Our panel of experts talked about a variety of ways you can get a handle on your finances by planning for the future and guarding against unpredictable life events.
President, Freedom Financial Network
What is your top advice for helping people improve their financial well-being?
Start by figuring out where you’re at and then where you want to go. To determine your starting point, calculate your net worth: the value of all your assets (what you own) minus your liabilities (what you owe). Obtain and review your credit reports and make sure the information on them is accurate. From there, you can set goals for what you really want to do in life and begin to create a realistic budget around those goals.
What are the best ways for someone to improve their financial literacy?
Today, it’s not hard to educate yourself on the basics of money management. Choose one or two reputable personal finance education websites, watch TV programs, and listen to podcasts. There is no shortage of information, nor is there one set of rules to follow. Once you get started, you’ll find common threads of information and advice. The key is to start.
Is debt management one-size-fits-all? How important is it to have an individualized plan to overcome debt?
Each person’s amount of debt, type of debt, financial situation, hardships, and life circumstances will be different, which means each person’s debt plan should be unique. Some people will be able to pay off their debt on their own with the help of a good budget. Others may find that a personal loan or balance transfer will help them eliminate debt. Still others may look to credit counseling or debt settlement to provide the support, partnership, and plan to get themselves out of their debt situation.
What signs should you look out for that your debt is no longer manageable and you need to make a plan?
Many people don’t realize they are in real trouble until it’s too late to dig out on their own. If you’re behind on any payments, juggling credit card balances, getting calls from collectors, or having trouble making minimum payments on debts, you may be over your head and need to make a plan to which you can commit.
What is the best way to get control of your debt?
Number one, you have to talk about your money and finances to really understand what is going on. Number two, it is OK to ask for help. In a perfect world you would pay down debt systematically on your own, but this doesn’t always work. You need to know there are financial tools and solutions to help you manage your debt. If you are struggling with debt, explore all of your options, ask questions, and be thoughtful about what you want to accomplish with your debt burden and your overall financial picture.
Director of Client Services and Program Performance, GreenPath Financial Wellness
What is your top advice for people attempting to improve their financial well-being?
Having trusted advice and an action plan to develop a working spending plan, set up a simple savings plan, and understanding how to get on track to pay off debt are all powerful ways to improve financial well-being. Especially for those facing financial hardship during this challenging time, it’s helpful to understand the “tried and true” ideas that help people with financial health, from setting a spending plan or monthly budget, to prioritizing payments and bills, to using credit cards wisely.
What’s the best way to improve one’s financial literacy?
A secure financial future depends on getting access to trusted and relevant information about financial health, especially around credit and debt. Becoming informed about finances is powerful, but that information must come from trustworthy sources, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Nonprofits certified by the nation’s largest nonprofit financial counseling organization, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, are also good sources of information to improve financial literacy. Additionally counselors who are HUD-certified can provide education, information, and resources around the needs of potential and current homeowners and renters.
There are many useful articles, webinars, and learning experiences available online that are specifically designed to provide trusted information that empowers financial wellness and literacy. One of the topics you might look into is what goes into a person’s credit score. Articles and videos will focus on the five factors that go into a person’s credit score, so people have the knowledge to improve their financial situation. People can work through online learning experiences and other educational resources to help them understand issues around topics including managing student loans, housing financing (such as forbearance and avoiding foreclosure), and how to use credit cards wisely.
What role does managing credit play in a person’s financial wellness?
After working with our clients across the decades, we have seen that building healthy habits around credit and debt is directly related to empowering financial wellness.
A few of those healthy habits include:
- Taking the time to pull reports that show full credit history and current credit score to be sure all information is accurate and up to date.
- Having a healthy credit score means people get favorable interest rates on any loans they might apply for – like a car loan or mortgage.
- We advise our clients to pull their credit report regularly to understand what is being reported, and if needed to check for errors. Annualcreditreport.com now allows weekly updates of all 3 bureaus during the ongoing pandemic.
- Talking to a credit counselor will give a person who is looking to improve their credit score, and perhaps is facing hardship, insight and information to understand their options.
- Credit is only part of the picture when it comes to financial wellness. Our counselors guide people to focus on their total financial situation, look at spending habits, explore different options, and make a personalized plan.
What first steps can one take to manage credit challenges before they get out of hand?
People who are dealing with challenges with debt are not alone. Especially during this truly unprecedented time, people may have needed to use credit cards to manage bills, and now may be wondering how it has affected their overall financial picture. As a first step, being aware of the situation is extremely important.
We suggest people review these five questions about their specific situation.
Asking these simple but sometimes challenging questions can help people identify the areas they need to address first.
1. Are you unsure of the amount of debt you owe to lenders?
- If people do not know their total debt, and their debt-to-income ratio, that can be telling.
- As we look to manage debt during the ongoing pandemic, getting a clear picture of how much debt people have is the first step in creating a healthy plan to financial wellness.
2. Do you pay only the minimum monthly payment?
- Most credit card statements include a chart outlining how long it is going to take to pay off the debt. Seeing in print that it will take 10 to 15 years to pay off debt can be very stressful.
- While each person’s situation is unique, this could also be a warning sign that people may need to develop a positive plan to pay more than the minimum.
3. Do you take credit card cash advances to help pay bills?
- If someone is facing uncertainty about how to cover costs for monthly living expenses, one tempting “quick fix” is a credit card cash advance, especially in the face of unexpected income loss or other emergency situations.
- But keep in mind, cash advances will have a higher annual percentage rate (APR) than standard purchases. This can add a lot to the cost of borrowing, making it even more difficult to pay off in the long run.
- Again, this can be a sign that someone could use guidance and a plan specific to their situation.
4. Are you maxed out or over the limit on credit card balances?
- As people reach limits on their credit cards, minimum payments increase, and often a creditor will raise limits, which adds to the potential for even greater debt.
- If someone has hit the maximum amount on credit cards, it is time to take a hard look at where money is going and make a plan to change any habits that are not beneficial to financial health.
- Here again, looking at the total financial picture is very important to see how much of income is going to housing, car payments, and living costs. It may be time to reevaluate. Options depend on a person’s specific situation, income, expenses, and other considerations.
5. Are you getting collection calls?
- Getting calls from debt collectors is a strong indicator that it’s time to make a solid plan on what to do next.
- Engaging a debt counselor can help people develop an agreement with creditors that can consolidate the full amount of loans at a lower interest rate or for a longer repayment period. It can get people back on track much quicker and relieve the stress that they may have been experiencing.
How can a credit counseling partner help manage challenges with credit?
It’s important to understand the importance of obtaining debt counseling from a trusted and certified organization. We suggest people take the time to do their research, read online reviews, and check with the Better Business Bureau and other consumer organizations to be sure the organization is trustworthy.
The benefits of a debt management plan can be transformational for people looking to get a handle on their finances. It’s a good chance to learn new spending habits, stay on track to pay off debt, and build a healthy financial life.
A free consultation helps people learn about various debt repayment strategies based on their specific situation, and educate themselves on how to avoid debt problems in the future. This educational library is also a good place to start.
Certified Financial Planner, Founder, Curtis Financial Planning
What is your top advice for people attempting to improve their financial well-being:
Financial well-being is a state where a person feels they can meet their current and ongoing financial obligations, have the ability to spend on things that enhance their life, and at the same time know their financial future is secure. To reach this state takes discipline and planning. The first step is to clarify current finances: examine what is coming in and what is going out; evaluate if debt is accumulating or not; determine a savings plan, both for retirement and other goals; and designate an adequate cash fund for emergencies.
If you are spending beyond your means and accumulating debt, it’s time to prepare a budget to get back into balance. Include paying down personal debt in the plan. If debt, such as credit card debt, has gotten out of control, seek help from an experienced credit counselor to create a repayment plan. Carve out at least 10 percent of your income for savings, preferably in a tax-deferred retirement account or a Roth IRA. If you’ve done the work, created the budget, and making ends meet is still too hard, look to the income side. Consider ways to earn more money by learning new skills, asking for a raise, taking on extra work, or finding a higher paying job.
Sometimes, a more drastic change is necessary to get on a sound financial track, and significant modifications usually involve trade-offs. If this is the case, it means spending time to identify your most valued goals. Is it buying a new car every four years? Or saving more in your retirement account or 529 account for your child? Is it always wearing the latest fashion? Or shopping in your closet until your credit card debt is paid off?
After these basics are mastered, more time can be spent on taking advantage of other financial strategies to enhance your wealth.
What’s the best way for someone to improve their financial literacy?
Because financial literacy is not taught in most school curriculums, it’s up to each one of us to seek out ways to get educated about finances. The first step is to figure out which medium for learning you enjoy the most, because it will improve the chances you will continue your education. For example, if you enjoy watching and learning from videos, there are endless resources on Youtube.
For example, I typed in “beginning personal finance” and came up with this list. If you enjoy reading, do a search for personal finance bestsellers on Google (i.e., a search for the best personal finance books of 2021 led to this list) and then order the book from your local library. If you would rather listen, search audible or other listening apps for personal finance books.
You can also check out your local community college for classes on personal finance. I have taught a basic personal finance class in the summers for a local college and the class is open to the public for a small fee. There is a growing resource of apps and websites to help people learn about money and work with an adviser at low cost (some examples: https://callheymoney.com/ or https://facetwealth.com/).
The next step is to schedule time to listen, watch or read the materials you’ve chosen. Take good notes and think about ways the information applies to your own life. Becoming financially literate is just the first step, the next one is applying what you have learned to your own finances.
For women in particular, what advice do you have for trying to gain control of one’s financial future?
My first piece of advice for women is to take ownership of their finances. Don’t delegate it to someone else to take care of, whether it be a relative, significant other, or spouse. If married, a team approach to the household finances most benefits women, so they know where the accounts are and are in the loop on all key financial decisions. In this way, if something should happen to the marriage or your spouse, you will have peace of mind knowing that you understand the finances.
Seek out a trusted professional if you have the resources and you don’t have the interest or time to do it yourself. Just make sure that adviser is a fiduciary. Another way women can gain more control over their financial future is by talking to other women about how they handle their money. Find trusted friends or create a money circle to talk about money issues and financial topics. Seek out an hourly fee-based financial adviser to get help on financial issues as they come up.
Women need to be their own advocates. Ask for more benefits or a pay raise when you feel your work warrants it. Don’t be afraid to negotiate salary/benefits when accepting a new job.
Lastly, women need to get educated about investing and be willing to invest to reach their future goals. Keeping cash in a bank will not beat inflation but buying stocks will. And as with everything, there is a balance.
What advice do you have for women who are feeling the pressure to either care for their family or focus on their careers? What practices would allow them to do both successfully?
First and foremost, seek out employers who have family-friendly employee benefits and who have good gender diversity in their management and employee population. These types of employers allow work-from-home, tele-commuting, family leave benefits, daycare, and maybe even part-time work and other benefits that support working parents, especially women.
Talk to your spouse or partner about sharing childcare and house-care duties, and set up systems and schedules so each person knows their role to keep things working smoothly. Ask local family members if they are willing to help.
Set strict boundaries at work for your time. Let your employers know it’s important for you to attend certain family events and that these come first before working overtime hours. And stay with these boundaries yourself, even though you would love to work on that project just an hour longer.
Finally, practice selfcare. Being a parent and employed is a balancing act. Many times what gets left out is selfcare. There are so many ways to practice, either by meditation, exercise, or just going out and having fun. Make sure it’s on the schedule, and involve the children so you have more together time.
What are some of your best tips for turning day-to-day financial management into long-term financial success?
Watch your discretionary spending. Try to go for three days without spending any money and notice how hard it is. Do you habitually spend money on coffee or other beverages? Eat meals out often? Buy things at the grocery store or drugstore you really don’t need? Many people don’t know where their money goes and it’s hard to track cash spending, so paying more attention to these cash leakages and curtailing it can add up over time.
Automate saving and investing: Your company retirement plan contribution (401k, 403B) automatically comes out of your paycheck, so you don’t see it once it’s set up. Do the same for other savings. Set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account or investment account, and you don’t have to think about it again.
Automate bill-paying: Missing credit card payments or, worse, mortgage payments can cause your credit score to plunge. Automating these payments is easy and pays huge dividends for peace of mind and keeping your credit score strong.
Don’t let too much cash accumulate in your low-interest checking or savings account. Once you have an emergency fund saved (6-12 months of necessary expenses) send the rest to your investment account.
Use credit cards wisely. Use at least two cards. Pay off the balances each month if you can. Don’t open too many credit cards — stay away from individual store credit cards if you can; it’s easy to forget to pay those. Don’t let cards go stagnate: Charge at least something small each month instead of closing them out.
Learn about investments, risk, and compounding returns. Don’t be afraid to invest a high percentage of the money you’re saving for retirement in stocks. Your risk profile depends on your age, time until retirement, other savings, and other income.
Read the personal finance column in your local paper — they are often topical and may apply to your personal situation.
Take some time to think about what you most value in life and try to align your spending with those values. With this type of work, it’s important to keep your longer term goals in mind. For example, if you are renting now but hope to one day own a home, each time you spend on something that is a want instead of a need, it puts your farther away from that big goal. Value-based spending is an antidote to mindless spending on things that may not be that important to you.
Vice President of Direct-to-Consumer Sales, SBLI
What is your top advice for people attempting to improve their financial well-being?
I like to tell people that their greatest financial asset is not their house or savings: it’s their lifetime earnings. The average American with a college degree earns over $2.5 million over their career, so your and your family’s financial well-being really depends on that income stream. So my top advice is to protect that income through life insurance to make sure it continues for as long as you had intended.
What are the best practices for educating oneself about ways to improve financial literacy?
There are obviously many books, websites, and podcasts out there to learn the basics of money and some best practices. With these, you can really start to understand the common language and challenges we all face. But everyone’s situation is just so different, and I’ve found that one of the best practices is to ask friends and family for advice. Learn from other people’s experiences — both successes and failures. Sometimes the failures can be more educational than the successes.
When should someone begin thinking about life insurance and what are the first steps?
I think having a life insurance policy is crucial any time you have other people who benefit from your income, or who would be burdened by your debt. So, it is best to actually think about life insurance ahead of various major life events, like getting married, having children, taking on student loans, and even buying a house. Those are the most often identified times when you should be protecting your income, so you can protect the financial future of your family.
Many people mistakenly assume life insurance is only for married people, but we work with so many single people who have parents or other loved ones who benefit from their income or would be liable for their debts. The first steps should always include understanding your current situation and future plans, as well as speaking to a life insurance professional.
What details should you be looking for when choosing a life insurance plan?
One of the most important parts of choosing a life insurance policy is to be sure that the coverage is adequate for your loved ones’ needs. Meaning, is the amount of coverage selected going to pay for their essentials like housing (mortgage or rent), food, and other needs in case something should happen to you? Are you matching the length of the coverage with your exposure?
It is so critical that you look at your complete financial picture and identify exactly what you would want the beneficiary to do with the money — almost like an instruction list. You may identify priorities like paying off the house or setting aside rent money for a certain number of years, but you may also want them to be able to pay for special events like college, weddings, and family vacations. These are the kinds of things that you would have paid for personally, if you were able to do so. Just remember, it’s your income that helps make those things possible, so protecting that income stream is critical.
Lastly, and equally as important, you want to be sure the company you entrust with your loved ones’ future has a long and strong history of paying their claims quickly and in full. Buying the cheapest policy is no good if you cannot count on the money being there when it’s needed the most.
How can life insurance protect not only your financial well-being, but also your loved ones when you are no longer able to?
It really comes down to understanding your income stream and your plans in life. How much impact would your loss have on your family’s future? Would your significant other need to take time off from work to grieve? Would you want to be sure they could stay in the house? Would you want to guarantee that college could still be possible?
A big part of financial well-being is the peace of mind that comes with knowing you have your bases covered by planning ahead. Nobody likes to stress about money, so insuring your family against unforeseen events is the most important way life insurance can protect your loved ones.