You may have heard the term “financial literacy” a time or two, but you might not fully understand what it means. Being financially literate gives you a better chance of becoming successful in all your personal finance endeavors. Plus, the earlier you get a handle on your knowledge of the financial world, the better decisions you’ll be able to make.
What is financial literacy?
Financial literacy is the ability to understand financial concepts and use your knowledge to make informed decisions about managing your money. This includes knowing how to create a budget, use a credit card, pay off student loan debt, invest for retirement, and much more. Financial literacy isn’t typically taught in schools, so it is often students’ responsibility to educate themselves on personal finance. This road can be filled with many unexpected curves and setbacks, like financial emergencies or credit card debt, but if you stay on track, you’ll be able to strengthen your relationship with money in the long term.
How can I improve my financial literacy?
Your financial education may have begun when your parents opened your first savings account. Maybe your introduction to the subject occurred when you enrolled in a personal finance course in high school or in college. No matter the starting point, your journey to making smart financial decisions is never complete. Keep reading for suggestions on how to learn financial literacy and build on your existing set of money management skills.
1. Start reading financial materials
There are many books about money management that you could browse or buy, but reading large portions at a time may not be ideal for everyone. If you’re not a regular reader of chapter books or feel like you don’t have the time, you should consider a smaller medium. Try browsing financial blogs, newsletters, or magazines, which feature important money topics in bite-sized portions. Whether you get your money advice delivered straight to your email or pick up a novel from the bookstore, getting educated about money management should be a priority.
2. Sign up for a class
Some people learn best in group settings. If that sounds like you, you may find it beneficial to sign up for an in-person financial literacy class. This will allow you to improve your money knowledge at a set pace, and you will be tested to make sure you understand the material. You will also have the opportunity to ask questions. Alternatively, you could enroll in a financial literacy course online to complete items at your own pace. Whether you choose to learn virtually or in a classroom, you’ll be taking a big step towards a healthy financial future.
3. Create a community of accountability
Even if you have great intentions of making smart saving and investment choices, sometimes life gets in the way. You might make excuses and push your financial goals off until tomorrow. In these situations, having a community of like-minded people to hold you accountable can help. If your current friends have similar long term goals, meet regularly to share knowledge and talk about what you’re each doing to improve your money smarts, kind of like a book club. Alternatively, you could join an existing community in the form of a social media group.
4. Understand credit scores
Trying to wrap your mind around credit scores, credit reports, and credit cards can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, take it step by step. Start by learning what a credit score is and how having good credit is a valuable tool for reaching financial goals, like renting your own apartment or buying a car with a favorable interest rate. Next, learn what kind of factors on your credit report can influence your score. From there, you will begin to understand what you need to do in order to build a credit history by managing your credit card and loan accounts responsibly.
5. Refocus your social media
Another way you can become financially literate is to read snippets of money concepts on social media platforms. While you’re scrolling through posts from friends or your favorite clothing brands, following finance-oriented Instagram accounts, like 1st Financial Bank USA (@1fbusa), can help with financial literacy. Money advice about credit cards or saving money in college will show up in your feed in bite-sized pieces, allowing you to gradually learn new concepts and tips over time. The best part is, once you’ve followed informative accounts from financial institutions like banks or credit unions, you no longer have to search for this information; it comes to you.
6. Update (or create) your budget
Although this is a common tip, people often struggle with following their budget. To stay on financial track, you’ll need to make your budget both accurate and tolerable. To prevent budget burnout, make sure that your budget is flexible, but restrictive enough that you don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. If you’re creating a budget for the first time, try the 50/30/20 budget. This budget dedicates half of your income to your needs or essential purchases, 30% to wants or non-essential purchases, and 20% to your future or savings.
7. Gain control over your debt
Furthering your education at a college or university can be quite expensive. Often, students aren’t able to pay for the entire bill upfront, relying on credit cards and student loans to cover the costs. Other unexpected expenses, such as medical costs or vehicle repairs, can also play a part in accumulating debt. No matter the size of your debt, you should formulate a strategy to eliminate this borrowed-money burden. Managing your debt is not easy, but if you stick to a repayment plan, you’ll be free to focus on your financial goals, save money, and invest as you please.
8. Invest in your future
A sure sign of financial literacy is understanding the need to save and invest for the future. You could have all the material things you desire now, but if you don’t put any money away, a financial emergency or a stroke of bad luck can set you back substantially in your financial endeavors. A common phrase in retirement planning is to invest early and often. By following this mantra, you’ll be harnessing the power of compound interest to help grow your money. It’s in your best interest to look into investment vehicles for the future, such as an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or Employer-matched 401(k) plan today.
9. Automate your bills and never miss a payment
When you automate your financial obligations, it’s sort of like putting a plane on autopilot; The plane is flying itself, but the pilot is still in the cockpit to take over when any emergencies arise. The same can be said with your finances. When you take the stress of remembering to pay out of the picture, you also take away the possibility that you might forget to pay. With automation, you won’t miss a payment, and you will avoid late fees. Although setting up automation is a great way to organize your finances, you’ll have to adjust from time to time to make sure everything is going to plan, just like the pilot in emergency situations.
10. Pay yourself first to grow your savings
Knowing how to save money is a key part of becoming financially literate. Just like you can automate paying your bills, you should automate a portion of your paycheck to automatically be deposited in your savings account. Alternatively, you can set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account. Monthly (or weekly) savings contributions show that you’re financially responsible in choosing to be proactive and saving money before you need it. When you sacrifice a little bit of your discretionary income now, you’ll be better prepared for life later. To make saving money more fun, try a savings challenge.
11. Identify fraud and decrease your risk
Fraud is scary, but people who are financially literate are usually better protected against fraud. When you keep a close eye on your finances, you’re more likely to detect when something seems out of the ordinary, like a small purchase on your credit card statement that you didn’t make or an inquiry on your credit report that didn’t come from you. If you run a tight ship, there’s a lower chance that someone will be able to get away with fraudulent behavior using your name and accounts. Always monitor your financial accounts and report any suspicious withdrawals or charges to your credit or debt card immediately.
12. Use your down time wisely
Everything comes at a cost. For example, if you’re spending your free time watching Netflix, you’ll miss out on the knowledge you would have gained if you chose to listen to a financial podcast instead. This is known as an opportunity cost. An opportunity cost is the cost of the next best alternative, meaning the price you “pay” to give up one decision for another. Whether you're driving, cleaning your apartment, or laying in bed, you should use your down time wisely. Spending that “free” time towards working on your financial literacy can give you the upper hand to everyone who chose to watch Netflix.
13. Meet with a financial advisor
Sometimes, day-to-day life can be a lot to handle. From your work obligations to hanging with your friends, there’s not a lot of time left to manage your finances. Meeting with a financial professional to discuss the best options for you can be a good alternative. If you bring your problems to a trusted financial advisor, they will help work out the best plan of action for you to reach your highest financial capability. Although this service may cost quite a bit up front, the wisdom you gain will pay itself off in the long-run.
You’re probably thinking, “Great! Now, I know what financial literacy is and how to achieve it, but where do I start?” You should start by defining your “why.” Why do you want to become more educated? Why do you want to improve your financial knowledge? Once you have the answers to those questions, then you can work on the physical steps of perfecting your budget and following personal finance advice from college students in the United States. Admittedly, it’s a lot of work on the front end to get your finances set up the way you want them to be, but your future self (and future family) will thank you for the great long-term financial decisions you’ve made.
📕Want to learn more about credit cards? Read 10 Credit Card Tips for College Students.
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