Clipping coupons and scoring flights with credit card miles can save a few bucks here and there, but achieving long-term financial stability requires a much more holistic approach.
Let’s look at six big personal finance topics budgeting, saving, debt, taxes, insurance, and retirement and discuss a helpful principle for each.
Number one: When budgeting, consider focusing on the big-ticket items. You may have heard you’d be a millionaire if you’d just skip your morning latte, but it’s likely that you can save more by cutting costs on the expensive stuff like housing and transportation. According to Kelley Blue Book, in 2019, the average new car cost about $37,000. But buying the same car pre-owned could save more than $10,000 much more than a year’s worth of lattes.
Number two: When setting savings goals, be specific about your plan to get there. It’s easy to say, I’m going to save $6,000 for retirement this year, but you also need to define your tactics for pursuing your goal.
Subgoals can help guide your savings strategy: if you want to save $6,000 this year, think about how you might save $500 this month by increasing your income or trimming your expenses by about $115 a week. These mile markers can help you assess how realistic your goal is and help you monitor your progress.
Number three: Avoid high-interest debt and loans for items that could quickly lose value. You might have heard to avoid debt at all costs, but not all debt is created equal.
One type of debt to avoid is debt with an interest rate higher than 5%, like credit card debt carried from month to month. Also, try to avoid going into debt for anything that is likely to quickly loses value, like boats, RVs, jewelry, and other luxury goods. But there are times borrowing money makes sense. For example, loans for education or starting a business are often considered healthy debt because they may lead to more income down the road.
For some, a low-interest mortgage might be a good use of debt, because a house has the potential to appreciate. And even using a credit card as long as you pay the balance in full every month can help improve your credit score by showing lenders you can responsibly manage debt.
But healthy debt only helps your credit score if you make your payments on time, so if you’re looking to increase your credit score, only borrow money you’re confident you’ll be able to pay back.
Number four: Reduce your taxable income. This doesn’t mean make less money this means find ways to pay less taxes on the money you make. One way to do this is to receive income in a tax-exempt form, meaning get compensated in a way that isn’t taxable. For example, many employers offer benefits that allow you to receive or set aside untaxed money for things like retirement, health care, education, transportation, and child care.
A second way to potentially reduce your taxes is to defer them meaning pay your taxes later by contributing to a traditional IRA or 401(k). With these types of retirement accounts, you don’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw your money during retirement, when your tax rate may be lower.
Number five: Avoid insurance for expenses you can afford to pay for out of pocket. Depending on your personal situation, you may need car insurance, home or renter’s insurance, or life insurance. And everyone needs health insurance.
Studies suggest that more than 60% of all bankruptcies are related to medical issues, so strive to have at least minimum coverage. But remember that the purpose of insurance is to protect you in unfortunate scenarios. In exchange for protection, you make regular payments to an insurance company called premiums. Premiums are guaranteed and often ongoing expenses.
For smaller valuables, like electronic devices, you may want to skip insurance if you can afford to replace them, because paying for coverage you might never use can be a waste of money.
And finally, number six: Don’t just save for retirement invest for retirement. Realistically, just saving isn’t likely going to be enough to reach your retirement goals. Investing can help grow your money over time. As you can see, if you invested $1,000 in stocks in 1975, by the end of 2018, your investment would’ve been worth over $130,000.
How can $1,000 grow so fast? Over time, compound interest, which means earning interest on interest, can help investors experience exponential growth, or growth that occurs at an increasingly rapid rate. Contributing to retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs can potentially help you save on taxes and allow your investments to compound even faster.
So remember: When budgeting, consider focusing on the big-ticket items. When setting savings goals, be specific about your plan to help you get there. Avoid high-interest debt and loans for items that will quickly lose value.
Consider taking steps to help reduce your taxable income. Avoid insurance for expenses you can pay for out of pocket.
And finally, consider investing for retirement. While there’s no shortage of personal finance advice out there, cutting through the noise to focus on high-impact adjustments can potentially have an enduring effect on your financial future.