With the unemployment rate slowly falling, many Americans are facing a healthier job market and trying to get their financial lives back on track. Based on findings of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation's National Financial Capability Study of more than 25,000 Americans, the FINRA Foundation has developed five tips to help you manage daily financial challenges and build a brighter financial future in 2014.
1. Do take advantage of tax breaks when saving for college and retirement. If you have financially dependent children, try to save for college using tax-advantaged savings accounts like a 529 plan or Coverdell Education Savings Account. The FINRA Foundation's Study revealed that only 34 percent of respondents with financially dependent children are setting aside money for their children's college education.
While many Americans are not prepared for retirement, and only 54 percent of non-retired respondents have some kind of retirement account, workers should use tax-advantaged savings accounts like 401(k)s to boost their retirement security. Contributions to a traditional 401(k) are not subject to income tax withholding and are not included in your taxable wages, and earnings on Roth 401(k) contributions are tax-free. In 2014, you can contribute up to $17,500 to your 401(k). And if you're age 50 or over, you can contribute an additional $5,500 for a total of $23,000. FINRA tools and resources help consumers save for college or retirement.
2. Do reduce your debt. More than two out of five Americans (42 percent) surveyed felt that they have too much debt, regardless of their income. The best way to avoid an endless cycle of credit card debt is to try to pay your credit cards in full and on time. If you have credit card debt, pay it off as quickly as possible. Even if you're unable to pay your whole monthly bill, always pay more than the minimum due, which will reduce the amount of interest you'll pay. Millennials should take extra care when using credit cards. The FINRA Foundation's Study found that 52 percent of Americans aged 18 – 34 reported engaging in expensive credit card behaviors, compared with the national average of 41 percent. FINRA Foundation resources can help you avoid the debt trap.
3. Don't chase yield. Investors face a difficult investing environment, with low yields on fixed-income investments and an economy on the mend. Some investors may opt to "chase return," meaning they put their assets into riskier and sometimes complicated products that promise higher yields than they can get in more traditional investments. Investors should realize that they could be taking on more risk if they invest in products with higher returns.
4. Don't be part of the 39%. We asked Americans if they would be able to come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose in the next month, and nearly two in five (39 percent) said they probably or certainly could not. If your finances are unable to deal with an emergency (for example, if the transmission in your car fails or a tree limb crashes through your roof), then you're financially fragile. The best way to avoid this is to build up rainy-day savings in a federally insured savings account. Even if you have no savings at all, if you can set aside $40 every week in an account you otherwise don't touch, then by this time next year you will have saved over $2,000 and won't be a part of the 39 percent.
5. Do check your credit report and score. You need to do both. Only 42 percent of survey respondents stated they had obtained a copy of their credit report, and only 41 percent had checked their credit score within the last 12 months. With credit hard to get and identity theft a continuing problem, it's critical to see whether your credit history is accurate and correct any mistakes immediately. Learn more about how your credit score affects you and what helps and hurts your credit score.
For more information about building financial security, visit the Investors section of FINRA.org.
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