The average worker is struggling when it comes to basic financial knowledge, and it's hurting their ability to plan for the future. Three-quarters of Americans failed a financial literacy quiz about retirement planning, a survey from The American College of Financial Services found, and just 5% of participants scored a grade of B or higher.
Understanding basic financial concepts is key to preparing for retirement (and saving for any other financial goals you may have). While you don't have to be a finance whiz, there are a few simple money questions you should be able to answer.
1. How much are you spending vs. saving each month?
It's tough to save when you don't know how much spare cash you have each month. When you're not tracking your expenses, you may also feel strapped for cash when in reality you're just overspending in certain areas. The average household spends roughly $500 per month on unnecessary expenses, a survey from Charles Schwab found, yet nearly 60% of households say they're living paycheck to paycheck. In other words, you might feel like you don't have anything to save because you don't have a clear idea of how much you're spending each month.
Tracking your spending isn't as challenging as it may sound. In fact, there are several apps that can help you effortlessly manage your money, providing personalized reports about how much you're spending and exactly where all your money is going each month. From there, you can determine if there are areas in which you can make cuts. Slash any totally unnecessary costs first, like monthly subscription services you don't use, then work on cutting back in other areas of your budget to save more.
Although you don't need to know exactly how much you spend every month down to the penny, having a rough idea of where all your money is going ensures you're not overspending without realizing it.
2. How will you achieve your long-term financial goals?
Everyone has financial goals, whether it's saving for a down payment on a house, paying down debt, or stashing away money for retirement. But if you don't have a plan to reach those goals, they'll be much harder to achieve.
You might have a vague plan in your head, telling yourself you'll save as much as you can for retirement, or that you'll hopefully be able to afford to buy a house in the next decade. But the more detailed your plan is, the better shot you have at achieving it. Rather than simply saving what you can for retirement, figure out how much you want to save by retirement age and what you'll need to sock away each month to get there. Or if homeownership is your goal, try to determine how much you need to save every month to accumulate enough to cover a down payment by the time you're ready to buy.
Once you've set your financial goals and know what you need to do right now to reach them, write down your plan. Nearly 80% of those with a written financial plan say they're able to pay their monthly bills and still save for their goals, a survey from Charles Schwab found, compared to just 38% of those without a written plan. Having a written plan can hold you accountable, making sure you stick to it and eventually reach your goals.
3. How are you balancing your financial priorities?
Chances are you have more than one financial goal, and it can be tough to balance all your responsibilities when they're all fighting for your hard-earned dollars. It can be tempting to focus first on short-term priorities, like paying all your bills on time or saving for that vacation you want to take next year. But with some long-term goals, like saving for retirement, you have to start saving decades in advance -- which can make it difficult to determine which goal takes top priority.
There's not necessarily a right answer when figuring out which goal is the most important, as it depends on your individual situation. If you're just a few years away from retirement, you may want to put all your extra cash toward your retirement fund to supercharge your savings as much as possible. On the other hand, if you still have decades to save but are currently saddled with loads of high-interest debt, it might be wiser to pay that down first and then focus on saving for retirement.
Regardless of how you choose to balance your priorities, developing a strategy behind your decision will ensure you're spending your money wisely.
Money management can be a complex topic, and you don't need to know all the answers to every question. But being able to answer these three questions can ensure you're setting yourself up for long-term financial success.