Encompassing a broad range of money topics—from balancing a checkbook to developing a household budget and planning for retirement—financial literacy shapes how we view and handle money.
The nonprofit Money Management International, a provider of financial education and counseling services, has created a 30-step path to financial wellness.1 To help you get started, we focus here on five financial improvements from that list, suggesting some of Investopedia’s best articles to jump-start your journey to financial literacy.
1. Identify Your Starting Point
If you don’t know where you are financially, then it can be challenging to plan how to get to where you want to be next year, five years from now, or decades down the road in retirement. That’s why it is important to identify your starting point.
Calculating your net worth is the best way to gauge both your current financial health and your progress over time. Net worth is basically the difference between what you own and what you owe—i.e., the difference between your assets and liabilities. It can provide a wake-up call that you are off track or confirmation that you are doing well.
“Why Knowing Your Net Worth Is Important” explains how to calculate net worth and provides tips for building it.
2. Set Your Priorities
Creating a list of needs and wants can help you set financial priorities. Needs are things that you must have to survive: food, shelter, basic clothing, healthcare, and transportation. Wants, on the other hand, are things that you would like to have but that aren’t necessary for survival.
Knowing the difference between the two, and being mindful of the distinction when making spending choices, go a long way toward achieving financial wellness. You’ll need to rank your needs as well as your wants to clearly define where your money should go first. This applies not only to your current expenses but also to your goals—which can, in turn, fall into the categories of wants and needs. Needless to say, saving for a tropical vacation falls into the wants column, while stashing cash for retirement is a definite need.
“Five Rules to Improve Your Financial Health” covers a quintet of broad personal finance rules that can help you set your priorities and achieve financial goals. It also pinpoints a variety of areas where you may be losing money without realizing it.
3. Document Your Spending
Most people could tell you how much money they make in a year. Fewer could state how much money they spend, and fewer still could explain how and where they spend it. One of the best ways to figure out your cash flow—what comes in and what goes out—is to create a budget, or a personal spending plan.
A budget forces you to put down on paper all of your income and expenses, and this can be an indispensable tool for helping you meet financial obligations now and in the future. As an added bonus, a budget can be a real eye-opener when it comes to spending choices. Many people are surprised to find out just how much money they are spending on superfluous goods and services.
“The Beauty of Budgeting” explains why it’s important to develop a budget and provides guidance for creating your own annual spending plan.
4. Pay Down Your Debt
Most people have debt—a mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, medical bills, student loans, and the like—and some of that debt actually may be good for them. However, as a rule, debt is not good, and what makes living with debt so costly is not just the interest and fees; it’s also the fact that it can prevent people from ever getting ahead with their financial goals. Ultimately, it can become a drain both fiscally and emotionally on individuals and families.
While the best strategy is to avoid getting into debt to begin with (by making practical spending choices and living within your means), that isn’t always possible. Most people can’t go to college without college loans, for example. There are strategies to pay down and get out from under debt that you may have already acquired.
“Digging Your Way Out of Debt in 8 Steps” demonstrates what you can do to get out of debt—from acknowledging any financial missteps and checking your credit report to finding the money to help pay down your accumulated expenses.
5. Secure Your Financial Future
Due to dire financial circumstances—the most recent being those caused by the effects of the recent economic crisis and lockdowns—many people adopt “I’ll never retire” as a retirement plan. This approach has several major flaws.
First, you can’t always control when you retire. You could lose the job that you’ve held for decades, suffer an illness or injury, or find that you need to care for a loved one—any of which could lead to an unplanned retirement. Second, saying that you won’t retire can be just an excuse to avoid spending the time and energy to develop a real plan—or it could be a sign that you are in really difficult straits that you need to confront. Or maybe you simply don’t know how to plan.
Learning more about your retirement options is an essential part of securing your financial future. Even if you can’t save much, every bit helps. Once you’ve developed a plan, you could end up making better spending choices, given that you have a goal in mind.
“The Best Retirement Plans” covers a variety of plans (including individual retirement accounts [IRAs] and employer plans), contribution and income limits, company matches, and other factors to take into consideration when planning for your retirement.
The Bottom Line
Even if you didn’t learn money skills at home or at school, it’s never too late to catch up. Be proactive about developing your financial literacy. Realigning your focus and adjusting your finances now will make all the difference for your future. These five articles will help you get on the road to financial health.