Learn about your money in small, manageable steps | Smart Switch: Personal Finance

Laura McMullen

So you want to learn more about your money and make moves with it. Go away.

“That’s a moment of self-awareness that requires celebration,” says San Francisco-based financial advisor Saundra Davis.

And its timing is perfect, since April is the month of financial education. This designation would not exist unless many people needed help understanding their money.

“You’re not the only person who doesn’t have their finances in order,” says Angela Moore, an Orlando-based certified financial planner.

Go easy on yourself and start small

It’s okay if you don’t save much or have no idea what an IRA means. Try to avoid negative self-talk and give yourself grace, says Moore, who is also the founder of Modern Money Education, a platform that offers personal finance courses.

Start with “baby steps,” he adds. Schedule time to try the steps below, so you’re mentally prepared. (This is opposed to, say, waiting until you’ve overdrawn and feel burned out.) For some of these steps, you might even set a timer and plan to spend about 15 minutes on the exercise, so you don’t get overwhelmed. .

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As you try the tips below, “think about how you learn best,” says Davis, who is also the founder of Sage Financial Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in financial education and planning for low-income and underrepresented communities. For example, while group discussions can be motivating for some people, others prefer to read a book. So try a few strategies to find what works for you.

Ways to learn about money.

Talk to a professional

A financial coach, counselor, or other expert can help you determine where to start and what to prioritize.

The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education offers free virtual sessions. The AFCPE website says its certified financial counselors and coaches “can help you manage immediate expenses, build savings, create a plan to pay off debt, or navigate financial assistance benefits.”

You also have other options. The Financial Planning Association provides pro bono financial support to low-income people and those considered “underserved,” including veterans, people affected by natural disasters, and others.

Or chat with friends and community members

If you’re not up for advice, just having a conversation can help you think and learn about money in an informal way. You can learn how peers manage money, express financial concerns, and generate solutions.

Just remember that you are participating in an informal conversation, not receiving professional advice. Do your best to check the tips on your own. For example, find web pages on the topic that include sources of information, such as professional experts or studies.

To find money talks in person, look at local churches, libraries, or colleges. Or visit Meetup, a website that helps groups get together. You could also start money conversations among your own friends to normalize the subject.

To learn with others online, Moore suggests looking at Facebook groups that discuss personal finance. Exploring the r/personalfinance Reddit channel and its helpful wiki page can also be an easy way to start thinking about money.

Try quizzes, apps and spreadsheets

Would you prefer a solo exploration of your money? Many online tools can help you see where you are and determine your next steps.

Carry this eight-question financial health quiz to determine your ability to cope with financial stressors and achieve long-term goals.

Or see where your money goes with a budget app. Mint, for example, syncs all your financial accounts and shows how your spending fits into various budget categories. Knowing how much you’re spending on what is a helpful first step in managing your money and setting goals.

A free budget spreadsheet, like those provided by the Financial Trading Commission, NerdWallet, and Microsoft Office, can also help you understand your finances. These spreadsheets are more convenient than apps that sync your accounts, because you are responsible for completing the fields related to money coming in and going out.

Review your finances and set goals

Interested in learning more about your money but don’t want to bother with an app or spreadsheet? Try Moore’s old school approach with your clients. She asks them to spend 15 minutes just writing down their financial inventory on paper.

This would include amounts in checking, savings, and investment accounts; average bill payments; debt owed; estimated money spent each month; and take-home income. Start with estimates.

“You’re not going to know much about these things,” says Moore. Ideally, all these missing pieces will pique your curiosity, she says. So she looks for the real numbers. It is possible that her estimates are very wrong.

This exercise is meant to help you understand where you are today. Knowing these basics helps you make changes and set goals.

For example, if you spent more than you thought on takeout in March, you could aim to spend half as much in April. Or maybe you’re inspired to refinance a loan, start an emergency fund, or contribute to your workplace retirement plan.

Whether you’re ready to set goals on your own or decide to use a tool or talk to a professional, you’re on the right track. As Davis says: “Start exactly where you are, without shame.”

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