Studies have shown that many young Americans struggle with basic financial literacy. Between a lack of formal financial education in schools and the social taboos around discussing money at home, most 20-somethings are lacking when it comes to financial knowledge and behavior.
With that in mind, here are the answers to a range of key financial questions many millennials are afraid to ask.
1. What’s a credit score?
A credit score is a number that summarizes your finances, past purchases and how well you manage your money. It is a three-digit number, ranging from 300 to 850, that tells someone your likelihood of repaying a loan. This one number will affect most financial decisions in a person’s lifetime and is a vital component of all major purchases. Buying a car or house, renting an apartment, getting loans, opening new lines of credit, etc. —all these decisions require a credit score review.
It is imperative that you tend to your credit score since it directly impacts your finances. The goal? Keeping it as high as possible! Think of this as a game. It is lowered when payments are late or loans cannot be repaid within the allotted timeframe. So how do you win the game? Pay all your bills on time, open up credit cards strategically and only purchase things you can afford. Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t help you in the long run.
My recommendation is to determine your current credit score and how it can be improved. You can start by checking your credit score online for free. There are a number of websites, such as Credit Karma, which allow you to create an account and receive a credit report. In addition, most major credit card companies offer credit scores for free. It is a good idea to check your credit score once a year to ensure it accurately reflects your recent financial activity.
Just starting out? Open a checking account and a savings account. This will enable you to show lenders that you can manage money. Once you’re able to qualify for a credit card, make your payments in full each month so that you earn good credit.
Your credit score impacts your entire adult financial life, so it’s important to be a good steward of it.
2. What is a 401(k)?
A 401(k) is a retirement savings plan sponsored by your employer. It lets you take a percentage of your pre-tax paycheck (you decide how much) and puts it aside for your retirement. The majority of employers often match all or a portion of the amount you elected to contribute. For example, ABC Company offers to match 50% of your contributions up to a maximum of 3%. If you contribute 4%, they will contribute an additional 2% percent. Any contributions you make over 6% won’t result in anything more than 3% from ABC Company.
You then have the option of investing your contributed dollars in stocks and bonds. Doing so provides you with the potential for your contributions to appreciate in value over time. Choosing to put your retirement savings into a 401(k) instead of a personal savings account can be beneficial, as inflation may negatively impact your savings over time, whereby 401(k) investments ensure the value of your money grows by keeping it invested in the market.
If your company has a 401(k) and offers to match your contributions, ask HR to put you in touch with the retirement account advisor to take advantage of this benefit. Saving to a retirement account early and often can be one of the biggest drivers of financial freedom later in life.
3. What is an IRA?
An IRA is an account set up at a financial institution that allows an individual to save for retirement with tax-free growth or on a tax-deferred basis. The acronym IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account. While the opportunity to contribute to a 401(k) is limited to people employed by companies that offer such plans, anyone with earned income can contribute to an IRA. An IRA can also be used in combination with a 401(k).
Just like a 401(k), you have the option to invest in the market across various stocks and bonds that you choose so that it can grow over time. IRAs do have contribution limits, though: the maximum you can contribute into an IRA is $5,500 a year (e.g., $458 a month), or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older.
There are two main types of IRAs:
The money you put into a traditional IRA grows tax-deferred, meaning you pay the taxes only when you withdraw the money, preferably after age 59½ to avoid penalties. In addition, you have the potential to receive a tax deduction for the contribution.
The money you put into a Roth IRA also grows tax-deferred. In addition, withdrawals are tax-free after age 59½, provided certain conditions are met. Due to the tax-free nature of future withdrawals, there is no immediate benefit (tax deduction) for contributing to a Roth IRA.
An IRA can be opened online quickly and easily with no specified account minimums. Depending on the level of assistance you need or want, there are a number of providers to choose from. Here is a list of the best IRA accounts of 2018.
If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) or you have extra cash to invest, then establish and contribute to an IRA.
4. How much should I put in an emergency fund?
Unfortunately, unexpected expenses, such as car repair, medical assistance, or losing a job, happen throughout our adult lives. So for the times when life doesn’t go as planned, it’s vital to have an emergency fund in the bank.
The general rule of thumb for a single individual is to have a minimum of six months of cash readily available. For a married couple, the minimum is three months, assuming that if one spouse loses their job they will only need to supplement half of their joint income. If one spouse does not work or contributes much less to the household, then it would be prudent to have six months of cash available to cover living expenses.
A good place to put this money is in an interest-bearing savings account that can be quickly accessed in times of need. American Express offers high-yield savings accounts that you can link to your checking account. This allows you to keep your emergency savings in a separate account, with the ability to easily transfer funds in an instant when an unexpected expense pops up. Keeping that much cash on hand may seem foolish, but not every life event can be anticipated.
Everyone needs an emergency fund. Make sure to keep yours in an account that grants you quick access to the funds.
5. How Do I Budget?
Creating a budget ensures you are spending less than you are bringing in and allows you to plan for both the short and long term.
The 50/20/30 rule simplifies budgeting, allowing you to break your finances down into three main categories:
- 50% of your income should go toward paying for the absolute necessities of life – your essential expenses. Housing, food, transportation and utilities fall into this category.
- 20% of your income should be directed toward your goals. Saving for retirement, an emergency fund or college tuition fall into this category.
- 30% of your income is voluntary obligations that enhance your lifestyle. This can be considered our “wants” category and includes activities like shopping and meals out.
If you have difficulty keeping track of your spending, there are a number of great budget apps and spending trackers available that will help you see clearly where your dollars are going. Check out Mint or You Need a Budget (YNAB).
If you are already using these tools and continue to overspend, I recommend you implement the envelope system. The envelope budgeting system is a tangible way to visualize your spending and hold yourself accountable. The idea is to store cash needed to meet different categories of expenses in separate envelopes. For example, rent, car payment, utilities, groceries, savings, eating out, shopping, etc. Each month, put the allotted amount of cash in every envelope. Once the cash is gone, no more spending! Using physical cash to pay for everything eliminates wasteful purchases and begins to discipline your spending habits.
Creating and following a budget involves self-discipline and sacrifice but will help you develop wise spending habits to better manage your finances now and in the future.
Planning for a financially-stable future can feel overwhelming and complex, especially when everyone is tossing around terms you don’t understand. But becoming fiscally savvy can start with a few simple steps that will, undoubtedly, have you thanking yourself in the future.
Meet the Author
Senior Financial Planner, Wealth Manager
Kayla Cook, CFP®
Kayla joined the firm in 2014. She has many years of experience working in the areas of personal finance, financial planning, and investments. Kayla is responsible for analyzing a client’s financial information and determining the best approach for meeting their objectives. In addition, Kayla provides strategic wealth management for individuals, families, and organizations. She is…
- CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™
- Series 7 and Series 63 security exams
- Personal finance, financial planning and investments
- High-net worth individuals