it starts to lower your credit score. The more credit applications you complete, the more it will hurt your score.
That isn't limited to credit card applications. Any time you apply for a car loan, mortgage, personal loan, or other types of credit accounts, it counts toward that twice-per-year limit. They're known as hard inquiries.
If you have a limited credit history, a store card might be an easy way to start building your credit. Beyond that, there's no helpful purpose as these cards tend to have high interest rates.
Mastering Money Management with Top Financial Tips
Whether you make $10,000 or $10 million per year, making the most of your personal finances isn't easy. It takes strategy, planning, and learning from financial gurus. Most of all, it requires you to come up with a technique that works for you.
The financial tips above can help you jumpstart your money management and make the most of your finances. To take more positive steps forward, find out how iTHINK Financial can help.