By Amanda Black,
Associate Director of Communication and Financial Literacy
Bet you didn’t know that April is National Financial Literacy Month?
While everyone knows that April 15 is the filing deadline for U.S. federal income tax returns, (Two days from now, in case you forgot!) the fact that an entire month is dedicated to improving understanding of financial principles and practices.
However, since my job at Saint Leo is to educate students – online or on-ground – about financial issues, I take National Financial Literacy Month seriously.
That’s why I’ve put together the 10 tips that I feel are most important for achieving financial health and stability.
Which is something we all should take seriously.
1. Manage your debt.
Being in debt can be scary and frustrating, but it’s never a reason to give up. Take control of the situation and start making payments (no matter how small), and you’ll be on the right path.
Student Loans: If you have any federal student loans, educate yourself on your repayment options and how your repayment plan works. Who is your loan servicer? How much do you owe a month? What is your outstanding principal? These are critical questions. Numerous repayment options are available and some can be quite low. Visit studentaid.gov or call your lender for details.
Credit cards: If it’s difficult for you to keep up with credit card payments, contact your credit card company. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate a reduction in the monthly payment or a partial settlement.
Another option for addressing debt is to work with a debt management program. Nonprofit agencies like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counselling Agencies provide free or low-cost counselors to assist you in taking control of your debt.
2. Create a budget – and stick to it.
When it comes to taking control of your finances, budgeting is the single, most-important practice. Budgeting allows you to actively and consciously monitor your expenses and income, which, in turn, helps you save, pay off debt, and spend more wisely.
While sticking to a budget is not easy, when done correctly and consistently, it’s empowering and can be life changing. For help creating and maintaining your budget, try tracking your expenses and income in Excel, or use free online programs such as Wally or Mint.
3. Live below your means.
The earlier in life you make a habit of spending less than you bring in, the sooner you will expand your means. By not spending everything you earn – and saving for emergencies, retirement, and investments such as real estate and stocks, you position yourself for future financial gain.
Obviously, making a habit out of living below your means is easier said than done, especially when you have student loans, mortgages, and car payments. And that brings us back to budgeting. With a budget in place, you can begin to spend less then you make and build your savings.
4. Save for emergencies and retirement.
You have a budget. You’re living below your means. So now you should have funds available for saving. The two indispensable types of savings you must have are for emergencies and retirement.
Emergencies: Life has a way of throwing unrelenting curveballs – cars break, kids need braces, dishwashers leak, and pets get sick. Charging unplanned expenses on a credit card or borrowing to address these emergencies can throw you into deep debt quickly. It’s much better to plan for the unplanned and save for these situations.
Retirement: It is never too late or too early to begin saving for retirement. If your employer offers a matching program, be sure to maximize your 401k contributions. Another option is to set up an IRA (individual retirement account).
5. Monitor your credit score and maintain good credit.
Once you have established some stable financial footing, the next step is to keep it. That involves monitoring your credit score and maintaining good credit.
Get a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. Checking your credit report annually allows you to keep tabs on your score, monitor open bank and credit card accounts, and halt any suspicious activity related to identity theft.
To strengthen your credit score:
- Pay bills on time
- Pay down debt; avoid moving it from one credit card or bank to another
- Maintain low balances on credit cards
- Avoid opening new credit accounts unnecessarily
6. Carry health insurance.
Health insurance is expensive. But not having health insurance can be financially ruinous. Health insurance protects you from paying full price for medical treatment out of pocket. It also helps pay for preventative care, which can support your overall health and enable you to avoid costly future medical procedures.
7. Build your financial IQ.
The more you learn about budgeting, investing, retirement savings, stocks, mutual funds, money market accounts, trading options, etc., the more income-producing tools you will have at your disposal.
Take time to do research and understand how money – especially your money – can work for you. The sooner you start and the more you learn, the greater the wealth you can acquire.
8. Stop accruing unnecessary fees.
With some planning it’s possible to avoid unnecessary fees and save significant money. For instance, only use your bank’s ATM and skip the extra charge to access your own cash. Pay your bills on time and avoid late fees. If you can stay on top of your budget and plan ahead, you can limit the amount of money you throw away.
9. Finish your degree.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that, on average, people with a college degree earn significantly more than those without one. Also, a College Board report titled “Education Pays,” indicates that college graduates are more financially sound (higher incomes and employment rates and lower poverty rates) than people who have only a high school diploma.
It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true – obtaining a college degree pays.
10. Get SALT.
Need help following these tips? Try SALT.
SALT is a free, web-based tool that provides practical, easy-to-understand information about finance and debt management. With SALT, you can get help with budgeting, tracking loans, finding scholarships, internships, and jobs. SALT can also help you find ways to afford your education and handle other expenses.
Managing your finances and building wealth is a lifetime endeavor. The sooner you can follow these tips, the sooner you can enjoy financial security and peace of mind.
What suggestions do you have for creating financial stability?
A Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, Amanda Black is passionate about promoting financial literacy and helping student loan borrowers responsibly manage their debt. When she is not at work, Amanda enjoys jogging, sharing a glass of wine with friends, and traveling with her husband. Reach her at at 800.240.7658 or Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: Mi.Ti. on Shutterstock