By aliciamadamczyk
May 3, 2016
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This is Day 30 of the #MONEY30, a month-long bootcamp for personal finance novices. You can read more about the challenge here, and follow along with us on Twitter, Instagram, or email us at [email protected].

TIME BUDGET: 30 MINUTES


You made it! Hopefully by now, you feel more comfortable with the basics of personal finance: You know your credit score (and are working to raise it), you’ve cut excess fat from your budget, and you’ve established a savings goal for yourself.

The final challenge is to reflect on the tasks you’ve accomplished and set yourself up for a successful financial future. To that end, here’s a handy checklist to help keep your money momentum going.

1. Know how much money you’re making and how you’re spending it.

The first step in taking control of your finances is to know exactly how much money you have coming in, and where it’s going. That’s why we suggested studying your pay stub and tracking your spending for a weekend. Better still, track your spending for a week and use that as the basis for drawing up a budget.

Then evaluate where you stand. It will likely never be comfortable to look at your spending item by item, but it’s critical to your long-term financial health. Likewise, if you’re not happy with how much money you’re making at work, there are steps you can take to change that.

But you’ll never know what to ask for if you don’t know what you already have. So take stock (no pun intended) of your income, assets, and expenditures—not just once, but on a regular basis. Then…

2. Make sure you have enough set aside for an emergency.

Once you’ve established how much money you have to work with and what your expenses are, your first priority should be to build up your emergency fund, even before you begin paying off debt.

As we detailed on day 19, at a minimum, stash away three months’ worth of expenses in an easily accessible place (i.e., any retirement accounts or other investments don’t count as part of your emergency fund). That gives you flexibility and security.

Once you’ve established a secure base, you can start adding to it.

3. Detail your debts and consider how you will repay them.

Per Pew Charitable Trust, 86% of millennials have debt. If you’re one of them, you need to have a plan in place to pay it off.

There are multiple ways to do this, as we detailed on day 18. Would you rather knock out the debt with the highest interest first, which enables you to pay less in the long term? Or will making a more manageable bill disappear give you more motivation? Ultimately, it’s up to you—the important thing is to make a plan you feel you can stick with, so you’re not just accumulating more and more debt.

4. Start investing in your future.

We’re going to sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: Make sure you’re consciously saving for retirement as early as you can. It may seem impossible when you’re just starting out, but sacrificing a few happy hours to invest in a mutual fund or ETF will pay off handsomely down the line. Ideally, you’ll do this concurrently with paying down your debt.

On day 17, we laid out some of the different options when it comes to retirement funds: your employer-sponsored 401(k), an IRA, and a Roth IRA. If you have a 401(k), are you contributing enough to receive the maximum employer match? And if not, why are you forgoing free money? If you have your own retirement account, are your contributions automated?

After you’ve emergency-proofed your bank account, made a plan to tackle your debt, and put aside some funds for retirement, you can look into additional investment opportunities and watch your wealth build.

And now that you have your bases covered, you can move on to bigger and better things…

5. Ask yourself: Am I happy with where I’m at?

The next step is to ask yourself if you’re content with where you’re at, or if you’d be happier on a different path. Is your job fulfilling? Are you making enough money? Is it clear to you what you’re working toward and what the next step in your career is? If you have an emergency fund, manageable debt, and the start of a retirement account, it may make sense for you to take a risk and try something new if you find you really are unhappy.

Similarly, are your finances where you want them to be? Or are you struggling month-to-month and stressing out about your money situation on a regular basis? If it’s the latter, it may be time for a life audit. Which leads us to our next point…

6. Make money goals for yourself.

If you’re invested enough in your money to read a personal finance website and take a 30-day money challenge, chances are you have a goal you’re trying to reach, whether that be saving for a vacation or landing a job that pays more. (In fact, yesterday’s challenge was to establish a savings goal.) And that’s great news.

If you don’t have a goal, well, that’s fine too. It’s never too late to make one. This is where the aforementioned life audit can come in: Take a few hours to really think about what you want in the near and far term. Write it down somewhere: In a journal, in a spreadsheet, or on post-it notes. (In that vein, understanding your money personality can shine some light on why you behave the way you do with your money.) And if you’re not happy with your money behaviors, recognizing that they need some work, establishing your priorities, and committing to your goals will help you make a change.

After you’ve determined what you want to accomplish in the short, medium, and long term, you can take the steps to get there. Which leads us to our final point…

7. Understand that managing your money takes more than 30 days.

While it may seem like everyone is telling you you need to get your finances in order now or your future will be irreparably harmed, the fact of the matter is that building healthy habits takes time. Your relationship with money will last the rest of your life—so there’s really no reason to take shortcuts.

You’re going to mess up every now and then, and that’s ok. As long as you’re making a conscious effort and being honest with yourself when you do make a mistake, you’re on the right path. Understanding that a decent credit score, a fulfilling career, and sustainable wealth take time to build will help alleviate some pressure now, and hopefully make you more confident in the long run.

And ultimately, building your confidence in earning and managing your money is what this 30-day challenge was all about.

— Alicia Adamczyk

Have a question, comment, or suggestion? Email us at [email protected].

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