Developing financial literacy to improve your personal finances involves learning and practicing a variety of skills related to budgeting, managing and paying off debts, and understanding credit and investment products. Here are several practical strategies to consider.
Create a Budget—Track how much money you receive each month against how much you spend in an Excel sheet, on paper, or with a budgeting app. Your budget should include income (paychecks, investments, alimony), fixed expenses (rent/mortgage payments, utilities, loan payments), discretionary spending (nonessentials such as eating out, shopping, and travel), and savings.
Pay Yourself First—To build savings, this reverse budgeting strategy involves choosing a savings goal (say, a down payment for a home), deciding how much you want to contribute toward it each month, and setting that amount aside before you divvy up the rest of your expenses.
Pay Bills Promptly—Stay on top of monthly bills, making sure that payments consistently arrive on time. Consider taking advantage of automatic debits from a checking account or bill-pay apps and sign up for payment reminders (by email, phone, or text).
Get Your Credit Report—Once a year, consumers can request a free credit report from the three major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—through the federally created website AnnualCreditReport.com.5 Review these reports and dispute any errors by informing the credit bureau of inaccuracies. Because you can get three of them, consider spacing out your requests throughout the year to monitor yourself regularly.
Check Your Credit Score—Having a good credit score helps you obtain the best interest rates on loans and credit cards, among other benefits. Monitor your score via a free credit monitoring service (or, if you can afford to and want to add an extra layer of protection for your information, use one of the best credit monitoring services). In addition, be aware of the financial decisions that can raise or lower your score, such as credit inquiries and credit utilization ratios.
Manage Debt—Use your budget to stay on top of debt by reducing spending and increasing repayment. Develop a debt-reduction plan, such as paying down the loan with the highest interest rate first. If your debt is excessive, contact lenders to renegotiate repayment, consolidate loans, or find a debt-counseling program.
Invest in Your Future—If your employer offers a 401(k) retirement savings account, be sure to sign up and contribute the maximum to receive the employer match. Consider opening an individual retirement account (IRA) and creating a diversified investment portfolio of stocks, fixed income, and commodities. If necessary, seek financial advice from professional advisors to help you determine how much money you will need to retire comfortably and to develop strategies to reach your goal.