The term “personal finance” refers to how you manage your money and plan for your future. All of your financial decisions and activities have an effect on your financial health. It’s always important to consider what we should be doing—in general—to help improve our financial health and habits. Here we discuss five broad personal finance rules that can help get you on track to achieving whatever your financial goals may be.
Money comes in, money goes out. For many people this is about as deep as their understanding gets when it comes to personal finances. Rather than ignoring your finances and leaving them to chance, a bit of number crunching can help you evaluate your current financial health and determine how to reach your short- and long-term financial goals.
As a starting point, it is important to calculate your net worth—the difference between what you own and what you owe. To calculate your net worth, start by making a list of your assets (what you own) and your liabilities (what you owe). Then, subtract the liabilities from the assets to arrive at your net-worth figure.
Your net worth represents where you are financially at that moment, and it is normal for the figure to fluctuate over time. Calculating your net worth one time can be helpful, but the real value comes from making this calculation on a regular basis (at least yearly). Tracking your net worth over time allows you to evaluate your progress, highlight your successes, and identify areas requiring improvement.
Net worth is highly dependent on age. It's common for younger investors to have low or negative net worth when they start their careers, while older individuals further in their careers have much higher net worth.
Equally important is developing a personal budget or spending plan. Created on a monthly or an annual basis, a personal budget is an important financial tool because it can help you plan for future costs, reduce unnecessary spend, save for future goals, and prioritize where you put your money.
There are numerous approaches to creating a personal budget, but all involve making projections for income and expenses. The income and expense categories you include in your budget will depend on your situation and can change over time. Common income categories include:
General expense categories include:
Once you’ve made the appropriate projections, subtract your expenses from your income. If you have money left over, you have a surplus, and you can decide how to spend, save, or invest the money. If your expenses exceed your income, however, you will have to adjust your budget by increasing your income (adding more hours at work or picking up a second job) or by reducing your expenses.
Most individuals will spend more money if they have more money to spend. As people advance in their careers and earn higher salaries, there tends to be a corresponding increase in spending, a phenomenon known as “lifestyle inflation.”
Even though you might be able to pay your bills, lifestyle inflation can be damaging in the long run because it limits your ability to build wealth. Every extra dollar you spend now means less money later and during retirement, and higher disposable income today doesn't guarantee higher income in the future.
As your professional and personal situation evolves over time, some increases in spending are natural. You might need to upgrade your wardrobe to dress appropriately for a new position, or, as your family grows, you might need a house with more bedrooms. With more responsibilities at work, you might find that it makes sense to hire someone to mow the lawn or clean the house, freeing up time to spend with family and friends and improving your quality of life.
As you enter into different phases of life, re-evaluate your personal budget to have it reflect the right conditions in your life. When preparing a list of your expenses, evaluate which costs are truly needed and which you can go without.
It’s in your best interest to be mindful of the difference between “needs” and “wants”. Needs are things you have to have in order to survive: food, shelter, healthcare, transportation, a reasonable amount of clothing. It's also important to set aside money each month for savings, although that is much more contingent on your other needs being met first.
Conversely, wants are things you would like to have but don’t require for survival. These costs may be engrained in our daily lives, so they may feel like needs. Whether it's a streaming subscription that isn't necessary for survival or skipping a morning treat that is now part of your daily routine, wants are items that are non-essential.
This line between "wants" and "needs" is blurred for essentials when there is no defined level of either. A car is a good example. Depending on your city's public transportation, you might be able to make the case that a car is a "want". However, for the many of us that consider it a "need", what type of car is appropriate? What is an appropriate balance between a higher car payment and a nicer vehicle?
Your needs should get top priority in your personal budget. Only after your needs have been met should you allocate any discretionary income toward wants. Again, if you do have money left over each week or each month after paying for the things you really need, you don’t have to spend it all.
It’s often said that it’s never too late to start saving for retirement. That may be true (technically), but the sooner you start, the better off you’ll likely be during your retirement years. This is because of the power of compounding
Compounding involves the reinvestment of earnings, and it is most successful over time. The longer earnings are reinvested, the greater the value of the investment, and the larger the earnings will (hypothetically) be.
To illustrate the importance of starting early, assume you want to save $1,000,000 by the time you turn 60, and you expect to earn 5% interest each year.
The sooner you start, the easier it is to reach your long-term financial goals. You will need to save less each month and contribute less overall, to reach the same goal in the future.
An emergency fund is just what the name implies: money that has been set aside for emergency purposes. The fund is intended to help you pay for things that wouldn’t normally be included in your personal budget. This includes unexpected expenses such as car repairs or an emergency trip to the dentist. It can also help you pay your regular expenses if your income is interrupted
Although the traditional guideline is to save three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency fund, the unfortunate reality is that this amount would often fall short of what many people would need to cover a big expense or weather a loss in income. In today’s uncertain economic environment, most people should aim for saving at least six months’ worth of living expenses—more if possible.
Keep in mind that establishing an emergency backup is an ongoing mission. Odds are that as soon as it is funded, you will need it for something. Instead of being dejected about this, be glad that you were financially prepared and start the process of building the fund again.
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Alfredo Gaxiola has worked on numerous IRS problem cases and has successfully settled with the IRS to release liens on houses, bank accounts and wages and, if needed, setting a payment installment plan that is not burdensome for the client. He has conducted appeals before the U.S. Tax Court and obtained favorable resolutions in reducing the tax debt of his clients. Mr. Gaxiola served as Treasurer of Camara de Empresarios Latinos, one of the largest and strongest Hispanic organizations in the city of Houston. He has conducted financial and accounting seminars for the Houston Small Business Development Corporation, as well.
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