Financial literacy is not something that just happens to you. In fact, it is a skill that involves education and practice. And while you might believe you are financially literate because you make and stick to a budget, in reality, it is so much more than that. On the path to financial literacy, having a budget is but one of the many steps in the right direction toward being financially responsible. But being financially literate involves practicing and building on the skills you need to make sound decisions with your finances over a long period of time.
If you are a young or newly independent adult just starting out in the world, you will likely feel daunted by the trend in today’s high cost of living, especially if you are entering the workforce and learning what it means to balance new income with your new expenses. In fact, a recent survey from Merrill Lynch/Age Wave finds that 70 percent of adults aged 18 to 34 depend on their parents financially—whether for everyday expenses, like cell phones and groceries, or even rent or mortgage. Despite this help, the survey found three-quarters of millennials define adulthood as being on their own financially. So if this is the case for you, certainly you’re not alone.
How Can You Build Financial Literacy?
The topic of financial literacy is a timely one – April is National Financial Literacy Month – and here we provide some concepts for you to think about on your journey to a more financially literate future.
|Create a Budget||Consider Disability + Life Insurance|
|Start an Emergency Fund||Plan for a Home Purchase|
|Check Your Credit||Protect Your Apartment or Home|
|Maximize Retirement Options||
Understand Your Health Insurance
|Learn to Invest||
Create a Budget
A personal monthly budget allows you to plan for how you’ll spend and/or save your money each month and also keep track of your spending patterns. Creating a budget may not sound exciting, it’s an important exercise in keeping your finances in order.
With a budget, you can begin to prioritize your spending and better manage your money and financial future.
Start an Emergency Fund
Charging an unexpected expense on a credit card can be financially devastating as high interest charges accrue. And yet, only 40 percent of Americans say they could cover an unexpected $1,000 bill with savings. While that sounds high, you could easily be hit with a staggering bill in one visit to the emergency room, the vet or the car repair shop. Building an emergency fund cushions the blow so you don’t have to rely on your credit card—or your parents.
Check Your Credit
What you don’t know can hurt you…and your financial future. We’re talking about your credit score…and if you’re like half of Americans, you haven’t checked your credit score recently.
A credit score ranges from 300 to 850, and anything over 700 is considered pretty good. A high credit score is a great advantage when you want to take out any kind of loan, including a mortgage. On the path to financial literacy, you’ll have lower interest rates, which saves you money in the long run.
It takes time and effort to build good credit by consistently paying your bills, but you can decimate your credit fairly quickly by defaulting on loans or filing for bankruptcy.
A study by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that about 20 percent of consumers discovered an error when checking their reports, and that number could be even higher considering the recent spate of data breaches. A strong credit score ensures you are offered the best possible rates for credit cards and mortgage and auto loans. Not sure how you measure up? See if your credit card offers a free credit report as one of its perks, or visit Annualcreditreport.com to take a look at yours.
Maximize Retirement Options
Even if you don’t plan on retiring for decades, it’s important to start saving now. If your employer offers a retirement plan, don’t wait to sign up. Many companies even offer a match up to a certain percentage, and if you don’t contribute at least that much, you are literally leaving money on the table.
If your employer doesn’t have a 401k plan, you can look into a Roth IRA. Whatever route you take, make sure you’re putting away enough money so you’ll be comfortable in your retirement years.
While saving for retirement can seem futile when you have so many needs now, we promise that your future self will thank you—a lot—for saving early when you have the longest potential time to take advantage of compounding interest. Need some saving inspiration on your journey to financial literacy? Check out this chart that shows what happens to your money if you start saving early, compared to later.
Learn to Invest
Once you have your emergency savings set aside and you’ve signed up for a 401k or Roth IRA, it’s time to start thinking about investments. Investments include mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and real estate—but be sure you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This means you should diversify your investments. That way if some parts of your portfolio aren’t very profitable for a few years, your other investments will help make up the difference.
Consider Disability and Life Insurance
Think you’re invincible? Think again—the scary truth is that more than one-quarter of today’s 20-year-olds can expect to be out of work for at least a year due to a disabling condition before they reach retirement age. While on your path to financial literacy, consider getting disability insurance; it can help you pay your bills until you are back to work.
And while you especially need life insurance if anyone depends on you financially, it’s a smart benefit for anyone to have, since the policy can cover funeral and burial expenses. The next step on the path to financial literacy is to make sure to check with your HR department to see what your company offers in terms of disability and life insurance—and make sure you take advantage of this important benefit.
Plan for a Home Purchase
Along the path to financial literacy, you might find yourself considering the purchase of your first home. And while it is easy these days to be priced out of homeownership in many markets, in other places, a monthly mortgage payment can be close to the same amount as rent. (This calculator will help you determine the viability of buying vs. renting.) And if the common down payment of 20 percent sounds daunting, there are a wide array of programs that can get you into a home for substantially less. If you are relatively settled in your locale, it’s worth talking to a real estate agent and mortgage broker to find out the true cost of home ownership, as it’s still a tried-and-true avenue to long-term wealth.
Protect Your Apartment or Home
If you are not ready to buy, and you plan to rent, you might not think you need insurance, but you’ll regret skimping on it if your apartment gets broken into or your dog bites a visitor. Renter’s insurance will cover your belongings in the case of theft, fire, water damage, etc., and also can cover liability for a variety of scenarios—and it’s typically surprisingly affordable, averaging less than $200 a year.
If you own a home, chances are good that you probably have homeowners insurance as a requirement from your mortgage provider, but double-check your policy to ensure it covers as much as you think it should—such as the actual “replacement value” of your items, rather than just cash value, and short-term lodging in the even you are displaced.
Understand Your Health Insurance
PPOs, HMOs, HSAs…the alphabet soup of health insurance is enough to give anyone a headache. But if you don’t know what your insurance covers, you could be on the hook for an unexpected high bill…or you might be delaying services that would be covered. Some plans even offer free telemedicine services or other perks that you could take advantage of if you only knew. Log in to your health insurance portal and click around a little to find out what’s covered and where…certain insurance only works at specific hospitals, for example. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to seek out your HR department. They are there to help make sure you understand your coverage and limits inside and out.
As life changes occur, you naturally grow, learn, and build upon your experiences. In this way, it is important to understand that getting on the path to financial literacy is an ever-evolving journey; it takes time and perseverance. And while you may find one concept relevant now, you might find another one more relevant to your life situation later. Each part of the process is not wasted, only propelling you to a more secure financial future.