I’ve talked about retirement planning before, but to get from here to there, you have to have money to begin with. This requires some good money management behaviors. I recall getting some of these lessons from a basic home economics class in high school, some from family members or well-meaning friends, some from books or articles online. Whatever the source, I’ve done my best to apply what I’ve heard.
Why personal finance matters
You might be wondering why I’m talking about money in a blog about technical writing. Well, I’m also keen to talk about the business of technical writing, and that business includes handling your own personal finances. Proper money management is essential if you want to keep a roof over your head, your body fed and clothed, and the other aspects of your life in your possession.
Your credit rating is what enables you to obtain better interest rates on housing or vehicle loans. It’s a virtuous cycle: the less debt you have, the less banks will charge you to borrow money.
Not handling your money well can also affect your ability to get specific types of jobs. For example, over half of the people who are denied a security clearance with the U.S. Department of Defense are denied based on bad credit. The logic being, if your employer or customer knows that you’re having serious financial difficulties, they might suspect that you’d be willing to do something unethical or illegal to get out of them.
So, yes: handling your money well matters.
Basic personal finance
Forgive me if these are obvious bits of advice. However, the average American household carries over $15,000 in credit card debt, so a few reminders couldn’t hurt.
- Make and live within a budget. You’ve got a list of necessities to live in this crazy world, some negotiable, some not: housing, food, clothing, and transportation (along with the utility or insurance bills that come with them) can be considered basic non-negotiables for you, your significant other, or children. Other items are more subject to negotiation, such as cable, phone, or internet access. Gym memberships and other items start moving under the heading of luxuries.
- Set money aside for savings up front. One book I read called this “paying yourself first.” However you look at it, setting money aside for emergencies, luxuries, vacations, investments, or retirement should be a default part of your money handling, so take that money out first and consider the remainder the money you have to work with to pay your bills. If you’re working for an employer with a 401(k) or other retirement plan, that can be easier than self-discipline, as you don’t really see the money. If you’re freelancing, you’ve got to make the effort to throw money into savings or retirement every chance you get. One number I heard for setting aside money for savings was up to 10% of your income. That’s great if you can do it. If you can’t, at least do something each pay period.
- Pay your bills second. After you’ve “paid yourself,” pay the bills you have in front of you–rent, groceries, insurance, etc.–before you go out to eat or spend money on fun. I learned that the hard way a couple times in my 20s. I would get paid and that money would be burning a hole in my pocket. I’d spend a bunch of money on whatever amused me on pay day then find that I’d come up short when it came time to buy groceries or pay a bill.
- Live within or below your means. Whenever you go in to buy a vehicle or a home, they’ll do a credit check to find out what you could afford. That’s not to say you should buy a vehicle or home at the upper limit of your ability to pay. The real estate person or car sales rep might want you to go for the limit, but they’re motivated by commissions.
- Pay for things out of money that is yours, not borrowed. This means, essentially, cash or money from an existing checking or savings account. If you don’t have the money right now and the item is not an emergency, wait and save until you can pay for it outright. Your money does you a lot more good than putting things on the credit card and paying it off later. (I do know an exception to this: I have a friend who pays for everything on her credit card to get the frequent flyer miles and then pays off the card every month. But, again, she pays off the card.
- If you must acquire debt, make it “good” debt.” Good debt would be for things like a home, vehicle, or student loan. Bad debt would be credit card debt for purchases.
Tips if you’re already in trouble
Someone in my reading audience might be saying, “Oh sure, easy for you to say! You’re a single male with no kids! I’ve got a spouse, two kids and crushing student loan debt.” I hear you. However, I’m seriously allergic to debt because I’ve had a lot of it over the years and have developed a bit of a phobia about it. At one point in my life, I figured I would be 87 years old before I paid off my credit card debts making just the minimum payment. It doesn’t have to be that way.
- Assess the situation and commit to making changes. As it’s been said in other circumstances, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. Next comes a willingness to take your situation seriously and to take actions to reverse the trend. The following tips are what helped me dig myself out of the abyss.
- Stop charging stuff on your credit card. As the saying goes, if you’re in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging. Along similar lines…
- Eliminate unnecessary expenses in your life. I don’t mean eliminate all fun from your life, though it might come down to finding low-cost or free alternatives to for entertainment, dining out, or even acquiring some of the basics.
- Make more than the minimum payments. U.S. law now requires credit card providers to show how long it will take you to pay off a given balance making only the minimum payment. That’s a really good excuse to make that date come sooner.
- Apply any unexpected bonuses to debt relief. This one can hurt, as I’m sure you’d rather spend your tax refund on a vacation or a fun purchase. But really, any random sources of income can be used to improve your debt situation.
- Pay off your smaller debts first. I’m sure other financial geniuses would say pay off your high-interest or high-balance debts first. I’m just sharing what worked for me. I found it comforting to pay off some of the smaller debts so I could concentrate on the big one (and for me, that was the credit card). Getting some of the smaller debts or balances paid off can help you feel like you’re making some progress, give you confidence that you can handle the situation, and provide you with more money to take on the 400-pound gorilla on the debt sheet.
- Get a better or second job. Additional income can help bring down the debt. If you’re forced to take on a second job, only do so for the length of your credit emergency so you can get your life back.
- Get credit counseling help. If you’re in seriously deep yogurt and none of the above tips will come close to making a dent in your debt, a credit counseling service can help you with debt consolidation, filing for bankruptcy, or other options. If you’re in the U.S. or Puerto Rico, check out the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Paying off your debts and keeping your lifestyle within the limits dictated by your income is a great feeling and a tremendous load off of your mind. It allows you to get back to a somewhat normal life and to have fun with a clear conscience…just don’t put that fun on the credit card.