Improve Your Financial Health – A Step-by-Step Guide for 2021Building Wealth
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If your financial health situation is looking precarious and you’re wondering what steps you can take to get your finances back on track, this article is precisely what you need to turn your finances around positively.
All you need to do is to take some simple-yet-drastic steps and alter your spending habits, and you’ll be able to improve your finances in no time.
Without further ado, let’s get into this ultimate step-by-step guide on how you can improve your financial health in 2021.
What Is Financial Health?
Ever since the term “financial health” cropped up in 2015 when CFSI published its first Consumer Financial Health Study, there have been different reports and guidelines from financial experts describing it.
Investopedia defines financial health as “the state of one’s personal financial situation.” The Financial Health Institute goes on to define the term as “the dynamic relationship of one’s financial and economic resources as they are applied to or impact the state of physical, mental and social well-being.”
The definitions above point to different aspects of financial health, such as the amount of savings for future use and retirement plans, how much money goes into fixed or non-discretionary expenses, and financial management.
Good to Know:
Your savings and overall net worth represent the financial resources at your disposal for current or future use. However, these resources can be affected by debt, in the form of mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and so on.
How to Improve Your Financial Health
Similar to how people have different health situations, financial health can also be classified into good and bad. Your financial health is subject to change based on your assets, inflation, and price fluctuations of goods and services over time.
Signs of good financial health include a steady flow of income, timely payments, an ever-growing cash balance, and strict adherence to a budget plan. On the other hand, bad financial health is typified by monthly expenditures exceeding income, resulting in a nil possibility of bank savings. Even worse, the lack of savings leads to a pileup of credit card or personal debts and negative bank balances.
Regardless of how your financial health is, there’s always room for improvement. Here are some of the key steps you can take to attain that goal:
1. Calculate Your Net Worth
Determining your net worth is the first step to understanding the overall situation of your financial health and deciding how you can reach the financial goals you’ve set for yourself.
Calculating your net worth is easy. All you need to do is to subtract the value of your liabilities (what you owe) from the value of your assets (what you own). To calculate your net worth, write down everything that you consider as an asset (such as cash, home, and investment accounts) and your liabilities (credit card debt, mortgage, student loans). Now subtract the value of the liabilities from the assets to get your net worth.
Your net worth determines your overall financial health status, and it is subject to changes over time. Hence, it is more beneficial if you form the habit of reviewing your net worth at least every year.
Build a Positive Net Worth
You will have a negative net worth if the value of your liabilities exceeds that of your assets. But by tracking your net worth regularly, you can identify the areas that need to be improved upon, and build a positive net worth with time.
One way to build a positive net worth is to strive to increase your net worth by an average of 7% every year through efficient debt repayment, and income investment.
If you’d rather not crunch figures, you can use a financial advisory tool such as Personal Capital to track and organize your finances.
Once you input all your loan, banking, and investment account information, your net worth will automatically update to reflect changes in your account balance, so you don’t have to do the math yourself all the time.
Apart from net worth tracking, fee elimination, and retirement planning, with Personal Capital you can also get access to expert advice and financial planning services whenever you need it.
2. Get Out of Debt
If your financial health is poor and you’re already in debt, then your priority should be getting out of that debt quickly. This is particularly important because holding on to debts can damage your chances of achieving financial independence.
Calculate Debt-to-Income Ratio
A great way of putting your debt in perspective is by calculating your debt-to-income ratio. Your debt-to-income is calculated by dividing all your monthly debt payments by your gross monthly income.
Assuming your monthly gross income (amount of money earned before taxes and other deductions have been removed) is $7,000, and you pay $1,500 a month for your mortgage, $200 on auto, $150 on credit card, and $250 for the rest of your debts.
Your total debt payment amounts to $2,100 per month. Divide this figure by your gross income of $7,000, then your debt-to-income ratio is 30% ($2,100 / $7,000 = 0.30)
Evidence of studies from mortgage banks reveals that borrowers with a higher debt-to-income ratio have a higher chance of having difficulties meeting up their monthly payments. The number you get is one of the factors lenders use to measure your ability to repay the money you’ve borrowed.
Most lenders recommend 30% as the optimal debt-to-income ratio. If you calculated yours and you’re getting close to 50%, then it’s time to start making more efforts to bring it down as soon as possible.
Ways to Decrease Your Expenses and Save Money
Using your budget or some other expense tracking software like Personal Capital can help you identify areas in which you’re spending money the most. Some of these unnecessary expenses don’t come in the form of big bills in your paycheck that are easy to spot. However, they add up to make a significant impact on our finances.
Once you identify these expenses, it’s up to you to cut back on them now. Most expenses come from feeding, transportation, shopping (groceries and clothing), housing, phone, and Internet bills. Here are a few easy ways you can start with to decrease your monthly expenses, and save a large chunk of money in the long run.
Save Money on Food
Most times, the amount of money allocated for food expenses is not enough to cater for your monthly needs, and you’ll have to dip into another budgetary element. The sad case is that this budgetary element isn’t clothing, transportation, or retirement savings, but instead credit cards. And if you want to live a financially healthy life, credit cards are not an option at all.
Here are some ways to save money on food and prevent waste:
a) Cancel eating outdoors
Have you thought of how much you spend on food every month – whether indoors or outdoors?
The average American household spends $4,049 on food at home, and $3,154 on outdoors food every year. The total sum being $7,203 annually, and $600 every month.
Based on these food expenses stats above, it means that the average American person spends $7.64 per day on food. If you’re eating at any restaurant, you’re bound to pay much more than the average food spending.
If you want to stay within your budget, and get out of debt faster, eating out is a no-no. Instead, find inexpensive ways to make dining in a pleasant experience like preparing simple recipes with available foodstuff.
b) Prepare your meals (and pack) at home
When you cook at home, make sure you cook from scratch rather than eating premade dinners.
Also ensure that you make extra portions of your meal to have as leftovers later on or at work. This would keep you from feeling hungry at work and getting tempted to eat out during lunch breaks.
c) Start a container garden
You can convert gardening to a hobby that can save you money if done right. However, not all vegetables, fruits, and herbs are easy to grow – and some might even be too expensive to manage (which sort of defeats the purpose).
If you’re new to gardening, you should focus on vegetables and fruits that produce the highest yield with minimal care. These include basil, lettuce, tomatoes (you can get up to $4 per pound in stores), green beans, and cucumbers.
d) Buy nonperishable items in bulk
Most people hardly spare a glance to some of the larger packages of nonperishable items – thinking that they don’t need the excess. You could save more money if you check the cost per unit of all the sizes before making your choice at the store.
Also, check for coupons and coupon codes for items you usually buy, and if the coupon is worth your money, you can also buy it in bulk.
You can extend this habit beyond your feeding expenses to other nonperishable goods that you use for day-to-day activities.
e) Buy store brands
You can buy many food items for significantly less if you go for a store-brand or generic form instead of named-brands.
If the differences in the ingredients of the generic products don’t differ significantly from the name-brand products, then it could be safe to purchase it.
But sometimes when the generic brand has nothing on the name-brand product, just do your thing and buy what you have to. There are other ways you can save money without punishing yourself.
Consistently buying generic brands can help you trim your shopping bill in the long run.
f) Use cash back apps to save money on groceries
Using grocery rebate apps is by far the easiest way to save money on your groceries. You get paid to shop using these apps.
To enjoy this benefit, all you have to do is to download each app and buy the items listed on the app at your grocery store, or take a picture of your receipt, upload, and chill for your payment.
It doesn’t get easier than this! Here are the best grocery store rebate apps that will pay you in real cash to buy groceries.
Following your purchases at the store and your receipt upload, your rebate will be deposited in your Ibotta account within 24 hours. You can cash out using either PayPal or Venmo.
One of the most popular cash back apps, Rakuten (formerly Ebates) can help you get as much as 40 percent cash on your purchases at over 2,500 stores.
The platform is very easy to use. Once you sign up, just look up the store you need, click the link and shop as usual. When you make a purchase and your order is reported to Rakuten, cash back is applied to your account.
After you sign up and start shopping, you will earn reward points that you can then redeem as PayPal deposits or gift cards. You will get $1 for every 100 points.
Other ways you can cut back costs include:
- Go with a list when shopping for groceries
- Don’t buy when you’re hungry. There’s a tendency you might overbuy
- Use reusable grocery bags and shop at stores that give discounts for doing so.
- Use apps like Shopkick that pay you for going shopping.
Save Money on Transportation
The money most people spend on cars every year is simply outrageous. And unlike real estate, the value attached to cars keeps dwindling every year, making it nigh impossible to make a profit from resale.
Apart from their ever-diminishing value, you still have to spend money to buy fuel and make regular repairs on your car to keep it in working condition.
According to AAA, the average car ownership cost for vehicles with an annual mileage of 15,000 miles in 2017, is about $8,469, or around $706 every month. This amount only factors the cost of interest on a car loan.
Good to Know:
When other parameters such as insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, registration, fees, taxes, and miscellaneous are added to the mix, the average cost climbs up to more than $8,800 a year.
Financial experts recommend that your car expenses should not exceed more than 20% of your monthly salary. Here’s how you can reduce your monthly expenses on transportation.
a) Use public transportation
According to the American Public Transport Association, you can save over $10,000 per year on transportation costs if you live in an area with access to public transit.
Public transportation is an excellent way of saving money – you only pay for what you use, and you don’t have to bother about additional expenses such as maintenance and repairs.
Every time you go to work or run errands without taking your car along, you’ll most likely be saving some money. And that’s just money on repairs, maintenance, insurance, parking tickets, and others – you can get by just well without a car.
Rideshare companies such as Lyft and Uber make it more convenient for people to move around via renting a car or hiring a ride.
b) Sell your car
If you hardly use your vehicle, you should consider selling it and putting the money to good use rather than leaving it to accumulate insurance bills.
You can use the proceeds from the sale of the car to buy a smaller or more gas-friendly vehicle or use the money to settle a high-interest debt.
c) Carpool to work
Don’t turn down the chance to share rides to and from work with someone else. You can save the money earmarked for gas, maintenance by sharing the fees with your carpool passengers.
d) Keep your tires properly inflated
Most people neglect the importance of tire pressure in the overall maintenance of a car. By maintaining the correct tire pressure, you can save more money on gas, as your car uses more gas when it has to run on underinflated tires.
You can also save money on tires as driving on underinflated tires can cause them to wear out faster and increase your chances of being involved in an accident.
Don’t neglect your overall vehicle maintenance. Visit your local gas station at least once a month and get a tire pressure gauge. You can use the information in your car manual to get the recommended PSI (pounds per square inch).
Other ways you can decrease transportation expenses include:
- Avoid unnecessary driving – this reduces your chances of getting tickets or being involved in an accident.
- Walk or ride a bike when you can. Don’t act like you don’t need the cardio.
- Review your insurance rates and make sure you’re on the lowest insurance rate available
Save Money on Insurance
Having insurance helps you stay protected when an unforeseen situation occurs. It also helps you manage cash flow uncertainty – you don’t have to pay for losses from your pocket.
But all these benefits would defeat the purpose of decreasing your expenses especially if you’re overpaying for your insurance. So you end up incurring more debts to pay up your insurance premium at the detriment of your savings and other important needs.
Here are a few ways you can use to reduce your spending on insurance premiums.
a) Shop around
Just like how you’d do with any other type of shopping, make sure you shop around for the best deal available (that doesn’t deduct from the quality of service you’ll get).
When looking around for new insurance for your vehicle or your house, get at least three quotes and compare the services offered and the pricing.
b) Use a single insurer
You can get a good price slash from most insurance companies when you combine your homeowners and auto policies or get an umbrella policy.
It is more expensive for insurers to maintain separate records for your policies, hence they will be more than willing to offer you a discount for bundling your plans together.
If you’re using two separate insurers presently, find out what type of discount they’ll offer if you bundle both policies, and choose the one which saves you more cash.
c) Raise your deductible
The advantage of a higher deductible is that it lowers the amount an insurer is liable for and can also reduce insurance premiums. This is a smart move especially if your claims are infrequent.
A typical deductible amount for most people is $250, but you can increase it up to $1,000 for virtually all types of insurance.
The amount of money you can save from raising your deductibles can be quite substantial. For instance, raising your deductible to $1,000 from $250 can save you as much as 20% annually.
d) Take advantage of discounts
Auto insurance companiessuch as Root offer a wide range of discounts essentially targeted at low-risk lifestyle drivers.
If you fall under this category and you want to save some money, ask your carrier about some of these discounts.
- Accident Free (No accident in 3 years)
- Anti Theft Devices
- New Vehicle (for cars less than five years)
- Members of affinity groups, such as college alumni and certain professions and professions
- Defensive Driving Courses
- Low annual mileage
e) Pay for insurance less often
Insurers usually offer the option to pay for insurance bills every month. However, there are extra charges for the monthly transactions.
Try saving money by paying your premium every three months, six months, or annually, depending on how well you can discipline yourself to save up. It could help you decrease your expenses in the long run.
Other ways you can cut back on insurance expenses include:
- Maintain a good credit record (your credit information determines how most insurers price auto policies)
- Reduce coverage on older cars (purchasing a coverage policy for a car worth less than ten times of your premium isn’t cost effective)
- Compare insurance costs before buying a car
- Drive safely – you can keep your premium low by avoiding accidents and traffic tickets.
Save Money on Entertainment
Do you know that the money the average American spends on entertainment is more than their spending on clothing and personal care products?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2016 Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average annual household spending on entertainment is $2,913 (clothing – $1,803, personal care products – $707)
This figure represents spending on home entertainment (cable TV) and outdoor entertainment such as movies, concerts, and sporting events.
If you want to cut back on debts and live a financially healthy life, you have to reduce your entertainment expenses to the bare minimum. Here are some money-saving ideas that can help you get started:
a) Reduce or eliminate your cable bill
The average cable and satellite TV bill were recently put at around $101 every month, and about $1,200 annually. One effective way to decrease your entertainment expense is to find a cheaper way to access your favorite shows or just downright quit your cable company.
By cutting down on your cable and watching less television, you could save money that would have been used to pay electricity bills.
Once you’ve cut cable TV, you can take advantage of lots of streaming options such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. subscribing to several streaming services can cost you less than $50, and you’d still have access to entertaining content.
b) Look for less expensive entertainment options
Take advantage of the facilities in your local library and community events like music festivals and art fairs, volunteer groups and organizations.
If your community offers these and many other entertaining and recreational events, you can do well by getting involved. You can get all the entertainment you want without having to burden your finances.
c) Cancel newspaper and magazine subscriptions
Cancel all newspaper and magazine subscriptions for items in your mail that you don’t read when next it comes up for renewal.
As long as it’s not important, and you don’t read it, it’s a waste of space and money. If you need some reading material, hit up your local library to get magazines at affordable prices.
d) Cancel club memberships
Review your additional expenses on your local country club, or your gym membership. You could get by just fine with the good old home exercise routine till you at least get out of debt. You could also use apps that pay you to get fit.
If you’re using your country club membership less than once in a month, then it’s time to say goodbye. This money is better off saved or spent on more pressing needs.
e) Reduce/cancel regular paid services
Look at some of the services you pay for every month and determine if the money you’re spending on them is worth it.
If it isn’t, you should either cancel the service or find other inexpensive alternatives that can handle the task for you.
Save Money on Utility and Energy Bills
Another essential cost that most of us spend money on is utilities, which includes gas, water, trash removal, cell phone service, electricity, and many others.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average household spends about $2,200 on energy, and at least half of this amount is dedicated to heating and cooling their home.
Even though it seems unlikely, there are many ways you can use to reduce your utility bills.
a) Lower the temperature on your hot water heater
The water heater accounts for close to 14% of energy costs in most houses. Most times, people keep the water hotter than what they need, and as time passes, the heat is continually lost to the environment.
Therefore, you have to use more energy to keep your water hot, and more energy ends up incurring more expenses.
Good to Know:
You can save money on energy by reducing the temperature of your heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (about 49 degrees Celsius), as well as installing a water heater blanket to help keep in the heat.
b) Unplug all unused electrical devices
If you have electronic devices around the house that stay plugged in for long periods but are hardly in use, you could be incurring extra electricity expenses.
Most electronic devices constantly use a small amount of energy or “a phantom charge,” when they stay plugged in without being used. While the charge may seem negligible, consider how many electrical devices you have plugged in even when you’re not at home, and the extra bill you’ll get at the end of the month.
To cut back on those expenses, unplug all electronic devices or power strips you don’t use frequently.
c) Use timers and power strips
Another way to save money from “phantom charges” is to use power strips and timers to control your electrical devices.
The power strip with a switch on it prevents your devices from using the phantom charge while the timer can automatically switch off the charge going to a power strip at a specific time you set.
Other ways you can reduce your utility bills
- Install compact fluorescent light (CFL) or LED light bulbs – they use about 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs, and they last more than ten times longer.
- Keep your home air sealed as the loss of air can cause your utility bills to rise
- Contact your utility company – most utility companies have cost-saving programs and incentives that can help you spend less on energy consumption.
Ways to Increase Your Income and Make More Money
Even with all the alteration of lifestyle and spending habits, you still have to find a way of earning more money to pay for your necessary expenses.
Earning some extra money can reduce the time you’ll need to cut back on your expenses, and it can also help you clear off your debts even faster. Here are a few ways you can use to increase your income.
Sell Your Old Stuff
You can make money selling clothes, books, phones, and other unused items online.
You can get started with Decluttr – it’s incredibly easy to use, offers free shipping, and the payments come in real quick.
Make Money Blogging
You can make some really good money by blogging, and in no time, you might end up quitting your day job. (at least we did, and we’ve been raking in thousands of dollars on a steady).
Get a Side Hustle
According to a recent Bankrate survey, nearly 4 in 10 Americans (37%) have a side job – and the average side hustler makes at least $686 per month.
Some of the popular side hustles include:
- Home repair/landscaping
- Online sales
- Fitness training and consulting
- Virtual assistance
Take Paid Surveys
Online paid surveys are one of the easiest ways to increase your income from home. There are lots of survey agencies that are ready to pay you good money for completing surveys online.
You can easily earn up to $200 per month by completing a few surveys daily.
Online House Listings
That extra room in your house that hasn’t been in use for a while can earn you money. Just sign up as a host with Airbnb and list your property through their website.
You can be sure that your apartment will be in good hands because Airbnb requires verification information for both the host and the guest, and you get the chance to write reviews about your guest.
3. Develop a Personal Budget
You’ve probably heard this exact statement more than a thousand times, but the truth is that this point cannot be stressed enough.
With the many benefits associated with budgeting, it comes as a surprise to find out that according to a Gallup poll, only about 1/3 of Americans (32%) prepare a monthly budget.
A personal budget is a spending plan that allocates personal income for expenses, savings, and debt repayment for a defined period, usually about a month.
When setting up a budget, you should put into consideration your spending habits as well as your previous loan history.
An excellent example of a realistic budget guide is the 50/20/30 budgeting method.
50% goes to essential spending/ needs such as mortgage, utilities, transportation, home, and auto insurance. These expenses are those you can’t afford to skip, hence the term “essential needs.”
20% is allocated to your personal financial goals such as savings for the future, investments, and debt repayment.
The remaining 30% goes to “wants.” Expenses in this category (groceries, shopping, entertainment, cell phone data plan) reflect your quality of life spending and should be deducted after spending your “needs” and “savings” money.
Spend More Efficiently
Rather than a form of restrictive spending, a budget helps you spend money more efficiently – needs are taken care of based on their importance.
Having a budget helps you balance your expenses with your income and allows you to steer clear of debts. With a realistic budget, you can set up long-term financial goals such as starting your own business, buying an apartment, and retirement.
Budgeting allows you to alter your negative spending habits and focus more on meeting your financial targets. Ultimately, having a budget that works and sticking to it is quite important, especially if you want to live a financially healthy life.
4. Build and Maintain an Emergency Fund
As the name implies, an emergency fund is an account for funds earmarked for spending in the event of emergency purposes.
Recent research reveals that two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty in raising $1,000 if an emergency arises. These unplanned situations could include the loss of a job, accidents, home renovation, car repairs, or any other urgent expenses.
The fund is set aside to help you pay for expenses that you won’t typically include in your personal budget.
Good to Know:
The purpose of an emergency fund is to improve your financial health and security by making backup money available which would reduce your chances of getting money from high-interest debt options, such as credit cards or unsecured loans.
Financial experts advocate that an emergency fund should have enough money to cover at least three months’ worth of living expenses – and more if you can afford it. Ensure that your emergency funds are liquid (can be converted to cash quickly), remaining in checking or savings accounts.
Having an emergency fund means you’ll be better prepared for any unforeseen expense that could have otherwise negatively impacted your financial health.
5. Invest Your Money
After reviewing your financial situation, your next step is to strive to secure a financially healthy life.
What to Invest In
Setting up a savings account is just one of the many ways of investing money. Most conservative investors invest in gold because its price tends to increase just as the cost of living increases.
Other low-risk investment options include certificates of deposits issued by banks, government treasury securities, money market accounts, fixed annuities, and stocks.
Long-term investment options include long-term bonds, mutual funds, and real estate.
However, if you’re a risk-taker chasing after high yields, you can invest in Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), venture capital, high-yield bonds, and currency trading.
Make Sure You Diversify
Ensure you do not put all your eggs in one basket, because that is the shortcut to ruin. Instead, you should set up a diversified investment portfolio with a mixture of stocks, fixed income, and commodities.
Diversification is important as your assets will not correlate with each other, and will react differently to market fluctuations. This lowers the overall risk on your investments, as it is quite impossible for your entire portfolio to be wiped out by a single market event.
Depending on your choice, you can turn your investments into additional income streams if you have a combination of the necessary experience, education, and risk management skills.
Here are a couple of great investment tools to get you started:
Worthy Bonds is a great app that works both as a savings account and an investment platform by using the spare change on your purchases as investment funds. When you make a purchase at the store for $32.40, Worthy Bonds will round the bill to $33, and the remaining $0.60 will be invested on your behalf.
If you’re new into investments and you’re looking for an online broker to help you get the hang of investments, then Ally Invest is just perfect for you.
Among other online brokers, Ally Invest has one of the lowest commission rates of $4.95 on the trading of stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
Their tradeable securities include stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and Forex. Ally Invest also has helpful trading tools and insights, as well as an easy-to-use trading platform.
Some of the steps we shared above require significant lifestyle changes, but by adopting these practices, you’d see visible improvement in your overall financial health. Use a financial health calculator to determine how you fare in terms of finances.
It’s never too early or too late to start taking control of your finances. Cut back on those lifestyle choices and expenses that are dragging your finances down.
Which of these financial health improvement steps resonated the most with you? Are there any other steps which have worked for you and you believe should be in this guide? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!
Nia Simone McLeod is a personal finance researcher and writer for Money Done Right. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University, she started her writing career by going freelance and producing content for clients on a variety of different topics including personal finance. When she’s not tapping away at her laptop, she’s either curating her next great Spotify playlist or stuffing her face at the local ramen shop. Nia currently resides in Richmond, Virginia.