As we are growing up, we learn a lot from our parents, teachers, and our own experiences about distinguishing wants from needs and how to delay gratification to take care of those needs. And the truth is this is a skill that we continue to develop our whole lives. The financial choices we make have an impact on us now and in the future. Even the small decisions we make have bigger implications: If we choose to buy a new shirt now on impulse instead of waiting and weighing out the cost trade-off, we sacrifice the ability to use that money for a future opportunity or need. If we decide to charge lunch to a credit card (after all, it’s only $10), we will pay more for that lunch next month when interest is applied – and we’ll keep paying for that lunch until it’s paid off. Exercising self-control by taking the time to think through extraneous purchases can keep us on the right foot financially.
Understand Your Paycheck
Once you start working, it’s important to know what goes into and out of your paycheck. In addition to your personal and identifying information, you can find details on your earnings and deductions:
- Your gross pay earnings (how much you make before any deductions such as taxes)
- Federal and state withholdings
- FICA withholdings (FICA stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act and is deducted from each paycheck. It includes Medicare and Social Security Taxes.
- Medical and other insurance premiums
- Any other deductions (such as 401k retirement savings)
It’s important to understand how income tax works, how much you should be withholding. You can do a quick “paycheck check-up” on the Internal Revenue Services’ website to help you identify your tax withholding to make sure you have the right amount of tax withheld from your paycheck at work.
Know Where Your Money Goes
You already know it’s important to make sure your expenses don’t exceed your income. But there is more to it than that. It’s important to know just how much of your income is going to your expenses, where your money is going, and where your money is “leaking.” One of the best ways to do this is to build a budget plan, but before you can plan, you must first know where you are. Spend a few weeks writing down or logging every penny you spend in each category (rent, car insurance, cell phone, internet, eating out, gas, groceries, clothing, etc.). While making this list, try to keep in mind any spending leaks you may have that are eating into money you could be saving or applying to something more important.
Build a Budget
Once you have an idea of how much you are earning and how much you are spending, it’s time to start a budget. A budget is a tool used to record and track projected and actual income and expenses over time. They are simply roadmaps to help you visualize where you are and help you get where you want to go. A budget can help you:
- Put aside money for savings goals
- Prepare for regular expenses
- Prepare for unexpected expenses
- Control how you spend money instead of it controlling you
- Reduce stress and increase confidence
- Help calm excessive spending habits
When you’re ready to start budgeting, check out this quick-start budget guide with a simple budget worksheet.
Pay Yourself First
One of the biggest secrets to savings is building a habit to pay yourself first. Before paying bills and other expenses, determine what you can save without strapping your wallet and make a goal to deposit to savings each month. The important thing here is the commitment to making that deposit each month to move towards a stronger financial future. As Warren Buffett puts it: "Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving."
Start an Emergency Fund
The unexpected is going to come up, and the best way to be prepared for it is to have an emergency savings. Typically, a good safety net consists of 3 – 6 months’ worth of living expenses. It’s also a good practice to keep your emergency savings separate from your general savings. Having a savings reserve to draw on will help you avoid turning to alternative options – such as a cash loan or credit cards – to meet the unexpected expense. You can build into your budget an allocated amount each month to save that works for you until you’ve reached your emergency fund goal.
Start Saving for Retirement - Now
It is never too early to start saving for retirement. The sooner you start saving, the more your money works for you as it compounds over the years. There are many options available including Traditional and Roth IRAs and employer retirement plans.
If your employer offers a retirement plan, you need to be in it. Also, if your employer offers a match program and you are not participating, you are leaving money on the table if you are not in it. What’s more, with a traditional 401(k), your contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, which means your money goes into your retirement before it gets taxed. (Consult a tax advisor for advice and more details.)
Build Your Knowledge
There is a wealth of financial education information out there waiting to be tapped. Take charge of your finances and read or listen to books and podcasts on personal finances. Talk to people you know in the financial industry and ask what their sources are for personal financial articles, websites, and books. There are also many great resources online:
Visit your financial institution’s website for potential resources. At mymax.com, we have financial advice articles on a wide range of topics for each stage of life and financial need. Check out our advice article section and our Ascend financial education section today.
Bookmark websites that are trusted sources for information. Here are a few we recommend:
- Federal Trade Commission: Advice for Consumers: Check out the FTC’s free resources for consumers at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/ for information on money and credit, homes and mortgages, privacy and identity, jobs and making money, and more.
- myFICO: Learn more about your credit report, credit score, how to build or repair credit, and more at https://www.myfico.com/. Most resources on this site are free, but some products and information are included in a subscription
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: The CFPB website is full of tools and information about credit, debt, and loans, to paying for college and saving for retirement. There are also resources for teaching your kids about money as well that make learning fun and interesting.
You Don’t Have to Be An Expert Overnight
Learning to manage finances takes time. What’s more, as your wants, needs, and lifestyle changes, your financial behavior will change, too. The important thing is to be purposeful in how you approach managing your money. Knowledge, good habits, and consistency are the keys to success.