It's hard not to get caught up in Olympic fever. The games are in full swing, and the world has been fascinated by all the athletes performing at the peak of their sport and by all the dramatic stories unfolding behind the scenes. For many, being involved in the Olympics would be the ultimate achievement -- but few competitors reach that hallowed pinnacle.
We can still dream, though. Even if we're not world-class athletes (or even backyard-class athletes), maybe we could still find a way to celebrate our chosen field.
What If We Had Our Own Personal Finance Olympics?
The best savers would be honored and breathlessly interviewed after completing their latest, expense-busting budget. Savvy shoppers would be scored on who managed to get the best bang for the buck. Employees would compete to see who could rack up the most company benefits, with those picking up an employer match in their company retirement fund moving on to the semifinals (where they'll face off to see who can successfully max out their Roth IRA for the year).
But who would bring home the gold in the Personal Finance Olympics? Let's take a look to see what kind of savings habits would have you standing on the podium.
Bronze Medal: Savvy Saver (and Smart Spender)
What got you on the podium: You're off to a good start with your savings. You're tracking your spending, cutting unnecessary expenses out of your budget, and putting away the surplus into your savings account. When you do need to spend money, you're not afraid to bust out a coupon or two, and you take the time to research your options before you go out and buy. Impulse purchases are a thing of the past, and you've developed great savings habits that make a big impact on your bottom line over time: You brown-bagged it to work for the last year, you stopped wasting resources, and you engaged in more cheap or totally free activities like game nights, evening walks and local community events (like art walks or a summer concert series).
What will move you up in the rankings: If your savings habits are strong and you regularly stash away money every month, it's time to think about opening retirement accounts. Start with what your employer offers (like a 401k, 401b, or Simple Plan IRA). Contribute at least enough to get the match. Then consider other ways you could save for retirement and invest for your future.
Silver Medal: Eager Earner on a Multiple Goal Mission
What got you on the podium: Your budget is trim, your spending is under control, and you've been putting away money for a while now. When you realized you wanted to save more money, you took action and decided to earn more. In addition to your full-time job, you run a side business or have a few part-time gigs that you work on in the evenings and on weekends. The extra money you earned isn't spent -- it's saved!
You have a lot of big savings goals, and you know it will take hard work to achieve them. You've planned for your future by taking advantage of your company retirement plan, and you're contributing more than just the employer match. Maybe you max out your 401(k) plan ($17,500 a year), a Roth IRA ($5,500 a year) or perhaps you've added a 529 Plan to the mix.
What will move you closer to the gold? Don't settle for saving 10 percent of your income or less. If you need a new goal, consider bumping up your savings rate to 15 or 20 percent. Since you're already in the habit of saving regularly and for multiple goals, this shouldn't be too hard, especially if you avoid lifestyle inflation along the way. Start by aiming to max out your retirement accounts, then consider opening a 529 Plan for college savings or a brokerage account so you can start investing in mutual funds, stocks or ETFs.
Gold Medal: Future-Minded Investor
Congratulations, you're on the top of the savings standings! Your dedication to saving as big a percentage of your income as possible is what made this possible. You can save 25 percent of your income in your sleep, and you've set up automatic contributions to make that happen. Your ability to make the most of your money is what won you the gold.
You know that by investing your money for the long-term, you'll be able to take advantage of compound interest and grow your wealth exponentially. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%You have multiple savings accounts set up for each of your goals: emergency savings, travel, holidays and gifts, so that these planned yearly expenses never sneak up on you. You put your money away, maxing out your retirement accounts as you go, and have a brokerage account for those mid-range goals such as buying your dream home, taking a year off to travel the world or renovating your kitchen.
You're able to save so much because you don't bother trying to keep up with the Joneses. You understand that looking rich and being wealthy are two different things; material possessions don't interest you, but your net worth sure does.
Just because you can't do a quadruple axel doesn't mean you can't win the Personal Finance Olympics! What are you waiting for? You have the wind at your back, perfect slope conditions, and the support from all your mothers and loved ones. Keep up the awesome work and keep your ultimate goal in mind: a robust emergency savings and a healthy nest egg that will continue to grow over the years, thanks to your consistent contributions. Go out there and win the gold!
Which Olympic Medal Would Your Savings Habits Win?
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.
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.