If you're not personally in debt, you likely know someone who is. So, it's no surprise that Forum Mantra noted the ninth most popular New Year's resolution as getting out of debt. If this is your New Year's resolution, there are ways to take control of your finances in 2018. Business Insider reported that millennials hold an estimated $1.1 trillion of the country's $3.6 trillion in consumer debt, and I am part of this number. Even though I worked three jobs while in college, I still had to take out loans. I took out even more student loans for graduate school.
What's more, four years ago my dog was diagnosed with a megaesophagus, a chronic condition that makes it difficult for her to swallow food unless she's upright in a dog highchair. Multiple trips to the emergency vet when she developed pneumonia drained my savings. When I left my job 18 months ago, and didn't work for six months, I used my credit cards to pay my bills. And I use more than 50 percent of my income for rent. Seriously, some days it feels like I'm in a vortex of debt I don't know how I will ever get out of. Believe me, the struggle is real.
While there is no quick fix to getting out of debt, there are ways to better manage it like a boss. It's also important to note that getting out of debt is a pretty lofty goal for a New Year's resolution, and if I'm being realistic, its likely a multi-year process. So, don't get discouraged if it feels like you're not making any headway. Small steps can make a big difference. Personally, I find a lot of financial tips out there pretty unattainable, so I'm going to give it to you straight, because that's what you deserve. If you want to stress less about your debt, here are eight ways to take control of your finances in 2018 like the grown-ass woman you are.
1. Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
This is good advice for every area of your life, including your finances. Comparing yourself to others who appear to be killing it at life is a rabbit hole that will just make you feel bad about yourself, so you officially have permission to stop. "It can be hard to see friends and family drive nicer cars and own bigger houses than you. If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone, look in the mirror," a representative from Chime Bank, a new bank that shares a portion of its earning with its members, tells Bustle via email. "Think about what you accomplished financially over the past year and set goals to make better progress in the new year."
2. Automate Your Savings
Most financial planners recommend that you have six months of emergency saving. Um, what? That's not feasible for everyone. It's OK if you don't have money stashed away. Even saving a little bit can add up over time. My bank has a feature that rounds up my debit card purchases to the nearest dollar, and automatically transfers the difference to my savings account. When I've been in a jam, having even a little bit of extra money set aside has helped, and many banks offer this feature or something similar.
"Roughly a third of Americans don’t have any short-term savings. Even if you are saving, setting more money aside for your financial goals can help you reach them more quickly. For starters, you can try automating your savings," a representative from Chime Bank says. "Apps like Chime Bank will round up all of your transactions to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference to your savings account. The program also allows you to automatically set aside 10 percent of each paycheck in savings as soon as you get paid."
3. Contribute The Max Amount To Your Retirement
OK, your job might not offer a retirement package, but you can start your own (more on that in a minute). I was in my fourth professional job before I worked for a place that offered retirement savings options. If your company does, make sure you take advantage of it. You can sign up to have a percentage taken out of your paycheck and put into an account where your company will match it, and invest it for you. You can decide the level of risk you want to take with those investments. Because this is basically free money, try to contribute the max amount your company will match.
"Long-term savings is just as important as short-term savings. If you have an employer retirement plan — for example, a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan — your contributions are typically based on a percentage of your income," a representative from Chime Bank says. "Although it's not a big increase, it can make a huge difference down the road as your retirement account balance compounds with interest."
While this money is supposed to be set aside of your retirement, it can also help you out if life goes sideways. If you still work for the company, you can borrow against your retirement plan, usually without a penalty, and make a plan to pay it back over time as long as you're still working there.
If you leave your job, your retirement plan goes with you, and while many financial advisors warn against accessing your retirement funds early, if you desperately need money, this money is yours. The catch is that you have to pay state and city tax when you withdraw the money, and you might have to pay additional penalties on your taxes because it goes into your income pool.
Because of this, you only want to withdraw what you need. Don't cash out the whole thing if you don't need to. I used money from my 401(k) when I was broke AF, and because the money was used for financial hardship, I did not have to pay any extra in taxes outside of the city and state fees. If your job does not offer a retirement plan, you can start your own Roth IRA.
4. Pay Attention To Your Credit Score
No matter how much debt you have, you can still make sure you have a good credit score. And, like it or not, a bad credit score can cause you even more financial stress. From having to pay a higher interest rate on things like credit cards and car loans, to having to put down a larger deposit on an apartment — or even on your utilities like gas, electricity and water — to even being denied housing, a bad credit score can cause a lot of stress.
While things like credit card debt can lower your score, credit card debt won't tank it as long as you'e making on-time payments. What will give you bad credit-score karma is failing to pay bills on time, or at all, closing accounts, or co-signing a loan for someone else who then defaults, according to CNN Money. Additionally, make sure to check your credit report a couple of times a year to make sure everything is accurate. I use Credit Karma, which claims half of its membership as millennials, because it's free and doesn't make me sign up for anything. If you don't check your credit score, and someone steals your identity, which happened to me, you might not find out until you're denied credit. Once it gets that far, it's a huge headache to fix.
5. If You Have Credit Cards, Put Them To Work
One good way to establish credit is to pay for certain things with a credit card and make sure to pay it off each month. If you do this, make sure you're using a credit card that offers points or travel rewards. I have three travel rewards cards, and I usually get at least two free plane tickets a year this way because for every dollar you spend, the credit card company matches it with rewards points. You also usually get a $99 ticket for a companion to fly with you, which can make a trip super cheap.
Be mindful of what you're putting on these cards — only spend as much money as you know you're able to pay back, and know what rewards each card offers so that you can use them to your maximum advantage. (Maybe one card only gives you rewards for spending at restaurants, whereas another gives you rewards for spending on transportation costs.)
You can also sign up for Birch Finance, which uncovers hidden rewards you might not know about based on the credit cards you already have. This is like having your own personal, digital credit-card assistant. "Birch is a free app that helps you get the most from credit card rewards," a representative from Birch tells Bustle in an email. "The app can recommend which credit cards to use on specific purchases, tell you where you can get the most points, and alert you in real-time which card to use at certain stores."
6. Turn To Technology For Help
If managing your finances feels akin to moving an object off the ground using only your mind, there is help. One of the great things about technology is myriad tools that can help you manage every area of your life, including your finances. You can sign up for things like Mint.com, a platform that aggregates everything from your account balances and bills to your credit score in one place that’s easy to understand.
Mint can help you create a budget, and show you where you're spending most of your money so you can see where you can cut back (your bank might also do this). There are also tools specifically for women like Ellevest and LearnVest. From budgeting to understanding how to start investing, these platforms can assist you with everything finance related, and even hook you up with a virtual financial planner.
7. Learn About Investing
You might think you need to have a lot of money to invest, however that's not necessarily true. According to a blog post on LendEDU, "Financial experts are divided about what is the best course of action [regarding investing], and in many cases, it is entirely dependent on your unique situation, your current needs, and your goals for the future."
LendEDU advises that if your student loan debt has a higher interest rate than your investment, pay your student loans. If your investment earns more interest than your student loans will cost in interest, invest. LendEDU offers student loan payoff and invest calculators to help you determine the best repayment strategy, taking into account variables like interest rates, employer retirement contributions, and tax deductions.
Other financial strategists advise that investing is never a mistake, even if it's just $5 a month. Additionally, investing advice differs for women. Ellevest recognizes that the “gender-neutral” investment industry defaults to men’s salaries, career paths, preferences, and lifespans, and takes into account women-specific goals, and career paths when helping you plan your financial future.
8. Remember, Success Is Different For Everyone
If your head is spinning, you're not alone. Taking control of your finances is a big deal, but it is doable. While it's easy to get discouraged, remember that success looks different for everyone. Perhaps a win for you is upping your credit score in 2018, refinancing your student loans, or paying off a credit card. Even accomplishing one of these things is a huge feat, and you can be proud of any progress you make. After all, the goal of this New Year's resolution is progress, not perfection.