What Is Financial Literacy?
Managing your money is a personal skill that benefits you throughout your life – and not one that everybody learns. With money coming in and going out, with due dates and finance charges and fees attached to invoices and bills and with the overall responsibility of making the right decisions about major purchases and investments consistently – it’s daunting.
You would think that because the stakes are so high that this would be a skill that gets taught in high school (or even before), but that’s not the case. Managing your own money requires a fundamental understanding of personal credit and a willingness to embrace personal responsibility. That is, you pay your bills in a timely manner and you don’t drown yourself in debt. You accept the fact that sometimes you have to sacrifice immediate demands and desires for long-term gain.
You budget. You save. You protect your savings. When you spend, you spend wisely. When you make big purchases, you do so for things that are worthwhile.
You understand the difference between good debt and bad debt. And you constantly pay attention to your overall portfolio — earnings, savings and investments. You also understand what you don’t know, and you ask for help when you need it.
To be financially literate means having the ability to not let money – or the lack of it – get in the way of your happiness as you work hard and build an American dream complete with a long and fulfilling retirement.
How to Manage Your Money
Handling your finances the right way should be a priority, and it should drive your daily spending and saving decisions. Personal finance experts advise taking the time to learn the basics, from how to manage a checking or debit account to how to pay your bills on time and build from there.
Managing your money demands constant attention to your spending and to your accounts and not living beyond your financial means.
Money in the Bank
Developing financial acumen starts with opening a bank account. Once you have a paycheck, set up direct deposit. This keeps your money secure and saves you from paying interest to cash advance companies which charge a percentage of your check.
Having a bank account provides convenience, access to a choice of benefits and safety. Checks and debit cards offer proof of payment so you have a record of transactions showing where your money goes. The FDIC insures money in a savings account for up to $250,000.
There are a number of options for the type of primary account for saving your paychecks. Most people choose a checking, debit or savings account or combination of those. These enable you to set up automatic payments for monthly bills and offer the ease of not having to carry cash around. Each option comes with certain benefits and disadvantages. Evaluate the various overdraft, monthly, withdrawal and other maintenance fees accompanying account options.
Experts recommend you have a savings account which you can use for handling unexpected financial expenses and emergencies, such as a broken arm, flat tire or hike in school tuition.
Choosing to only open a checking or savings account can be a poor choice, as having the two types of accounts separate helps distinguish between money available for immediate spending and reserves, intended to be kept for the long-term. Keeping all your money in a checking account means your savings are easily accessible and available to spend. You will miss out on interest generated by a savings account.
With money in an account, you can start spending. This is where you need discretion. Learn to differentiate between necessities and luxuries. For example, you need to pay for your yearly dental cleaning, but you want to afford the salon appointment. Take advantage of mobile banking to get updates on how much you are spending and how much remains in your account.
The best way to leverage the cash you have in your bank account will be to start budgeting immediately.
One of the first building blocks of a successful personal finance plan is the ability to budget. Although it’s easy to understand, it’s also difficult to do because it requires a hard look in the mirror and a willingness to see what really stares back at you.
Budgeting requires that you analyze and, likely, change your spending habits. Instead of your money controlling you, you control your money. Develop habits to save, avoid financial crisis and maintain peace of mind.
- How to follow a monthly spending plan
- Ways for lowering your monthly bills
- How to handle accrued debt
- Debt pay-off options like the snowball and avalanche methods
- How to distinguish between short-term, medium and long-term goals
- A breakdown of family needs
Financial Literacy & Personal Finance Basics
How do you get started budgeting? Simple: you plunge right in. You need to see exactly how you’re spending your money and identify where your financial holes are.
- 1. Start tracking your monthly expenses
- In a notebook or a mobile app, write in every time you spend money. Be diligent about this, because it’s easy to forget. This is the foundation for your budget.
- 2. Identify fixed and variable expenses
- Fixed expenses are ones that you have every month: rent, mortgage, car payment, electric, bill, water bill, student loan payment. Variable expenses are costs that go up and down each month and ones that come and go – groceries, pet supplies, haircuts, concert tickets, etc.
- 3. Add up the totals
- After three months, calculate how much you are spending, on average, per month. And look at the categories.
- 4. Study your variable expenses
- This is where most people tend to overspend. Decide what gives you the most pleasure from these monthly expenses that you feel these costs are worthwhile? And which ones can you really do without? Be honest, and start cutting. This is the beginning of the hard decisions.
- 5. Factor in savings
- A key part of budgeting is that you should always pay yourself first. That is, you should take a portion of every paycheck and put it into savings. This one practice, if you can make it a habit, will pay dividends (literally in many cases) throughout your life.
- 6. Now set your budget
- Start making the necessary cuts in your fixed and variable expenses. Decide what you want to save every week or every two weeks. The leftover money is how much you have to live on.
Effective budgeting demands that you are honest with yourself and put together a plan that you can actually follow. The more time and effort you put into your budget today, the better you will be able to maintain a life-long savings habit.
Credit or Debit?
In addition to cash and a bank account, most people own some type of plastic, like a debit card, credit card or combination of the two. What you do with these tools has serious repercussions on your ability to establish credit history and to avoid developing a borrowing habit.
Conservative financial experts recommend either having only a debit card or having both with the credit card reserved for occasional major payments and then immediately paid off. This advice is often given to people who have accrued a large amount of debt.
Starting out with one of each card can help you develop responsible spending habits and provide convenience. Consider the rewards offered by both cards, especially if you travel or make large purchases often.
The main advantage of only using a debit card regularly is you spend money you already have. Debit cards can be tied to your checking account where paychecks are automatically deposited.
Debit cards have benefits like no limit on the amount of transactions and rewards based on frequent use. You have the ability to spend without carrying cash and the money is immediately withdrawn from your account.
Because using the card is so easy, it is vital that you don’t overspend and lose track of how often you’re spending with this account. If you’re not paying attention, overdraft fees can drain your account.
Some hotels, car rental companies and other businesses require that you use a credit card. Getting an account designed for occasional use can be a wise decision. You can establish your credit history and take advantage of the time buffer between making a purchase and paying your bill. Another advantage of using credit is the added protections offered by the issuer. For online shopping and larger purchases, a credit card can be a safer option than a debit card.
Relying on a credit card can lead to taking on serious debt. Should you choose to own a credit card, the best method of action is paying in full every month. It is likely you will already be paying interest on your purchases and the more time you carry over a balance from month to month, the more interest you will pay.
Saving is an essential component of good budgeting. Using a savings account allows you to prevent emergencies from draining the money you need for monthly bills and slowly build a reserve for making large future purchases. This reserve can be used for car repairs, apartment deposits, unplanned surgeries and other medical needs and even gathering funds for a home down payment.
- 67 percent of Americans have less than 6 months of expenses in savings.
- From 2011-2014, 24 to 28 percent of Americans had zero emergency savings.
- People ages 30 to 49 are the least likely to have emergency savings.
- 1 person out of every 5 people near retirement age has zero money saved.
Make a financial commitment that you can keep, even if it means starting small, like $50 from every paycheck or cutting out your gym membership for an extra $100 a month. Remember, this account isn’t for splurging on the latest Apple product or a Michael Kors purse. Be intentional about only using your savings for needs. Whenever you take money out, do your best to quickly replenish the withdrawal.
Developing consistent savings habits allows you to leverage time, your age, your current resources, compounding interest, investments and tax-advantaged savings.
- DO set up a portion of your paycheck to automatically go to savings.
- DON’T leave a savings account as your last financial priority.
The trend of personal debt in America over the past four decades shows a slow but steady climb.
- $15,611 in credit card debt
- $155,192 in mortgage debt
- $32,264 in student loan debt
In February 2018, Experian released its annual national average VantageScore, a representative credit score, was 675, up from 666 in 2014. Still, it’s much lower than the 800 rating that qualifies to get the best interest rates when it comes time to buy a house or car.
The report also said the average consumer has a credit-card balance of $6,354.
A credit score can be a strong indicator of your financial well-being. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the primary credit bureaus and assign scores ranging from 300 (high risk) to 850 (low risk). The bureaus determine scores based on a group of factors which reflect your spending habits.
Never underestimate the importance of credit scores. Once you are spending money with plastic and paying bills regularly, you begin your history. This record of how often you borrow, how quickly you repay and how much you owe can follow you throughout your life.
- Make sure you know where you stand and address the blemishes on your credit reports.
- You can obtain a copy of your credit report for free once every year from each of the credit bureaus.
Building a high credit score can help you get approval for low-interest loans, credit cards, mortgages, and car payments. When you are looking to move into an apartment or get a new job, your credit history may be a deciding factor.
On the other hand, making late payments on bills, missing payments, piling on debts and regularly maxing out your credit card can result in seriously lowering your credit score. Just as an excellent score can give you access to loans, jobs and more, a low credit score can prevent you from being able to borrow more, pay low interest rates and even get certain jobs.
Using Credit Responsibly
Using credit cards is a way of life for most Americans. For some, it’s a tool for building credit and borrowing money for major purchases. For other, it’s a constantly refilling debt relied on for nearly every purchase.
How many credit cards do you have? Experian’s eighth annual State of Credit Report, issued in February 2018, shows consumers have an average of three credit cards.
Learning how to use these tools wisely has a major impact on your future, as potential employers may review your credit history and credit scores can be used to qualify you for better interest rates when it comes to loans, mortgages and applying for more credit.
Choosing the Right Card
Many credit cards require you meet a minimum credit score for approval. The higher your score, the more perks you will qualify for, like low interest rates and a high credit limit. If you are a student you may qualify for special rates. Decide before you apply for a card what your plan for using the card will be. Pay attention to introductory promotions which may expire after six months to one year of owning a card.
Making a Game Plan for Credit Use
Plan before you spend. You can become a responsible credit card owner by marking your calendar to avoid missing or being late for paying credit bills. Another precaution against getting in a borrowing hole is making sure you do not spend money you cannot repay and keeping your balance well below the limit for your account. Ask questions. Are there points you will earn for regular use? Is the APR affordable? What kind of limits will you have? Find out what the fine print means before racking up debt you won’t be able to repay.
Paying Off Credit Card Debt
Getting control of your credit card debt requires taking a good look at how much you owe. Take a deep breath and evaluate what you can afford. You likely will need to define a long-term strategy for chipping away at the total amount you owe while ensuring you don’t dig yourself deeper into debt. Talk to creditors to find if they can work with you to make a plan that works. Only look into consolidation and settlement as a last resort.
Student loan debt is almost as routine today as a car loan or credit-card debt. Few college graduates leave school without some sort of student loan to repay.
Most students don’t ask if they’ll go to college, but rather where they will go. And it may not be until a few decisions later that they consider how to afford tuition. Years later, when school ends and real-world living begins, the afterthought of student loans takes its toll and the bills start rolling in.
- 40 million Americans have at least one outstanding student loan.
- Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loans, making up 6 percent of the total national debt.
- The average borrower graduates from college owing $29,000.
Paying Attention to Loans While You’re Still in School
In addition to signing the promissory note for your loans, take the time to examine exactly when your first payment will be due and how much it will be. Put that future date and cost on paper and in the time between now and then, begin saving money to repay your loans. If you can work a few hours during the week, on the weekends or just holidays and summers, you can begin your post-college years with a surplus of money that can go directly toward loans.
- DO find out when your grace period ends.
- DON’T miss your first payment because you forgot to mark your calendar.
Staying in Control When You Leave or Graduate
When the time to start paying comes, you have options for repayment. The Federal government offers longer term payment plans as well as graduated repayment options which allow you to bulk up your income and get some job experience under your belt before making larger monthly payments.
From there, your next step will be making payments on time and reducing the principal if possible by paying more than the minimum that is due. For public service careers, you may qualify for loan forgiveness.
- DO make more than the minimum payment to reduce your principle.
- DON’T skip payments or accrue late fees.
When Repayment Isn’t an Option
During certain seasons of life, your income may be severely limited and affording student loan payments just isn’t possible. Fortunately, loan servicers are aware that situations like this occur and have precautions in place to help students get through these difficult times. Qualifying circumstances, like unemployment or health problems, can make you eligible for deferment or forbearance, which allow you to temporarily postpone or reduce payments. Contact your loan servicers to find out your options. If you just ignore loan bills, your account may receive delinquency or default status.
- DO communicate with lenders if you are unable to make payments.
- DON’T ignore student loans when you’re struggling financially.
Owning property is a normal goal for a sound financial plan. Home ownership not only develops a sense of achievement and pride but also builds equity. It is also a major financial undertaking and a long-term investment.
For many people, buying a home is the biggest purchase they will ever make. Unfortunately, more and more people find themselves forced to put off this purchase. Student loan debt, underemployment, rising home prices and stringent mortgage standards prevent people from buying their own homes until later in life.
Before signing a mortgage, make sure to calculate all costs and leave some savings untouched for after you buy. Home ownership often comes with a slew of added expenses like taxes, insurance costs, emergencies and necessary repairs. You want to have more than enough to barely make it by. Often getting approval for a decent mortgage rate requires waiting a few more years to save up for a larger down payment.
The planning stage before buying a house is lengthy. Prospective buyers work hard to get to a place where they can find their permanent home. The process is long and involved, demanding most people to build up their credit scores, save up for a down payment, commit to a stable job location, earn an income that qualifies for a large enough mortgage, choose a good realtor, find a suitable place to live, find a home inspector than have an offer accepted.
- The average home buyer searches 10 weeks and views 10 homes.
- The median price of a single-family home in 2018 was $261,600.
- The average price of a new single-family home in 2018 was $299,400.
- In April of 2014, home ownership for all ages fell to 64.8 percent, the lowest it’s been since 1995.
Foreclosures and Short Sales
A foreclosure occurs when borrower cannot make mortgage payments and the lender is legally given the right to take possession of collateral property. A short sale occurs when profits from selling a home are less the than debt remaining on a mortgage. In this case, the lien holder often agrees to release the debtor of the remainder of the loan.
On the other side of this coin is an opportunity for buyers looking to purchase a home at a discounted rate. While it might take more paperwork and some hoops working with a bank to get the sale approved, these homes can be discounted as much as $60,000 (RealtyTrac, a real estate information company). Have a home inspected before proceeding with the purchase as these may require extensive repairs, remodeling and insurance.
Startups are sweeping the nation. With the burgeoning tech industry and the DIY convenience of using the web as your storefront, entrepreneurial ventures have become commonplace. A University of Phoenix survey found 63 percent of adults in their 20s want to run their own businesses.
- Around 400,000 new businesses open every year.
- The SBA defines small businesses as those with less than 500 employees.
- Electronic shopping and mail-order houses
- Software publishers
- Computer systems design and related services
Startups & Small Business
Business owners use their own savings, loans, stocks and other sources for startup capital. It’s vital to research your industry and make a plan that describes exactly how you can maintain profitability. Some people rush into growing a business without properly vetting out a strategy for long-term success. Pursuing an exciting business idea and not considering all the costs involved can make your dreams short-lived.
- There are more than 28 million small businesses in the United States.
- One third of new businesses close within 2 years, and half close within 5 years.
- The Small Business Administration reports that around 10 to 12 percent of small businesses with employees close every year.
After starting a business, the work has only begun. Staying competitive in your industry requires keeping an eye on trends and adapting to changing consumer demands. From evolving your marketing strategy to expanding your client reach the work of maintaining a business requires constant dedication.
|Share of Owners|
35 to 49*
50 to 88*
One way entrepreneurs overcome their financial hurdles when starting out is by gathering venture capital, which refers to money from investors hoping to profit from partial ownership and the long-term, high-potential growth of new companies.
This capital can be an essential tool for handling startup costs, as a new business’ size, assets and development phase can prevent it from quickly growing.
While banks may be unwilling to extend credit to companies without a significant track record or collateral, angel investors and venture capital firms are often willing to take a chance on a new product or service. If there is a convincing pro forma, a detailed plan for operating the business, then investors are more likely to take on the risk.
The sooner you start saving for retirement, the more opportunities you will have to grow the resources available to you. The average lifespan has been steadily increasing. In the United States, the average life expectancy is 78.74 years (World Bank). People are working later in life and living longer, both of which impact how much you will be able to save and how much you need to last your entire lifespan.
Your personal savings account, bank, investment portfolio and employer can all be resources that help you prepare for the future.
- The average age of retirement is 62.
- The average length of retirement is 20 years.
- According to the Center for Retirement Research, nearly a third of all households nearing retirement have no retirement savings.
Annuities and Retirement
People interested in adding security to their retirement portfolio often turn to annuities, which they can purchase with one premium or with series of premiums. Insurance companies issuing annuities guarantee their payouts, hence the security appeal.
The other retirement advantage that annuities have: their principal investment grows over time, and taxes get deferred until the investment starts paying out. The IRS taxes recipients on the annual distribution rather than the value of the entire account.
A secondary annuity market exists as well for people who want to shed their annuity or structured settlement immediately instead of waiting on it to pay off years from now. This market allows annuity owners to cash out their contracts for money. The cash value for such a sale is less than it would be if an owner held on to the investment, but even those who once wanted a retirement investment find themselves needing money now and not later.
For instance, some people need to pay off unexpected medical bills or family emergency costs. Others want to pay off student loans – or are getting divorced and must make their long-term asset a liquid one. A seller can opt to sell some or all of their payments, using some money now and saving the rest for later income.
- Anyone can buy an annuity, and you can shop among a variety of them. You can get a contract that sets up distributions to be paid out immediately, in several months or years or in many years in the future.
- Options include a fixed annuity, which provides a stable payout, or variable investment, which fluctuates based on market changes. Owners can also buy riders, such as the ability to make early withdrawals or the guarantee that payments last throughout the owner’s entire lifespan.
Begin by looking at how much you think you will need and planning a retirement budget. Fidelity financial corporation urges pre-retirees to have 8 times their annual salary saved by retirement. This general guideline can give you a rough idea of what you’ll need, but to get a clearer understanding take a look at each part of the picture.
- What age do you expect to stop working?
- Do you plan to work part-time during retirement?
- What kind of pre-existing health concerns will you need to cover during retirement?
- What kind of retirement benefits does your company offer?
- Will your company provide you with a pension?
These are just a few examples of the questions you want to answer as your put together a retirement strategy. Use resources like the AARP website to find calculators for estimating expenses. You can learn about topics like how inflation will impact the value of your money and how you can expect your health cost to increase with age.
- DO consider down-sizing and keeping the money you save to supplement retirement income.
- DON’T forget about 401(k) savings when you move to a new job.
- DO decrease risks as you age, like moving from stocks to bonds.
- DON’T put retirement savings as a low-level priority just because it seems to be in the distant future.
Next look at the resources you already have. It’s never too early to start a saving account. Even though your bank may offer accounts with low interest rates, you can use the decades between now and retirement to slowly build your savings. One way to guarantee you are dedicating a portion of your income to retirement is to set up automatic transfers straight from your paycheck into your savings.
Get an estimate of your stock portfolio and how assets will mature by retirement age. Use tax-advantaged accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. If your employer offers a match plan, try to budget so that you can put in maximum contributions to get the most from this account. The value of 401(k)s has been increasing in recent years, in part due to the stock market.
Looking into the Future
Evaluate other sources of retirement income. The Social Security Administration provides an estimator for determining how much your monthly Social Security payments will be. You will notice that the longer you wait for Social Security payments (prior to full-retirement age), the more your monthly payments will be.
If you’re a veteran, teacher or other government worker, you may have pension payments you can count on. Your retirement benefits can greatly vary depending on your occupation and employer. Make sure you are aware of and participating in any employer-offered retirement plans.
As you age, periodically gauge the value of your portfolio. You may need to adjust your funds, accounting for market lows or stagnant investments. The older you are, the more you will want to put money toward risk-averse investments like bonds, rather than fluctuating stocks. Additionally, if you fall behind in your retirement account deposits, you may qualify for larger catch-up contributions which would typically be more than the yearly maximum.
This guide can help you measure your savings progress.
At age 50
Begin making catch-up contributions, an extra amount that those over 50 can add, to 401(k) and other retirement accounts.
No more tax penalties on withdrawals from retirement accounts, but leaving money in means more time for it to grow.
The minimum age to receive Social Security benefits, but delaying means a bigger monthly benefit.
Eligible for Medicare
Eligible for full Social Security benefits if born between 1943 and 1954.
Start taking minimum withdrawals from most retirement accounts by this age; otherwise, you may be charged heavy tax penalties in the future.
17 Cited Research Articles
Annuity.org writers adhere to strict sourcing guidelines and use only credible sources of information, including authoritative financial publications, academic organizations, peer-reviewed journals, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports, court records and interviews with qualified experts. You can read more about our commitment to accuracy, fairness and transparency in our editorial guidelines.
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