While everyone has different financial circumstances and goals, there are some rules of thumb that nearly anyone can benefit from following. Whether you’re looking to pay off debt, buy a home or improve your credit, following some basic rules can help you to achieve what you’re aiming for.
Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, CFP and founder of The Fiscal Femme, teamed up with the investing app Stash to compile the Stash 100, her 100 most important tips and advice for money management. Here, she shares these tips exclusively with GOBankingRates.
1. Invest now. The sooner you start investing, the greater your earning potential.
2. Invest for the long term with a buy-and-hold approach, and put your money to work.
3. Invest regularly, and it becomes a powerful new habit that compounds your success.
4. Diversify. Choose a variety of investments with different risks to reduce your risk of loss and reduce swings in your account value.
5. Choose low-fee ETFs. It’s safer to invest in ETFs, or baskets of assets, than in any one asset.
6. Take advantage of dollar-cost averaging, which is periodically buying certain stocks or other assets using a set amount of money on a schedule. You’ll buy assets when the price is low and when it’s high without being driven by emotion.
7. Combat inflation by investing your cash. Keeping too much money on hand allows inflation to erode its value over time.
8. Don’t be afraid to invest. Having some cash is important, but keeping all your money on the sidelines can put you at risk of missing out on tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars over the course of your lifetime.
9. Keep your emotions in check. Avoid impulsive decisions based on fear or greed, and instead focus on your long-term goals and intentions.
10. Don’t panic-sell just because an investment is down. Knee-jerk reactions can derail your investing success.
11. Leave day trading behind. You can be a great investor without being a frequent trader. In fact, trading less often can often be a better investment strategy.
12. Focus on your goals. Understand your objectives and time horizon to help you determine what combination of investments is right for you.
13. Park your cash in short-term Treasurys if you think you will use it within a year.
14. Learn the value of compound interest, or when interest earns interest because it remains invested. It allows your money to grow exponentially over time.
15. Avoid concentration risk. Buying individual stocks can be fun, but you shouldn’t invest more than 2% of your portfolio in any one stock.
16. Automate your investments. Then check in at least once a year or when you have a major life change to make sure your investing strategy still makes sense for you.
17. Understand and minimize what fees you are paying on your investments. Compare similar funds’ expense ratios and look out for commissions and other hidden fees.
18. Don’t trust anyone who tells you they know how the market or a stock will perform in the future. No one has a crystal ball.
19. Remember that investing is a marathon, not a sprint. Get-rich-quick schemes often end up in losses.
20. Save for retirement. The years pass faster than you expect.
21. Start by saving 1% of your salary if that’s all you can afford now, and work your way up in 1% increments. Saving for retirement may feel like a luxury or impossibility, but any amount of savings is better than none.
22. Use standard guidelines for retirement planning: Consider setting aside 15% of your pretax salary for retirement if you want to retire in your 60s and maintain your lifestyle.
23. Calculate a personal retirement goal. If you aren’t sure, retirees typically spend between 70-80% of their pre-retirement income to maintain a similar lifestyle. You can also multiply how much you think you’ll spend every year of retirement by 25, and start there.
24. Does your employer offer a retirement plan? Evaluate the investment options because every plan is different. Then choose one that’s appropriate for you, and never let your contributions sit idle.
25. Don’t leave money on the table. Prioritize taking advantage of any employer match offered in your retirement plan.
26. Consider multiple accounts. If you’re eligible for an employer-sponsored plan like a 401(k) and an individual retirement account like a traditional or Roth IRA, you may want to take advantage of both simultaneously — they each have their own pros and cons.
27. Add Social Security benefits into your calculations by checking your Social Security Statement at SSA.gov. Guaranteed monthly income in retirement can help you maintain your retirement nest egg much longer.
28. Healthcare-related costs are retirees’ largest annual expense. Consider investing in a Health Savings Account (HSA) if you have access to a high-deductible health plan. They have great tax benefits and will help offset those large expenses in your golden years.
29. Try to avoid touching your retirement accounts, and learn about the tax implications and penalties associated with different retirement account withdrawals. Retirement funds are generally only accessible without penalty after you turn 59 1/2.
30. Plan to retire early? Understand the tax rules and penalties of accessing your investments, and consider having alternate investment accounts that you can withdraw from first if need be.
31. Avoid cashing out your retirement plan when changing jobs (it’s called an early distribution), which can tack on taxes and fees. Roll that money into an IRA or your new company’s 401(k) plan and allow the money to continue to grow.
32. Honor the principles of saving and investing. It’s not about how much you make — you can make a million dollars a year and still be flat broke if you spend it all.
33. Set SMART savings goals. Make goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. This will help keep you motivated and aware of your progress.
34. Establish an emergency fund as priority No. 1. A good rule of thumb is to save between three to six months’ worth of your essential expenses.
35. Eliminate stress over your bills by setting up automatic payments.
36. Avoid the pitfalls of the U.S. post office by opting for direct electronic payments.
37. Save money by changing banks. You may reduce expenses like monthly fees by switching banks or using an online financial institution for your checking and savings accounts.
38. Earn money on your cash. Set aside what you need for regular spending, then maximize the interest you earn on excess cash by comparing high-yield savings accounts, money market funds and U.S. Treasurys.
39. Pay yourself first. Sometimes an employer can deposit a percentage of your paycheck directly into your savings or investment account, or set up an automatic transfer for when your paycheck hits.
40. Check your pay stub regularly. Ensure that deductions are accurate and tax withholding seems appropriate. Consult HR right away if something seems off.
41. Protect what you have. Insurance is an often-overlooked part of financial health. Whether it’s adequate health insurance, car insurance, homeowners’, life or disability, set yourself up for unexpected life events.
42. Jumpstart your child’s long-term savings with a custodial account.
43. Talk to your kids about money. Teaching financial skills such as budgeting at a young age can help lead to strong financial habits as they grow. Celebrate milestones together to model diligence.
44. Acknowledge your hard work when you hit a savings balance or come in under budget. It’ll keep you motivated for future success.
45. Take security seriously. Use strong passwords, two-factor verification and secure internet connections when managing your finances online.
46. Be vigilant about phishing scams, especially approaching the holiday season when fraud activity tends to increase. It can be very hard, if not impossible, to get stolen money back.
47. Create a budget to help you understand where your money goes every month. One way to do it: Take the money that hits your bank account, minus your expenses — that equals what’s available for your goals.
48. Keep budgeting simple with the 80/20 approach: Save 20% of what you make so you limit the rest of your spending to 80% of your income. You can also get even more detailed with the 50/30/20 rule.
49. Keep a money journal and track all of your expenses — but don’t let it overwhelm you. The goal is to build awareness of your spending habits.
50. Create funds for large and irregular expenses like the holidays, travel, camp or car maintenance. Set aside money each paycheck or month so that the money is available when you want it.
51. If taxes aren’t automatically deducted from your paycheck, set aside part of your paycheck so you don’t find yourself in trouble come filing season. Twetny-five to 35% is a good starting point. (Refer to last year’s taxes or speak with your accountant for a more precise estimate.)
52. Make a shopping list in advance — and stick to it! Studies show you can save yourself from unplanned purchases when you have it in hand.
53. Overspending? Try the 30-day rule. If you want to make an unplanned purchase, set the money aside for 30 days, then revisit. Often, you’ll find the impulse to spend has gone away and you’re able to avoid unnecessary purchases. If waiting 30 days feels unrealistic, start with 48 hours.
54. Delete your online payment info. The more effort it takes to shop online, the more likely you’ll be to pause and think about whether you truly want to buy it.
55. Sometimes it’s the right time for a “cash diet.” Commit to only making purchases in cash. You’ll likely spend less even on planned purchases like groceries, and it guarantees you won’t spend more than you’ve budgeted.
56. Swap your credit card for a debit card. Research shows that consumers spend less when they see real money immediately leaving their bank account. Pay down your credit card more frequently for a similar effect.
57. Buy store brands instead of name-brand products with the same ingredients. Tiny savings add up on frequent purchases.
58. Beware of BOGO “deals.” Slow down and consider the price of one item; often they are marked up to cover the cost of the discount.
59. The best rates on hotels sometimes come 15 days before you travel. Make a refundable reservation far in advance, and then check the rates again leading up to your trip. If rates have dropped, cancel the original booking for free and lock in the lower rate.
60. Take inventory. Make a list of your debts, such as credit card bills, student and auto loans and mortgages, and include the lender, balance, interest rate, payment date and monthly payment amount. Then take action.
61. Consider using the debt snowball or avalanche methods to prioritize which debt to pay down first. Each approach targets focusing on one debt at a time, rather than making extra payments on multiple obligations each month.
62. Try to avoid paying more in interest and fees. While consolidating debt can be a smart solution, doing so in a high-interest rate environment might mean more dollars out of pocket now. Beware of committing to a higher minimum monthly payment if cash flow is tight.
63. Pay off your high-interest-rate debt — such as credit card debt — first. You’ll save more by paying off credit card balances than you can realistically expect by investing those dollars in the stock market instead. A credit card balance can also bring down your credit score.
64. Take advantage of debt that works in your favor. Low-interest, installment loans like mortgages — especially those that are fixed and below 5% — and auto loans can help you build credit.
65. Don’t pay more than the minimum required for low-interest, fixed-rate loans. If your fixed-rate loan is low enough, invest the extra dollars for a higher return.
66. Pay extra attention to variable interest rates to avoid fluctuating payments that are out of your control.
67. Considering a new debt? Practice paying for it. Set aside a monthly payment for a few months for insight into how a new financial expense will impact your finances.
68. A car payment doesn’t have to be an indefinite expense. Try to keep a 60-month loan or less, and continue to drive the car once it’s paid off.
69. Zero-percent interest car loans may mean the car price itself is marked up or there’s some other catch.
70. Beware of credit card rewards. Avoid spending more than you would typically spend just for the rewards. Buy the perk with cash and save your bottom line.
71. Refinance. When your credit score goes up or your cash flow improves, you may be eligible for a better rate on your existing loans. Run the numbers to see if it makes sense — this strategy may have upfront costs but could lower your monthly payments.
72. Not sure how to build good credit? You’re not alone. Consider using a secured credit card, which requires payment upfront. Make sure to understand the fees.
73. Lean on family or friends to build your credit. Asking someone with strong credit to cosign for you can help you obtain a better rate or faster approval than what you may be able to secure on your own.
74. Build better credit in a short amount of time when you are added as an authorized user on someone else’s account. Note: Credit scores become intertwined, and both can be negatively impacted if someone doesn’t pay the bill on time.
75. Take good care of your credit to be eligible for loans with more favorable rates. Pay bills on time and keep your outstanding balances low compared with your limits — this metric is called credit utilization.
76. Remember that your credit score isn’t private. Think of it as a financial report card that can be shared with future employers, landlords and lenders.
77. When you open a credit card, use it responsibly. Charge at least one expense per month, like gas, and pay it off in full if possible. Then continue to pay it off in full every month.
78. Carrying debt does not benefit your credit. Credit card interest compounds daily, working against you because the debt adds up rapidly.
79. Set a reminder to check your credit report for free once a year with these three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and Transunion. Or check AnnualCreditReport.com, which is a one-stop-shop.
80. Dispute credit report errors. If there’s any incorrect information, contact the credit bureau directly.
81. Ask for a credit line increase. A good repayment history, higher income and/or higher credit score can warrant an increase. A higher limit can help your credit too, as long as you don’t spend more and raise your average balance.
Homebuying and Home Ownership
82. Renting may be smarter — most homebuyers don’t break even for five years. If you expect to move sooner, consider renting instead.
83. When thinking about homebuying, cap your housing costs. Target a total monthly payment of no more than 28% of your gross monthly income toward a home. This should include principal, interest, taxes and insurance (PITI).
84. Know what you have available for a down payment and what you can afford monthly for your mortgage. Keep both in mind when trying to determine your price range.
85. Negotiate your interest rate and shop around. The process can be tedious, but every point negotiated down on your mortgage can be a huge cost savings.
86. Do your research before making an offer. One tried-and-true way to value a home is by looking at “comps,” which are comparable homes in the area that recently sold.
87. Understand PMI. Private mortgage insurance is an additional monthly cost assessed by a lender in the event you put less than 20% down. It may not be a reason to wait until you can afford more, but you’ll want to budget for the extra monthly cost, which is usually 0.5-1.5% of the cost of the mortgage each year.
88. Don’t overlook closing costs, which usually range between 3-5% of the purchase price. For example, if you want to make a 10% down payment, you’ll need between 13-15% of the purchase price in cash to complete the transaction. For a more exact estimate use a closing cost calculator specific to your state. Don’t forget moving costs.
89. Get prequalified and include it in your offer. Obtaining prequalification — not to be confused with preapproval — can start the process of determining what you can afford, and it should not impact your credit or require underwriting.
90. Build a home emergency fund for the things you need to repair and replace, ongoing costs and one-time costs, too. Plan for overages when setting a budget for home renovations.
91. Keep track of deductible expenses throughout the year to maximize your tax deductions, especially if you’re self-employed. A standard deduction is applicable to everyone; other deductions — like large medical expenses and charitable donations — are relevant only if you decide to itemize your deductions.
92. Know the tax implications of different retirement accounts. Investing into a traditional 401(k) or IRA can reduce your current taxes, which saves you money now, but in retirement, you’ll have to pay taxes on your withdrawals. Compare that to a Roth 401(k) or IRA, which won’t reduce your current taxes, but investments will grow tax-free and you’ll save on taxes in the future.
93. Consider investing into a 529 plan for your children’s education. In some states, 529 plan contributions are tax-deductible and your investments grow tax-free.
94. Save on child care. If you have kids and pay for day care or camps, save on your taxes by contributing to a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (DCFSA). Money is added directly through your paycheck pretax and can be used to reimburse you for your child care-related costs.
95. Self-employed and/or experience a major life event? Tax professionals are a worthy investment. Not only can they make sure you file your taxes accurately, but they can also help you make strategic money decisions throughout the year. Make sure their expertise is relevant to your situation.
96. A large tax refund isn’t necessarily something to celebrate, as it typically means you overpaid the government during the year. Think of it as an interest-free loan to the government — not the prize you’re hoping for.
97. Getting a tax refund year after year after year? Adjust your tax withholdings with your employer to keep more of it each paycheck.
98. Use tax software to simplify the filing process. Depending on your income, you may be able to use some services at no cost. Find more information at irs.gov.
99. Keep copies of your tax returns for reference (digital is OK!). Up to seven years is suggested if you worry about being audited. Lenders typically only ask for a two-year history when applying for a loan.
100. Make tax filing easier. Create a physical or digital folder and collect all tax-related documents over the course of the year, and you’ll stress less in spring.
101. Set and stick to a holiday season budget. In addition to gifts, include travel and transportation, new clothes, holiday bonuses, decorations and fun activities, like ice skating. Be specific.
102. Make a list of gift recipients and a spending limit per person.
103. Shop early. You’ll avoid rush delivery costs and needing to search for last-minute, expensive alternatives.
104. Book travel as soon as you can and be flexible with your schedule for better deals.
105. Hosting doesn’t have to be expensive. Comparison shop and avoid recipes with too many new ingredients. Consider a pot-luck option instead of trying to do it all yourself.
106. Shop online. You’ll avoid impulse purchases, and it’s easier to search for discounts and price comparisons. Many online retailers offer free shipping during the season.
107. Get creative. Thoughtful gift-giving doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money. You can make gifts, like art, a note or baked goods, or you can gift time by offering to babysit/pet sit or help someone with other household chores.
108. Suggest a gift exchange. Suggest a white elephant or secret Santa so everyone only needs to buy one gift that will likely be more thoughtful and exciting to receive.
100. Avoid or limit self-gifting. Retailers will be bombarding you with “deals.” Resist sales and unneeded purchases. Unsubscribing works wonders.
110. Celebrate late. Consider doing your holiday gatherings a few weeks later, allowing you to book less-expensive travel and buy up gifts at post-holiday sales.
111. Be selective. You don’t have to say “yes” to every invitation or include everyone on your guest list. Keep gatherings intimate, and choose only the events you want to attend most when choosing how to allocate your dollars.
112. Reflect and evaluate what worked this holiday season, then eye January as an amazing time to commit to new financial goals.
Want more tips from Feinstein Gerstley? Join her to discuss the Stash 100 during her webinar on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. ET. RSVP here.
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