So here are three simple ways to make sure your family is on the right track to being financially secure.
- Pay off all consumer debt - this means you don't just pay the minimum every time you get your credit card bill. The plus is that if you're ever late on a payment (say you forgot, went on vacation, etc.) it's an easy call to the 1-800 number asking them to please reverse your late fee since you always pay in full on time but had this one time exception (and it works for more than one time - I think I've used it up to three times ont he same card before). If they say no, ask to speak to their supervisor. It has never failed me thus far in life and I've had credit cards since 2000.
- Start saving! - Even if this means putting aside $100, $20, or $5 a month, put aside money you will not touch. If your company offers a 401k, DO IT, especially if they match - and if they match, contribute however much they match. When I was single, I always maxed out on my 401k contributions to whatever they matched. Don't even stop to think about it because it's free money. 401k is money that is put in for you and not taxed (it's taxed when you take it out, there is a penalty if you take it out earlier but you can normally borrow your own money for first time home purchases and some other stuff). If you have a kid, get a 529 College Savings Plan for them, it's money you can put aside (limits are same as that of estate tax which is $13,000 per person, $26,000 if married) for your child to use for school (anything related, even the purchase of a car used to drive to school and probably even flight tickets, books, tuition, room and board, computer, etc.) and the best part is if you take the money out for something unrelated to education stuff, it's at the income tax rate of the kid (if no job, usually small) and an unfortunate 10% early withdrawal penalty unless the beneficiary got a scholarship, died, or became disabled. If you don't have a 401k, or even a kid to start a 529, you can start little with a Roth IRA (individual retirement account) which has limits once your income gets higher (for details, see this), but it's post-tax money that is not taxable when withdrawn (normally, I'm sure there are minor exceptions that I won't dwell on). Of course, create a combination that works for you. I did 401k until I quit the Firm and our income was significantly reduced. Knowing we'd have to live off of savings for a few months before Andy's residency began, I never enrolled in my current company's 401k. It just made sense at the time. That said, I went seven years prior to that contributing at the max amount that was matched (and some years after I got a raise, I contributed even more because what I didn't see in my paycheck, I never spent).
- Know your spending habits - You should normally have three months worth of living expenses in your checking account to be on the safe side, but you can't do that unless you know how much your family usually spends in a month. If you don't want to track it in a meticulously detailed way like myself, at least know your fixed costs (for us, tithing, rent, utilities, phone, cable, etc.) and roughly how much you spend on other semi-fixed items like food, gas, entertainment, etc. This helps to arm you with an understanding of what exactly spending $100 on that bike you really want, or $75 on those cute pair of jeans you really want, means for your short and long-term savings goals and encourages you to look for deals that are truly meaningful and necessary.
Those are some simple rules I've lived by that have helped me along the way. When it comes to spending habits, I know I always think.. oh how much I've saved by getting this cheaper version, but lately, it's been.. but do I really need that because if I don't.. I'm actually saving way more by NOT getting it, even if it is on sale. My home might not always be the cutest. My clothes might not always be the trendiest. My shoes might not be the newest. My idea of fine dining might just be Claim Jumper. My idea of splurging might just be dinner and a movie. But heck, my retirement plan (thus far) sure looks quite nice!