5 Life-Changing Financial Habits I Took Way Too Long to Adopt
This post is brought to you by M&T Bank.
This summer, TFD is teaming up with M&T Bank to bring you a special series of smart savings tips from real women — from the good habits that have helped them succeed to the mistakes they learned the hard way. We know that while anyone can read a list of dry money tips, it’s so much easier to relate to (and frankly, remember) advice when it comes from a real person. It’s also what we love about M&T — they take the time to understand what’s important to their customers so they can help with the specific needs and goals of each of them. M&T doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to banking. In the next few months, we’ll be sharing lots of stories like the one below, and hosting an event in Baltimore on July 25th all about saving for “your next big thing” (Tickets here!).
When people talk about giving advice to themselves at 18, they’ll usually bring up love, or forgiveness, or even fashion faux pas. But very rarely will you hear the words “high-yield savings account” in the mix. Getting your financial life together is a huge part of becoming a fully functioning adult, and it doesn’t happen by accident or overnight. There are so many things I wish I had been told (or was told and been smart enough to listen to) when taking responsibility for my own money, but here are the biggest and most impactful ones.
The 5 Most Life-Changing Financial Habits I Wish I Picked Up Sooner
1. Using a Credit Card with Rewards Points
Since we walk the walk of owning financial privilege here at TFD, I’ll go ahead and disclose that I was lucky enough to earn my bachelor’s degree without needing to take on any student loan debt (#forevergrateful). As I entered post-college life and saw the kind of monthly payments most of my friends were facing, I internalized one message: avoid debt at all costs.
This meant that I deposited my paychecks to a debit account and paid for everything in life from that account, only spending what I knew was already in the bank. And while this is a great strategy for reducing or paying off debt if you have it, it’s not a great strategy for building good credit if you don’t. When I finally got past the fear of taking on any kind of debt, I opened a credit card with airline rewards and paid it off every month. Lo and behold: my credit score shot up, and I’ve taken vacations and trips home with those miles probably a dozen times. These days, I put everything on that card. If I buy dental floss, it’s earning miles.
Pro tip: If you’re new to credit cards, M&T can help you choose the credit card that’s right for you.
2. Keeping a Low Balance in my Checking Account
This goes hand-in-hand with overcoming the fear of debt, but once I realized I didn’t need to pay for everything with my debit card, I also realized that money sitting in a debit account just, well, sits there. It doesn’t earn interest and it’s not working for you, so there’s no real reason to keep more than a healthy buffer there in case you need to take out cash in a pinch. Now my cash on hand sits in two places: a high-yield savings account where it earns interest without any risk, and another savings account that’s invested in the stock market, where there’s more risk and reward potential.
Pro tip: use different types of accounts for different money goals. For example, a money market account with premium interest rates may be best for emergency savings, while an IRA account for your retirement provides the opportunity to invest in a variety of options including mutual funds, individual stocks, and traditional bank deposit products so your money can compound more quickly, increasing risk and reward.
3. Paying my taxes ASAP
This one goes out to all my fellow freelancers — tax season is stressful when you don’t know where you stand financially. Before I got my financial life together, I would spend the time between January and April filled with dread and uncertainty. Would I end up with a refund this year from my day job, or end up owing a financially crippling amount from all the freelance work I did? It turns out that just keeping track of your income and not throwing away/losing your W9s throughout the year is really helpful in actually estimating your tax burden come January 1. Now I file my taxes as soon as all of my 1099s come in, and it feels great to have them out of the way/bank that refund when applicable.
Pro tip: If your taxes are more “complicated” than the average employee thanks to multiple streams of income, consider hiring outside help — an accountant may find you tax savings in places you’d never think to look.
4. Creating Auto Transfers to Savings
Saving to build an emergency fund or for another big goal can be anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to have full control and visibility over their money (ahem, me). I resisted setting auto-transfers from my paycheck to a savings account for a long time, because I wanted to decide for myself how much was left over to save each month. It was actually a financial advisor who made me see I was approaching savings backwards: I should have been saving first, then seeing how much was leftover to spend each month.
Now, a chunk of my paycheck goes right from deposit to savings, and guess what? I barely notice, because instead of having to do the math myself, it just feels like the money was never there to begin with.
5. Tracking my Daily Spending
Another kick in the pants for getting my financial ish together came from the fact that I was not properly tracking where my money was going. I finally sat down at my computer, opened an excel spreadsheet and made two columns: money in, and money out. Every single day for about four months, I entered my any and all income vs. any and all spending, and it became clear very quickly that I was spending too much. From there, it was really easy to add up my known expenses, subtract them from my income, and come up with a daily budget that was crystal clear.
Pro tip: There are plenty of online tools that can help anyone more easily keep track of expenses — your financial services provider may even offer complimentary budgeting apps with your account.
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