Time for a Check-In
Most of us know we could make improvements to our finances. But we’re either not sure where to start, or we’re worried about the the time and effort that might be required to make the changes. So we tell ourselves we’ll take a closer look at our money “someday.”
In the meantime, we waste precious time (time that could be spent saving and building up our wealth) and any existing problems grow even larger. So, by the time we finally face the facts, we can find ourselves with a tangled money mess of debts and missed opportunities that are difficult, and costly, to unravel.
Want to avoid that situation? We’ve pulled together six simple steps you can take to make sure you’re on track — and stay on track — to reach your financial goals.
Save Before You Have a Chance to Spend
If someone gave you $500 and told you to spend it right away, what would you buy? Gene Natali, Jr., senior vice president at C.S. McKee, a Pittsburgh-based investment firm and co-author of “The Missing Semester,” often poses that question when he speaks in front of audiences. “The point is that spending money is easy and immediate and, with technology, it’s effortless.”
Saving money, on the other hand, is much harder for most of us to do. To save like a pro, set up self-billing for savings. “Some financial institutions let you arrange automatic withdrawal from your checking account to a savings account,” says Kevin Gallegos, a consumer finance expert and vice president of operations for Freedom Financial Network. “Record this expense like a bill every month to painlessly accumulate savings.”
You can up your savings game, too, by putting that money in an investment vehicle, where you have the potential to earn a lot more than the interest you can earn in a savings account. (Speak with a financial advisor about the best choices for you.)
Live ‘As If’ Before You Upgrade
Before you close the deal on a major purchase, like a new home or car, live as if you’re making the new monthly payments for three months to ensure you can truly afford this upgrade, suggests Denise Winston, a financial expert in Bakersfield, California, and author of “Money Starts Here! Your Practical Guide to Survive and Thrive in Any Economy.” “If you’re upgrading your lifestyle — say going from $1,000 in rent to a $1,500 mortgage payment, put the extra $500 in a savings account,” suggests Winston. “You’ll soon know if you can afford the extra amount each month.”
Another big benefit of putting away this extra money: You’ll be contributing even more to the down payment on whatever biggie item you’re purchasing. “It’ll be a great feeling to have that $1,500 you saved to help close the transaction,” she says.
Don’t Overpay in Bank Fees
You shouldn’t ever feel married to your bank. If you’re feeling like your bank fees are getting out of control, do some research. “Ask for the bank’s ‘schedule of fees,’” Winston says. “Otherwise you can easily get blindsided with unexpected fees. A monthly service fee might seem small at $10 a month but that adds up to $120 per year,” Winston says. “Wouldn’t you rather do something else with that money?”
In addition, pay close attention to overdraft protection. When you open an account, the bank will ask you if you want to opt in or opt out of it. If you opt out that means your bank will deny transactions that will overdraw your account (when you don’t have any money in your account). If you opt in, the bank will ‘cover you,’ but each time you’re overdrawn, it will cost you $35 on average, she says. Ouch.
And, while it isn’t easy changing banks — the more products and services you have, the harder it is — it’s worth the effort if you’re losing a lot of money to fees that you could save at a competing bank or credit union. “The bank wants you to have lots of products so if something goes wrong you’re less likely to leave,” Winston says. “It’s called a cross-sell ratio and bankers have a goal they have to meet.”
Take Interest in Your Interest Rates
Quick: Do you know how much you’re paying (or could be) in interest on your loans and credit cards? If not, it’s time to pull out your most recent credit card statements. Why? Worst-case scenario: Let’s say you owe $5,000 on one credit card, can only afford the minimum payment and the card has a 20 percent interest rate. It will take you more than 50 years and $27,000 to repay the original $5,000, says Natali — more than five times the amount you borrowed!
The type of interest rate you have is also important. If an interest rate is “floating,” that means it changes based on an underlying rate that can go up and down. (Specific to student loans, your statement should indicate if it’s ‘fixed’ or ‘floating.’ If not, call your loan provider to clarify.) “This is great when interest rates are going down, but it’s worth knowing that interest rates are currently at generational lows and the likely next step is up,” Natali says. If it’s fixed, that means it doesn’t change over the life of the loan. Keep in mind that you can aways consolidate student loans to under one fixed rate.
Ultimately you don’t want to have any debt. But if you do need to take some on, make sure you’re paying the lowest interest rate possible. (Need help? Check out our plan for paying off your debt for good.)
Know What Your Health Plan Covers
If you’re the family breadwinner — or if your spouse is on your health insurance plan — you’ve probably already felt the sticker shock that comes with your monthly premium. “It’s never been more important to pay attention to what your plan covers, not just for your health but for the health of your spouse and, perhaps someday, a child,” says Dan McElwee, a certified financial planner and executive vice president at Ventura Wealth Management, a financial planning firm in Ewing, New Jersey.
It may feel like a strain, but it’s always a good idea to set aside money for health care before you even decide to have children. Starting a new savings account or earmarking more money towards health care costs six months out will help you rest easy about all the new costs on the horizon.
Save Now for Later
We probably don’t need to tell you this (right? right?) but if your company provides an employer-sponsored 401(k) retirement plan, sign up. Now. And make sure to contribute at least as much as your company will match, if there’s a matching program available. “Even if you’re only setting aside a small amount, every bit helps,” says McElwee. “I always advocate investing in a 401(k) as soon as you’re eligible. Saving early allows for both accumulation and compound return.”
No matter how old you are or how much you’ve saved already, it’s never too late to start saving. Just contribute a little more each month to make up the difference. (Here’s how.)