On April 1, 2014, Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed April Financial Literacy Month in Minnesota. As part of that effort, the Minnesota Department of Commerce is providing one tip every day, with the help of fiancialliteracymonth.com and Money Management International (MMI), to help empower Minnesotans from Kindergarten to retirement improve their financial health and achieve financial security.
The first and most important step in developing and following a financial plan is to examine your attitudes about money. Are you ready to accept responsibility for changing your financial situation? Do you believe that you can and will change the way you make financial decisions? Can you identify at least one benefit you hope to gain by changing your money management behavior?
You are definitely ready and able to start your path to financial wellness; if you are also willing, take the pledge!
Pledge to continue on the path to financial wellness:
I will make informed financial decisions, understanding the difference between wants and needs.
I will communicate with my family about money matters so that we are all working toward the same goals.
I will be aware of the effects of advertising on the financial decisions I make, and resolve not to be influenced by them.
I will take care of my finances today by tracking expenses and creating a budget that is flexible and realistic.
I will take care of my finances tomorrow by saving for my future.
I will meet the credit obligations I have made on time and as agreed.
I will continue my personal education about financial health, budgeting, credit, and personal debt.
I will plan for periodic expenses, including the next holiday season.
By good example, I will teach my children the importance of budgeting, saving, and the wise use of credit.
If I am over-obligated, I will take the necessary steps to seek assistance.
Start your journey with a self assessment designed to motivate you. Completing this simple quiz can help you assess your current situation.
You may be anxious to get started, but it is hard to get motivated when you are knee-deep in paperwork. Getting your financial house organized is a great way to begin on your path toward financial wellness. But before you bulldoze that pile, you should know that some things are worth hanging on to. The key is to know what keep and what to toss.
Grocery receipts and other nondeductible expense receipts and statements can be destroyed after they have been recorded for budgeting purposes.
Paycheck stubs should be checked against your W-2. If it’s a match, you can toss them. If not, request a revised W-2, called a W-2c.
Canceled checks should generally be saved for three years. Keep those related to your taxes and business expenses permanently.
Utility bill stubs may be destroyed after recording, however, you may wish to hold onto these for a year to compare monthly costs.
Household documents pertaining to buying, selling or improving your home should be kept as long as you own the home.
Receipts from major purchases should be kept as long as you have the item.
Credit card receipts can be destroyed once you have reconciled with your monthly statement. Additionally, credit card monthly statements can be destroyed on an annual basis.
Individual tax return documents should be kept for seven years, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS has three years from your filing date to audit your return if it suspects good faith errors. However, the IRS has six years to challenge your return if it thinks you underreported your gross income by 25 percent or more.
Finally, before taking out the trash, be sure that all identifying information has been destroyed to avoid your personal information falling into the wrong hands.
For more information on what to keep and what to toss, check out this blog post from Money Management International
While all members should be aware of the family’s overall financial situation, choosing one person to conduct the day-to-day financial tasks is a good way to stay on top of things. The appointed individual should be organized and a good communicator. They should be given uninterrupted time to do their tasks effectively.
Consider making the job of family CFO easier by establishing an online bill payment service (offered free-of-charge by many banks and credit unions). Even better, check with your creditors about setting up automatic bill payments.
Designate a spot in your home for organizing financial paperwork. Used office supply stores offer great bargains on filing cabinets, or consider small plastic filing cabinets instead of metal or wood. If your goal is have a paperless filing system, make sure that you back-up your computer regularly and invest in a good security program to prevent criminals from obtaining sensitive information. To keep your most valuable documents safe, consider opening a safety-deposit box at your local bank or credit union.
Your credit reports can provide a snapshot of your overall financial situation. Reviewing your credit reports for accuracy can also help you to identify errors or fraudulent activity. Fortunately, it is easier than ever to obtain copies of your reports.
The FACT Act gives every consumer the right to a free credit report every year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. To get your free report, simply fill out the request form. You can also visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.
The three major credit bureaus are separate entities. It is important to know this because the information in their reports may vary slightly. Different creditors use different reports (or a combination of them) to determine whether or not you are creditworthy.
Your creditworthiness matters most when you are trying to obtain credit. If your credit report indicates that you have maintained your credit well, you should have a good chance of receiving additional credit when needed, provided you have enough income to qualify for additional credit.
Credit reports might also matter when renting an apartment, obtaining insurance or securing some types of employment. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) dictates that credit information is accessible to others only for certain permissible purposes. For your protection, you are entitled by law to know who has received a copy of your report or inquired about it.
If you find an error on your credit reports, you’ll need to know your rights. Your most effective weapon in dealing with the credit bureaus is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Legally, the FCRA protects you by requiring credit bureaus to furnish correct and complete information to companies requesting credit histories for evaluation. If you find an error on your report, simply follow these steps:
Write to the credit reporting agency disputing the item and include any supporting documents. Keep a copy of all documents for your files.
When the credit reporting agency receives your letter disputing the item, they must investigate the item in dispute (usually within 30 days) by presenting the information you submit to the creditor.
By law, the creditor must review your evidence and report its findings to the credit bureau.
The credit bureau must then give you a written report of its investigation and a copy of your report if the report results in a change.
You can also fill out an online dispute form provided by the credit bureaus. The websites for the three major credit bureaus are:
If an item on your report is found to be an error and is corrected, you can request that the credit bureau send corrected copies of your report to any creditor who received your report in the previous six months or any employer who received your report in the previous two years.
If you are not satisfied with the results of a formal dispute, you can also seek resolution with the source of the information. To do this, write to the creditor disputing the incorrect entry. After receiving your letter, the creditor may not report the information without including a notice of your dispute. In addition, once you have notified the source of the error in writing, it may not continue to report the information if it is an error.
To develop an accurate picture of the amount of money you will have in the future, take a look back. Decide if your income will be from the same or from different sources and the amount of income you can expect to earn in the future.
Use this Income Worksheet Form to help you determine the amount of income you can realistically count on.
Freedom from debt is an achievable goal for every family. The first step in regaining control is to take an honest look at your existing obligations. Take this debt test to determine if you need a plan for payoff.
Creating a list of needs and wants can help you establish your financial priorities.
Use this form to check whether the item is a "need" or "want". Then, rank the item's priority based on importance. When you are finished, put this worksheet in a safe place, it will be very helpful when setting financial goals!
Before you think about setting goals, review the five parts of SMART goals. Grant Baldwin of realitycheck.com suggests the following:
As you begin to create goals for yourself, use this acronym for SMART goals to help guide your thinking…
S – Specific – What is the exact result you want to achieve? Be as specific as possible. Goals like “I want to make more money” sound nice but are really vague. By answering specifically how much money you want to make, you can be more detailed when setting your goal. For example, you could say, “I want to make $10,000 in the next 6 months.” That is a very specific, detailed goal.
M – Measurable - What is a successful result? How will you know that you've reached your goal? When setting financial goals, measuring it should be relatively simple because there is generally a number associated with the goal. When there is some kind of number attached to it, you have something you can measure. You can track how you’re doing.
A – Achievable – I’m all for dreaming big, but you have to ask yourself if your goal is realistic. “I want to be the first Jr. High student to play in the NBA” – sounds good; it’s even measurable and specific, but I don’t know how achievable it is. You have to balance between pushing yourself to accomplish a challenging goal but also making it realistic.
R – Rewarding – There’s not a better feeling in the world than accomplishing a goal you’ve been striving so hard to achieve. I remember when I finished writing my book Reality Check how rewarding it felt. All the effort, energy, and time that you put into your goals should produce a rewarding feeling for your work.
T – Trackable - What is your cut-off date for achieving this goal? There should be a set finish line, so you are pushing yourself to achieve your goal. Without a timeline for accomplishing the goal, it is very easy to get off track, and you just get to it when you get to it. A goal without a deadline is just a wish.
Personal financial goals will differ in the length of time needed to achieve them.
These are the goals that seem easiest to save for, as they are set to be achieved within two years. The key to succeeding with these types of goals is to make sure you are very detailed in how you wish to achieve them, what they will cost, and how the money will be used.
These are savings ambitions that can usually be realized within 2-5 years. Similar to those short-term goals, they need to be specific and targeted with the amount you will put away every month, and what you plan on using the money for. Since the goals are set farther away, however, you also need to be realistic and prepare for any setbacks that may cut into your goals. (A layoff in three years shouldn’t be something that you aren’t prepared to deal with in relation to your mid-term goal.) You should also allow some “cushion room” to keep from becoming frustrated with your goals.
These are the goals that most of us are familiar with. They require more than 5 years of commitment, and can take up to a lifetime to achieve. A large down payment for a house, college savings, retirement, or the capital to start a small business could easily fall into this category. They also seem to be those goals that are either absolutely necessary for later in life (retirement, for example) or those things that drive us to stay committed to such a far-off goal (the plan to buy an acreage or to put a new product out on the market.) Regular savings is the only way to achieve these goals, so it is best to set aside that money before you ever see it (either through an automated savings plan or a paycheck deduction.)
Fill out the financial goal worksheet to get started.
There are two popular methods that people use to tackle debt.
The first is to concentrate on paying off the debt with the smallest balance first (never forgetting to make required payments to all debts, of course). After that balance is repaid, you can then apply that payment to the card with the next smallest balance and continue the process until all debts are satisfied. This method can be very rewarding because you see progress quickly.
The second popular method is to first concentrate on repaying the debt with the highest interest rate. This method will save you the most in interest charges over time. Regardless of the method you choose, be patient and persistent.
Try using this calculator to determine what it will take to pay off your credit cards.
If you ever find that you are unable meet your basic financial obligations, contact your creditors immediately to advise them of your situation. Most will offer an individual short-term solution; however, you would likely benefit from a long-term payoff strategy. For help, consider contacting a reputable credit counseling agency.
Unfortunately, bad things sometimes happen to good people. In fact, bankruptcy filers often cite an “unforeseen” event as the cause of their financial demise.
In addition to long-term savings, financial experts agree that consumers should aim to have three to six months living expenses saved for emergencies. By learning to expect the unexpected, you can keep a minor financial setback from turning into a major financial crisis.
Use this helpful calculator to help you determine how much to set aside for emergencies.
Don’t despair if you are behind on your retirement goals. If it is any consolation, you aren’t alone; studies show many households are not adequately prepared for retirement.
Here are some things to consider when assessing your retirement savings:
Take advantage of available resources. Participate in your company’s retirement plan, particularly if they have a “matching funds” program. Not participating in this type of program is literally leaving money on the table and passing up significant tax advantages. If a company program is not available to you, consider establishing an Independent Retirement Account (IRA).
Seek professional guidance. A trusted planner can help you to determine the amount to withhold. They can also help you determine your tolerance for risk and map out a comprehensive strategy that will bring you closer to your financial goals.
Take an active role. When you enroll in a retirement plan, you spend time researching your investment options in order to make informed decisions. Yet most people fail to actively manage their accounts by rebalancing their allocation of assets when market conditions change. Rebalancing your portfolio every year to keep the percentages where you want them is the key to maximizing returns and minimizing risk. Also, if you have experienced a raise in compensation, consider increasing your retirement savings.
Finally, avoid cashing out early. Remember, if you withdraw money from your 401(k), you will have to pay tax plus a 10 percent penalty on any money withdrawn. This total tax bill will probably come to about 37 percent of the money you withdraw. Even your credit card companies don't charge an interest rate that high. For example, if you withdraw $10,000, you will probably realize only $6,300. You will have to pay the other $3,700 in taxes.
One trick to keeping your financial goals is to remind yourself of your goals on a regular basis. At the very least, you should document your high priority goals and post them where you will see them every day.
For even more motivation, you might also want to try treasure mapping. To create a visual “map” of what you are striving for, surround yourself with photographs. For example, if your goal is to save enough money to go to Hawaii, try cutting pictures of Hawaiian scenes out of magazines and plastering them around your home or car, or tacking them to the bulletin board next to your desk.
Most likely, reaching your financial goals will require you to commit to saving. That is one reason saving is an essential part of any money management plan. Set money aside each month to save for your short-, mid-, and long-term goals. If you are having trouble establishing a nest-egg, don’t despair. The following are some simple ways to boost your savings:
Make it automatic. Having money automatically deducted from your checking account into a savings account helps to ensure that you meet your savings’ goal. Even better, if your employer has the capability to automatically deposit your paycheck, have some of the funds directed into a savings account.
Turn a hobby into income. Many people have untapped talents. Whether you enjoy photography, painting, knitting, or metal work, consider possible ways to earn money by doing what you love best. Babysitting and lawn work are also good ways to earn additional money.
Downsize. Most people have garages, basements, and attics full of items they no longer want or need. Holding a garage sale or advertising some of your things online could result in a boost to your savings account.
Use gifts wisely. If you receive unexpected funds, do not be tempted to spend them frivolously. Instead, put all money received from tax refunds, inheritances and gifts into an interest-bearing savings account.
For most people, financial health doesn’t depend on how much they earn, but how much they spend. To help you find out where your money is going, the next three steps involve tracking expenses.
You will start with identifying variable expenses. Variable expenses are those that vary from month to month, such as clothing and food. You have the most amount of control over these types of expenses.
To help you identify your variable expenses, create a Record of Daily Expenditures. Carry this form (or a simple notebook) with you and record every penny you spend — even if it’s only a soft drink from the convenience store, or a trip to the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant.
While tracking variable expenses is only one of the 30 steps, you are encouraged to continue tracking expenses well beyond the time it takes to complete the 30-step plan. The longer you track expenses, the better your chances of success.
Fixed expenses are those that do not vary from month to month. Examples of fixed expenses include car payments and mortgage or rent payments. Fixed expenses are the most difficult to manipulate.
Use this Fixed Expense Worksheet to track your monthly payments.
You may have a good idea of where the money is going on a day-to-day basis, but before you start working on a spending plan or budget, it is important to call attention to the top budget breaker: periodic expenses.
Periodic expenses are those that are not paid on a regular monthly basis. For example, both holiday and tax debts are periodic, meaning they are not part of regular monthly expenditures. In that regard, they join the ranks of other expenses such as auto registrations and vacations.
Often, we know when these events will occur, but still fail to plan for them. Unfortunately, when these expenses arise, many people rely upon credit to extend their monthly incomes; using credit this way is one sign of pending financial trouble. To avoid this scenario, follow these tips when planning for periodics:
Determine what you spent last year for periodic expenses. Assume that you will spend at least this amount again this year.
Don’t hide expenses. Just because you don’t list an expense doesn’t mean you won’t have to spend money on it. Don’t forget things like back-to-school expenses, auto repairs, and birthday gifts.
Plan for premiums. Remember that some items, such as auto insurance premiums, may occur more than once a year.
Open a savings account. When you have a realistic idea of what you will need to spend on periodic expenses during the year, divide the total amount by 12 and save that amount each month. Designating a savings account for this purpose may help to organize this process. Check with your financial institution, you may even be able to have the amount automatically transferred.
Here is an example of a periodic expense can impact your monthly budget:
Example: Annual auto registrations
Assume your annual auto registrations cost $800/year. How much should you budget each month to cover this expense (even if you don’t have to pay it monthly)?
$800 / 12 = $67/month
So, to be prepared for the annual $800 expense, you must put $67 each month into a savings account or into an “auto registration” envelope. That way, you will not have to rely on credit when the bill comes due.
Use this simple calculator to determine how much money you need to save per month to cover periodic expenses.
It is time to record your fixed, variable, and periodic expenses in the first column of the Expense Worksheet; do not worry about the other columns at this time.
This worksheet will help you to identify expenses that can be reduced and prevent impulse spending. The process may be time consuming, but it is vital to gaining control of your finances.
After you have calculated the total of your existing expenditures, add your income information. For this, it might be helpful for you to refer to your Income Worksheet.
Subtract the amount of your total monthly expenses from the amount of your monthly net income. If your expenses exceed your income, rest assured that there are ways to balance the budget.
Keep your Expense Worksheet handy - it will soon become your roadmap to financial wellness.
To create a balanced budget or increase savings, most people will have to find a way to earn more or spend less. If the idea of spending less sounds challenging, try starting small.
It’s important to understand that every purchase we make — excluding such absolute necessities as food, rent, and gas for the car — is a choice. The America Saves coalition offers the following examples of how making some small changes can save you an impressive $150 per month.
Save $.50 in loose change: $18
Cut soda consumption by one liter a week: $6
Bring lunch to work: $60
Send one free e-card per month instead of buying a card: $4
Buy grocery store brands: $10
Use fewer phone features: $10
Eliminate premium cable channels: $20
Borrow, rather than buy, one book per month: $15
Hand wash, rather than dry clean, one shirt per month: $3
Comparison shop for gas (saving an estimated $.25/gallon): $4
Total Savings: $150
Finally, in addition to making small changes, resolve to boost your savings by including all of your "windfall" money. This “free money” includes increased income from a pay increase, birthday gifts, insurance settlements, escrow overages, tax refunds, and inheritances.
Saving money on groceries doesn’t have to be hard work. Making just some small changes can net big rewards to your pocketbook. Simple changes in the way you plan and shop can help you reduce the amount you’re spending on groceries.
Preparing a weekly menu of what you would like to eat is the first step in effective grocery buying. You will want to list entrees as well as any side dishes, salads or deserts you are planning to prepare. Use this Menu Planner Worksheet to help plan, shop, and save.
After you have your menus planned, make a list of ingredients you will need to prepare each meal. There is no right or wrong way to make a list. It is essentially a listing of all the foods you will need to cook the meals you have planned for the week. You may want to group them in the order they appear in the store or by category such as meats, fruits and vegetables, canned items, frozen foods, cleaning supplies, and miscellaneous items.
For more information on reducing your grocery bills, check out this article from Money Management International.
Now that you have identified some areas where you would like to make some changes, it is time to revisit your Expense Worksheet from step 21.
In a column titled “adjusted,” indicate how you would like to change your spending. For example, if you are currently spending $80 per month on the Dry Cleaning/Laundry category and you wish to spend only $30 per month, write -$50 in the “adjusted” column. If you are saving only $50 per month, but would like to save $100, write +50 in the “adjusted” column.
Remember, this is not about sacrifice; it is about making choices to help you achieve your goals.
After you have made adjustments, you can move forward using this spending plan as a road map for achieving your goals.
Being in charge of the family’s finances is an awesome responsibility. In addition to providing your family with the basic necessities of life, you may feel responsible for their overall financial well-being. One of the best ways to care for your family is to be sure that you are prepared if something were to happen to you or another member of your family.
Perform a health insurance check-up. Find out exactly what services are covered and learn what preventive services are offered while performing your health insurance check-up. Ask if there limits on medical tests, out-of-hospital care, mental health care, and prescription drugs. Research your premiums and co-payments. Explore the difference in cost between using doctors in the network and those outside it. Find out if there a limit to the maximum you would pay out-of-pocket. If you do not have health insurance, seek assistance from Medicaid or your local state-sponsored plan.
Perform an auto insurance check-up. Auto insurance pays for damages, injuries and other losses specifically covered by your policy. Most states require vehicle owners to purchase liability insurance, which covers bodily injury and property damage. Read your policy carefully while performing your auto insurance check-up to know exactly what it covers. Pay special attention to the exclusions section, which lists the things your policy does not cover.
Obtain adequate life insurance. The life insurance coverage offered by your employer may not be enough. Realistically determine how much life insurance you need and then shop around. Term insurance is the most affordable type of life insurance, just be sure that the term lasts until your children are financially self-sufficient.
Don’t skimp on disability insurance. At any given age, your chances of becoming disabled are higher than your chances of dying. If your employer does not offer group disability insurance, seek an individual policy.
Protect your assets. One of the best ways to make sure your possessions are fully protected is to document them with a home inventory. In addition, a tool to protect assets is through a will. You don’t need to have a lot of assets to need a will. Most importantly, a will allows you name guardians for your children. Without a will, state law determines how your assets will be distributed. Keep your will in a secure location, such as a fireproof filing cabinet or safety deposit box.
It is important to carefully weigh your options before making a credit decision. When you sign or cosign an application for credit, you are agreeing to all its terms. Moving forward, commit to understand everything to which you are agreeing. At the very least, you will want to compare the following terms before making a borrowing decision:
Interest rate or APR - APR is the annual interest rate you will be charged on a loan or the unpaid balance of a credit card.
Length of the loan - as the length of the loan increases, the monthly payment will decrease, but the total interest charge will increase.
Finance charge - total cost of the loan stated in dollars.
Credit limit - the maximum amount you can borrow at any time.
Minimum monthly payment - the smallest payment your creditor will accept.
Grace period - number of days you have to pay your bill in full before interest is charged.
Over the limit and late fees - the amount you will be charged if you are late with a payment
Managing your finances can be like putting together a puzzle; all the pieces need to fit in order to be rewarded with the “big picture.” Working with one or more of these financial professionals can help put the pieces in place.
Tax advisor. Tax advisors provide tax advice and assistance to consumers. Tax advisors can help you to navigate tax laws, prepare complete and accurate returns, and develop a strategic tax plan.
Credit counselor. If you are struggling with debt payments, credit counseling can help. You should contact a credit counseling agency at the first sign that your debts are becoming unmanageable. Things to look for in a quality agency include history, quality, accessibility, knowledge and good customer service. Money Management International (MMI) has all of these important qualities and more.
Financial planner. Whether you are just out of college or entering retirement, most everyone can benefit from the help of a trusted financial advisor. Professional financial planners do more than offer investment advice. A financial planner may also be able to help by analyzing employee benefits, discovering insurance needs, and developing a system to manage cash flow. Financial planners can also help with estate planning and may have relationships other professionals, such as accountants or attorneys.
Lawyer. Lawyers can help consumers by preparing important legal documents such as a living trust. An attorney can also be very helpful if you need to consider bankruptcy or want to challenge a wage garnishment. Couples facing a complicated divorce can also benefit from an attorney’s advice. Lawyers can also assist consumers when a violation of the law has occurred. For example, if you feel that a creditor has violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act you may be able to sue for harassment. Working with an attorney can help you to understand your rights.
Before working with any financial professional, be sure to check their credentials. Ask specific questions about their history and areas of expertise. Finally, be sure that you are comfortable with the advisors you choose; ideally, you will be financial partners for life.
Change may be hard, but the payoff can be priceless. In addition to improving your financial situation, you may also find your money management skills can benefit other aspects of your life.
Consider the following benefits. Use this checklist and place a check next to those you will enjoy as a result of taking ownership of your finances. Feel free to add others — the possibilities are endless.