Sometimes people ask me for financial advice, so I thought this was a good time to put a quick how to together of how I went from having $9,000 in credit card debt to having a full year’s salary saved in 9 years.
Obviously, I’m not a financial planner so this is mostly based on my extensive research and all the things I actually did, so you should probably do more research than just this blog post but I hope it helps. I won’t explain the why of everything because they’re a lot of much smarter people than me that have already done that, so I’ll drop links in when relevant. Most of my investment strategy is in a broad mix of companies in the stock market, which obviously isn’t always guaranteed to go up but historically has literally always grown in the long run and has given me 10-15% gains annually.
I’ve done my research in both the US & UK, so I’ve provided comparables for both and only include the currency in my little guide if it’s relevant. Though I lived in Sweden for 2 years, I still förstår inte tillräckligt med svenska to be able to write anything even remotely helpful. BTW, some of these links are referral codes.
So, without further ado, here’s my 6 step guide to getting your financial shit together.
1. Keep track of your credit score & spending
Mint is only in the US but Toshl is similar and available pretty globally. Credit Karma is UK & US. The latter allows you to track your spending and categories it so you can see where you’re spending your cash. The latter allows you to keep track of your credit score. All are free but Toshl costs a few pounds a month to connect your bank accounts to track your spending automatically. Mint does this for free.
2. Save an emergency fund
The wisdom is to have 3-6 months of your expenses saved in a savings account. I think that’s way too daunting if you don’t have anything saved.
I saved up enough to cover expenses that couldn’t be put on a credit card (i.e. my rent) for a month to start. So, to be honest, I only had about $1000 in savings for the first 2 years of living on my own but considering my rent was $400-$600 at the time, that would have gotten me pretty far. I’d recommend having at least a full month’s salary saved and always have your CV up to date…
Now my husband & I keep about 5K USD each on hand in a savings account, which could last us about 2 months. Everything else gets invested. We could have more in case, but we have investment accounts we could easily liquidate in the case of an emergency plus literally almost 100K in available combined credit on a few credit cards should a true emergency come up. Also, in Europe, the concept of emergency is much different than the US, for example, if I got fired, work still has to give us 3 month’s notice or 3 months of severance. So really, we have a 5-month buffer with 2 months worth of expenses in cash.
3. Invest in your pension (UK) or 401K if you have an employer match
Whatever it takes to get your company match, make sure you at least invest in there because it’s free money. In the UK you’re auto-enrolled to 5% and the minimum employer contribution is 3%. This means basically if you have a 45K salary (3,750 monthly) before taxes, you put in 2,250 a year (187.50 per month) and your employer gives you another 1,350 a year (112.50 per month). Totaling 3,600 annually. In the US, many employers offer a similar set up but may require you to put in a minimum before they give you a match.
The amount you contribute is tax-deferred meaning you pay taxes when you take the money out at retirement, not now, so even if you decided to not contribute, you wouldn’t see that full 187.50. In the US tax law is insane (different rules per state and you tax home more money because you’re married for some reason). The UK is pretty straight forward, so just going to use that. After taxes, and national insurance, your take-home would be about 76% of your net, so about 2,850 without a 5% pension contribution. With the pension your take home is about 2,700 meaning you’d take home 150 less for a 187.50 contribution + a 112.50 employer match. Basically, that extra 150 in your pocket now would cost you an additional 150 later not even taking into account the growth potential (yes, you pay taxes later but at retirement age your tax is likely to be low and you get to build wealth on the government’s dime because you didn’t give them your taxes up front…). The math works out pretty similarily in the US to this example & of course this doesn’t take into account any other stuff coming out of your paycheck like insurances.
Once you’ve seen your second payments come out of your paycheck, log in and see where they’re investing your money. Most likely, it’s some type of target date fund (meaning it changes in how risky your investments are as you get older). That’s a fine place but it’s a bit conservative for my taste. Many companies have some type of financial advisor for employees that will help them a bit, but to sum it up, figure out how much the fees are for your funds available, find the lowest ones for an S&P 500 type fund (or all world if you don’t want to stick to mostly US) and invest 80% in that and 20% in a high yield bond. 90/10 if you’re less conservative & call it a day until you’re like 40. Or, just leave it in the target date fund, whatever–it’s better than not having anything invested.
TL;DR: Just contribute up to your company match to get free money!
4. Pay off credit card debt
I’ve seen wisdom both ways, but I believe you should bank on your future self so contribute to retirement enough to get the match, then worry about debt but these 2 things could be switched depending on how you feel about debt.
By my junior year of college, I had a job paying me about $12K a year which was a lot for me at the time! Obviously, I spent way more than that, and I had about $9000 in credit card debt when I finished college. I paid them off only paying about 5% of my balance in fees. Here’s how:
- I spent on 0% interest credit cards so accrued no interest and paid what I could above the minimum payment while I had a low salary knowing that once school finished, I’d have a higher one (My first job out of school gave me a salary of I think $27K and raised to $32K after about a year).
- Once school ended, I consolidated all my credit card bills onto a single card with a balance transfer at a 0% interest rate (which means even if you carry a balance on your card there is no interest charged). I usually paid a balance transfer fee of 2-3%. So if I had a 5K balance, I’d pay $100 for the transfer (at 2%).
- If that card had 12 months of 0% interest, I’d divide my balance by 12 and pay that much monthly if I could afford it. So in the example of 5K, that would be 425/month (which is the original 5000 + 100 for the fee divided by 12).
- If I couldn’t afford that, I’d pay whatever I could and then carry over the balance to a new 0% interest card again, again splitting by whatever the time frame allowed for no interst.
I did this for about 2 years before I completely paid off my cards probably paying about $500 in fees for starting balance of $9000 which was only about 6% of what I owed vs. a normal credit card rate of anywhere between 18-35%.
I don’t recommend getting into $9,000 in credit card debt but this was the smartest way I saw to get out of it. Having a quick search, it seems similar cards exist in the UK, as well.
During these 2 years, though tempting, I didn’t spend any money on my credit cards. Yes, I was forsaking credit card points but I relied only on my debit cards to not put myself further in debt. I even had a fun competition with a friend to see how many consecutive days we could go without spending any money.
I will say, now that I’m out of debt, 0% interest credit cards are a great way to get a free loan for a big purchase if you know you can pay it off in time.
4.5. Deal With Your Student Loans
Undergrad was essentially free for me thanks to a merit scholarship that covered my tuition and my parents covering my room & board for the year & a half I lived on campus but I did go to grad school for my MBA which cost $55K.
Giving your salary right now (I’m assuming you’re probably under 40), it likely doesn’t make sense to pay more than the amount you need to pay for your loans (more power to you if you want to but there are better places to spend your money right now, imo).
Whatever you decide, make sure you are paying if you have to and figure out your repayment options. I’m on a US extended payment plan which means I pay about $400 a month until I die (well actually until about 2040 then whatever is left over is forgiven). But, there are payment plans that reduce your payments based on how much you make, so you could potentially pay much less or even nothing.
My plan is to keep paying my monthly $400 until I can afford to refinance to a 5-year loan with a lower interest rate and pay around $1000/mo and just pay the whole thing off in 5 years. My rate is currently 6.4% from the US government, so I’m blowing a lot of cash not paying it off but $400/mo is pretty inconsequential to my monthly expenses while I’d definitely feel $1000/mo for 5 years and would rather invest some of that money for a longer time to get market returns. I also hate giving anyone (except my future self) a large chunk of money, so it’s a balancing act of where I’d rather put my money right now.
Rule of thumb for those taking out loans, I always say, don’t take more out in loans for a degree/program than what you expect as an annual salary once you finish. For example, after undergrad, I ended up making $32K within a year of graduation which was just about the cost of my state school undergrad program at the time had I paid out of pocket (minus room & board). 4 years later, I completed my MBA, and took out $55K in loans. Within a year, I had a salary of about $58K.
I ended up only paying for 1 of the 3 degrees I ended up getting (and didn’t pay for the additional courses/bootcamps I took) because work paid for them all. One bright side of taking lower pay in the public sector is perks like this, so take that into consideration should you be interested in pursuing additional higher education.
5. Get a second form of income
After I finished my THIRD degree program, I finally had some time to do some work on the side. I started doing some freelance web development and marketing to make some extra income. I don’t want to get into the taxes of all of that right now, but I made about $2000 my first year & at my peak doing it part time, I made somewhere in the ball park of $18,000. About a third of that goes to taxes but it helped pay for a significant chunk of my wedding and allowed for extra retirement contributions. This could be earlier than step 5 in your financial plan, but given the 7.5 years of higher education, this is when I had the time.
Note about 2nd incomes: Consider what your earning potential might be with just getting a better job or going back to school for even a 12-week bootcamp course. Driving an Uber around may not be worth it in comparison to a 10% raise at a different company after investing in yourself. After my first few months of freelancing, I raised my rates up to $75/hour which is much more than almost any office job I could get right now.
6. Save & invest more!
So, you’ve got an emergency fund, you’re contributing to your pension, you no longer have credit card debt, you’ve figured out your student loans and you may even have a side hustle. Awesome!
For me, this was about 3 years after graduation. Once I was at this point, I made it a point to save at least 20% of my income between retirement & savings. The idea is that you should aim to have a full year’s salary saved every 5 years. 20% of your income x 5 years = 100% of your income. So if you start at 25, by 30 when you take into account the (hopeful) growth of your money, you should have somewhere around 1 year’s full salary saved.
6.1 – Get your access to liquid funds up to 3 months of expenses.
Liquid means easily available. This could be all-cash savings or maybe some available in a brokerage account, ISA, Roth IRA, etc. Make sure in an emergency you have capital available to you for up to 3 months. Decide on an amount and if you have to take money out of it at any time, you have to pay yourself back the next paycheck! To save your goal, make sure you pay yourself first (meaning you put money in savings before you do anything else). Once you’ve saved & paid your bills (including groceries), I felt completely fine to spend literally every dime left in my checking account every month because I did everything I was supposed to do already!
6.2 – Consider contributing to a Roth IRA/Stocks & Shares ISA
Roth IRA (US) or a Stocks & Shares ISA (UK) is money you invest with after you’ve paid taxes. These two accounts work almost the same way. Basically you pay the taxes like you normally would out of your salary and then you contribute to this account. Since you already paid taxes, you won’t pay any when you take the money out! So if you put a bunch of money in and have very good investments, you could end up not paying takes on thousands of dollars. This is a retirement account in the US, so you’re supposed to keep in the money in for a while but because you already paid taxes, the government doesn’t really care, so for both you can take out the money you contributed out at any time. In the UK, you can take even your earnings out at any time which is awesome if you’re planning an early retirement. In the US, you have to keep your earnings in your account until you reach 59.5 years old. The limit in the US is really low at only about 6K annually, so I maxed this out every year before raising my 401K contributions. One thing about these accounts is that it’s most beneficial when you’re paying low taxes, so once you’re in higher tax brackets, it might not make as much sense (or be allowed in the US). I’ll get to that next.
Regarding what to invest in, aim for high growth & high dividend low-cost ETFs (ETFs are basically a bucket of company’s shares in a single entity based around a theme instead of handpicking a bunch of different shares but they have a maintenance fee, so you want to find ones that have very low fees (called expense ratios)). Look for low expense ratios under 0.3% (meaning for every 100 you have invested, it costs you 0.30.
I use Fidelity (US) because that’s where my retirement accounts were from a previous employer. I really like it because they don’t charge a commission to buy ETFs (meaning there’s no extra cost per transaction). Vanguard is also a broker people like with low fees available in US & UK.
Here’s what I would do for a simple Roth split:
- 60% domestic – Example ETF: SFY (S&P 500 high yield)
- 30% international – Example ETFs: DVYE (emerging market high dividend) or VT (total world for more conservative)
- 5% bonds – Example ETF: VWOB (emerging market high yield bonds)
- 5% alternatives like something fun/risky – Examples: FREL (real estate ETF) or cryptocurrency like Bitcoin
I really enjoy this stuff, but if you don’t want to set it and forget it, consider Betterment‘s Roth IRA in the US or Wealthify Stocks & Shares ISA in the UK. These are both robo investors, meaning they ask you a few questions online and invest for you instead of you trying to do it on your own (kinda like those target funds I mentioned earlier).
Read More: Nerd Wallet’s What Is an ETF?
6.3 – Save for any big purchases.
If you’re trying to buy a house, have a kid or see the world. This is a good time to make sure you’re on track for that. I won’t get too much into all the options for home buying but look into what support you can get regarding tax breaks or lower down payment options. We were able to buy a home for less than 5% down before we left the states and in the UK, the government will match some of your contributions for a home up to 25% depending on your circumstances.
Set your goal and make sure you contribute monthly to that goal. I wouldn’t recommend investing money you need to use anywhere in the next 3 years unless you’re okay to lose a chunk of it but you can open up a savings bond that has a guaranteed return to keep it locked up and have some gains. Our big purchase was our wedding which I wrote about. It cost, including the honeymoon, about 55K USD. Of that, we paid 30K USD out of pocket which took a lot of savings (and stress!). Now, we usually save for big trips instead!
6.4 – Contribute more to your 401K/Pension.
Like I mentioned, because of taxes, anything you make above about 40K USD in the US or 50K GBP in the UK you should try to put into your pension/401K if you can. Because… taxes. To sum it up quickly, in the US after that much you start paying an income tax rate on the amount above 40K USD at a 22% rate instead of 12%; in the UK you start paying a rate for anything above 50K GBP at 40% instead of 20%.
Obviously you might actually need that money but if you’re not sure how much to invest, that’s an easy threshold to consider. The max you can contribute in the US is about 18K USD and 40K GBP in the UK annualy, so there’s a lot of room before you max it out.
6. 5 – Start thinking seriously about retirement
Once you’ve got all of this in order, you can use a site like Personal Capital (US only) for a more sophisticated investment guideline or start considering seeing a financial advisor.
When you start feeling pretty comfortable, you can start thinking more seriously about when you plan to retire and tax implications of your investments. Eventually, you may want to change up your savings contributions so they’re not all locked up until retirement age if you think you’re on track to retire early (or would like to be). So, I also have a brokerage account in the US. If it weren’t for very complicated tax law with being a US citizen, this would be my stocks & shares ISA in the UK.
My husband and I are currently at the point of considering early retirement in hopefully about 15-20 years. There’s a lot of considerations, like what country we want to live in but in the next few years, we will plan to figure that out likely after we’ve gotten dual citizenship (about 4 more years) so we can have more retirement location options (and may buy property again once we figure out where we want to live…).
I turned 30 a few months ago and successfully saved about a full year’s net income! Other than student loans & a now paid off home loan, I have been completely debt-free for 7 years. My investments overall make about 10%-15% annually. My returns in the market have covered the difference in my 20% savings with my lower salaries when I started compared to my higher salary now. My third-degree program (which work paid for) was for Data Science. Though it took a bit longer to get to my rule of thumb because I took a pay cut when moving to Sweden, I now make annually about what all 3 of my degrees would have cost me if I would have paid for them all out of pocket.
Though we’ve combined most of our finances now, my individual general split regarding accounts is:
- 70% – 401K/pension (46% in the US / 16% in Sweden / 8% in the UK)
- 20% – Roth IRA
- 5% – Cash Savings
- 5% – Brokerage (non-retirement)
Before you’re too impressed, a few caveats:
- Everything is easier with finances when you have a partner–most things are literally half the cost.
- We no longer own any homes (we had 3 in the states but sold them shortly after moving abroad)
- We both work in tech so the ability to save is aided by high paying jobs (in compared to national averages)
- We have no kids & don’t plan to have them for a very long time (if not ever)
- I still have over 50K USD in student loan debt.
The things I didn’t cover are things like the self-employed IRA I had while in the states, the credit cards I use to get cashback/points, why I hate owning rental property and all of the complications with changing countries twice; but ask me in person (or virtually) about all of that 😉
Here are some of the podcasts & apps I used to help me stay on track!
- Money Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips For a Richer Life (US) – best podcast for personal finance beginners! quick tips to explain even things you feel like you should already know but were too shy to ask and doesn’t make you feel dumb about it.
- Listen Money Matters (US) – great to feel like you’re learning along with someone.
- Stacking Benjamins (US) – great for money news & when you feel a bit more confident.
- Cash Chats with Andy Webb (UK) – tips for saving money in the UK and pretty good with basics.
- Meaningful Money (UK) – a bit more advance but has some great quick episodes explaining a lot about the UK financial system.
- Acorns (US) – rounds up your purchases & auto invests
- Moneybox (UK) – rounds up your purchases & auto invests
- Mint (US) – track your spending across multiple accounts
- Personal Capital (US) – track your spending & provides amazing investment advice
- Credit Karma (US & UK) – check your credit score for free
That was a lot, so… If you have any questions, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.