Personal finance can be daunting, but familiarising yourself with basic money concepts — like how to build wealth, stay out of debt, and earn returns on your investments — will, quite literally, pay off.
To help you get started, we turned to the latest edition of Beth Kobliner’s book “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance In Your Twenties and Thirties,” due for release in April. At the start of her book, Kobliner offers a cheat sheet of eight “need-to-know” personal finance basics.
“No kidding around: Adopting even one or two of these strategies will put you ahead of the game and — I promise — make a big difference sooner than you think,” she writes.
Still, Kobliner warns, simply relying on these “crib notes” and ignoring her comprehensive dive into each topic in the following chapters is akin to reading Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” only by the Sparknotes version: “You’ll get the basic plotline but never understand what all the fuss is about.”
So, start with these eight simple rules, listed by Kobliner in “rough order of importance,” and build on your knowledge from there.
1. Get health insurance
Every American citizen is required to have health insurance, or be fined hundreds of dollars by the IRS each year. Kobliner advises signing up for insurance should be “your No. 1 financial priority” because it will protect you from unforeseen accidents or illness, and prevent yourself or your family from going bankrupt in the case of an emergency.
If your employer offers health insurance, take it, Kobliner says. It’s almost always cheaper than buying a policy on your own (but keep in mind that you can be covered by your parent’s insurance until age 26.) Before signing up, though, make sure you understand the cost and extent of the plan, including your deductible, or how much you’ll be paying out-of-pocket before insurance takes over.
If you do end up needing to purchase a policy on your own, head over to healthcare.gov to compare plans and pricing.
2. Be smart about paying off debt
Kobliner says “one of the smartest financial moves you can make” is using any remaining funds after covering your expenses — food, rent, and health insurance — to pay off high-interest loans.
“The reason is simple: You can ‘earn’ more by paying off a loan than you can by saving and investing. Paying off a credit card (or an exorbitant private student loan) that has a 15% interest rate is equivalent to earning 15% on an investment,” she writes.
Before tackling any credit card debt, call your credit card company and ask for a lower rate — it works. Then, make sure to pay off “as much of your balance as you can, as soon as you can, each month,” she says. You may also see if you qualify for a lower-rate credit card and transfer your balance.
The bottom line: Always pay back the debt with the highest interest rate first.
3. Start contributing early to your retirement plan
Putting money into a retirement plan as early as you can, no matter the amount, is a smart and easy way to pay-yourself-first. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, take advantage of it. In some cases, employers will offer a contribution match. “That means the company contributes a set amount — say, 50 cents for a dollar — for every dollar you contribute up to a specified percentage of your salary,” Kobliner writes. “That’s free money, equivalent to a 50% or 100% return. There’s nowhere you can beat this!”
Plus, 401(k)s allow you to contribute your pre-tax money, meaning the more you contribute now, the greater the growth (thanks, compound interest) and the more money you’ll have down the road, though you will be taxed when you withdraw the money for retirement. For 2017, the maximum contribution to a 401(k) is $18,000.
And if you don’t have the pleasure of working for an employer that offers a 401(k), open up an individual retirement account (IRA) and contribute the most you can. The maximum contribution for 2017 is $5,500. One benefit of a Roth IRA is that you won’t be taxed when you withdraw the money at age 59 and a half.
4. Build up an emergency fund — automatically
After you conquer high-interest debt and contribute to your retirement funds, it’s time to build up a savings cushion with at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses, says Kobliner. Put it in a money market fund rather than a traditional savings account — it’s just as safe and liquid and you’ll see better returns.
But the key to building up your fund is ensuring you set up automatic savings, she says. “You can set up an automatic transfer from your checking account once or twice a month so it’s as easy as saving in a bank savings account,” Kobliner writes.
5. Consider investing in the stock market
After you’ve set aside the right amount of savings in low-risk bank accounts and money market funds, Kobliner says, consider taking more risk with your investments.
The best way to figure out how much you should invest in the market is subtracting your age from 100 — that’s the percentage you should invest in stocks, with the remainder in bonds and money market funds, Kobliner says. She recommends low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
“The advantage of stocks and bonds is that they have tended to earn more for investors over long periods of time, yielding higher returns that stay ahead of inflation,” she explains. However, the stock market is unpredictable and by investing, you’re accepting that you may lose money.
Kobliner offers a two general rules for investing:
1. “Avoid investing in funds with a load” because they will “charge you each time you put money in or take money out” and they don’t perform any better than other funds.
2. Make sure you’re investing in funds with low expenses, which are “the annual fees charged by the fund that can take a huge bite out of your investment returns if you’re not careful.”
6. Know your credit score and how to improve it
As explained by Kobliner, “Your credit score is the number that tells lenders whether or not you’re a good risk.”
You’re legally entitled to one free credit report from each of the credit-tracking agencies — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian — every year. If you want your official scores, you can pay $60 on myFICO.com. Make sure you check your credit report for any inaccuracies about you and your finances, says Kobliner, because your credit score is invaluable and can help you, or hurt you, when applying for home and car loans, renting an apartment, or getting insurance.
“One of the easiest, most foolproof ways to keep your score in good shape is to pay all of your bills automatically online,” that way you won’t miss any payments, writes Kobliner. “Another key component of maintaining a healthy score is keeping a vigilant watch for identity theft, which can make a mess of your entire financial life.”
7. Weigh the pros and cons of buying a home
There’s more that goes into buying a home than simply feeling like it’s the right time, says Kobliner. In fact, you should consider “a whole range of financial factors, including the tax break you’ll get from buying, the fees you’ll pay when you buy, and how long you plan to live in the new home…” she writes.
If you decide buying a home is a smart move, you’ll likely need to apply for a home loan, or mortgage, which requires 20% of the purchase price for a down payment. To secure the loan, you’ll need a good credit score and proof that your salary is high enough and your debts are low enough to make your monthly mortgage payment.
“If you don’t qualify for a mortgage (and still want to buy) don’t give up,” Kobliner says. “Make it your goal to spend the next one to two years improving your credit score (pay those bills on time!) and saving up for a down payment.”
8. Save money on taxes
“Whether you owe money to the tax man at the end of the year or not, it’s always a smart move to file your taxes,” Kobliner advises. For those earning less than $64,000 a year, you can file for free online at irs.gov/freefile, otherwise check out TurboTax.com, HRBlock.com, or TaxAct.com.
And be aware that you can save money on taxes by taking advantage of deductions, or the specific expenses you’re allowed to take out of your income before calculating your owed taxes. The standard deduction — $6,300 for singles and $12,600 for couples — is a good place to start, Kobliner says.
You can also itemize deductions to maximise your savings by listing specific deductions, including expenses for housing costs like mortgage interest or property taxes, and charitable donations.
Finally, Kobliner points out, you may be eligible for tax credits — money subtracted directly from the amount you owe to the IRS — if you have children or earn very little income.