The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays (though, I must admit, I prefer it when it's attached to a weekend, not floating on a Wednesday). Who doesn't love a day spent with family, grilling and watching fireworks?
But this year, it has taken on a bit of a different meaning for me. I've been thinking not just of our country's independence, but our own individual declarations of financial independence (or our lack thereof). Blame the recent media rehashing of the ongoing debate over whether women can have it all, kicked off by Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story in The Atlantic about her decision to leave her job in the State Department.
In that debate, I side squarely with Team Slaughter. She argues that "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible." I don't have experience in government, but I know I've had to skip career opportunities in order to have a happy home life with my own two teenagers (and my husband).
But I also acknowledge -- as does Slaughter -- that it's not possible to make choices like those without financial security and independence. Many, many parents must work long hours to put food on the table for their children. And the next generation is off to a rocky start: In a recent survey of 20-somethings from PNC Bank, only 23% rated themselves as totally independent financially.
So if you feel like your finances are out of your control -- your debt is spiraling, you don't know where your money is going, you're leaning heavily on your parents -- take some time after the barbecue to consider what you can do to win your own independence. Here are a few things you can do to get started:
• Get in the game. When you're part of a couple, you fall into a rhythm. He takes care of the lawn, she cleans the bathrooms. He does the Fourth of July grilling, she makes the potato salad. Something similar happens with finances, and often not in a good way: One person tends to steer the ship, and the other becomes inattentive. If you're the partner who's not at the helm, it's time to change that. Start paying attention to bill paying and money managing. Ask questions. Set up a new arrangement, where you each manage things for six months, then switch. If the unthinkable happens -- death, divorce, severe disability -- you won't be caught unaware of the family's finances.
• Run your numbers, and set up a plan. Often, the root of our money problems is that we don't know where the money is going. Whether you're trying to build up some savings so you can move out of mom and dad's house, or if you want to pay down debt, it helps to track your spending, says Stacy Francis, a New York financial adviser. Then you can put a plan in place to get you where you want to go: If tracking reveals you're burning $200 a month on pay-per-view movies, smartphone data plan overages, and dinners out, trim that spending and put the money you save toward your goal. You'll instantly feel better.
• Steel yourself for the unexpected. That means having an emergency cushion -- even if it's just $1,000, though the smart money recommends having a fund equal to three to six months worth of your usual expenses -- and other protections. "Do you need to stop and think more closely about your insurance?" asks Francis. "What happens if you get hit by a bus tomorrow? What if you are disabled?" Having policies in place -- even if they're just for a minimum amount of coverage - will help you sleep better at night.
• Automate. If you take your eyes off the grill for too long, those burgers are going to burn. But in some cases, you can take your eyes of your finances and actually end up in better shape: Ask your bank to automatically transfer money into your emergency fund and retirement accounts every time you get paid. The money won't pass through your hands, so you can't spend it. You can do the same thing with bill payments, so long as you do periodic spot checks to make sure you're not paying for services you're no longer using.
-- With Arielle O'Shea