Personal Finance

New year. New decade. New (financial) you.

Woman sitting on the floor with laptop and worksheets

    Lizzo taught us to love ourselves in 2019, so let’s ditch the diet resolutions and turn our attention from our bodies to our bank accounts in 2020. 

    The late aughts brought some of the most challenging economic times in modern history. Markets crashed and millions of people lost their homes to the subprime mortgage crisis. At the start of the 2010s, young Americans faced unique challenges. A steady job with benefits right after college? Good luck. Solid, trustworthy investments? Tricky, at best. 

    But as the last decade progressed, we saw slow and steady economic growth and the introduction of new technology allowing us to track and manage our finances like never before.

    As we begin the next decade in a better situation than the last, how do we strike while the iron is hot and make plans for our financial future? Glad you asked!

    It’s OK to be basic...and we’re not talking about PSLs. 

    Financial stuff can be complicated so keep this part your life simple with three financial pillars: budget, savings, and debt.

    Budget

    First step: Figure out where your money is going. Even those who consider themselves frugal are often surprised to learn what they spend once they start tracking. Use an app like Mint to zero in on where you spend the most. Then, pick a quick win, like canceling that membership that's been hanging on since the Obama Era, and feel the rush of accomplishment that'll fuel your next step...

    Forget the fees! Long gone are the days of wasting hard-earned money on the Blockbuster late fee (as personified by Antoni Porowski's Halloween costume).

    But needless fees are still lurking everywhere, from credit cards to utility bills. Set up auto payment on your recurring expenses to avoid late fees, and make sure you have overdraft protection on your bank accounts (average overdraft fees range between $30-40 a pop).

    Cancel culture. Review your recurring payments and reassess. Whether it's the gym membership you barely use or the HBO login you got to binge Succession, the mantra here is CANCEL IT. Companies know that regular deductions are the easiest way to lock customers into spending money they would never commit to upfront. 

    Stop losing s#i+! How many times have you bought a new charger only to find one in a drawer the next day? Get your KonMari on and organize your stuff so you can find things easily, making them less likely to get lost or broken. More money in your bank account... spark that joy!

    Kick it college-style. Remember when you’d lounge around someone’s living room with a beer every Friday night? When did you get so fancy? You don’t need dimly lit bars and restaurants to drink and dine. Alcohol in bars has some of the highest markups of all consumer products. Next time your friends propose an outing, invite them over and grab a bottle of wine and some Brie at the grocery store.

    Don’t leave money on the table! If you have a health savings account or a flexible spending account, use it early and often for copayments, vision, and dental costs. Book health appointments in advance so you don’t end up trying to snag one between Christmas and New Year’s like everyone else.

    Insure it. Budget for renters insurance and, if you own your home, make sure you’re adequately covered by your homeowners insurance. Remember, it’s not the value of your brother’s old futon that you get back if something happens, it’s the cost to replace what was lost.

    Savings

    OK, boomer: We'll follow your lead with this one. Some basics haven't changed. You should save with two primary goals in mind: emergency funds and retirement.

    Leverage workplace resources. We know retirement feels like forever away, but so did summer break, and that always came around eventually. Remember, the money you save in your 20s and 30s will yield the highest return. The extra $25-50/month you put in a retirement account will earn interest for decades. If your employer offers a 401(k) (and especially if they match your contribution), take advantage of it. Free money is the best money!

    Maintain a savings account for emergencies. Don’t rely on credit cards or friends and family when your car transmission blows or your appendix refuses to be ignored. Open a standard savings account (the same kind you had in elementary school) and schedule funds to transfer monthly.

    Start small. Ever heard of micro investing? Apps like Acorns connect to your bank account and round up each of your purchases, then save or invest those small amounts. Stash, Robinhood and Betterment work similarly, and some even offer access to financial advisors. 

    Take advantage of the gig economy. Love animals? Anxious to reach your step goal? Use an app like Wag or Rover to walk dogs on evenings or weekends. Do you get an ASMR-style tingle after successfully assembling furniture? Sign up for Taskrabbit and put your skills to work. Take the money from extra gigs and deposit it into your savings or retirement account.

    Plan ahead for big expenditures. Thinking of buying a home? It’s likely the largest purchase you’ll ever make, so do it wisely by taking advantage of programs for first time home buyers: 

    • Your state’s Housing Development Authority likely has a variety of programs that offer home ownership counseling, reduced down payments, or grants for closing.
    • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helps service members and veterans with competitive interest rates, often requiring no down payment or mortgage insurance.
    • Fannie Mae offers lower down payments, assistance with private mortgage insurance, and special interest rates.

    Debt

    If you have debt, pay it off as soon as possible, and then focus on building credit. 

    Work your way down. Tackle debt with the highest interest rate first, and don’t just stick to minimum payments. It's amazing how small savings can add up to bigger – and faster – repayments on large owed sums. Interest rates are tough, and paying the bare minimum will have you paying that interest for years to come.

    Budget for debt. Treat your debt – credit card, education, home loan, etc. – payments like a rent payment or utility bill, and build them into your monthly budget. They're not a surprise, so planning for them should be a cinch.

    Don't give yourself a raise. You should feel pretty phenomenal after wiping out some big debts, but to really save smart, operate as though you're still paying them – and funnel those funds into a savings account or other debt, instead.

    What goes around...

    Don’t forget to give back! As long as you’re budgeting funds to fuel your Game of Thrones addiction, set up a quarterly or monthly contribution to your favorite charity, local public media outlet, or alumni scholarship fund. ROI isn’t always monetary. And, it feels good to do good!

    Here’s to you in 2020!

    The ZebraResource Center