Before you see the headline and shout, “Read the room, MCU!” we want to say this: If you made it to the end of 2021, you’re doing enough. This was a hard and bad year, but you powered through. You made it.
Yes, we recommend setting some financial goals for the New Year—we’re a financial institution. We like that sort of thing. If it feels stressful right now to think about money, save the article and come back to it later. Seriously. You’re doing enough. Hang in there.
1. Start a budget (that works for you)
If it feels like every single “financial tips” article talks about a budget, you’re not wrong. No, it’s not a groundbreaking concept, but finding a budget you can stick with will change your life. (Trust us.)
A budget is just figuring out how much money you get in a month and how much money you spend in a month. The goal of any budget is to keep that first number bigger than the second.
The REAL tip, though, is to find a budget that works for you. Do you like charts and graphs? Try Mint. Do you want to budget and save for future expenses? Start using YNAB (which, accurately, stands for “You Need A Budget”). Do you think cash-only might work best for you? Go with the envelope system. Are you old-school? Get a notebook and keep track on paper. If you just want a simple all-encompassing budget, test our very own simple budget method! There is no set system that will work for everyone, and you may have to try a few out to find one you can stick with.
The trick is to stick with it—like any habit, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Plus, knowing where your money goes and being able to plan for expenses, makes for the best feeling ever.
2. Start an emergency fund
If 2021 taught us nothing else, it was to expect the unexpected. Who could have predicted…. well, anything that happened this year? (2020’s surprises weren’t all that great, either.) But no matter the year, things can go south with a job, or a car, or your health. That’s when having an emergency fund can really help.
Most financial experts advise having between three and six months of living expenses saved for your emergency fund. That amount can feel impossible to get to, we know. But you know what? Running a marathon would also feel impossible if you tried to do it all at once. The trick is to do it one mile (or dollar) at a time.
The longer you budget (remember the first tip?), the more likely you’re going to have leftover money. Put that money into an emergency fund (ideally where you can’t easily access it, but you do you). Even if it’s just $5 or $10—when you have extra money, put it in your emergency fund. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you have an amount that you’re comfortable with.
It’s not rocket science, but it will start to feel like it as you see your emergency fund grow. The bigger it gets, the more secure you can feel about whatever the future holds. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and don’t get discouraged.
3. Start saving for retirement
If you’re young (or even if you’re middle-aged), retirement can seem really far away. Or even impossible. But it’s not that far away and you want to make sure it IS possible.
After you’ve set up a budget that works and have started the marathon (not a sprint!) of saving up an emergency fund, it’s time to think about your retirement fund. Most employers offer a 401(k) plan, and that’s the lowest-effort, biggest-reward option for many of us. The recommended contribution is about 10% of your gross salary, but if that’s going to impact your month-to-month budget too much, contribute a little less. Increase your contributions when you can.
If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) or you’re self-employed, you can open an IRA. They’re not quite the same as a 401(k) but they’re fairly similar, in that they’re designed to keep your money safe and growing until you reach retirement. (Both options have a penalty for withdrawing any funds before you reach retirement age. But that’s something you shouldn’t need to do anyway since your emergency fund will be increasing slowly but surely.)
Again, we don’t want to add any stress to the end of 2021 by talking about money. But we firmly believe that these three goals are simple enough that anyone can do them, and they’ll have a giant impact on your peace of mind.