Do you ever get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you’re expected to juggle when it comes to your personal finances? With every piece of mail that comes through the front door you have a laundry list of questions. Should I shred that? (You probably should.) How did they get my address and information? (It’s shockingly available.) Should I take them up on any of their offers? (Hard to say, more research needed.)
Personal finance is a sticky subject. In same families, it’s considered taboo to talk about it at all outside the home. This can make the learning process so much more difficult both as a child and as an adult. How do we learn what’s a good investment for our retirement accounts (when we first get one in our 20’s, if we’re lucky) when everyone else is so tight-lipped?
The first place to start with personal finance is simply drawing up a list of the things you didn’t know you need to know. It can be a little overwhelming, but once you have it all written down you can go about filling in all the blanks slowly but surely. Brace yourself, it may mean making phone calls, setting phone reminders for following up and finding out some hard truths. But once you have it all in hand, you can go about making sure you have the best situation possible for yourself (and you family, if you have one of those at this point).
This one should be pretty easy! Figure out what you make per paycheck and write down how often you get paid. This is usually weekly, biweekly, twice a month (yes, this is different from biweekly!) or monthly. Students on stipends might get their funds once a semester or at the beginning of a year, too.
Next, figure out whether that’s gross pay, which is before any deductions have been made, or net pay, which is after deductions. We’ll get to what those deductions might be in a bit. Hang on to both number if you have them, though.
If your income is the same for each paycheck, simply multiply this by the number of paychecks you get in a year. Someone on a biweekly schedule will have a couple more than a person on a bimonthly schedule, so make sure to check. If your income varies, try taking the average of a few paychecks for a better idea of your income. You can do the same math over one month as opposed to the full year, too. Remember to keep your gross and net numbers separate, though!
For W-2 employees who have direct deposit, you may not have seen a payslip in quite a while. On it you should find deductions for things like an employer health insurance, retirement and state and federal income taxes. If you don’t see at least tax deductions, it’s probably time to talk to someone in Human Resources about getting that resolved so you don’t have a nasty surprise in April.
Many workers in the United States are not what’s called ‘W-2 employed,’ though. They’re often paid as contractors, and they’re responsible for finding their own health insurance, life insurance and retirement plans. They also have to know how much they’re likely to owe in taxes. This estimate is useful, because paying you taxes all at the end of the year will likely result in a fine. Quarterly payments to the IRS will avoid this fine, but you’ll need to know your income (see step one above) so you can make the estimate.
Your Cost of Living
You’ve probably heard in the news about how costs of living are rising around the country. What does that mean, exactly? For many people and families, the cost of living generally includes rent or a mortgage, the costs of car ownership and food. Of course, that’s just the basics. Anything that’s a fixed and required cost falls into this category.
In the long run, you’ll want to know what your daily, weekly, monthly and annual fixed costs are so that you can budget for them. That will allow you to compare these numbers to your income. A common personal finance mistake is to forget to budget for annual or 6-month expenses (like your car insurance, for example).
Many financial experts would call your retirement and emergency fund contributions part of your cost of living as well. While this can be overwhelming in the beginning, it should be a long term goal.
Your Credit Score
Your credit score can come in handy for quite a few things. There are also a number of ways to get your hands on it, too. Many banks will update your credit score monthly on their phone app, even. If you want to apply for a loan or credit card in the future, you’d ideally like to have a high credit score so that you get better interest rates and lower monthly payments on a home or car. You can also get access to credit cards with better benefits, such as travel rewards. You should be tracking your credit score regularly so that you notice if it takes an unexpected dive, too. This could be a sign that you’ve been the victim of identity theft.
Slightly different from (but related to) your credit score is your credit report. This is the written out version of what’s going into that final number. It will tell you who has been ‘pulling’ your credit history. There are soft pulls (think about those mailed credit card offers), which can be done without your permission and don’t impact your score. Then there are hard pulls, which happen when you apply for something like a loan or a credit card. If you see a hard inquiry on your credit report that you didn’t make, it’s time to freeze your credit and take steps to manage the damage. There are three major credit bureaus in the US, and you can often get a single free report from each of them every year. Many people will spread out their requests every few months to one of them to avoid paying unnecessary fees.
Car payments. Student loans. A mortgage. Credit Cards. Each of these is a common debt that many adults have. Make a list of any debts, their interest rates and the balances left on them. When you have all this information together in one place, it’s easier to figure out better ways to approach debt repayment. For example, a credit card with a higher interest rate should probably be receiving extra payments compared to one that has a lower rate.