My Five Minute Crash Course on Financial Awareness

The thought of trying to get a handle on personal finances is one of the most daunting and emotional tasks for many people. It is so easy to pull out a credit card to pay for something and think “I’ll deal with it later.” Then when the monthly bill comes you immediately regret that purchase and wonder why your balance just keeps growing and growing and you can’t make a dent in it each month.

Then there is the situation where you may be spending more than you make, but you are sure that you have a bonus coming in at the end of the year and you will be able to pay off that debt soon. (How confident are you really in that bonus?)

If you are someone who would you rather have a root canal than look at your tax return or try to understand your personal finances, I am talking to you. You may be a high achieving professional who earns a significant income but is embarrassed to admit that you don’t have a handle on your own finances. Or you may be a stay at home parent who is trying to balance your budget but have no idea if you are on track.

Financial literacy isn’t taught in our schools and even today the notion of financial literacy carries with it the aura of only being accessible to people who are wealthy enough to have others managing their money. But in reality, it is not an inaccessible topic and we need to start demystifying it. Everyone has a right and responsibility to understand how to get the most out of their own money. We work so hard all day earning our money – shouldn’t we know the best way to utilize it to our advantage?

Here are three quick lessons you can use to take control of your finances now. This is about taking baby steps to begin to be more financially aware. Once you understand the basics, the more advanced concepts related to investing will be easier to grasp.

1. Know what is coming in
This sounds so simple. You know how much your salary is (or your partner’s) and you think you know what your bonus was last year. But that is only 10% of the equation. Pull up your most recent paystub and really take a look at it. Go through each line item line by line. (Yes, I know it can seem boring, but don’t you want to know where all of your hard-earned money is going?)

Start at the top. The gross pay number should be what your salary is multiplied by the number of paychecks you get each year. How much is being deducted for taxes? Those lines are going to be marked as federal tax, state tax, FICA (social security) and Medicare. You may have other deductions, some of which will be pre-tax and some which will be post-tax. For example, if you contribute to a Roth 401(k), that deduction will be pre-tax. If you contribute to a regular 401(k), that deduction will be post-tax. Why is that important? When you withdraw funds in your retirement, you will not pay tax on the Roth withdrawals, but you will on the regular 401(k) withdrawals.

You may have other deductions from your gross pay such as insurance, union dues, contributions to commuter or parking plans, Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), and Health Savings Accounts (HSA). If you are an executive with an expense account or with other retirement benefits, you may have several deductions directly related to those benefits packages. It is important to understand what all of your line items are.

Even if you are earning a significant income and have enough money to pay all of your bills each month without sticking to a rigid budget, you need to know where your money ends up each month. Staying on top of your benefits package ensures you are taking full advantage of it, and also allows you to understand what benefits you can take with you and what you may be leaving on the table if you leave the company in the future. If you don’t understand a line item, ask your HR department. They will usually be able to very easily tell you what the deduction is.

As a side note, if you are a W-2 wage earner and receive a large tax refund each year, you may be over withheld. You can make an adjustment to have a lower withholding through your HR department which will essentially give you back a bit more money each month rather than waiting for your tax refund. Just understand that you will not receive such a large tax refund in April or you may owe money back to the government if you are under withheld.

2. Know what is going out
If knowing what is coming in is important, knowing what is going out may be more important.

Getting a handle on your spending each month is probably the most important step to getting control of your finances. You don’t need to spend money on a fancy computer program to tell you what you are spending your money on. But you do need to invest a bit of time really digging into this. There are no shortcuts (taking some will not give you the best results) and the process can be emotionally painful for some people, but it is necessary.

Gather your last twelve months of bank and credit card statements. I suggest using a full year because it most accurately will capture those unanticipated expenses or “pop up” expenses that you don’t plan for but inevitably occur. Do an overview calculation each month of how much you are spending on each credit card and how much is coming out of your bank account and going towards expenses (be careful not to double count credit card payments.). With respect to the credit cards, it is more helpful to look at what you are spending each month rather than what you are paying off unless you pay off your entire balance each month.

Once you have a solid year of your total “outflows” look at what those numbers are and compare that to your net income on your paycheck or the net income that is coming into your bank account each month. This may be where things get painful. If you have more money going out than coming in, calculate that annual amount so you know it. If the differential is high, don’t judge yourself at this point or give up and throw in the towel. Just know how much you are overspending. Remember, knowledge is power. Knowing the number will allow you to fix it and make adjustments going forward.

3. Understand your debt and credit score
Most of us have debt – it is a reality. Understanding what kind of debt you have is critical because not all debt is created equal. Debt such as a mortgage is usually considered by financial planners as “good debt” because you may be able to deduct the interest on your taxes and because you are building good credit by making timely monthly payments to your lender.

Credit card debt is often considered “bad debt” because you are paying late fees and interest every month you carry a balance, and there is no tax break for credit card debt. Interest rates on credit cards can also be very high and if your balance gets close to your credit limit, the company may reduce your credit line. If you have credit card debt, check what the interest rate is on each card. It is usually wise to pay down the credit card with the highest interest rate first. You may also be able to consolidate your balances by doing a transfer to a card with a lower rate. The mechanics of this are beyond the purview of this article, but if that is something you are interested in you should call your credit card company and ask what your options are.

Finally, if you don’t know your credit score, you should order a credit report. Your credit score is a three-digit number which basically tells lenders how likely you are to repay your debt. Your score takes into account how often you make payments on time and how many accounts you have in your name. You can order your credit report via a number of websites. If you have a low credit score, one of the most important things you can do for your overall financial health is to take steps to raise that number.