Tax season can be a painful reminder of how adequately (or inadequately) you tracked and budgeted your lifestyle the previous year. Knowing how to set up budgets, goals and financial processes isn't only handy for filing taxes -- it's a lifelong skill you'll need year after year to remain financially strong.
But you don't have to be a certified financial planner to understand the basics of personal finance. In fact, there are a multitude of free resources available to help you expand your financial know-how. In celebration of National Financial Literacy month, here are a few ideas:
1. Visit your public library. Your local library is a hub of all kinds of information, including educational personal finance workshops. Public libraries across the country have stepped it up when it comes to educating their local communities, from the Affordable Care Act to helping people balance a checkbook.
For example, the Kansas City Public Library system is hosting Money Smart Month throughout April. One workshop held this week called "Teens and Money" taught young attendees about key financial concepts and saving money. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Free sessions like these are just some of the many workshops available throughout the country.
2. Find a powerful expert voice. Some of the most famous personal finance experts have achieved success only after experiencing a financial low. They're real people who have been there and done that, and have written extensively about the knowledge they gained the hard way.
One example is Dave Ramsey, who coined the "7 Baby Steps" for getting out of debt in his book "The Total Money Makeover." These types of books offer a detailed look at financial remedies when challenges start to mount.
Similarly, planning ahead is equally important. Robert Kiyosaki, author of the "Rich Dad Poor Dad" series, shares how generating income through assets, such as real estate and rental properties, can help you achieve wealth in the future.
For example, the University of California-Irvine's Distance Learning Center provides the personal finance foundation you need to excel through an online learning platform. The free course, "Fundamentals of Personal Financial Planning," was developed by the learning center with the help of a grant from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. The course includes 22 lessons ranging from goal-setting to estate planning.
4. Stalk personal finance websites. More and more websites, on-air personalities and even the personal finance experts noted above have adapted social media into their outreach strategy. Follow or like your favorite finance gurus to get fresh tips on how to manage your money now and in the future.
Also, following the finance pages of news outlets on Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) can help you stay on top of current events and how they affect your wallet. By staying aware of financial news stories, you can apply this knowledge to your everyday life.
5. Get immersed in a TED talk. TED talks began as a discussion on innovation within the technology and science fields, but have since grown in scope to include topics ranging from music to money. While attending a TED conference can be financially daunting at $4,000 or more per attendee, hungry personal finance disciples can find thought-provoking finance lectures on ted.com.
This knowledge hub goes beyond humdrum personal finance topics by offering a fresh perspective on conventional advice. The concepts shared at TED talks might best serve someone who's well attuned to the basics of personal finance, but could be equally engaging for someone who's just starting with financial planning.
Whether you incorporate all of these resources into your personal finance repertoire or just one, you'll be closer to achieving tangible financial success by improving your financial literacy.
Jennifer Calonia writes for GoBankingRates.com, a source for online banking, the best CD rates, savings account rates, personal finance news and more.
Interest rates are low, but that's no excuse to accept 0.01 percent interest rates on your savings. Just a little shopping can find you many FDIC-insured savings accounts paying as much as 1 percent in interest, usually with no fees and easy availability to your money through electronic funds transfers. Compared to the near-zero rates that uninsured money-market mutual funds and other alternatives pay, high-interest savings accounts are a much safer way to save.
Banks still try to get customers to pay more for less, with one recent threat to charge fees for basic deposit accounts if the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates further. But many online banks not only offer fee-free options on their checking and savings accounts but also pay interest, and many have extensive fee-free ATM networks or reimbursement arrangements. If your bank follows through on threats to raise fees, taking your business elsewhere is your best move.
Bankrate reports that the average credit card charges around 16 percent in interest. That's a guaranteed money-maker for the banks that issue cards, but a big loser for those who carry balances on their cards. With many cards offering promotional interest rates as low as 0 percent, using them to get rid of high-interest cards is a no-brainer move and can help you pay your debt down faster.
Mistakes on your credit history can keep you from getting a loan that you want to buy your next home or car, but they can also have consequences you'd never imagine. Increasingly, insurance companies, apartment rental agents, and even prospective employers order copies of your credit report to see if you're financially responsible. Be sure to take advantage of your free credit check at the government's annualcreditreport.com website to make sure the three big credit-rating agencies have everything right before mistakes come back to bite you.
Payday loans have gotten more tightly regulated recently, but banks and other financial institutions still offer ways to let you get quicker access at your cash -- for a hefty fee. Resorting to short-term money fixes can land you in even more problematic situations down the road, because those solutions often create debt spirals from which it's hard to emerge unscathed. Set up an emergency fund instead and be prepared in advance for the money woes that life throws your way.
Interest rates have risen during the last half of 2013, with a typical 30-year mortgage carrying a 4.5 percent interest rate. But many homeowners still carry higher-interest mortgages from before the financial crisis. Now that home prices have risen, you might be able to refinance for the first time, and many homeowners have used lower rates to cut hundreds from their mortgage payment or shift to a shorter-term 15-year mortgage to pay off their debt faster.
Too many people never update their insurance coverage to deal with changes in their coverage needs, whether it comes from changes in family status for life insurance, health conditions for health-care or long-term care insurance, or even what types of property you own for homeowners' insurance. Don't wait for disaster to strike; check with your insurer or agent to see if your current coverage meets your needs.
In the past, investors had to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to make a simple stock purchase. Now, though, the rise of discount brokers, low-fee index funds and exchange-traded funds, and freely available investment news and advice have made it silly to spend large amounts to get access to the financial markets. If you're still paying your broker too much to invest, look into alternatives that can help you avoid cutting serious money out of your retirement nest egg.
Everyone likes a tax break, and one of the best ones for you to use involves making contributions to a tax-favored retirement account. By putting money in an IRA or 401(k), you can reduce your current taxable income and save on your taxes while also preparing for the future. With 401(k)s, your employer might even chip in a bit on your behalf. Even when times are tough, finding even small amounts to save can put time on your side and make a big difference down the road.
Many investors found out the hard way this year that bonds aren't as safe as they thought, with some major bond funds posting double-digit percentage losses in 2013. Despite those losses, bonds still carry substantial risk in 2014, with many calling for imminent interest-rate hikes that would erode their value further. Even now, bond rates are so low that they don't compensate you much for their risk.
In contrast to bonds, stocks have soared in 2013. That has some investors finally piling into the market for the first time since 2008 and 2009, while others remain shell-shocked from the massive losses they incurred back then during the financial crisis. Even with the Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI) and other major market benchmarks near all-time record highs, it makes sense to have some stock exposure in your portfolio. Just don't go overboard in the false belief that gains of 20 percent and 30 percent will happen every year.
If you pay full price for just about anything these days, you're paying too much. The rise of deep-discount stores has led to falling prices at stores and shopping malls. Moreover, online tools like coupon sites, daily-deal offers, discounted gift cards, and cash-back credit-card deals can cut your costs as well. With all these tools, you won't find many situations in which you have no chance of getting a bargain on the items you want.
In the past, many young adults focused on getting into as strong a college as they could, figuring that their degree would pay them enough to make up for the costs they incurred. With college graduates facing a more challenging job environment than ever, smart students are thinking about college costs before they make a decision on a school. By maximizing financial aid and looking at lower-tuition schools with nearly as strong educational quality, you can avoid creating a big debt hole that you'll struggle with for years into the future.
If you don't have a will, a power of attorney for financial and health-care matters, and an advance directive to tell medical professionals whether you want certain life-preserving measures taken if something happens to you, then you're putting your family at risk. Many people don't have even these basic estate-planning documents, but getting them in place is easier and less expensive than most believe. Get your affairs taken care of in 2014 and save your loved ones some big future hassles.
Resolving to be more financially astute and to avoid common mistakes will help you get your finances in order more quickly. These tips should give you more money to help you meet all your financial goals.