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Alamy When your first “real” paycheck arrives, a common reaction is to celebrate by buying a round of beer for your buddies at your favorite bar. While that’s not a terrible thing to do once, starting out your adult financial life should be viewed as an opportunity to create financial security for your future.
According to the “2013 Financial Stress Research” report from Financial Finesse, 62 percent of those surveyed who are under 30 report having “some” financial stress, and another 15 percent say they have a “high level” or are overwhelmed by financial stress.
However, with a little know-how you can keep financial stress at bay. Here are tips from money pros on how to get started on the right foot.
1. Live by a budget. Having a budget is a critical first step. It’s the framework that keeps your whole money situation in place, says Alexa von Tobel, a certified financial planner and founder/CEO of LearnVest.com.
“At LearnVest, we love the 50/20/30 budgeting method: 50 percent of your take-home pay (your paycheck after taxes) goes toward your essentials (rent, utilities, groceries, and transportation), 20 percent goes to the future (paying down debt, saving for emergencies and retirement), and the rest — a whole 30 percent — goes to your lifestyle (eating out, vacations, shopping, etc.),” says von Tobel.
Melody Juge, Managing Director of Life Income Management, says young people need to avoid a big car loan and should look for the cheapest (safe) apartment they can find when they first start work.
Also, pay attention to seemingly little daily expenses. “Avoid the lattes — it’s a bad habit to get into,” she says. At $4 per day, five days a week, $20 per week multiplied by 50 weeks per year (if we consider that you will get a two-week vacation), that’s $1,000 you’re spending on coffee each year, she says. “Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? How about $10 a day for lunch, that equals $50 per week times 50 weeks — that comes to $2,500 for lunch!”
2. Sign up for your 401(k) as soon as you can. Setting aside money now for your retirement allows it to grow over the long term and saves you money on your current income taxes.
Most pros recommend saving a minimum of 10 percent of your pre-tax paycheck. If you do this from the beginning, you’ll never notice the difference in your take-home pay. “If your employer offers any matching for retirement benefits, take advantage as much as you can,” von Tobel says. “This is essentially free money, so don’t leave any on the table.”
3. Automate your savings. “When you’re in your 20s, it’s hard to find the balance between living in the moment and planning for the future,” says Scott Spann, resident financial planner with Financial Finesse in El Segundo, Calif. “Rather than making the mistake of having intentions to save throughout the month and the money simply not being there, automate savings through payroll deductions or automatic transfers of at least 10 percent of your income.”
To be really serious about saving, Juge recommends diverting 10 percent of every paycheck into a personal savings account, in addition to your 401(k) payroll deduciton.
4. Establish a “freedom fund.” Having money set aside for emergencies is key to avoiding financial disaster. Says von Tobel: “This is your safety net. It will cover you if you’re in between jobs, and give you the freedom to leave a bad relationship or a job you hate. It allows you to sleep easier at night, knowing that you’ve given yourself some financial security.”
Ideally, your freedom fund should have enough money to cover three to six months of living expenses. You won’t reach that level overnight, but don’t let that discourage you: Simply set aside as much as you can each paycheck until you hit your goal.
5. Pay down your debt. While it’s important to build up your emergency fund and your retirement savings, there are a few times when other things take precedence. If you have high-interest credit card debt, you should shift your priorities a bit.
Spann recommends establishing a “starter emergency fund” — perhaps $1,000 to $2,000 — and then attacking high-interest debt with payments above and beyond the minimum required amounts. As far as other debt, von Tobel suggests consolidating your student loans and prioritizing debt payments. “Pay the minimums each month on your federal loans and put whatever extra you have toward your private loans first, since these tend to have higher interest rates,” she says.
6. Put your goals in writing. Establishing meaningful goals — both financial and broader ones — and prioritizing them based on what matters most to you will give tasks such as budgeting more purpose and meaning, Spann says.
Don’t just keep those goals in your head: Make them concrete by putting them in writing. A simple goal-setting worksheet can guide you through the exercise and help you solidify your short-term and long-range goals.
7. Track your credit score. You may have graduated from school, but that doesn’t mean that you’re no longer being graded. Your credit scores are the most important grades you’ll get outside of school, says von Tobel. “These three numbers play a huge role in your financial life, as they represent how responsible you are as a borrower.”
The factors that go into your score include how long you’ve had credit, your payment history, and your credit-to-debt ratio. Some basic rules to maintain good credit scores: Keep your oldest credit card open, pay your bills on time every time, and avoid maxing out cards (keep your spending below 30 percent of your available line of credit).
You can track your score for free at sites like CreditKarma.com and request one free credit report a years from each of the three credit reporting agencies at annualcreditreport.com.
8. Understand your taxes. Paying taxes is one of least fun parts of entering the grown-up world. But the more you understand what you pay, the better you’ll be able to minimize your tax hit.
“Take time to understand, even at a basic level, tax planning strategies to help you make the most of your wealth today and into the future,” says Spann. Some simple moves can help ease your tax burden: “Contribute as much as possible to a 401(k) plan at work. If a retirement plan isn’t offered, then contribute to a Roth IRA. If you are in a high-deductible health care plan, contribute as much as possible to a health savings account to lower your taxes today and be able to take out this money tax-free for health care expenses.”
9. Run your finances like you run your social life. “There are a lot of moving parts in personal finance, so it’s important to get organized,” says von Tobel.
She recommends setting up a separate email account for your bills and financial statements so that they don’t get misplaced or accidentally overlooked. Also, set calendar alerts for key dates, such as bill due dates, open benefits enrollment at your workplace, and tax prep deadlines.
You can get rolling on many of these money strategies with only a few hours of effort. So take the time now to establish some financial goals, automate your savings, check your credit, and put key dates on your calendar.
By starting your financial life on the right foot, you’ll be saving yourself years of stress, and gaining confidence about your money management skills too.
Michele Lerner is a contributing writer to The Motley Fool.