Managing your money for the first time can be tricky. After all, many of us are never taught the fundamentals of personal finance.
To find out what twenty-somethings should do to get their finances in order, CNBC spoke to Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and founder of Life Planning Partners. She highlighted the eight most important money moves to make when you’re first starting out.
1. Monitor your cash flow and track your spending
You need to ensure you’re bringing in more money than you’re spending, McClanahan emphasizes.
She recommends recording each and every purchase you make for a couple of months. “It’s good to understand where you spend your money, and if you find that you’re spending more than you make, figure out where you can cut back,” she says.
There are a handful of apps that will track your spending for you, such as Mint, Personal Capital, and Level Money. You can also use a spreadsheet on your computer or simply record your everyday purchases in a notebook or on your phone.
2. Start a rainy day fund and set aside at least $1,000
As easy as it is to ignore the possibility of a car accident or the sudden loss of your job, life tends to throw curve balls. The responsible thing to do is to prepare for the worst by starting an emergency fund.
Ideally, you want to have three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved, McClanahan says, “but when you’re first starting out, there might be some other things you need to do before getting to that goal, such as paying off debt.”
That being said, “you always want to have one month in advance,” she says. “That way, you’re not living paycheck to paycheck.” And this way, if an emergency does arise, you’re less likely to have to go into debt to cover it.
3. Pay off your debt
Whether it’s medical bills, credit card debt, or student loans that have you in the red, create a plan for how to get back into the black.
You can start tackling your debt one of two ways, McClanahan explains: “Pay off the highest interest rate debt first, or pay off the things that have the smallest balance first. Whatever feels better to you.”
Prioritizing the debt with the highest interest rate means you’ll pay less over the life of your loans.
The second option — ranking your debt in order of size and starting with the smallest debt — is a strategy that personal finance expert Dave Ramsey calls the “snowball method.” The idea is that each time you pay off one form of debt, you build momentum, which helps you tackle the next biggest, and so on.
4. Buy disability coverage
Disability coverage — which provides income if you are unable to workdue to an illness or injury — is often overlooked by young people, but is one of the most important types of insurance to buy, McClanahan says: “A lot of people in their 20s think they’re invincible, and they’re not.”
Just one accident can be detrimental to your finances, McClanahan says: “Medical debt and serious injuries are one of the main things that put people into bankruptcy.”
5. Contribute to your company’s 401(k) plan
Enrolling in your employer’s 401(k) plan — a tax-advantaged retirement savings account that allows you to build wealth over time — is one of the simplest ways to invest.
“It’s important for you to at least put enough in your 401k that you get the match if your employer offers one,” McClanahan says. That means that, if you choose to put 4% of your salary into your account, your employer will put that same amount in as well, in effect doubling your contribution. But you only get their money if you put yours in first.
Next, you’ll want to get in the habit of increasing your contributions consistently, either every six months, at the end of the year, or when you get a bonus or a raise.
It’s also smart to consider alternate retirement savings accounts, such as a Roth IRA, traditional IRA, or health savings account, as experts saythat relying on just a 401(k) plan may not be enough to fund your future.
6. Build up your rainy day fund to cover 3-6 months’ of living expenses
Once you’ve paid off your debt, have disability insurance, and are contributing to a retirement plan, you can focus on setting aside at least three months’ worth of living expenses, McClanahan says.
Ideally you’ll never need this money — and it’s important to keep your hands off of it for anything other than a real emergency — but it’s important to have a safety net.
7. Set savings goals for future purchases
There are going to be bigger purchases in your future, such as a car, home, graduate school, or an education for your kids. The sooner you start setting aside money for these expenses, the better.
Determine what big-ticket items you need to prepare to afford, calculate how much you need to save for them and for how long, and start setting aside a certain amount each week or month.
McClanahan points out that most young people will need to buy a car early on in their careers. For this specific purchase, “buy the cheapest car that you can get that runs well and pay it off as fast as you can,” she says. “After it’s paid off, put that same payment in a savings account for when you need your next car.”
8. Invest in yourself
Further your education by taking a class or attending a business-related conference. After all, the most successful people are continually looking for ways to grow and improve.
Additionally, invest in your health. Consider making room in your budget for a gym membership, exercise classes, or a fitness-magazine subscription.
“It’s easy to let your fitness go in your 20s,” McClanahan says. “Create fitness goals. Then, if you have things you want to buy — but don’t needto buy — start putting the money aside, but don’t allow yourself to buy it until you obtain a fitness goal, such as running a 5K.”
And, along the way, make sure you congratulate yourself. Taking care of your future isn’t easy, but your future self will thank you.