By: Erin Baehr

With all the personal finance advice out there, it can get pretty overwhelming. But there are some fundamental principles that you shouldn’t overlook.  If you adopt these good habits, you’ll be better prepared for financial emergencies, and for retirement down the road. Let’s take a look at them:

1. There are no shortcuts

If someone tells you they can double your money in no time with no risk, tell them you already know how.  Then fold your money in half and put it back in your pocket. Risk and reward are correlated. Doubling your money in a short period of time equates to a high return on your investment; that corresponds to taking more risk, not zero risk. There’s nothing wrong with taking appropriate risk, but buying into an investment with those kinds of unrealistic promises is sure to disappoint.

2. Beware of shiny objects

We are bombarded with new and better gadgets, toys, and opportunities for fun every day, all day. Madison Avenue survives by sowing seeds of discontent with our lives.  Sure, we all know that’s what they’re doing, but they’re really good at it!  We no longer have to look down the street to see what the Joneses are up to, we have Facebook to constantly remind us that our friends have better, newer stuff.  If we’re not careful, those seeds of discontent can take root and before we know it, we’re spending money on things to fill a need we didn’t even know we had. Listen to your mom — don’t pay attention to what everyone else is doing, just worry about yourself and your goals.

3. Watch your waste

Shiny objects aren’t the only source of needless spending. It’s painful to look at my own life sometimes and realize what I’ve frittered away. Forgotten rebates, fruit that goes bad before we eat it, buying doubles of things because I can’t remember where I put them in the first time. I suspect I’m not alone in this!

4. Save money, and do it intentionally

Saving regularly through your 401K at work and toward your emergency fund are fundamentals of good financial health. But you should also stash money that you would have spent but decided not to. Like on those shiny objects. Were you going to buy a new tablet but thought better of it? Pat yourself on the back for your frugality, and then take that chunk of change and put it in the bank instead.  Did you decide as a family to skip a dinner out this month to tighten your belts? Put that money away; don’t let it sit in your checking account. That serves two purposes: It keeps the money from evaporating, and it gives you a psychological boost by seeing your savings grow.

5. Don’t wait until your debt is paid off to save

It may seem more prudent to skip the savings when you’re paying off credit cards, but it’s important to continue to save anyway. It takes time to form a habit, and training yourself to save is a great habit to form. So start now. Aside from that, what will you do when your car breaks down and there is nothing in the bank to pay for the repair? Out comes the credit card, and there goes your progress. It’s better to have some money put away to pay for those expenses, and change the mindset of funding your living expenses with plastic.

6. Don’t deprive yourself

While you’re doing all these great, disciplined things with your money, don’t forget to let loose and have a little fun with it sometimes. Being too strict with your spending can lead to feelings of deprivation, which in turn can lead to spending binges. Starvation budgets are much like starvation diets.  When you cheat, you tend to cheat big.

7. Automate your finances

Life is busy and the days fly by.  Before you know it the month is almost over, and oops, that bill was due last week.  Schedule at least the minimum payments on your bills, so if you forget, you won’t be penalized with a late fee.  Plan out your monthly bills in advance, and take advantage of free bill pay if your bank offers it.  Automate your savings so you don’t have the opportunity to weigh whether or not you really can save that amount this month.

8. Don’t automate your finances

Automate what you can, but don’t go on auto-pilot. It’s easy to stop paying attention to what is being charged monthly on your credit card or automatically paid from your bank account. That can make you numb to your spending, and easy for it to get out of control. Even though you have payments automatically scheduled, be sure to review your accounts regularly.

9. Life insurance

Buy enough life insurance to protect your family.  It’s an extra bill, to cover something that probably won’t happen, but a small price to pay to provide for your loved ones if it does. Group policies at work are usually the easiest to get, and that’s fine, but you should also have coverage you own personally, outside of work. You never know when you will develop a health problem that will affect your insurability, and if you don’t already own a policy when that happens, you could be out of luck. Or rather, your family will be.

10. Decide how much is enough

Did you ever dream about a raise, and how that would make things more comfortable for you financially?  Then it comes, and things end up just as tight as before, and soon you are dreaming of the next one.  The increases in costs of living play a part no doubt, and our income doesn’t go as far as it used to.  But it is also human nature for us to expand our lifestyle to fit our income. Carefully consider what kind of lifestyle you would like to have, and when you get there, stop. Don’t let it continue to expand. Enjoy the “margin,” or extra, that brings, by saving more or giving to folks or organizations that are dear to your heart.

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