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

Laura McMullen

So you want to learn more about your money and make moves with it. You go.

“That’s a moment of self-awareness that should be celebrated,” says San Francisco financial coach Saundra Davis.

And your timing is perfect, because April is financial literacy month. 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 Orlando-based certified financial planner Angela Moore.

Take it slow and start small

It’s okay if you don’t save much or have an idea what IRA stands for. 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,” she adds. Schedule time to try the steps below so you’re mentally prepared. (This is as opposed to, say, waiting until you’ve paid too much and feel exhausted.) For some of these steps, you can even set a timer and spend about 15 minutes on the exercise so you don’t get overwhelmed. †

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As you try the following advice, “think about how you learn best,” says Davis, who is also the founder of Sage Financial Solutions, a nonprofit that specializes in financial education and planning for poor and underrepresented communities. For example, group discussions can be motivating for some people, while 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, advisor, or other expert can help you figure out 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 advisors and coaches “can help you manage immediate expenses, build savings, create a plan to pay off debt, or navigate financial assistance payments.”

You also have other options. The Financial Planning Association provides pro bono financial assistance to low-income individuals and individuals deemed “understaffed,” including veterans, those affected by natural disasters, and others.

Or chat with friends and community members

If you don’t feel like counseling, just chatting can help you think and learn about money in an informal way. You can learn how colleagues handle money, express your financial concerns and brainstorm solutions.

Remember that you are participating in an informal conversation and not receiving professional guidance. Do your best to verify the advice yourself. For example, search for web pages on the subject that contain sources for the information, such as professional experts or studies.

To find face-to-face money talks, look in local churches, libraries, or universities. Or visit Meetup, a website that helps groups come together. You can also start money conversations with your own friends to normalize the topic.

To learn with others online, Moore suggests checking out Facebook groups that discuss personal finances. Exploring Reddit’s r/personalfinance channel and helpful wiki page can also be an easy way to think about money.

Try quizzes, apps and spreadsheets

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

Take this eight-question financial health quiz to determine your ability to weather financial stressors and achieve long-term goals.

Or see where your money is going with a budget app. For example, Mint syncs all your financial accounts and shows you how your expenses fit into different budgeting categories. Knowing how much you spend on what is a helpful first step in managing your money and setting goals.

A free budget spreadsheet, such as those from the Financial Trade 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’re responsible for filling out fields related to money in and out.

View your finances and set goals

Interested in learning more about your money, but don’t feel like fiddling with an app or spreadsheet? Try Moore’s old fashioned approach with her customers. She has them spend 15 minutes simply writing down their financial inventory.

Think of the amounts on checking, savings and investment accounts; average bill payments; debt; estimated money spent each month; and income to take home. Start with estimates.

“You won’t know much about this stuff,” Moore says. Ideally, all these missing pieces make you curious, she says. So look up the real numbers. You’ll find that your estimates are way off the mark.

This exercise is designed to help you understand where you stand today. Knowing these basics will help you make changes and set goals.

For example, if you spent more than you thought on takeout in March, you could aim for half by 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 your own goals or decide to use a tool or talk to a professional, you’re on the right track. As Davis says, “Start right where you are, without shame.”

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