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Are you looking to make the right financial decisions in 2021? The key is to have a concrete plan and a foundational understanding of personal finance basics.
When I started my personal finance journey, I felt like I knew nothing. So I started reading every personal finance book I could get my hands on.
After I read The Millionaire Next Door, my view on personal finance changed forever. Fast forward 10 years later. I’m now on a path to Financial Independence well before the standard retirement age, and I am prepared for any unexpected financial headwinds which may come my way.
First, let’s clearly define Financial Success:
Financial success is not a measure of how much money you have in the bank, whether or not you have a six-figure salary, have more money than your friends, or you are the world’s most successful investor.
Yes, those things are incredibly important, but the process along the way is essential, and it’s what I’ll discuss in this article. Too many people want immediate results, but true financial security is unlike flipping a light switch.
Financial success results from making consistently better choices that lead you to live a more financially sound and independent life.
Small actions compounded over time = Financial Success.
1. Create a Monthly Budget and Actually Follow It
Since I started my professional career, I’ve always used some budgeting tool. Whether it’s an excel spreadsheet, a Google Doc, or a free app like Personal Capital, you need to know where your money is going. Plain and simple.
Seeing the numbers on paper, metaphorically speaking, can do wonders. Create a basic budget to get a sense of where you are currently spending and where you can cut back.
You don’t need to check your spending every day compulsively. However, having a general idea of where and how you are spending your money is an essential first step toward financial success.
2. Analyze Your Expenses and Look for Reoccuring Ways to Save
Once you have your monthly budget in order, start to look for new ways to save. It’s a commonplace to suggest reducing expenses such as dining out or spending money on clothes.
And I totally agree. Those are excellent places to cut back.
the problem is that it only works if you have the discipline day in and day out to cut spending in those areas. It may work for a while however you need to ask yourself if it’s really sustainable.
Reducing reoccurring expenses such as your cell phone bill, memberships, or unused subscriptions is a great starting point. Sure, it may not be tremendous savings, but you do it once and reap the benefits month after month.
Trim Your Cell Phone Bill By Switching To Mint Mobile
I saved $48 a month by switching my cell phone service to Mint Mobile. Plus I pocketed an additional $30 a month by renegotiating my internet service for 2 years and $25 a month by canceling 2 subscriptions.
$1,236 in yearly savings for 2 phone calls and a few clicks on my phone.
2 phone calls instead of putting in the consistent conscience effort day after day to save money other ways.
Sustainability is key here.
3. Have a Realistic Plan to Manage Your Debt
If you have credit card debt, student loans, or any other type of consumer debt, you need to have a strategic plan to pay down the debt. In today’s day and age financial freedom can simply mean being debt free!
The 2 most common strategies are using the Debt Avalanche method or the Debt Snowball method.
Debt Snowball Method And Debt Avalanche Method
The Debt Snowball Method involves paying off your smallest debts first regardless of the interest rate aka the low hanging fruit.
Alternatively, The Debt Avalanche Method involves making any required minimum payments and then using any extra cash to pay down the highest interest debt first.
From someone who paid off $108,000 in debt, the snowball method is easier to manage psychologically – especially so if it’s a substantial amount as you will see the numbers come down more quickly in the beginning. I ended up doing a combination of both strategies as I moved farther along in my repayment term.
There are more sophisticated options like refinancing student loans through a company life SoFi (I refinanced through SoFi in 2016), transferring credit card debt to a 0% interest introductory rate card, or even using a personal loan.
Now, there are countless arguments about whether you should pay down debt or invest, however that goes beyond the scope of this article. Once you’ve established your budget and reduced your reoccurring expenses, you can figure out how much extra, if any, you can contribute to your debt paydown. Only then would entertaining more advanced debt repayment strategies become appropriate.
There are way too many click-bait-type articles that make you feel like you’re behind because some blog highlights one millennial who paid off 200K in debt in 3 years or another person who paid off 100K in credit card debt in some other ridiculous time frame. That’s unlikely for most people, and the article probably only tells you part of the story.
Small gradual changes will lead to long-term results!
4. Manage and Monitor Your Credit
According to Experian, which is one of the preeminent credit reporting institutions, the average FICO® score in 2020 was 711 out of 850, which is considered Good. Here is the Credit Score Ranges according to FICO®:
- 800-850: Exceptional
- 740-799: Very good
- 670-739: Good
- 580-669: Fair
- 300-579: Very poor
Put simply, when you apply for a mortgage, credit card, or any type of loan in general, the higher your credit score the more likely you are to be offered favorable terms and interest rates.
In general, these are the factors the contribute the most to your credit score:
- Payment History: 35%. Are you paying your bills on time?
- Credit Utilization: 30%. How much of your available credit are you using? Experts recommend keeping this number under 30% of your available credit
- Length of Credit History: 15%. How long have you had credit?
- Credit Mix: 10%. The variety of loans you have.
- Recent Credit Applications 10%. Also known as hard inquiries. This occurs when you apply for a new credit card
- Derogatory Information: Paying late, bankruptcy. The weighting is unknown as not everyone has negative information on their score, but it can be detrimental to your credit score.
If you have a significant consumer debt burden, you are likely to be subject to higher interest rates. And when you apply for new loans or credit cards, that, in turn, will make it harder to pay off any existing debt thereby leading to a vicious debt cycle.
It makes you ponder…..
As the rapper Kanye West famously stated: “My Credit was so pathetic I couldn’t afford a debit.”
5. Contribute to Your Retirement Account
Even if it is $100 a month, small amounts compound over time. Suppose you have an employer who provides a matching contribution. In that case, you should at least contribute the minimum amount required to get the employer match. That way, you’re not leaving money on the table.
If you contributed $100 month for 35 years with a 7% annual return, that would be worth $167,000!
Contributing to a retirement account is critical. Once you’ve established a consistent contribution pattern, consider opting in for contribution auto increases. Many employers offer a feature to automatically increase your contribution amount by as little as 1%.
Again, you want do something that is sustainable for you.
The majority of my financial assets are from consistent contributions and returns in my 401K. I didn’t win the wealth lottery, no cryptos or meme stocks here. My investment strategy consists of just Vanguard index funds.
A general rule of thumb is to have 25X expenses saved for retirement while the average retirement savings in the fourth quarter of 2020 was only $121,500 according to a study by Fidelity.
Clearly, Americans are underprepared for retirement. Don’t let become a financial statistic.
6. Get The Right Type Of Insurance
Another critical aspect of financial success is being prepared for the unexpected. This means having life insurance and disability insurance.
Life Insurance and disability insurance often go overlooked. Act before it’s too late.
The amount of life insurance and disability insurance needed differs greatly depending on each person’s unique circumstances.
Here is a general rule of thumb for life and disability insurance:
- Insurance experts recommend having 10X your salary in life insurance.
- Standard disability insurance is 60% of your pay for 10 years
These recommendations are simply a starting point. Every single person’s circumstances vary so much. No one will be able to tell you a definitive number – because there isn’t one.
That’s the main reason I purchased my Life Insurance through Ladder. This online insurer allows you to increase or decrease your policy amount as your needs change. In the Life Insurance space, this isn’t a standard feature and was the main reason I purchased insurance through Ladder.
Let’s look at some numbers…
25% of Americans will experience a disability at some point in their careers before retirement, according to the 2018 Social Security Administration Fact Sheet. Don’t risk being caught off guard. You need to be prepared.
Many employers do offer group life and disability insurance, but you can only sign-up or cancel coverage once a year. In many cases, the policies are often inadequate. You can’t adjust the coverage to meet your specific needs (riders) and group policies may not be portable, which means you cannot keep the coverage if you leave your job. This is why I opted for private insurance policies instead.
7. Start A Cash Emergency Fund
The standard rule of thumb is to have 6 months of your take-home salary saved.
If you are single, with limited fixed expenses, you may not need to save as much. However, suppose you have a family and significant financial obligations such as a mortgage or a car payment. In that case, it’s wiser to have 6 months of after-tax earnings in a savings account.
When it comes to emergency savings, you won’t have to shell out a monthly premium. Still, you may be forgoing stock market gains on your uninvested cash. Understanding the fine line between when to save and when to invest can be difficult. As long as you contribute to your retirement account and are not simply hoarding cash, it won’t be an issue.
That said, the average adult in the United States is unprepared for any unexpected financial emergencies, just take a look:
A few years ago, a study was done by the Federal Reserve board that studied household economics and decision-making.
The findings were remarkable….
40% of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 to pay for an unexpected expense!
Start A Side Hustle (Optional)
I’m listing this as optional. Impersonal Finances had a great article explaining how most people should really “focus on your main hustle, not your side hustle.” This will most likely have the best long-term ROI. Myself included.
A side hustle in & of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re looking to pay down debt quicker, increase your retirement account contributions, or simply increase your emergency savings, then you may just need to make more money. If you have any skills, think about how you could monetize them. Maybe you have a unique skill set like woodworking or coding.
There are countless websites out there like Fiverr and others where you can purchase and sell freelance services. The opportunities are endless!
And, obviously, you can always pick-up work gig economy work like driving for Uber, Lyft, or delivering for Postmates.
One of the easiest side hustles (and my personal favorite) is bank bonus churning. I made $7,000 dollars last year without leaving my couch or talking to any clients or customers.
Banks will pay you just to open accounts with them! I love easy money!
However, don’t expect to get some get-rich-quick scheme when you start a side hustle. It’s definitely far from it. It’s more like “make a few extra bucks slowly” money.
The Bottom Line
As my unfamous uncle famously quipped “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” So make financial planning a priority to ensure you, your loved ones, and your family are on the right path forward and can be prepared for whatever might come your way.