How to get started on your personal finance goals.

​​Maybe it starts with taking out student and auto loans while working at your job. Add several coffee and shopping purchases, a vacation with friends, and a couple of emergency expenses to a high-interest credit card over several years. Before you know it, you’re tens of thousands of dollars in debt and have very little money saved up — leaving you feeling like you can’t get ahead.
Two out of three U.S. residents are considered “financially unhealthy,” according to the 2021 Financial Health Network report. Fewer than four in 10 Americans have enough money saved to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, CBS News reports. The U.S. Federal Reserve announced American household debt hit a record $14.6 trillion in the spring of 2021, while a 2021 CNBC report found the average American owes $90,460 in debt.
If you want to take control of your finances, start now. Start researching, making goals, and making small financial moves to improve your financial health.

Research Your Finances
Financial literacy is understanding the puzzle pieces that create your whole financial picture — from debts and expenses to goals and investments. Some common questions include: How much money do I make versus what I spend? Do I have an emergency fund? How much debt do I have, and what are those interest rates? Am I saving for retirement or my children’s futures?

“It doesn’t mean someone needs to know how to decipher the nooks and crannies of their tax returns or understand how the federal government deals with their money,” says Kayla Charlton, a certified financial planner and financial advisor with Wallstreet Group. “It’s having the ability to understand and implement a variety of financial skills that impact their daily life and their long-term financial health.”

“It’s important to be honest with yourself when setting a budget.” 

Brian Zerr

One step is researching financial terms and understanding what resources are available. For example, researching compound interest will help you understand who impacts your debts, like student loans and home mortgages. Knowing your resources, like whether your employer offers a 401(k) retirement match, can be an easy way to grow your investments.
The first step Kayla recommends is reviewing your credit report (featuring your credit score, a three-digit number that indicates your perceived financial responsibility). Everyone can obtain three free credit reports a year from each of the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The report will give an overview of your debt and an opportunity to find incorrect data or overlooked bills that are deflating your credit score.
“You would be very surprised at what you might find,” Kayla adds. “That might help them get a good grasp on the debt they owe, bills, those kinds of things.”
Brian Zerr, a founding partner of Finteris Wealth Management, suggests that it’s common for clients to not know how much money they spend. His top advice to clients just starting to build their wealth is that you must spend less than you earn. For example, if your income is $3,000 a month but you consistently spend more than that monthly, you need to reevaluate your money flow. (You can find online tools to help you do this.)
“Maybe you need to get rid of the new car and drive a used car, or you cancel the cable subscription, or whatever it is,” Brian says. “If you can’t consistently live on the money that you put into your checking account, you’re never going to get ahead. There’s no catching up later or catching up when you’re 30, 40, or 50.” 

Create Financial Goals
Financial advisors suggest creating short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals that you can work toward simultaneously. Short-term goals could be paying an overdue bill this month or creating a $1,000 emergency fund. Intermediate goals could be saving money for a house in 10 years or establishing a child care fund over the next five years. A common long-term goal is saving money for retirement.
Once you understand your money flow and your goals, setting a budget can help you take hold of your finances. While some budgeting websites recommend using cash to help deter overspending, paying in cash can be difficult to track, which is an important aspect of budgeting.
“It amazes me how often people will come in with their budgets and there will be a line item of spending money,” Brian says. “That doesn’t really help. For a lot of people, that cash is a very large portion of what they’re spending, so without tracking it, they don’t have an honest interpretation of what they’re spending it on.”
“It’s important to be honest with yourself when setting a budget,” Brian adds.

“If you can’t consistently live on the money that you put into 
your checking account, you’re never going to get ahead. There’s 
no catching up later or catching up when you’re 30, 40, or 50.” 

Brian Zerr
Finteris Wealth Management

Begin Small
When it comes to meeting your financial goals, you want to be more tortoise than hare. 
“Starting slow and small will get you further than racing at top speed,” says Kevin Callaway, vice president and financial advisor with Central Investment Advisors. “It’s really boring because very rarely do people suddenly get wealthy. It’s about creating good habits and repeating those habits over a period of time. That’s where success is.”
Instead of investing $1,000 into an emergency fund in one month, set aside $100 every month for a year. If you discover an old credit card you don’t use anymore or an overlooked $50 medical bill through your credit report, make it a goal to call and cancel the card or pay the bill that month. While the small goals may not seem like much at first, they have a ripple effect.
“It feels good having that instant gratification when I pay off a $50 medical bill, as opposed to paying off my student loans [that are] $50,000 and may take 10 years until I get that gratification,” Kayla says.
The trick with paying off debt is being intentional on where you reallocate those dollars. If you pay off a credit card, the funds that were initially allocated for that debt should be steered toward your other goals — helping pay off another debt, building an emergency fund, etc. 
“You can sort of see how it starts to build on itself — eliminating the debt, building up the emergency fund so you don’t have to go to debt, and putting money in something that will grow for you and be an asset,” Brian says. 

“You would be very surprised at what you might find.”

Kayla Charlton
Wallstreet Group

Be Flexible, Patient, and Consistent
There will be times where you overspend your budget or you don’t meet a goal, and that’s OK. It’s unrealistic to think you can pay off your entire debt or save for your financial goals overnight. Give yourself leniency and patience to learn and find solutions.
While it’s important to be flexible, Brian says that it’s also vital you don’t fall into the “pay myself back” mindset. You never know what emergency expenses may pop up, so telling yourself that you will save more money next month to offset this month’s overspending can be dangerous.
“If I took $500 out because I wanted to go on a trip with friends but then next month, my car breaks down and I have a $1,000 bill, I’m now $1,500 behind and didn’t save any money,” Brian says

Instead of investing $1,000 into an emergency fund in one month, set aside $100 every month for a year. 

Understand the Commitment
Financial literacy is a lifetime commitment — your goals and finances will change as you get older, so it’s important to continuously keep on top of your finances. The No. 1 piece of advice from financial advisors is to start now. Over time, your small wins will accumulate and result in a healthier financial future.
“Even if you’re investing $50 a month, you would be amazed at the results in 10 to 30 years,” Kayla says. “If you have $50 lying around every month, invest it or put it toward debt. The worst that will happen is you grow up and retire and you have too much money.” 

“It’s about creating good habits and repeating those habits over a period of time. That’s where success is.”

Kevin Callaway
Central Investment Advisors