Financial literacy and financial growth go hand in hand. It’s difficult to have one without the other. There’s debate as to which causes the other — some successful people believe that their success made them good with money.
But rather than dissect the direction of the cause we can simply move in the direction of improvement. Financial literacy may take time to build in great depth, but improvement — meaningful improvement — can begin immediately.
Household debt is at a record-breaking $15.24 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank. From a financial literacy perspective, commitment to improvement can simply mean that we are no longer going to accept being a victim to debt or a servant to financial difficulties.
We commit to becoming in charge and we commit to becoming the master of our financial destiny.
Being financially literate simply means developing a set of skills that enable you to make good financial choices and decisions. Like any skill, you get better with practice. This can take between 18 days and 180 days, according to research published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology, which means that building better habits can take a great deal of effort and time.
Your first step to financial literacy should be ensuring that you are practicing solid strategies as often as you can — rather than defaulting to poor financial habits — so that a healthy financial growth mindset comes naturally.
Here are ten ways to begin improving financial literacy skills by developing good routines.
1. Make a Budget (or Update Your Budget)
A budget is simply a spending plan for your income. It details what is coming in and how it will be saved or spent. It can be extremely detailed or somewhat loose. But it should detail all sources of income and all savings and expenses so that you can see where you stand overall.
Are you pulling ahead a little each month, falling behind, or just breaking even? This is the starting point from which all other financial growth decisions are made. We can fix only what we know is broken, which is why we need to track what works and what doesn’t.
You can assess your current budgetary standing by dividing a paper into two columns, and listing the things you own on one side, while putting the things you owe on the other. Use market value to determine what you could — realistically — sell it for.
The owe side should come from statements, either those you get in the mail or balances you can look up online. It should be easy to make sure the owe side is accurate. Once you’ve figured out the two sides, subtract the owes from the owns. This is your net worth. Early on, do your best to track this monthly; later you may move to quarterly, if you want to.
If you find that you’re spending more than you make, you should be tracking every cent and evaluating areas to free up savings.
If you’re comfortably moving forward, you can be a little laxer, but you still need to be clear on our savings and debt reduction. These are your priorities, and it’s necessary to stick to them if you want to maintain your financial wellbeing.
“The hardest part about budgeting is sticking to the outlined plan,” says Zachary A. Bachner, a certified financial planner with Summit Financial Consulting. “Following a strict plan requires strong dedication and commitment to the goal. This may require daily, weekly, or monthly monitoring to ensure you are not overspending in any specific category.”
“Once unnecessary expenses are reduced or eliminated, you free up additional cash that can be placed in savings for either short-term or long-term goals,” Bachner adds. “Taking control of your budget is the first step to take toward financial success.”
If you’ve been working with a budget for a while, you may benefit from updating it; incomes and expenses change over time.
Periodically updating your budget puts the truth of your current situation right in front of you.
Better information leads to better decisions. An up-to-date budget makes you achieve financial growth in two ways. First, it helps you to understand exactly how you are managing your money. And second, it helps you make better decisions based on current information.
2. Review (and Question) Your Benefits
Benefits packages sometimes aren’t well understood by the employees who have them. But they are valuable packages that can often help financially.
Are you taking full advantage of your company’s 401(k) matching? Can you afford to contribute additional dollars to a defined contribution plan, and both save on taxes presently while enhancing your future retirement?
Perhaps you have other benefits that could help with costs. It’s important not only to know in general what benefits you have but to question how you can help yourself financially by taking advantage of all that’s available. That will make you more financially literate.
3. Review and Adjust Your Tax Withholdings
Most Americans have paid less in federal taxes these past few years because of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts. Due to changes in withholdings, many people saw this windfall as part of their paychecks, not in the form of a larger tax refund. But most people are still over withheld for federal income taxes.
Being over withheld costs you money. The IRS doesn’t pay you interest on your money; you’re making an interest-free loan to the government. You may be delighted to do so — considering all they do for you — but that’s probably not the case.
You may also miss opportunities by not having those funds available. You can’t get over withholding back until you file your taxes. So, if you either need that money or could capitalize on an opportunity with that money during the year, you’re out of luck. No way to get it.
The IRS isn’t terribly concerned about your personal finances.
Doing taxes isn’t rocket science. For the average American taxpayer, it’s pretty straightforward and predictable. And the predictable part is what makes it easy to adjust your withholding. Not so much that you’ll owe, but to bring your anticipated refund down to a reasonable amount.
You don’t need to lend the government money. But if you pick up some money through more accurate withholding, you should consider increasing your savings or otherwise accounting for those funds — rather than blowing that extra cash on additional, unnecessary spending. That way you can achieve financial growth. It's the financially literate thing to do.
4. Comparison Shop Your Routine Purchases
We all have items we purchase on a regular basis, our staples. It’s easy to get into the habit of simply throwing these into the cart in the store. After all, they’re usually necessities.
But even necessities come at different prices. And you don’t necessarily have to switch brands to save money. Identical products are priced differently by different stores and online outlets.
It can pay to periodically price shop things we’re going to buy anyway.
The paper towels I prefer are cheaper at Target than they are in the grocery store. And since I go there from time to time, I should get them there, saving money without any increased cost, as I don’t have to go out of my way to get them. But I only know they’re cheaper because I check the price at the grocery store periodically.
Knowing what routine purchases cost and making sure you’re paying the lowest reasonable price is the financially literate way to shop, which will promote financial growth.
5. Take a Course or Workshop
There’s an abundance of information available — too much these days, it seems. It feels like the main problem these days isn’t so much finding information so much as it is distilling all that information down into something actionable.
There are thousands of financial resources available, ranging from government sources to blogs to financial wellness websites like CentSai. With all these resources, learning more about money is as simple as loading up your favorite page and reading a quick piece about whatever topic interests you.
There are also many courses and workshops available to help you learn to improve your finances. You can take the full-on college personal finance course route, but there are lots of other options. You can find mini-courses and workshops online dealing with specific topics that you can complete in one sitting, often for free.
Pick a topic where you think you could use some help. If you need to improve your taxes, you can find a course specifically on taxes that can help you become more financially literate in that area immediately.
6. Research a Problem Online
Not every issue is something we need to take a course about. Perhaps it’s a simpler problem or question. Maybe you calculated a new amount for tax withholding, but don’t know how to go about getting that changed. The information is at your fingertips.
There are many questions that can be answered quickly with just a touch of research.
Don’t know if you should use a target-date fund in your retirement plan? Check online. Resources like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission can help you access all the information you might need to live a financially secure life.
You can pick a topic that can improve your financial life and find out more about it in less than five minutes. And that’s a financially literate thing to do.
7. Use an Online Calculator
Most people have financial goals. Far fewer know where they stand in relation to those goals.
We need to know where we stand in relation to our goals to make good financial decisions. Online calculators are a simple solution to this problem.
If you aren’t sure if you should be saving more for retirement, or if you need to allocate more money for your children’s education, or a myriad of other numerical financial questions, online calculators can help.
Tackle one of these future goals with the aid of a calculator. Determine where you stand so you can begin considering your options. That’s how you can achieve financial growth.
8. Know Yourself and Your Time Horizon
It’s up to each of us individually to determine our own financial destiny. We all have constraints; we have different skills, talents, and abilities. We have many differences. We have one major commonality. We can each decide to do the best with the hand or conditions we have been dealt.
But we can only affect change now. Habits take a median of 66 days to develop, according to an Oxford Research Encyclopedia paper, which means that change is not instantaneous.
“The best way to form positive financial habits is to create realistic, short-term goals,” says Haley Tolitsky, a certified financial planner with Cooke Capital. “Set a timeframe and specific dollar amount or percentage when setting goals. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach a goal!”
To make forming these habits easier, Tolitsky recommends that you automate whenever possible.
“If you are comfortable, have your bills set to autopay, so you don’t forget to pay them,” Tolitsky says. “Set up a specific dollar amount or percentage from each paycheck to go directly to your savings account and have automatic contributions in place from your bank account to your investment account(s).”
Start taking positive steps, without the added pressure of needing perfect steps.
Perfection is a concept; positive is a reality. You should do the best you can; perfection is where we aim, but we can’t actually hit it.
Here’s what that looks like in real life: The person who puts money into their 401(k) will be saving more for their retirement than one who does not. You don’t need to know and understand every option.
But you need to know and understand your habits and how you can adjust them to improve your financial growth. You can work on that, but you will always have more by starting than by waiting; there is no other outcome. You win by simply moving forward.
You should think about what you’re doing. You should plan and make the best decisions you can make — but make them. You can’t win from the sideline. You must be in the game.
9. Understand Your Credit
Though it might seem obvious, understanding your credit — and how to use it wisely — can save you tens of thousands overall. With more Americans having outstanding credit card debt than mortgages, according to research by the Aspen Institute, many families have found themselves in a difficult and financially limiting position.
But, by understanding credit, you can avoid getting into debt, while still managing to keep a high credit score. Even the basics, like understanding what goes into your FICO score and what doesn’t, can be extremely helpful in establishing your credit in the first place.
Knowing what your credit score can qualify you for can also help you plan for a mortgage, emergency fund, and more. By knowing your credit, you can gain a more complete understanding of your future financial growth options. This can give you the opportunity to improve your plans to ensure that you can meet your goals.
10. Seek a Range of Opinions
You don’t need to be a financial expert to manage a budget or balance a checkbook. Improving your financial literacy skills can come by talking with friends, relatives, and those who are already considered experts.
By having conversations about money, you can learn things that you might never see in a textbook. But bear in mind, you could also learn things from a textbook that you might never hear from another person.
Living a financially literate life requires you to use the resources available to achieve your goals and financial growth.
Speaking with those around you and using resources like CentSai can help you learn more about any financial interests that you have. Even if you feel confident about a goal or idea, a little extra research won’t hurt to ensure that you won’t make a mistake on your taxes or in your retirement planning.
How to Improve Your Financial Literacy: Adding It All Up
Knowledge is a big piece of financial literacy. You can only make good financial decisions within your sphere of knowledge.
But you also need to act. Acting with knowledge creates results. With it, you can grow financially. You can start today and see immediate results.
Understanding that you can manifest changes to your own finances through awareness is a key incentive — one that can help you to delve a little deeper and take control of your own financial well-being.