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Gather all the personal financial advice you used to receive before the pandemic: The platitudes about not buying lattes or avocado toast. The “challenges” to put aside $1 a week. The admonishments that you should try to buy a home instead of renting one. Stack that advice into a pile, and set it on fire.
Even though none of that is unreasonable advice, it’s certainly not relevant guidance for many Americans right now. As we face the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic on top of pre-existing economic conditions like stagnant wage growth, the age-old adage to “save more, spend less” just isn’t enough to get your finances in order. Though, since some of us are able to save more money in the short term because there’s nothing to spend it on, this may be an especially good time to start that process.
I’ll let Berna Anat, financial hype woman and educator, sum up why: “Lemme call over my good friend, Livable Wage. Let's not forget the fact that many folks' money problems aren't due to spending too much—[they're] due to simply not earning enough while the cost of living and wealth gaps all over the U.S. continues to explode,” she says. “This is especially true if you are a woman and especially if you are a woman of color earning the lowest wages in the service and essential worker industries.”
Anat says that thinking about reducing spending as an approach to improving your finances is as oversimplified as reducing calories to becoming healthier. “We put shameful, unorganized, [unrealistic] limits on ourselves. But after a while, we lose control. Then we hate ourselves, we call ourselves a failure, and shimmy, rinse, and repeat,” she says.
Instead, Anat advises people to start by defining their savings goal, automating where their money goes when they get paid, and having a detailed budgeting system. (And we can’t forget getting paid an equitable living wage, so go ahead and call your congressperson about that while you’re up).
Here are some tips from Anat and Nathan Hamilton, cofounder of money concierge site The Ascent, on ways to help make your money work for you.
1. Give your bank accounts a makeover
“If you're still functioning off of that ‘one checking, one savings account’ situation that your mom opened for you when you were in high school, quoth the magnificent Black poet Beyonce: 'Lemme-lemme upgrade you,'” says Anat.
She suggests separating out your money into at least five different accounts:
· A checking account for when money comes in (i.e. paychecks, Venmo deposits, gifts)
· A checking account just for paying recurring bills
· A checking account just for spending money
· A savings account for a short-term goal (i.e. a trip or big purchase sometime in the next two to three years)
· A savings account for a long-term goal (an emergency fund or a future big purchase, like a house)
Make sure that your bank isn’t charging you to open new accounts, notes Anat; if they are, consider switching to no-fee online banks.
The best way to make these accounts work for you is to have your money move through them automatically.
After you’ve paid your bills for a given month, split whatever income is left between paying down high-interest debt, like an outstanding credit card balance, and saving up in your emergency fund. Once you have that debt paid off and at least a few months' worth of expenses saved in an emergency fund, you can start sending your money onwards to accounts set up for short-term savings goals, retirement goals, and fun spending. Anat suggests giving your accounts fun nicknames, both to help you tell them apart and to make you care more about maintaining them. For example, she goes with “random-but-relatable Kehlani lyrics” and reminds you that “there are no rules to how weird or personal these names can get.”
Doing a few months of careful tracking will help you know how much money you should be moving into those accounts each time you get paid. Once you know that, make the transfers automatic so you don’t even have to think about it.
2. Get paid for saving
Many banks have truly terrible interest rates for their savings accounts. My Bank of America account offered a paltry .03% APY, or annual percentage yield, which means that for every $1,000 I had in that account, I only earned $0.30 a year. Thirty cents!
APYs change often, fluctuating up and down depending on interest rates set by the Federal Reserve. Many dropped last month when the Fed reduced interest rates to 0% to help support the economy during the coronavirus pandemic; major high-yield savings players like Ally slashed rates by almost half.
3. Use free apps to easily track money
Keeping an eye on those five (or more) bank accounts can get complicated, particularly if you’re juggling multiple logins on different banking platforms.
Using an app like Mint can help you get an overview of all your money, says Hamilton. “While Mint doesn’t do fancy tricks, such as automatically moving money to your savings accounts, it also doesn’t charge a fee,” says Hamilton. “Though it may work for some people, paying to take advantage of gimmicks — such as investing your change for you — doesn't really help you develop the kind of long-term financial habits that build wealth. But tracking your net worth, budgeting, and goal-setting do, and Mint makes those habits easier to develop and maintain.”
You probably don’t need an expensive financial planner, either. As you’re setting up the basics of good money management, don’t be tempted by the flashy marketing of advisors who will charge you $1,500 and up to tell you to invest in low-cost index funds.
Google is your friend; you can get good, basic money-management advice for free. Only if you have a truly complicated financial setup or tons of money you don’t know what to do with should you start your money-reckoning process by paying someone else.
4. Optimize rewards with your credit cards
It's ideal to just have a couple of credit cards if you can pay them off each month—which you probably knew already but bears repeating, especially since over half of Americans carry credit card debt (because, you know, U.S.'s minimum wage isn't livable).
Either way, if you have a credit card, seek out rewards that line up with your other goals. Hamilton recommends cards that deposit rewards automatically into an investment account. “They genuinely make saving effortless without costing you extra money,” he says. “While they may not be as fun as travel credit cards or cards that offer you rewards points for merchandise, it's nice to know that whenever you're spending money, you're also taking a small step toward building wealth.”
Hamilton likes Fidelity Investment’s Visa card, which gives users 2% cashback on all purchases with no annual fee or bonus limits.
5. And, yes, do consider your spending
Just because “stop drinking lattes” is not helpful doesn’t mean you shouldn't do an audit on finances. Every few months, go through your statements line by line and look out for recurring subscriptions you’re not using or purchases you can cut back on. A $20 monthly subscription for a fitness app you no longer use can add up.
It's important to be brutally honest with yourself on what your current needs are versus what your wants are. Especially now that we're in the middle of a pandemic (and, luckily, some of you are still receiving a paycheck), this is an opportunity to look at your finances from a different point of view to see what's really important to you and what's not.
The truth is, we’re a while away from the economy—and our lives—getting back to normal (if normal even exists anyway). But no matter what the market looks like, taking a more active role in managing your money can pay off, if this is something you're currently looking to do.