4 things I've done this year to take control of my money and get on the path to building wealth

  • My mother opened a savings account for me when I was in the first grade. Now a college graduate, I'm ready to take full control of my money.
  • As the associate editor behind Master your Money, I was inspired by every article and webinar in the series, which pushed me to get a better handle on my money.
  • Over the last year, I got my student loans on track, started an emergency fund, invested in my future, all while building my financial independence.
  • This article is part of a series focused on millennial financial empowerment called Master your Money.

Having a good handle on my finances has been a goal of mine since I was a freshman in college. Now, six years later, I'm finally making it happen.

As the associate editor behind Master your Money, Business Insider's year-long series focused on millennial financial empowerment, I've read every article and watched every webinar. It didn't take long for me to decide to act on that inspiration.

With each part of this series — Learn, Plan, Invest, and Thrive — I've implemented new strategies that helped me come up with a plan for my student loans, start building an emergency fund, begin investing in my future, and push me toward more financial independence. 

Here's what I've learned from a year of working on mastering my money. 

Learn: Make sure my student loans are on track with a plan

I graduated from a smaller California state university in the fall of 2018 with $12,700 in student loans. I'm paying a little under $200 a month to pay off my debt within the next 10 years.

But, I felt overwhelmed by my payments because of how much I was making versus the cost of living in New York City. Even when things were tight, I made sure I never missed a payment — which is some great advice from Carmen Perez, a personal finance blogger at MakeRealCents and a member of the Money Council, who paid off $48,000 of student loans.

To make sure I was making good progress on my loans, I did the following:

Got the big picture on what I owe

The best way to know what you owe is to simply find out. Once I had my numbers, I tried the "debt avalanche method" which some people use to "target the 'most expensive' loans — those with the highest interest rates — first," reports Business Insider's Liz Knueven.

Looked into different repayment options

For now, I'm on the Standard Repayment Plan, paying the base amount needed to pay off my loans within the next 10 years. However, my plan for 2021 is to refinance my student loans through my credit union to get a better interest rate, possibly get a discount by automating my payments, and try to pay off my debt in half the time.

Plan: I've started saving, just in case

Like most people, the pandemic took me by surprise. I went from planning a summer trip to Boston with my boyfriend to figuring out how to live with him and my dog, Dallas, 24/7.

I'm fortunate to be working from home during these times, but the economic downturn made me think about the what-ifs. What if I were to lose my job or become ill? Would I be able to afford my bills? Did I have enough saved in case something happened to Dallas?

The answer to these questions was no. But I knew it didn't have to stay that way. 

"Having a concrete set of goals… and an action plan to get there is what's really important," Anna N'Jie Konte, a certified financial planner and host of the "First-Gen Realness" podcast, told Business Insider.

To build this faster and over a period of time, I'm using a high-yield savings account with automated transfers from my checking account scheduled to move shortly after payday so I don't forget to save.

Three months of expenses for me is around $3,200. Currently, I have almost two months worth of savings. I still have a ways to go until I reach my goal, but I feel good knowing that I've made some progress.

Invest: Setting up my future is easier than it sounded

If I'm being honest, I've never wanted to invest in stocks — the uncertainty of it makes me wary. Still, I wanted to invest in something.

According to Scott Pedvis, a financial adviser at Wells Fargo and a member of the Money Council, investing in a 401(k) is a great way to do that — so that's what I did. In fact, my employer matches a certain percentage of individual contributions.

"That's basically a 100% guaranteed return," Pedvis says of a matching program. "You don't get a lot of free lunches, as we say in finance. That might be one of the few, and you're giving up on an incredible opportunity if you don't put any money away at all." 

I took advantage of my "free lunch."

The beauty of retirement accounts, as I'm finding out, is how easy they are to get started. I did my research, asked some questions, and before I knew it, I had a 401(k) set up with automated payments from my paycheck. 

And let me just say that setting up automatic payments is the best thing I've ever done for myself. I'm investing money I don't even miss, because it moves without me thinking about it!

It hasn't even been a year since I started my retirement account, but I'm already seeing the benefits of getting things set up early. 

Thrive: I'm building my financial independence

I was first introduced to the importance of money in the first grade, when my mother opened a savings account for me. I've learned a lot about money from banking with my mother — who is great with money, I might add — but I'm now a 24-year-old, living on my own, working on my career, and building a future for myself. 

I was ready to do this personal finance thing on my own.

I'm already doing a lot of the things recommended by experts and personal finance professionals, but there are a couple more to-dos to work on in the coming years.

Build a second stream of income

In 2021 and beyond, I'd like to find my "side hustle." I know there's some controversy with the idea of turning hobbies into jobs, but finding something I'm good at that can also provide additional income could have a positive impact on my ability to do more of the things I want to, such as traveling. 

After being inside for so much of 2020, I'm looking forward to seeing the world again — when it's safe to do so, of course.

Reward myself when I reach goals

One tip from the Money Council I haven't taken advantage of yet is celebrating my wins, no matter how big or small. As a reward for all the great work I've been doing this year, I'm planning on doing something nice for myself. I've earned it!

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