The financial habits you establish in your 20s can affect you for years and years. Whether you’re overwhelmed by the thought of paying off student loans or you didn’t make the best choices with your first credit card, there are things you can do now to improve your situation. Before you get started, know where you stand by getting your free credit score. Watching your credit score grow as you establish better financial habits and work to repair missteps can be quite rewarding.
Here are four tips to help you get out of debt and stay that way.
1. Prioritize student loan debt
Borrow money to cover the costs of your college education? Paying back that debt on time is essential for your budget and your credit.
“When it comes to debt, obviously paying student loans is the priority,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “That always needs to be kept in mind when starting out.”
A hefty portion of your FICO score – 35 percent – is dependent on your payment history, so making all your payments on time can help improve your credit score.
Ignoring those payments? Don’t even think about it.
“The consequences for not paying student loan debt (are) very severe. Student loan debt is not something you can ever manage through bankruptcy. It stays with you,” McClary says.
2. Clear away credit card debt
Don’t let high interest-credit card debt keep you from other important life goals. Instead, take responsibility for the debt, advises Beverly Harzog, author of “The Debt Escape Plan.”
“The first thing I tell people to do, they have to look their debt in the eye and own it,” says Harzog, who ran up a lot of debt with seven credit cards in her 20s. “It’s so easy to pretend it’s not there. First, take responsibility for it, because once you do that, you can create a plan.”
Tally up your total outstanding credit card balances so you know just how much you owe and then review your budget.
“Take a hard look at cash flow, the whole financial situation,” Harzog says.
Rewards and perks that come with the best credit cards mean nothing if you’re accruing costly interest on unpaid balances.
“If you have any credit card debt, you want to power pay that debt and get it out of the way as quickly as you can,” McClary advises. “Don’t just pay the minimum. Pay more than the minimum. Ideally, you want to pay it off in just a few billing cycles. Pay as much as you can without causing problems in other areas of your budget.”
3. Budget smart and live lean
Did you just score your first big job? Don’t blow your paycheck.
“Though it may be tempting to start living large with your first paycheck, live lean,” McClary says. “It’s exciting to have your first paycheck. The key is thinking about what’s important down the road.”
Be smart and thrifty about your spending, and look for ways to cut costs.
“Keep costs to a minimum. You don’t have to buy new furniture. You don’t have to have the flashiest clothes,” McClary suggests. “Try to find a place that’s affordable but near public transportation.”
Don’t be so quick to acquire stuff that you end up overspending and getting into trouble.
“What expenses can I delay?” asks Catherine Hawley, a certified financial planner in Monterey, Calif. “I may need a nice suit for work or two, but I don’t need an entire wardrobe. (With) furniture, I don’t need the entire furniture set to furnish an apartment. Or I can save for that over the next six months.”
4. Build savings
Once you reach that debt-free landmark, focus on saving as much as possible. Participate in your company’s 401(k) plan. Create an emergency fund and continue depositing money into your savings account.
Hawley recommends millennials have enough in their emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses.
Even if you’re not yet free of debt, it’s still a good idea to put some money away.
“It really depends if someone has debt – I may say one month set aside for an emergency fund and throw everything at credit card debt,” Hawley says.
The more you save, the less likely you are to turn to a credit card to cover a financial emergency.