Finances can be scary. In fact, fear of dealing with financial issues is all too common, according to financial advisors, who say it often prevents otherwise capable people from making key decisions while they are young enough to assure a comfortable retirement.
“Fear of personal finances is widespread,” says Stewart Mather, head of The Mather Group (TMG), an independent investment advisory headquartered in Chicago. “The main symptom is procrastination. It’s easy to put off decisions that don’t immediately impact our lives. People understand they have to pay their rent or mortgage each month, but budgeting for retirement doesn’t always make it onto the ‘to-do’ list.”
Part of the problem is the lack of fundamental financial knowledge. Take compounding interest, for example, a concept many people don’t understand. Having even $10,000 invested in a retirement account at age 30 will grow to nearly $45,000 by the time one reaches age 60, assuming a conservative 5% annual interest rate. And that’s without adding another dime. That’s the magic of saving regularly from an early age.
The less people know about financial planning, Mather says, the less confidence they have in dealing with money matters. And let’s face it; delving into one’s finances can be stressful. Who wants to find out that it might be a good idea to forego those daily lattes or postpone a vacation to beef up savings?
Here are the first steps you can take to manage financial fears and get on the path to a secure retirement, according to The Mather Group:
- Build an emergency fund of at least $2,500. This is the first thing you should do to relieve the stress of an unexpected expense that could pop up. Having this fund available lets you avoid paying for that emergency with a credit card, which would only add to financial stress with high interest rates and yet another monthly payment.
- Contribute enough to your 401(k) to equal your employer’s match. Many employers match employee savings contributions up to a certain percentage. Be sure to take advantage of this – it’s free money! Unfortunately, not doing this is one of the biggest financial mistakes young employees make.
- Build a 3-6 month savings safety net. This is your financial insurance for life’s big events, such as getting married, having a baby or moving. Having this savings will help you weather the event without going into debt using credit cards or dipping into your retirement savings, which could trigger significant financial penalties for early withdrawal.
- Pay down existing debt. Once your back-up savings is in place, start paying off those credit cards. Here’s the surprise: start with the card that has the smallest balance due. You may think paying off the highest interest rate card would be best, but it’s more important to completely pay off the card with the lowest balance first. This eliminates one monthly payment and allows you to begin to see light at the end of the debt tunnel.
- Focused retirement planning can come after your credit cards have been paid off. What about your student loans and mortgage? The tax-deferred growth you will realize on your retirement savings can add up to a greater financial gain than you would get by paying off these loans early (the IRS allows you to deduct interest on these loans when you itemize your taxes). Step up your 401(k) contributions as much as you can, even if you can’t max out your contribution.
By starting with these simple steps you can be on the path to a secure retirement when that day finally arrives, according to The Mather Group. If you need more motivation or want to learn more about financial basics, check out these sites: 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy from the American Institute of CPAs; the government website, My Money; You Need A Budget; and America Saves from the Consumer Federation of America.