The 6 Personal Finance Rules Everyone Must Follow

by Kentin Waits on 31 January 2014 4 comments

If you're plugged into the topic of personal finance, you're no doubt inundated daily with tips, tricks, and advice on how to make money, save more, and retire rich. But in this sea of information, how do we crystalize the most the important lessons that — no matter what condition the market is in, or what finance guru happens to be leading the pack — tend to work every time for everyone? If you're ready to have someone just bottom-line the most important advice for financial success, read on. Here are the six personal finance rules you must follow. (See also: Success Secrets You Should've Learned in High School)

1. Start Saving Early

For the majority of people, financial success is built on two complementary forces: capital and time. Each is important in its own way, and together, they're the two most critical gears in your wealth-building machine.

When you begin saving early in life, you broaden the time that your money has to accumulate and to benefit from compounding interest and dollar-cost averaging (buying assets on a regular schedule to level out market highs and lows, but capture the upward trend). Likewise, starting early gives you more time to make (and recover from) those inevitable mistakes that can derail late-blooming savers. Particularly for those focused on building a healthy retirement nest egg, saving early can make all the difference in the world. (See also: How to Boost Your Retirement Savings Fast)

2. Live Below Your Means

If there's one primary lifestyle quality that mark those who have built wealth over time, this is it. Living below your means is all about paying yourself first, knowing the difference between wants and needs, and making conscious, long-range choices about spending and saving. Together, these actions become the quiet power play that can tilt the odds of financial success in your favor. (See also: 4 Quirky Ways to Spend Less)

If you're wondering where to start on your road to financial security, consider this the glowing green arrow that will lead you in the right direction. Spending less than you earn leaves you with a surplus, and that surplus is the foundation on which long-term wealth is built. Without it, you've either got to be pretty confident in your lottery number-picking skills or be surrounded by rich-but-infirm relatives who think you're the cat's pajamas.

3. Build and Maintain a Healthy Emergency Fund

Emergency funds help us cope with financial challenges that result from job loss, medical emergencies, or other unforeseen circumstances. Though the size of a healthy emergency fund may vary based on personal debt levels and spending habits, a good rule of thumb is to have roughly six to eight months' worth of net income socked away. Your emergency fund can shield you from relying on credit cards to fill in financial gaps — and the usurious interest rates that can often lead to financial disaster.

4. Only Use Credit Strategically

Used surgically and strategically, credit can be a wealth-building tool. But far too often unsecured consumer debt is used to buy everything from pizzas to plasma TVs. Leveraged wisely, credit can help you take advantage of a real estate opportunities, make a calculated investment in your education or professional training, or support other financial maneuvers that are likely to add to your security or provide increasing value over time. The key is to be judicious in how you use credit, understand explicitly the repayment terms, and be utterly confident that you can afford the principal and interest payments each month, even if your fortunes may change slightly. (See also: Credit Card Tricks That'll Save You Money)

5. Know the Difference Between Spending and Investing

It's a finer point that gets lost on many young savers — not all spending is created equal. Generally speaking, buying an amazing leather sofa is spending money; buying a good used car that you'll use to commute to work is making an investment.

An easy way to determine the difference between spending and investing is to simply ask yourself, "Will this purchase help me make money, support my financial goals in a direct way way, or appreciate in value over time? Or, is this item something that will serve a finite purpose and likely lose value in a relatively short period?" If you answered yes to the former, your purchase is probably an investment; if you answered yes to the latter, it's probably not.

Of course, not everything we spend our money on needs to qualify as a investment, but it's essential to know the difference and gauge our spending priorities accordingly.

6. Take Advantage of Retirement Saving Vehicles

We all know that the onus of retirement planning is now firmly on the individual, rather than on employers. Pensions are a dying breed, and even 401(k) plans with generous matching programs are getting rarer and rarer.

With this reality in mind, it's crucial to understand the range of retirement saving choices out there. Today, savers need to know the important differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, be familiar with 401(k) plan rules and regulations, know the best ways to manage personal savings, determine their risk tolerance, and be able to access their online Social Security estimates when planning for retirement. Amassing the right information is the first step to investing tactically and gradually building wealth during key income-producing years. (See also: Retirement Planning if You're Under 30)

While this list is by no means comprehensive (that list would be much longer and subject to broader debate), it may help young savers navigate the often choppy waters of personal finance and serve as a refresher for older investors who need some wind in their sails.

What's the most important piece of financial advice you've ever received? How did following it, or not following it, affect your life?

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Guest's picture

That's awesome. I liked all the points, especially that of the emergency fund. My friends cal me prudent and do stack up some money for emergency purposes. But I never thought of saving money around 6 to 8 months. Till date the emergency fund has at best can sustain me for 2 months but not more than that. However, after reading this blog, I'll surely give it a try and make it a healthy emergency fund. Thanks for showing me the way.

Guest's picture
Jason

Take your situation into consideration too. If your income is stable, you have few or no debt payments, and possibly even options to eliminate rent (i.e. you have relatives in the area you can count on) then three months is probably fine. If your work is prone to layoffs or you do contract work in a cyclical industry, along with a car or mortgage payment, and your backup living situation is a homeless shelter, then I would want 6-8 months in savings.

Guest's picture
Dennis

Each of your points are right on target. I especially appreciate points one, three and four. Too often we think that time is on our side. It's not! The power of compounding is amazing. It either helps us or hurts us. It can't be avoided.

It's repeatedly hammered in our head that all debt is bad. Not true! Banks leverage our deposits, invest or lend others money and pay depositors a paltry percentage. What a great way to make money. Instead of leaving our dollars sitting idly in our checking account, we can keep our lazy dollars working all the time by using a line of credit to either accelerate getting out of debt or boost our investment earnings. The key is sticking to our budget, building our savings and maintaining our emergency plan.

Great article!

Guest's picture
Jack

The emergency fund is SUPER important to me. In fact I have diversified my emergency funds for separate uses too, such as Auto Repair ($5k), Job Loss ($20k), etc