102 Personal Finance Tips Your Professor Never Taught You

piggy bankIf you're anything like me, you graduated from college and perhaps even took a finance class or accounting class here or there, but you didn't learn anything about managing your personal finances. In fact, there probably wasn't even an opportunity to take any such class in either high school or college. But if college is partly about training us for a job, shouldn't we learn what to do with the money we earn from a job? Especially in a country where 45% of college students are in credit card debt and 40% of all Americans say they live beyond their means, I think it's time to wise up to some of the challenges of money management. A few (say, 102) simple financial tips can help get your money life (back) on the right track.

The Painfully Obvious But Rarely Followed Tips

  1. Pay yourself first. Try to put away at least 10% of your pre-tax income into a savings account.
  2. Spend less than you earn. While this seems obvious, Americans are notorious for doing just the opposite. Stop spending and start saving.
  3. Pay your bills on time. Avoid needless late fees and know how much money you actually have.
  4. Avoid debt to the extent possible. Student loans and mortgages can be "good debt", but even then, make paying them off a priority.
  5. Set a budget. And live by it. Use a computer program or just a paper and pencil. Whatever works.
  6. Set concrete goals. Know when you want to buy a new home, when you want to retire, and how much you are expecting each to cost you.
  7. Have an emergency fund. Have at least three months' income (some say six) in a high-yield savings account that can be easily accessed.

Career and Education

  1. Get educated. A college education always pays for itself and more. In 2004, bachelor's degree holders earned an average of $51,206 per year, while high school graduates earned only $27,915, according to Census data compiled by HighBeam Research.
  2. Your career is your most valuable asset. Manage it with a higher priority than you would with any other investment. Remember that without this asset, you couldn't survive.
  3. Save enough. You should try to save enough to cover at least one-third of your kids' total college costs.
  4. Consider public schools. Especially for college, state schools can often times be just as prestigious, if not more, than private schools.
  5. Consider community college or online college for your first year or two. You can then transfer these credits to a more expensive (and prestigious) school to finish your final two or three years.
  6. Invest in a 529 college savings account. It's tax-free. What more needs to be said?
  7. Ask for a raise. Use the Salary Wizard Calculator to see if you're making as much as you should. If not, consider asking for a raise, especially if you've been at the company for more than a year.
  8. Get a professional certificate. Some professions offer a certificate that, if earned, will generally provide you with a higher salary.
  9. Don't major in English. If you love studying English, there's nothing wrong with that. Just be aware that English majors generally don't earn very much. Six of the top ten list of majors with the highest salaries are engineering majors, with chemical engineering topping the list.

Credit and Loans

  1. Get a rewards card. If you need a credit card, the best type to get is a no-fee rewards card that you pay in full every month.
  2. Borrow no more than 30% of your available credit. Borrow any more, and your credit score won't look too good.
  3. Pay off your credit card debt. Credit card debt is usually the debt with the most interest. So pay it off first. Better yet, don't accumulate it in the first place.
  4. Don't use your credit card for cash advances. It will harm your credit score and the interest rates are outrageous.
  5. Know your credit score. Order your credit score from Equifax, Experian, and/or TransUnion.
  6. Protect yourself from identity theft. Obtain your free credit report at least once per year and follow these tips.
  7. Pay all credit card balances in full each month. Leaving a balance on a credit card account will leave you susceptible to a very high APR. You may as well be throwing cash into the fireplace.
  8. Consolidate your loans. Especially those student loans. With a student consolidation loan, you can lock in several loans at a fixed interest rate and have just one lender to pay each month.
  9. Avoid payday loans. Bottom line: they're scammy and they charge high interest rates. If you do need an emergency cash loan, just be aware of the risk of high interest rates.
  10. Beware of scams. There are a lot of scams that deal with credit. Debt suspension offers, paying fees in advance, buying credit protection, and rebuilding credit usually sound too good to be true. There's a reason for this: they are.
  11. Be cautious with home equity loans. If you can't make a payment toward a home equity loan, you could lose your house.

Frugality

  1. Buy a used car. The most expensive miles on a car are the first 10,000. Let someone else drive those for you. Buying used can save a lot of money considering how little value the car has actually lost.
  2. Be patient. Don't buy that new gadget today. Wait a month or two and the price will certainly go down.
  3. Buy airline tickets as far in advance as possible. The cheapest flights are the ones the are bought at least two months in advance. For holiday travel especially, buy as soon as you can.
  4. Get the most bang for your airline miles. Be sure each airline mile you redeem is providing you with at least 1 cent toward the price of a ticket.
  5. Never buy the extended warranty. Often times, your new product already comes with a 90-day or 1-year warranty (when most "faulty" things will break, anyway). There's a reason everyone wants to sell you an extended warranty: they're hugely profitable (for the business, not for you).
  6. Make your own meals. Eating out gets to be expensive if you do it too often.
  7. Make your home more energy efficient. Bankrate.com has a list of 17 ways to do so.
  8. Get a better cell phone plan. If you've had the same cell phone plan for a couple of years, chances are there's something better out there. Look around or call your current provider and ask for a better deal.
  9. Banking fees are for suckers. A lot of banks will charge you checking fees or minimum account balance fees. Find a bank that does not.
  10. Keep track of your spending. At least for a month, keep a journal of everything you purchase. At the end of the month, review your spending priorities and make adjustments.
  11. Ditch your car. Walk, bicycle, or take public transportation. You'll save on car payments, gasoline, parking, and speeding tickets.
  12. Use your frequent flier miles often. They may expire before you know it. There's no sense in stockpiling them. If you have enough for a free flight, use them.
  13. Buy through your favorite airline's partners merchant store. AA.com, for instance, has multiple retail partners from whom you can earn frequent flier miles with each purchase.
  14. Negotiate fees. For example, ask a bank to waive late fees. Often enough, they will.
  15. Get your free money. Money might be owed to you. Get it.

Homeowning

  1. houseUpgrade your old bathrooms and kitchens. These are often selling points on a house. A modernized bathroom can provide over a 100% return, while a modernized kitchen can return about 90%.
  2. Refinance your mortgage if you can cut at least one point. The costs of refinancing are considerable, so it should only be done if you can trim your interest rate by at least 1%.
  3. Never spend more than 2 1/2 times your income on a home. Know what you can afford and what you cannot.
  4. Put at least 20% down on a home. Making a down payment of less than 20% will usually result in a private mortgage insurance (PMI) fee being added. This is usually 0.5%, meaning it could cost you about $1,000 a year on a $200,000 principal.
  5. Use a mortgage broker. The better your mortgage, the more you'll save. Shop around.
  6. Investigate different types of mortgages. There are dozens of mortgage options out there. Find the one that suits you best.
  7. Buy a house that needs repairs. Buy for cheap and then add to the value with repairs. You'll save money
  8. Deal directly with the seller. Avoiding agents' fees is a good thing. If you do decide to hire an agent, do your homework and get one who will be on the same page as you. You should be the one calling the shots.
  9. Find out about homeowner taxes. Know what the property tax is in your area and be prepared to have enough to pay it.
  10. Find out about secondary costs. In addition to monthly payments, be prepared to incur some secondary costs, including repairs, notary, escrow fees, and title insurance.
  11. Get the house inspected by a professional. Have the house thoroughly inspected before making an offer.
  12. Negotiate the selling price. Home prices are almost always negotiable. Never offer the asking price, but rather a few percentage points below it.

Insurance

  1. Insure yourself against financial ruin. There should be no higher financial priority in your life than health insurance. Without it, if your health takes a turn for the worst, hospital bills could easily bankrupt you and your family.
  2. High deductible is your friend. Keep those monthly premiums as low as you can.
  3. Don't use insurance as an investment vehicle. Liquidity and certainty are not on your side.
  4. Have enough. Have enough life insurance to replace at least five years of your salary, ten years if you have kids or significant debts.
  5. Don't have too much. You need health insurance. If you're single and have no dependents, you don't need life insurance.
  6. Think about insurance before you buy a car. Typically, the more expensive your car, the higher your insurance cost will be. Take this into account when buying a car.
  7. Choose the right car insurance. Don't assume you should get the cheapest auto insurance or the one with the most protection. Find out exactly how much coverage you need.
  8. Consider dropping collision coverage. Especially if you have an older car, there's not much sense in protecting it against getting wrecked if it's already a wreck.
  9. Buy homeowner and auto coverage from the same insurer. You'll usually get a better deal than you would if you bought the two separately.
  10. Write a will. If you have any dependents, you need a will. Write one and protect your loved ones.

Investing

  1. stock graphBe wary of mutual funds. Few mutual fund managers can beat both the market and the expense fee that they charge.
  2. Don't try to pick stocks. Picking stocks can be a very dangerous game, unless you know what you're doing.
  3. Avoid fees. With long term investing, fees are a primary factor in total return. Avoid brokers who take high commissions and avoid funds with high management costs.
  4. Stocks are high risk, high reward. Over the long term, stocks have historically outperformed all other investments. But over the short term, they can be risky if they lose a lot of value in a short period of time. So, do invest with stocks, but only with funds you won't need to withdraw over the short term.
  5. Stocks first, bonds later. Invest in stocks when you're young, and then move into bonds are you grow older. Stocks are a good long-term investment strategy. If you're still young when the market turns south, you'll have plenty of years left ahead of you to make it up. As you get older, invest in bonds. They're less risky.
  6. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success. Just because a stock has been up for the last six months does not mean it will continue to go up tomorrow.
  7. Diversify your portfolio. Never invest more than 10% of your portfolio in any one company. Even if it's a "sure thing".
  8. Build a nest egg that is 25 times the annual investment income you need. Don't think you can rely solely on social security.
  9. If you don't understand how an investment works, don't buy it. Research an investment vehicle thoroughly before you get into it.
  10. Don't borrow from your 401(k). Think of it as robbing yourself. You'll get hit with high fees and taxes, too.
  11. Invest for the long term. There is no such thing as a guaranteed get rich quick scheme. And in investing, there is no high reward without a high risk. Use caution and diversify your portfolio for the long run.
  12. Seek professional help. Don't feel the need to turn yourself into a day trader. Hire a personal financial advisor if you can afford to.
  13. "Fee-only" is your friend. Go with a fee-only financial advisor, not a fee-based or a commission-based. Only fee-only advisors are legally obligated to act in your best interests.
  14. Index funds are your friend. Index funds are passively managed and are generally cheaper and more tax-efficient than actively managed funds.

Retirement

  1. Optimize your 401(k). If your employer offers employer match, you must set your 401(k) contribution to at least that amount.
  2. Play the IRA game smart. Max out your 401(k) first, your Roth IRA second, then your traditional IRA.
  3. Increase your 401(k) contribution. Especially when you get a raise. Some employers even give you the option of having your contribution automatically taken out of your paycheck.
  4. Don't buy stock in the company you work for. This is the opposite of diversification. What happens if the stock tanks, and you lose your job and pension because of downsizing?
  5. Don't be afraid of stocks. More than two-thirds of 401(k) money is in low-yielding bonds. Especially if you're still young, invest in stocks. Over the long-run, they perform the best.
  6. Sign up for Medicare. Don't forget to sign up for Medicare before you turn 65, even if you haven't retired yet.
  7. Plan. Use the Social Security Retirement Planner to ensure that your retirement goes smoothly.

Saving

  1. Save now. It doesn't matter if you're six or 60. You should be saving a little bit every month, aside from retirement savings. The sooner you start, the better.
  2. Pay off high interest debts before you start saving. Earning 5% in your savings account isn't going to do much good if you're accruing 17% interest on your credit card debt.
  3. Save at least 10% of your annual salary for retirement. This should help to provide a nice retirement fund when you need it.
  4. Keep at least three months' worth of living expenses in a savings account or high-yield money market account.
  5. Open an online savings account. Online savings accounts, such as Emigrant Direct or HSBC Direct, offer yields of greater than 5%.
  6. Set up an automatic savings plan. You should be able to set up your checking account so that a certain amount is automatically transferred to a savings account each month. It's a good way to force yourself to save.

Taxes

  1. 1040 income tax formKnow when to file your taxes. If you expect a refund, file your taxes as early as you can. If you owe money, file as close to the due date (usually April 15) as possible.
  2. Consider itemizing your deductions. If all of those tax breaks receipts you keep add up to more than your standard deduction, it is definitely worth filling out all of the extra paperwork to itemize.
  3. Be aware of other tax deductions. Contributions to a traditional IRA, student loan interest payments, alimony payments.
  4. Save money on tax credits. Some tax credits to look out for include the Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Credit, and Child Care Credit.
  5. Bunch your deductions into one year. If you're taking the standard deduction this year, consider making charitable contributions and office-related purchases after January 1, so you can possibly itemize your deductions next year.
  6. Recheck your withholding every year. If you get married, have kids, or become the head of a household, you'll want to add these allowances on your W-4 so you can have fewer taxes withheld.
  7. Keep your receipts (especially on big ticket items). You'll want them if you plan to itemize, or in case you get audited.
  8. Concentrate on tax-free investments. Tax-free investments, like bonds, allow you to earn interest without being taxed.
  9. Buy a hybrid vehicle. Hybrids tend to be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, but you can save money on gasoline and possibly receive a tax credit of up to $3,400.

Lastly

  1. Take a deep breath. Even if you're only able to follow the first seven tips, which are the real basics, you will have already succeeded in making a huge positive difference in your financial life.
  2. Money isn't everything. Health, family, and happiness are important, too. And remember, money can't buy you love.

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