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Jessica Sillers

Traditional House
  • Writer's picturejessicasillers

4 Smart Money Habits, and 1 Mistake Costing Us Thousands

I don't think you're bad with money. My guess is you're actually pretty good with money, in most ways.

Even so, if you're like me, there's at least one area where you struggle to stay on top of your finances. Even one blind spot, if it's big enough, can add up to thousands of dollars of misspent money keeping you from the life you want.

I'm opening up about the parts of my financial life I'm doing well managing, and the big mistake that's currently derailing my savings goals (plus how to fix it!).

Where do you stand on these habits?

1. Pay off credit cards every month.

I'm not against credit cards. In fact, I rarely keep cash on me (isn't cash one of the many things Millennials are killing, anyway?). There are a few ways paying with a card is smarter than using cash:

- Unlike cash, cards offer protection against theft and fraud. A $20 bill that falls out of my pocket is gone. With a lost card, I can cancel the card and dispute fraudulent transactions, so I'm not out any money.

- Be strategic about using credit cards, and you can get 5% cash back on the majority of your purchases. That adds up through the year and can make occasional spending, like Christmas shopping, much cheaper.

- Using credit wisely helps you increase your credit score, which means better rates when you buy a house.

The critical piece, of course, and where tons of families go wrong, is avoiding carrying a balance. Fail to pay the bill on time, and you risk ending up with credit card debt and a lowered credit score, instead of enjoying the full potential of these advantages.

The best thing you can do with a credit card is treat it like a debit card. Spend according to what's actually in your account (I don't even know offhand what my credit max is, but I know what's in the bank!), and pay the bill in full before it's due.

This could be a great source of rewards cash, or your worst debt nightmare

2. Get your full employer match on a 401(k).

I'll admit it: I am not great at saving for retirement. I put a little aside when I had a full-time gig in my 20s, but it's nowhere near what I'd need to be on track at 31 years old.

Especially as a freelancer, saving for retirement can be a complicated prospect. I didn't open an IRA until I'd been in business for several years, partly because in my first year freelancing, I only made about $5,000.

Fortunately, I got a "get out of jail/sad retirement funds free" card because it turns out my husband is really diligent about retirement savings. He even has a sweet employer match to boost the impact of his savings!

So one of my goals going forward is to put some of the sound advice I've heard a million times into practice in my own retirement planning, so we don't need to worry about what our life will look like decades from now.

My husband's not quite sold on a cross-country, year-long retirement road trip, but I've got about 35 years to convince him!

3. Build multiple emergency funds.

The truth is, you really do need multiple savings funds to keep from getting muddled about what the money is meant to cover. These are the top accounts to fill to be ready for the worst:

1. Small emergencies fund: $400-$2,000. This is meant to cover the "oh, crap" moments like car repair, a leaking window, a medical deductible, and so on.

2. Rainy day fund: 1-3 months' salary. If you lose your job or have a more serious medical crisis, this is what tides you over until unemployment or disability insurance checks kick in, or (ideally) the crisis is resolved. This fund can be combined with the small emergencies fund.

3. Long-term savings fund: 4-6 months' salary. This is for serious problems, ongoing unemployment -- radical stuff. This is the fund that keeps you in your home while you work on riding out a disaster. Tip: You can cheat the figure down a little by writing out a belt-tightened budget, as long as it accurately reflects what you'd still have to spend in a serious loss of income situation.

Basically me, stashing money everywhere

4. Save for your kids' future.

College costs are insane already, and it's difficult to imagine what the higher-ed scene will look like by the time my 3-year-old is filling out her FAFSA. What I do know is that avoiding student debt was the best thing that happened to me financially as I entered adulthood. I'm committed to doing what I can to make sure my kids get the best education we can give them, without starting their career life in debt.

For us, that means contributing to a 529 account to build up money for college down the road. The good news is that recommendations from major investment corporations like Fidelity are surprisingly low-key. The rule of thumb is $2,000 for each year of your child's life. That means $150 a month, plus a $200 birthday gift from you or a grandparent, is all you need to build a strong foundation.

Note: A 529 account is a kind of investment, which means the funds are prone to market ups and downs. You're not guaranteed a particular rate of growth, and there's a chance you could even lose money (we are, right now, due to market slumps). Generally, though, most financial advisors I've spoken to have emphasized a 529 college savings account, along with changes to your budget and financial aid when the time comes, as an important tool to afford college.

I know she's only 3, but I already choke up imagining this moment

5. Have a purpose for your income.

This is it -- the big mistake costing my family 4-5 figures per year!

If you're in a money fog, too, it's okay. This is where we figure it out.

The first year I freelanced, I was learning as much as I could, hunting for clients and getting my business off the ground. I was also pregnant with my first child. I ended up making just over $4,500 in the entire first year.

We were grateful for a little extra cash, and that I was following my passion, but my income was low and sporadic, so we didn't bother figuring it into our budget.

But then, the next year, I pulled in $22,000. And the year after that, $30,000. And last year, more than $35,000.

I started making a monthly contribution to the family account, but it was low, only around $500/month. I saved part of the money I earned, but we treated it like a surprise windfall, instead of a reflection of the work I'd done and the steadiness and growth I was developing in my business. Same with spending. A vacation? A new dining room table to replace the cheap one I'd brought from my first apartment? A $100 sushi dinner, or an armful of new clothes, or baby swim classes, or or or or? It all came from this account that still felt like a cool "extra" instead of part of our current reality.

The embarrassing part is it's hard to know exactly how much this attitude has cost us over the last few years. How many purchases would I have said "yes" to and how many decisions would I have made differently if I'd had our future house in mind all along? It's hard to say, and it's not something I can change. Our present and future are what I can shape with smarter, more informed choices now.

This year, we're saving and spending more mindfully, thinking about long-term goals as well as in-the-moment wants. We're making it a priority to have a plan and purpose for ALL of our income, so we can take charge of our financial power. I have faith we're going to see a major impact by the end of the year.

Which of these goals are you struggling with the most?

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