How often do you take a moment to consider your finances for the future? It’s okay if the answer is never. While there isn’t a SkimmAhead notification built into your Google calendar for when you should start investing or saving, your actions now can severely affect your future financial stability. Two words: compounding interest. If you don’t know what that is, keep reading.
Even if you’ve just graduated from college and are grappling with student debt, financial experts say you’re never too young (or too old!) to pause, take stock of your situation, and draft a game plan. To set us on the right track, we asked Megan Speeth, vice president at Fidelity Investments Berkeley Investor Center, to spill about the most common money mistakes she sees millennials make—and how to avoid them. Make sure you’re not falling into the biggest financial pitfalls in your 20s.
We’ve heard it time and time again: Everyone needs a backup fund. Yet research reveals 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. When you’re in your 20s, setting aside money “just in case” seems like a ludicrous suggestion, but Speeth says it should be a top priority as soon as you earn an income. “[It’s essential] no matter how old you are or what your income level is,” she says. Speeth recommends setting up a direct deposit to make it routine from an early age. “If your employer offers a direct deposit option, arrange for your bank to direct a portion of each paycheck into an account designated for saving. By carving out your savings automatically, it takes away the temptation to spend those extra dollars.” The end goal should be to have three to six months’ worth of living expenses in the bank.
If you regularly book an Uber ride, order Seamless meals, or transfer money to friends with Venmo, pause. While these apps are fast and convenient, research suggests they could derail your spending habits. A New York University study found that people are inclined to spend big when using a payment method that doesn’t involve a physical exchange of money, such as credit cards and apps. “The studies suggest that less transparent payment forms tend to be treated like ‘play money’ and are hence more easily spent or parted with,” explains study author Dr. Priya Raghubir. If you’re unsure whether to purchase an item, ask yourself, Would I be happy to hand over the cost of this item in cash? If you hesitate, sleep on it.
What is your credit rating? If you don’t know the answer, it’s time to tackle the topic once and for all. Few know this better than Adrian Deline, a 26-year-old IT specialist who discovered his credit rating had been damaged without his knowledge. “I moved house and didn’t tell my phone company about the new address. Six months later, they claimed they’d been trying to contact me about a $100 bill,” he tells MyDomaine. While it might seem insignificant, it seriously dented Deline’s credit score and could prevent him from getting a loan approved in the future. The take-home: “It’s critical to stay on top of deadlines and make payments on time to keep your good credit,” says Speeth. Check your credit report at least once a year; services such as My Bankrate can help monitor your score.
It’s time to fess up: Do you have a detailed budget? If the answer is no, unfortunately you’re in the majority. Two-thirds of Americans turn a blind eye to budgeting, which could have a serious impact on their financial future. Not sure where to start? We spoke to Laura Adams, author of Smart Moves to Grow Rich, to map out a simple step-by-step budget worksheet. Print it out and fill in the gaps. You’ll feel relieved afterward—we promise.
You’ve scored a new job and are in a flurry trying to organize your handover and prepare for the role. Before you leave your employer, don’t forget to address your 401(k) plan. According to Speeth, there are four options everyone should be aware of:
- Leave your assets in your former employer’s plan.
- Move the assets into a rollover IRA or a Roth IRA.
- Roll over your assets to a new employer’s workplace savings plan, if allowed.
- Cash out or withdraw the funds.
A word of warning if you consider the fourth option: “If you withdraw the funds from your old retirement savings account and cash out, there are penalties—in the form of taxes and other fees,” says Speeth. Chat with your HR department or a financial institution to choose the best option for you.
It’s no secret millennials love to travel, with a recent study revealing 88% take overseas vacations one to three times a year. While the call of adventure might be particularly hard to resist in your 20s, it’s also important to acknowledge that travelling is a major financial drain. Adams recommends building travel plans into three phase goals. Segment your goals into short-term (what you want to achieve within a year), medium-term (one to five years), and long-term plans (five-plus years). Factoring big expenses like vacations or a desire to live overseas into these plans will help inform your budget and ensure you don’t enter your 30s with fond memories but an empty bank account.
“There’s lots of research out there that shows that women are, in general, great savers, but in today’s economy, saving isn’t enough,” says Speeth. Too often, she sees women “play it safe” or feel that they don’t have enough money to see a financial planner. So when is the right age to start? Now. “It’s much easier to get started than you might think,” she says. “Consider putting just 1% of your paycheck into your company’s retirement savings plan. Then commit to increasing that percentage each year.” Speeth advises that many employers offer free investment guidance, via firms who manage their workplace savings plans. “Make sure to take advantage of these benefits, even if you save just a small amount from each paycheck.”
Overlooking out-of-service ATM fees during your 20s could cost you—big time. A 2015 Market Watch report shows the average fee has soared 21% over the past five years to about $4.52 per transaction, which includes the ATM cost and bank fee. If you live in Milwaukee, Miami, Phoenix, or New York, you’ve likely been hit with some of the highest charges. Other fees to be wary of include printing costs if you request monthly bank statements and phone service fees if you choose to settle a bill with a service representative, rather than online. Budgeting apps such as Mint can help track ATM fees and bring them to your attention via phone notifications.
If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that offers a retirement contribution match, use it. Many financial experts liken the system to receiving free money—your employer will double your contribution, within limits. We know, the thought of deducting money from your paycheck that can’t be touched for decades doesn’t sound appealing. Change your mind-set and remember that it’s still your money. Who wouldn’t want free cash?
You’ve passed your finals, thrown your cap in the air, and left college dorms for good, but there’s one legacy from your studies that lingers: student debt. If you’re carrying debt, Speeth’s number one tip is to scrutinize interest rates. “Not all loans are created equal. Government subsidized loans may have low interest, but private loans are usually higher. A good rule of thumb is to pay down highest interest rates first and then tackle lower interest rates,” she says. Put aside time every year to reassess your rates. Your older self will thank you.
Ready to get your financial future in order? Save the checklist below and tick them off as you progress.