Financial accounts, like wrinkles, proliferate as you venture further into adulthood.
Where there was once a single checking account to house your first paycheck, now there are savings accounts, money-market accounts, credit cards, 401(k)s, mortgages, 529s, and maybe even a HELOC or a health-savings account.
Each new product comes with a purpose — earning a sign-up bonus, saving for your kid’s tuition, preparing for retirement — but soon you’re left with an overwhelming list of log-in IDs, passwords and interest rates. This situation is rarely ever planned, and very difficult to control.
Making sense of your constellation of accounts isn’t simply a question of finances. It also gets to the heart of your values. Should you share a checking account with your spouse, or does a marriage benefit from a bit of privacy? How much of your paycheck should you put into joint accounts, and how much into your personal accounts?
Where to start? A bank account is the lattice from which you build your personal finances, and you should, from time to time, take stock of not only where your money is located, but why it’s there.
Checking account vs. savings account
Checking and savings accounts are purposeful financial instruments that should be used for specific goals.
A checking account is the way station of your finances — money comes in from your paycheck, and exits to pay bills. A savings account is your rainy-day fund.
Financial planners recommend you hold three-to-six months’ worth of expenses as a hedge against bad stuff — like a layoff or a health scare. How much you need depends on your particular cost of living, but generally it works out to between about $12,000 and $24,000. That money goes into savings.
Amassing this cache is vitally important, and something that Americans continue to struggle with.
First, do no harm
The function of checking and savings accounts, then, is to make sure your money is in the right place at the right time, not to increase your wealth.
While you should absolutely look for the highest yield possible, you should also be highly sensitive to fees. Your struggle to save shouldn’t be made that much harder by nickel-and-diming.
Even small fees can add up over time and chip away at your account balance, especially since you are inexplicably loyal to your financial institution.
Overdraft fees charge an average of $33.38, according to a recent Bankrate survey, while out-of-network ATM fees cost $4.69 in 2017. They’ve risen consistently over the past 11 years. Only 38 percent of banks offer a checking account without a monthly service fee, with $12 being the most common charge.
One dip into each of fee bucket will cost you $50.
How many you should own?
The average American owns 3.1 credit cards, according to Experian, and another 2.5 retail cards. About four-in-ten adults are currently paying off a mortgage, and each time you change jobs you must enroll in a new 401(k). Each new kid not only brings more diapers, but another 529.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of your bottom line, think minimalism.
“If you can open one less account, do it,” says Conrad Ciccotello, a professor at the University of Denver.
Everyone needs at least one checking account and one savings account. If you’re single, you can safely stop here.
Couples should maintain a joint checking and savings account for the family’s finances — mortgage payments on one hand, and the emergency fund on the other — while maintaining a separate checking account for personal expenses.
A little privacy and personal ownership will make for a less stressful experience managing your personal finances. No one wants to be hounded over relatively small purchases, especially not by your spouse.
Of course, you shouldn’t hide the existence of the account from your loving partner.
If you have a specific savings goal in mind, separate and apart from your emergency fund, open another account. A higher yielding certificate of deposit is a good avenue, and will help inoculate the funds from mindless spending.
Set up a direct deposit so the account is properly finances, and give it a name to make the savings goal more tangible, perhaps something like “Amazing Vacation Money.”