There’s a reason you hear the same nuggets of financial advice time and again from lots of different sources: podcasts with successful entrepreneurs, investment self-help books, even your own crew of money mentors. That's because these tenets really do work when it comes to managing your money and building a solid financial future.
To that end, we've rounded up what experts consider to be the top five of these old-school money mantras. They cover the gamut, from budgeting basics to growing your money to supporting yourself through retirement and beyond. Find out why they stand the test of time and how you can tap their wisdom.
Pay Yourself First
It's the basic principle of earning a paycheck: After subtracting taxes and other pay period deductions, the money you make goes directly into your pocket. But the idea of actually paying yourself goes beyond just depositing your wages every two weeks. This mantra is all about setting aside some of that take-home pay for your future: your emergency fund, your debt pay-down goals and retirement.
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It's not easy, we hear you. But it helps to look at it as your opportunity to prioritize yourself and your needs—needs that may not even be on the horizon yet. “Make ‘yourself’ an expense item on your spending plan,” suggests Certified Financial Education Instructor Anne Marie Bisson, vice president of marketing and financial education at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union in Lowell, Massachusetts.
How to Do It: Natalie Taylor, CFP®, a financial planner with LearnVest Planning Services, says the first step is to review your income and expenses and commit to a realistic savings amount to dedicate toward your goals on a regular basis. Feel like you can't spare a cent? Remember that starting small, even allocating just 1% of your take-home pay to your 401(k) or emergency fund, is better than nothing.
“Then, set up an automatic transfer to a separate account for your goal that hits the same day you get paid, so that the money disappears from your checking account before you can spend it,” she says. This is the money you're paying to yourself. “Every six months, adjust your automatic transfer by a small increment (like $25 or 1%) to build this habit over time.”
Live Below Your Means
It’s tempting to buy a flashier car or upgrade your wardrobe when your income gets a boost. Yet money pros agree that not allowing your spending to surge out of proportion to the amount that's coming in can help get you to financial security. Even better? Living below your means—it provides you with the peace of mind that you’ll always have enough spare cash for fun stuff (vacations!) and rough patches (unforeseen bills).
How to Do It: Start now! “The earlier you start, the easier it will be later,” Taylor says. “Many of my clients feel like living below their means will get easier once they make more money, so they put it off, but for most, that’s a mirage. Once they make more money, they’re living in a nicer apartment, have a mortgage or have kiddos—all of which make it more challenging to live below your means if you haven’t started already.”
As for the nitty-gritty, Taylor suggests reviewing your budget to ensure that you do, in fact, have less money going out than coming in. If your balance sheet isn't in sync, trim some non-essential spending, like trading in cable TV for a streaming service or swapping pricey boutique classes for a more modest gym membership. Also, don't be tempted to rely on credit cards if you can’t pay them off in full every month. “Credit cards allow us to spend more than we make, which is living above our means,” Taylor says.
With every rise in your cash flow—a pay raise, tax refund or extra dollars from a side gig—consider putting 50% immediately toward your savings goals, so you won't have easy access to it for impulse purchases or lifestyle upgrades. “This strategy enables you to build in the habit of living below your means over time,” Taylor adds.
Save for the Unexpected
When times are flush, it's hard to imagine having to deal with an out-of-nowhere medical emergency or a job layoff. But things happen, and it pays to be prepared.
“When I was younger, I used to think that if I didn’t have a specific goal to save for, I didn’t have to save [at all],” says Certified Financial Education Instructor Timothy Lay. “Now, in my line of work helping people prepare for retirement, part of the challenge I see is that most people have more debt than they have saved in the bank. Most people don’t save enough—they might use a credit card for a flat tire. They don’t save for the loss of a job or a disability.” Having that rainy day fund can keep you from racking up debt.
How to Do It: If you’ve never funneled savings into a dedicated emergency fund, you’ll want to start by stashing away at least one month's take-home pay before accelerating any other financial goals. Once you’ve reached that benchmark, continue to save up to three, six or even nine months of your take-home pay, depending on your situation.
And don’t forget to make room in your budget for the insurance you or your dependents might need for protection in the event of a major emergency, Lay says. Disability, life and other kinds of policies are important to look into.
Let Your Money Work for You
Socking cash away in a traditional savings account may not provide enough growth to meet your goals, depending on what that goal is. For longer-term goals like retirement or, say, buying a home in the next five to 10 years, having your money parked in an account with a super-low interest rate is akin to letting it collect dust. So this piece of advice suggests putting your cash into passive investments so you're better able to take advantage of the power of compound growth.
“We work hard to save, so it’s vital that whatever money you are saving is working as hard as possible, meaning it’s earning the highest interest rate available,” Bisson says.
Adds Taylor, “For every dollar your investment account grows with the market, that’s one less dollar that has to come out of your pocket to meet your goal.”
Just remember that investing does come with risk, as no one can know how the economy will act at any given time. How much risk you're willing to take is up to you, but keep that in mind when choosing where to put your savings.
How to Do It: If you're looking into a low-risk investment like a certificate of deposit, “comparison shop for the best savings or CD rate, just as you would shop around if you were buying a big-ticket item like a TV or car,” Bisson says. “Ask questions, know your options and find the best deal.” Online resources like Bankrate.com show real-time interest rates for the highest-yielding CDs, savings and money market accounts available to consumers.
For those who have goals five or more years out and are ready to dip their toes into the markets, Taylor advises investing in a low-cost, diversified portfolio. Being diversified—that is, investing in a mix of different kinds of assets—is key because, no matter how savvy you are, no one can truly predict how the market will rise and fall. Thus, it's better not to put all of your eggs into one proverbial basket. You'll still be dealing with a certain level of risk, but diversifying helps spread that risk out among your investments.
Your Best Investment Is in Yourself
“Invest in as much of yourself as you can,” Warren Buffet likes to say. His point is that every person is his or her greatest asset—so you should foster your talents, build your skills and otherwise better yourself in order to help you realize greater financial rewards down the road. Investing in yourself might mean going back to school, taking a job abroad or simply attending a conference within your industry where you can get your name out there.
How to Do It: “In some cases [pursuing] higher education or learning a trade could mean a bigger paycheck, which we would all appreciate,” Bisson says. “But you must also look at your spending plan and carefully assess your ability to pay for it. This is very subjective depending on our home situation, responsibilities and current debt.”
Bisson's take is that just like with other major investments, you should always look at your bottom line and see what you can afford—as well as the potential payoff—before enrolling in classes or pursuing a dream position that requires relocating across the world. “If the potential for a larger salary is there, then weigh the pros and cons of the initial financial commitment before making a decision,” she says.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.