Credit counselors see the best and worst of consumer financial behavior — the worst when they need to work out solutions to burdensome debt problems and the best when those people become financially stable.
Financial counselors educate and support people in every income bracket and every age group, so we asked credit counselors from around the country for their best tips for different life stages to pre-empt the need for their debt relief services in the future.
While many credit counseling tips cross over from one age to another, one counselor says the No. 1 question she is asked by people from every age group is: “How can I fix my credit?”
“I tell them to take care of their bills, and their credit score will take care of itself,” says Linda Smith, director of Douglas Consumer Credit Counseling in Roseburg, Oregon. “Being responsible by paying bills on time means that they don’t end up in collection, which does hurt your credit score.”
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Establish good habits in your 20s
Handling daily living expenses and saving for the future can be a conundrum for young adults. Start with a budget and stick with it, says Nina Heck, director of counseling and client services with Guidewell Financial Solutions in Baltimore.
“The best way to know where your money is going is to keep a log of your expenses until you know what you’re averaging, and cut back when you see some items are excessive,” she says.
Try an app such as Mint.com or Level Up to set spending limits and alerts to keep you on track, says Becky House, education and communications director with American Financial Solutions in Seattle.
But Steve Axtell, a certified credit professional with American Financial Solutions in Seattle, says you shouldn’t forget about saving. He says putting money in a savings account that you access only in an emergency is more important at first than looking for a high-interest account.
Young adults also need to manage their use of credit wisely. “If you have charged-off or collection accounts, it could prevent you from getting a job or an apartment,” says credit counselor Connie Morgan with Take Charge America in Phoenix.
When your salary is a little higher, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve got plenty of room in your budget, says Alan Nesbitt, a financial counselor with Clarifi in Philadelphia. But you need to plan for large, anticipated future costs such as children and retirement.
Schedule a meeting with your human resources department. “Find out about your retirement benefits and make sure you’re contributing enough to take advantage of any employer match,” says Gail Pridgeon, senior counselor with Guidewell Financial Solutions in Baltimore.
“Ask if there’s a health care spending plan, which comes with pretax advantages,” she says.
Kim Rogers, team lead with Clarifi in Philadelphia, says your 30s are your asset-building years, when you should invest in stocks and bonds, buy a home and increase your retirement investing automatically each year.
Another good practice at this age is to review your credit at least quarterly to ensure you are accurate and up to date.
“Keep your balances on credit cards low and be aware of your debt-to-income ratio because it has a huge impact on your credit standing,” says Sarah Hamilton, student loan counseling supervisor with Take Charge America in Phoenix.
House says if you have children, it’s time to start a college savings account for them and to make one extra mortgage payment every year to shave 5 years or more off the mortgage.
Many people in their 40s are trying to meet financial goals they set in their 20s and 30s, but credit counseling experts suggest this may be the time to reset your savings goals in the context of your current lifestyle.
“Now’s the time to cut back on your spending ‘wants’ and put more into savings,” says Yvonne Zeiset, a financial counselor with Tabor Community Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
House suggests that while you’re tweaking your budget, re-evaluate your investments. Use a life expectancy calculator to get an idea of how long you’ll live and what it will cost you to live so you can set or assess your retirement savings goal.
“You may need to dial back the risk level, or you may need to increase what you’re investing in order to retire how and when you want,” she says.
In addition, Angie Kramer, a credit counselor with Take Charge America in Phoenix, recommends creating a plan to pay off your mortgage by the time you retire.
In your 50s, take time to catch up on saving for retirement and paying down debt faster.
“The less debt you have, the less money you need to retire,” says House of American Financial Solutions. “Work on eliminating credit card debt, student loans, auto loans and even mortgages.”
Zeiset puts her tip for people in their 50s bluntly: “Pay your credit cards off, in full, every month.”
In addition, tidy up your expenses that are almost paid off, such as a lingering student loan or credit card balance.
“Adjust your repayment schedule to pay more towards the debt with the highest interest rates to minimize your total overall debt,” says Hamilton of Take Charge America. “Eliminating debt faster frees up funds to delegate to a different expense.”
Once your debts are paid off, you can put your old mortgage payment or car payment into retirement savings every month. If that’s not possible, try to bump up savings from 10% of your income to 20%.
Clarifi’s Nesbitt says planning on how you will use your accumulated savings and investments in retirement is essential, so you can understand what changes you need to make to achieve your goals. At the same time, you’ll need to be invested in lower-risk plans to protect their assets.
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In your 60s, be a vigilant money manager
Once you’ve achieved your retirement, Nesbitt says, “Manage your money like it is your new full-time job. Keep on top of your credit because ensuring access to credit may provide the flexibility needed to handle surprises and to avoid tapping into less accessible assets.”
Part of money management includes getting organized for your loved ones should something happen to you. Guidewell’s Pridgeon recommends making a list of account numbers, contact information for bank accounts and life insurance policies for family members.
Also, review your medical insurance options and your options for prescription medications to reduce costs. Then focus on income.
Sandy Rite, a credit counselor with American Financial Solutions in Seattle, recommends attending a Social Security webinar so you understand the ramifications of your timing to begin accepting benefits.
“You should move your retirement accounts into a tax-free status,” Rite says. “It’s a misnomer that your tax liability will be less when you retire because you typically don’t have kids to claim and you owe less on your mortgage so you have less mortgage interest to deduct.”