Self-care is about more than just “treat yourself.” Sometimes, it’s more like “let’s do the damn thing.” Enter: financial self-care.
It’s good for present-day you: Sometimes the best way to beat stress is to look the stressful thing in the eye and conquer it. And it’s good for Future You, too — the sooner you get started, the more time you have to work toward your goals. And it’s good for stress: In one survey, 73% of people who had clear financial goals also said they had lower stress levels. Plus, like with any self-care practice, the more consistent you are with it, the better it gets.
So if you’re looking for that last little nudge to get started, here it is: your financial self-care checklist.
1. Track down your most recent pay stubs
Start by getting an understanding of how much money you have coming in each month. Grab your paycheck stubs from the past month and give them a look.
First, calculate how much you’re making after taxes — aka your take-home pay. This may or may not be equal to the final amount of your check: If you have money withheld for 401(k) contributions, insurance premiums, or other employee benefits like that, then those will come into play later. For now, just look at your gross pay minus taxes. How much take-home pay do you earn in one month?
If you get paid irregularly, like if you rely on freelance income, then this might be a bit trickier. We recommend calculating your take-home pay from the last few months and then taking an average.
2. Get to know your current spending habits
Next, pull up your debit and credit card statements and look through your past few months of purchases. Categorize them into three buckets: needs (groceries, rent, etc), fun (eating out, buying things you wanted, etc), and “Future You” (saving, investing, and debt payments beyond the minimums).
This is where those paycheck withholdings we mentioned above come in. Any 401(k) contributions you’re making go in the “Future You” bucket, and insurance premiums go in the needs bucket. You can categorize any other withholdings however makes sense — for example, a public transit benefit might go in needs, and a gym membership might go in fun.
Finally, add them all up. How much are you spending on each bucket per month? There are no wrong answers — this exercise isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, it’s just to see where you’re starting from today.
3. Set a goal for your future spending habits
Now it’s time to make a plan. We like the 50/30/20 rule, which is a high-level framework for organizing your spending. It uses the same buckets we mentioned above. Traditionally, following the 50/30/20 rule means 50% of your take-home pay will go to needs, 30% will go to fun, and 20% will to Future You.
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But those percentages might not be realistic for you — which is why step two on this list was so important. Based on your spending habits today, set yourself a realistic goal for tomorrow. Maybe it’s 70/20/10, or 60/20/20, or 80/15/5. It’s flexible.
Even if you can only put 1% to Future You, start there. Over time, you can work on trimming expenses or boosting your income so that you can increase that percentage over time.
4. Take the next step with your 401(k)
Two things, specifically. First, if your employer offers a 401(k) employer match but you aren’t taking full advantage of it, then sign up and start contributing enough to get the full match. That’s free money, y’all.
Second, if you have an old 401(k) or two (or however many) from a previous employer just chillin’ out there, think about rolling it over. You could roll it over into your new employer’s plan, if they let you, or an IRA. Either way, it can be super helpful to get everything in one place.
5. Prioritize your debt payments
Being in debt — credit cards, student loans, personal loans, etc — doesn’t feel good. But paying your debt off does. The fastest way to do it is to pay more than the minimum required payments, if you can. That will also save you money, because the longer you take to pay debt off, the more interest you’ll owe.
So if you have debt and can make extra payments, the next step is to figure out which debt you want to focus on first. There are two popular strategies: To start with the balance that has the highest interest rate, or to start with the balance that has the smallest outstanding balance.
6. Set an emergency fund target
Financial emergencies are a fact of life. Cars need repairs. People (and pets) get sick. Phones and computers break. Which is why building an emergency fund is a big part of getting your financial life in a stable place.
We typically recommend saving between three and six months’ worth of your take-home pay. That might sound like a lot, but it’s totally OK to start small and work your way up over time. But today, your goal is just to figure out how much you want to aim for. Maybe, if you don’t have high-interest debt, you even open an account and make your first deposit.
7. Start investing toward your goals
If you’ve finished the first six steps of this checklist — first of all, you’re crushing it. Keep the momentum going by starting to prioritize and invest toward your long-term money goals. Goals like ramping up your retirement contributions, or like buying a home or starting a business.
Financial self-care checklist complete. Now light some candles, run a bath, and recharge — you’ve got some serious world domination ahead of you.