At this point, many millennials are finishing college, embarking on careers and thinking about starting families. While you may have already accomplished some of these major life goals, what you might not yet have on your radar is a financial plan.
If your current financial situation consists of just trying to pay your bills each month, you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. The best time to get your finances in order and start saving for the future is now. It’s likely that now is the time when you have fewer expenses and can take full advantage of the compound interest tied to any savings accounts you may have.
Here are six moves you should make today to get on the path to financial freedom.
1. Create a budget
If you’ve taken any kind of basic finance or accounting course, you should have some idea of how to go about creating and managing at least a basic budget. If that isn’t you, there are several free templates, tutorials and apps to get you on track. Start with a budget planning calculator. Squeeze can show you how to setup a 50/30/20 budget that takes care of your wants, needs and savings or debts.
To stay in line with your budget, comparison shop all of your recurring bills. Look for better deals on your internet, cell phone plan and car insurance for more savings. A comparison tool like Squeeze will make this easy.
Tracking your finances is an essential part of planning for a sound financial future, so use the tools at your disposal. If you don’t know how your earnings and spending habits balance out, improving your financial situation will remain a vague idea, at best.
2. Pay down debts
If you were lucky enough to have a college savings fund from your parents, you may have completed your higher education without student loans. This isn’t the case for many students, however. Even if you had some college savings, many of us still had to take out a student loan at some point. Books, tuition and rent combined with a rising cost-of-living are struggles for many.
Whether you’re paying off student loans, credit card debt or other financial obligations, your top priority should be reducing your overall debt. This isn’t to say you should neglect savings or contributions to retirement funds, but instead of blowing money on clothing and fancy cars, try to live frugally and pay down your debt at a younger age. This way, you can better your credit score and work toward major purchases like a home or business.
3. Build credit
The basic tenet of building credit is showing a consistent ability to borrow and pay responsibly. In other words, you need to take on debt strategically, paying off the principal and interest at a consistent pace to demonstrate that you are a good risk for lenders to trust and let you borrow for big purchases you may need.
Some people think that taking on debt is a bad thing, so it’s helpful to understand the difference between good debt and bad debt. Homeownership, for example, is good debt to take on. However, insane credit card debt is bad. Life can throw us unexpected expenses, so some debt may be inevitable. If you have to take on debt, try to maintain a reasonable amount of debt based on your income and expenses.
Credit is a necessary evil if you want to make any major purchase in life, from buying a home to starting a business. Even taking on a lease or buying a car requires a credit check. Can you get by without a strong credit history? Try it, you’ll see.
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4. Start saving for retirement
Now is a good time to become familiar with the concept of compound interest. It basically means you’re earning interest not only on the principle you contribute to an account but also on the interest that accumulates.
Say you put $100 in an account earning 10% interest annually. After a year, you have $110 with interest earned. The next year, however, you earn interest on all the money in the account, including the interest previously earned, so you now have $121. This is vastly simplified, but you get the idea – you can earn a lot more quickly with this type of interest.
When money sits long enough, your earnings become exponential, so starting early is the key to getting the most out of your retirement plans. In addition, many retirement accounts are pre-tax income or tax-deferred, and some employers offer a percentage of matching funds for 401K accounts, which you should always take full advantage of.
5. Roll over retirement funds
These days workers don’t expect to stay with a single employer over the course of their entire careers. You could end up switching jobs frequently as your career progresses. What are you going to do with your 401K when you leave a job?
Many millennials cash them out, but this is a huge mistake. Instead, find a good financial planner that can help you roll over old retirement accounts into new ones. This allows you to continue earning for your retirement while avoiding the major penalties associated with early withdrawal.
The money that is already put into a retirement fund has the name retirement for a reason - leave it for when you need it.
Only a handful of millennials become billionaires, but this doesn’t mean you can’t do pretty well for yourself. Investments are just one key to financial planning many millennials ignore. Find ways to earn while operating at a risk level you’re comfortable with, and make the most of the investment opportunities now–without risking your bank balance in the process.