Financial literacy and financial success 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 nuances of the direction of causation we can simply move in the direction of improvement. And financial literacy may take time to build in great depth, but improvement — meaningful improvement — can begin immediately.
Financial literacy is a set of skills that enable you to make good financial choices and decisions. Like any skill, you get better with practice. Here are seven ways anyone can begin improving their financial literacy skills.
1. Make a Budget (or Update Your Budget)
Making good decisions requires having good information available. 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 detailed or kinda 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 decisions are made.
If you’ve been working with a budget for a while, you may still 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 more financially literate 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.
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2. Review (and Question) Your Benefits
Benefits packages generally 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 vision insurance or 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
The majority of Americans paid less in federal taxes this past year as a result of the Trump tax package. 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 the majority of 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 basically making an interest-free loan to the government. You may be delighted to do so — considering all they do for you — but perhaps not.
You may also miss opportunities by not having those funds available. After all, you can’t get that 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.
Your friendly IRS doesn’t always seem very friendly.
Doing taxes isn’t rocket science. For the average American taxpayer, it’s actually 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. It would actually prefer you didn’t. But don’t blow it! If you pick up some money through more accurate withholding, you should consider increasing your savings or otherwise accounting for those funds. That’s the financially literate thing to do.
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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.
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 periodically anyway, 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.
5. Take a Course or Workshop
There’s an abundance of information available. Sometimes it seems like too much! Seriously, sometimes finding information isn’t the problem. It’s distilling all that information down into something actionable that’s the real challenge.
And there’s help for that. There are a lot of courses, mini-courses, and workshops available. You can take the full-on college 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. Taxes, anyone? Then find a course that suits your needs, and begin becoming more financially literate in that area immediately.
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6. Research a Problem Online
Not every issue is something we need to take a course on. 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 a lot of 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. 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 in order 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 the financially literate thing to do.
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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 take action. Acting with knowledge creates results. You can become more financially literate. You can start today and see immediate results. Perhaps that will incentivize you to delve a little deeper and take control of your financial life.