By the time you’ve reached your 30s, you’ve probably heard dozens of financial acronyms and terms thrown around—from APRs to IRAs, expense ratios to exchange-traded funds. Yet while the lingo may sound familiar, you might not have a really clear understanding of what the words actually mean or how they apply to your finances. And that can be problematic when you’re trying to make the best decisions with your money.
So we’ve gathered, and answered, 35 questions on a range of financial topics that you’ll want to know by the time you’ve established your career and started building some wealth.
While we’ve started with the basics, we also include more sophisticated terms and topics. Master these, and you can not only sound smart about money, but you’ll be able to make smarter decisions with yours, too.
1. What’s your net worth?
Your true worth is unquantifiable, my friend. But financially speaking, your net worth equals your assets—cash, property (like your home, car and furniture), your checking and savings account balances and any investments—minus your liabilities, which are your debts and other financial obligations.
To calculate the net worth of your home, for example, you’d take an estimate of its current market value. (You can look at what similar homes in the neighborhood have sold for recently or have a real estate agent make an appraisal.) Next, subtract how much you still owe on your mortgage. If an agent says she could sell your home for about $215,000 and you owe about $110,000 on your mortgage, for example, that’d be about $105,000. The asset value minus your liability (or what you owe on it) equals the net worth.
Why is knowing your total net worth important? It gives you a true financial picture of how you’re doing, and highlights where you could make improvements.
2. What should you include in a budget?
First, add up your essential expenses, such as your mortgage or rent, utility bills, cell phone, food and child care. Then tally your financial obligations, like credit card, auto or student debt payments and savings goals (for emergencies, retirement and anything else you’re working toward).
Then add in “discretionary” expenses, or those that are not absolutely essential but are important to you. Don’t forget to factor in fun—entertainment, weekend trips, whatever you love—because drudging through life with a too-tight spending plan is a recipe for failure.
1. How much should you save in your emergency fund?
Most experts agree that you should have three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved to keep you afloat in the event of, say, a home or car repair or other unexpected expense—or the loss of your job.
2. Where’s the best place to hold short-term savings?
For money you need to be able to access within the next year or two, advisors usually recommend looking for a high-yield savings account. Just be aware that you can only make up to six withdrawals each month.
Unfortunately, you won’t earn much interest on a savings account, as the national average is currently .06 percent. But some banks—like Ally Bank, Synchrony and Barclays—are offering 1 percent or more as of early March, so it’s worth shopping around. “Internet banks often have the [lowest] fees, better interest rates and can be much more convenient,” says Ken Tumin, co-creator of comparison site DepositAccounts.com.
3. What’s the difference between a money market and a savings account?
Both savings and money market accounts are government-insured. But money market accounts are more likely to offer check-writing capabilities and ATM or debit cards (although they are subject to the same six-withdrawals/month limit). MMAs typically have higher interest rates, but also have higher minimum balance requirements. Details vary by account.
4. Where should you put money you’ll need in two to 10 years?
If you need the money in a year or two, “You might start thinking about CDs if you want to maximize your rates,” Tumin says. One-year CDs aren’t offering much more than high-yield savings accounts now. But some two-year CDs are offering 1.5 percent or more.
If you have a longer timeframe, consider investing in stocks and bonds. Just be aware that, while the stock market has historically gone up over time, it can go up or down in the short run. (And, as advisors will caution, past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns.) So while stocks may provide higher growth opportunities than CDs and bonds, you want to allow enough time to ride the downturns out and may consider moving money into more conservative options as your time horizon gets shorter. Investing in a mix of stocks and bonds can also lower your risk.
5. What’s a CD?
CD stands for certificate of deposit, which you can buy from a bank and is guaranteed to pay interest over a designated period of time—usually much more than a savings account would. A five-year CD from Melrose Credit Union is paying 2.4 percent, for example, while its savings accounts offer rates of just 0.5 percent. The catch is that you can’t touch the money in a CD until the designated time period ends.
“CDs can offer higher rates than savings accounts, but the price you pay is to have less liquidity,” says Tumin. “If you take the money out early, it can cost you several months of interest.”
(This page has been updated to clarify the process for calculating the net worth of an asset.)
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