No matter your age or financial earnings, one thing we can all agree on is that there is a link between financial woes and our general well-being. As a Certified Financial Planner™ Certificant and the founder and CEO of LearnVest, my life’s mission has centered around helping everyday people feel good about their financial lives. (Yes, this is possible). Not only do bad money habits and poor decisions lead to financial duress, but debt is known to cause everything from stress, poor workplace performance, a lack of focus, and even marital and personal relationship strain. In fact, 70% of Americans say financial anxiety is negatively impacting their happiness, according to Northwestern Mutual’s 2016 “Planning and Progress” study.
That said, the great thing about personal finance is that it comes down to numbers, to math — our problems are solvable as long as we have the proper education. (Though most of the country does not have this—we’re working on tackling that!) Beyond knowing the facts, I’ve also learned that financial behavior comes down to tradeoffs and motivation. We’ve worked hard to find ways to get people to do things that are difficult, to give up things they want today to save for things they’ll need in the future. That’s why behavioral science drives the LearnVest planning engine as much as sage money advice.
So, to help keep your finances on track and remove stress from the equation, here are five key things everyone should know to improve their financial well-being.
1. Get yourself a plan.
Take the time to look at your entire financial life (everything from student loans, to rent and mortgage payments, to retirement savings and goals) and put together a basic plan, potentially with the help of a professional. I often see people blindly making financial decisions without taking a holistic look at their financial priorities. Once you have a plan in place, you’ll easily be able to see how much you can spend on the things you love and care about while also protecting yourself and setting yourself up for the future.
2. Not all debt is equal.
It’s important to understand the difference between “good” and “bad” debt. Good debt includes things like student loans, since this has an underlying asset (your education!). Bad debt, on the other hand, includes things like car loans and credit card debts. Prioritize paying off bad debt, which typically has higher interest rates.
3. Expect the unexpected.
One of the most critical parts of financial security is having an emergency fund. Set aside three to six months of take-home pay in cash (at a minimum) so that if your life takes an unexpected turn, you’ll be able to stay afloat without having to worry about money. If six months’ worth of take-home pay sounds like a lot, set your first goal to be one month, and build up from there.
4. Start saving. Yesterday.
The sooner you start putting money aside in a retirement account, the more your money will be able to build up over time thanks to compounding interest. And think of it this way: You’ll likely have to work 40+ years to fund 70+ years of your life. If you’re not putting money away in those 40 working years, it’s going to make retirement a difficult feat and, more often than not, will put financial strain on your children and future generations.
5. Protect yourself.
The ultimate way to achieve financial stability is to always have the proper insurance to protect yourself from catastrophic risk. This means everything from renter’s insurance to health insurance and life insurance, depending on your personal situation. Knowing that my family and I are always protected is the cornerstone of my financial well-being and is truly what allows me to sleep soundly at night.
In the end, a solid financial plan and financial well-being is all about balance. I want you to be smart and prepared for the future while also being able to enjoy your life today. You work hard and deserve to enjoy yourself in the present, but you also have to think about your future self and how you can make sure money won’t be the blocker that gets in way of your goals, ambitions and dreams.
Alexa von Tobel is the founder and CEO of LearnVest and New York Times best-selling author of Financially Fearless. LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. LearnVest, Inc. is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.