2016 was the year I became obsessed with my personal finances. My job as the chief operating officer of a mid-sized non-profit organization–managing spending, cash flow, employee benefits, etc.–inspired me to ask the question: Am I maximizing my own finances?
Here I will share with you a few tips I learned last year in the hope that you, too, can become obsessed with securing your financial well-being now and for retirement.
1. Game your credit score.
Your credit score is important for a variety of reasons, and it is completely within your control to manage. Aside from paying your bills on time, there are steps you can take right now to boost your credit score and substantially improve your odds the next time you apply for a credit card or, if like me, you find yourself buying a house somewhat unexpectedly. Register right now for CreditKarma.com so you can check your credit scores weekly at no charge. Using tools on that site, you can see that by paying down a certain amount of credit card debt, for example, you can depress your credit utilization (that is, the percentage of your available credit you’re using) to a level that will have an immediate and positive impact on your credit score.
Also, if you’re willing to take the short-term hit of a “hard credit inquiry,” you can increase your credit limit on current credit cards or by applying for a new one. Many bank and credit card websites offer no-charge credit score monitoring, but CreditKarma.com is my absolute favorite. Of course, we all know nothing is “free,” so expect to be offered credit cards, car loans, and insurance quotes–used properly, those, too, can boost your score and save you money.
2. Clip coupons.
No, this isn’t what your mom used to do with the newspaper and scissors. The real value in coupons these days is that they are digital and oh-so-searchable. I Google discount codes every time I make a purchase online. There are also tools you can use to help you, particularly a fabulous browser extension called Honey. It notifies you when you visit a website that may have current discount offers. The codes offer everything from no-charge shipping to 50% off your purchase. It attaches to Chrome and Safari and automates the whole thing. It never hurts to save even a few cents!
3. Take every tax break you can.
Philosophically, I’m a foe of the income tax because it’s a tax on productivity, and therefore on progress. But the fact is, it exists, so we had better make the best of it. The IRS Code has been so distorted by special interests that there are opportunities throughout to save you money.
Over the past year I’ve decided to maximize the money I save for retirement so I not only have financial security in the future, but also have the chance to keep more of my earnings for myself. For example, you can shelter up to $18,000 a year in a 401(k) retirement plan. That is $18,000 of your earnings that are not taxed until you’re retired (when your tax bracket will likely be much lower than it is when you’re working).
Also, check if your company offers retirement contribution matches (the closest thing to “free money”), and tax-exempt tools such as a Health Savings Account (HSA), Flexible Savings Account (FSA) or Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) to pay for qualified medical expenses. Simply using such things can, literally, save you thousands of dollars a year.
4. Hire a financial advisor...yesterday.
Of course you shouldn’t take my word on any of this stuff. If you’re serious about getting breaks from taxes and managing for your retirement, hire a real financial professional immediately. They have all sorts of information on what makes sense for you today, whether you’re at the beginning of your career (which is ideal), or close to retirement.
5. Use your credit card whenever possible.
We all know credit cards can be dangerous, but, if you use them intelligently, they can also help you maximize your spending power. Although this may change shortly, there are some credit cards that offer 0% promotional interest rates on purchases for up to nearly two years! Such flexibility has allowed me to make large purchases and pay them down in equal installments over the promotional period without paying any interest. Plus, many of those same cards offer pure cash back, or points to use on everything from hotels, to Amazon.com, to travel. Beware of the siren call of “free money” (spoiler: it doesn’t exist), but also recognize there are ways to get a whole lot more for your dollar.
6. (Almost) never pay fees.
Does your checking account carry a monthly fee? Dump it. Most banks offer no regular fees for checking accounts linked to a direct deposit arrangement through your employer. Also, you should never pay an annual fee for a credit card unless the rewards are just too good to pass up. I recommend avoiding credit card fees unless you’re willing to put in the effort to evaluate credit card offers. In that case, you might find that what appears to be a hefty fee makes sense.
7. Seriously investigate insurance.
If you drive, you have car insurance, but there are oh-so-many more insurance products that may be valuable to you. You can get life insurance to help pay for the unexpected (I have whole life insurance as its assets are invested and appreciate tax-free), and, for just a little bit more than what you pay for your car insurance, you can get an “umbrella policy” to cover events both on the road and at home. Ask your insurance broker what he or she might recommend. Far from being the domain of sleazy salespeople, insurance can be among the most useful financial products you can buy.
Make more money than you spend. It’s simple, but difficult.
9. Create a budget.
It’s important to have some visibility into your future financial situation, even if it’s not entirely accurate. Simply list your income against your expected expenses monthly. Remember: A budget is just a prediction, so don’t get too caught up in the very real problem of uncertainty. Excel and Numbers have templates to begin.
10. Shop interest rates regularly.
Interest is the cost of money. Despite recent actions by the Federal Reserve, interest rates remain at historic lows, so now might be the time to refinance your mortgage, car loan, student loan, or credit card debt. CreditKarma.com and others offer good tools to shop around.
11. Download all the apps...and become obsessed!
If you want to turn managing your finances into a full-time hobby like I have, bookmark these websites: NerdWallet.com (for general financial advice), ThePointsGuy.com (for tools to maximize your credit card rewards), and the The Penny Hoarder (general advice, with a recent focus on working at home). My colleague David Veksler is a big fan of a site called Personal Capital, which helps to view and manage your net worth (that is, your total assets less your debts). Pretty much every one of the tools I reference has a mobile app so you can obsess while waiting in line for coffee.
My last piece of advice is to consider breaking the taboo of talking about finances and money. There’s so much we can learn from each other, and that can only happen if we are unafraid to share our situations and experiences.
Here’s to a prosperous 2017, financially and otherwise!