Real talk: how much thought do you give to your personal finances? The mention of the topic may cause you to break out in a hot sweat. Cool it. Despite what you may think, managing your money doesn’t have to be the terrifying unknown, despite all the money myths blurring reality.
When you take control of your finances, it can be a liberating experience. “It’s almost an empowerment conversation,” explains Dr. Sean Stein Smith, accounting expert and assistant professor at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, “because money can be a difficult topic to talk about for a lot of people, for a whole host of reasons.”
An analogy he likes to use is that of a bus driver: are you the one driving the bus or are you being driven by it? The answer should be clear enough. “You’re the one driving the bus on the highway that is your life and money is the gas.”
While you certainly need money to get places in life, it by no means determines the direction you go in. So, let’s take a quick moment to bust open some of the most common money myths.
The Top 5 Money Myths
1. Your Personal Life and Financial Life Are Separate
“We all know that everyone is pulled in a whole bunch of different directions — it’s your personal life, it’s your work life, educational life,” explains Dr. Stein Smith. “It’s almost as if your personal finances are off on an island alone and really, that is not the case. Personal finances influence — and are influenced by — every other aspect of your life.”
Rather than seeing your money as a separate issue, it should be a central part of your day-to-day life. In the same way we spend time looking at social media apps and our email, we should be keeping on top of our finances and monitoring them. What’s more, thanks to the blessings of modern technology, doing so couldn’t be easier.
“If you’re trying to figure out how your personal finances are influencing the rest of your life, take advantage of all of the tools that are out there to keep an eye on it on an ongoing basis,” says Dr. Stein Smith.
“Almost every kind of app has the ability to email you notifications when there is a charge on that account or even give you a text message update or push notification.” Of course, when you’re out in public, safety comes first. Before you log in to a banking app or even an e-commerce site, be sure to connect to a secure network.
2. If You’re in Debt, It’s Too Late to Fix Your Finances
If financial freedom is heaven, then debt has to be hell. When you’re struggling to dig yourself out of money woes, the thought of dealing with your finances can be too much to bear. You might think you’ve already lost out and the best you can do is simply try to get by. And yet, it’s that defeatist attitude that stops you from moving forward.
“If you know that you have debt, it can be quite frightening to even go and take a look at that information. What I always try to say is that when you’re a kid and there’s a monster under the bed or in the closet, it can be terrifying,” says Dr. Stein Smith. “But after you actually go under the bed and take a look at it with a flashlight or go into the closet and look, it’s not so bad after all, right? There is no monster.”
No matter what financial situation you’re in right now, there are ways in which you can improve it. Dr. Stein Smith says there are tactics you can take to get a better handle on your money.
For example, you could consolidate your debt using a credit card with low interest or start by paying off your debt with the highest interest first. What matters is you stop ignoring your financial woes and take action.
3. You Need a Lot of Money to Build Your Wealth
Only millionaires can build wealth, right? Um, wrong. You don’t need a massive lump sum of money to start investing in your future. If you’re looking for a way to start building your personal wealth, the key is to start small.
“If your employer offers a 401k, 403b, or any other option like that and they offer any sort of matching, take advantage of it,” says Dr. Stein Smith. “Put in every dollar up to that matching threshold, and then you will get that employer matching; that’s the closest way to get free money or to get a guaranteed return on your investment.”
4. There’s a “Right” Time to Save for Your Future
“I’d say there’s no time that is too early,” says Dr. Stein Smith. “The one idea I try to push is even if you don’t want to think of it as saving for retirement, then break it down into saving for whatever short-to-medium term goals are interesting to you.”
Since attempting to save for retirement can be an intimidating feat, he recommends starting small and working your way up to that goal. Choose short-term targets, such as saving for a vacation, a down payment on a car, or even money to go back to college. Practicing saving for smaller, more manageable things is a great place to start.
“Whatever goals are important to you,” he explains. “I’d focus your saving efforts there and build on that. And then over time, as you get better at it, your orientation and your outlook might actually change.” When you see how saving benefits you, you might just find that tackling that big old retirement fund feels less intimidating.
5. You Don’t Have Time to Manage Your Money
It’s a common myth that keeping on top of your personal money is too time-consuming to handle. When you work it into your daily routine, it doesn’t have to be a stress.
“If you have half an hour to be on Twitter every day, then you definitely have ten minutes to go through your personal financial data to make sure that everything is 1) accurate and 2) up to date,” says Dr. Stein Smith. “Check that you aren’t accidentally paying for stuff you’re not using anymore or that a person who has joint access to your account hasn’t accidentally signed you up for something else.”
Start Small, but Start Now!
Taking control of your personal finances is easier than you think. You don’t have to tackle all your money issues at once — start small and chip away at it bit by bit. If you’d like some unbiased financial advice, head to 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy. You can also follow Dr. Sean Stein Smith on Twitter at @seansteinsmith.