By Fergus Cleaver
Whether you’re just starting out on the road to financial independence, getting ready to hang up your hat and retire, or somewhere in the middle, your personal finances could probably use some polishing.
You don’t need to hire an accountant for that—but you could stand to bone up on some of the tips and tricks that accountants follow with their own clients. (Hey, who said advice wasn’t free?) Start with these seven.
1. Spend Less Than You Earn
This is the golden rule of personal finance. As any accountant will tell you, spending more than you earn is unsustainable by definition.
That doesn’t mean curbing your spending is easy, of course. The world is full of financial temptation, from big-ticket splurges like first-class upgrades to drip-drip-drip money pits like lattes and takeout lunches.
One easy and painless way to control your spending is to set budgets for the spending categories that give you the most trouble. For instance, if you’re prone to eating out when your cupboards are fully stocked at home, set a strict weekly restaurant spending budget. If you occasionally catch the online shopping bug, load your Amazon gift card with a predetermined amount at the beginning of the month and stop spending once it’s gone.
2. Keep Your Receipts
Document, document, document. It sounds like a pain, but keeping even the smallest receipts can help you avoid big financial problems down the line, from overcharges by shady vendors to identity theft that threatens to drag down your credit score or drain your bank account.
You can avoid drowning in receipt paper by accepting emailed receipts whenever possible—lots of vendors now offer this option, and more follow every day. And you don’t have to save your receipts in perpetuity; once you receive your bank account or credit card statement and verify that each purchase is accurate, you can safely discard them.
3. Be Tax-Efficient
Everyone needs to pay their fair share of taxes—but only their fair share.
Tax law is complicated and jurisdiction-specific; what applies in one part of the world is irrelevant in another. That said, for most consumers, tax efficiency starts with maximizing contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts and spreading out windfalls (such as stock sales) to minimize tax obligations in any given year. Other tax-efficiency strategies apply to smaller groups—for instance, international travelers who make large purchases overseas should always apply for VAT rebates from their host governments.
4. Set Aside Funds for a Rainy Day
Do you have an emergency fund? You need one. A sudden medical emergency, or job loss, or unexpected home expense—any of these things can completely upend your personal finances and require months or years of sacrifice to redress.
The ideal emergency fund is sufficient to replace at least six months’ income. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there; try to set aside 2–5 percent of your income each month until you hit your goal.
5. Prepare for the Unexpected
An emergency fund can help with unexpected big-ticket expenses, but what about truly catastrophic events, like the loss of your car or home? That’s what insurance is for.
As a general rule of thumb, every major asset (including your life) needs insurance protection. Though insurance premiums certainly eat into your disposable income, that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and a valuable fallback that hopefully you’ll never need to use.
6. Seek Out Extra Income Sources
No, this tip isn’t about papering over disappointing figures with “creative accounting.” It’s about legitimately increasing your personal revenue—and, ultimately, the financial resources at your disposal—by seeking out sources of extra income.
Everyone has underutilized talents. Everyone. And, thanks to the internet, everyone with a broadband connection can monetize those talents. Whether you’re an aspiring graphic designer (99Designs), video producer (Upwork), or craftsperson (Etsy), you can find a paying outlet for your creativity. The hardest part is getting started; after that, you simply need to let your passion guide you.
7. Embrace Transparency
By and large, accountants are serious professionals who fastidiously adhere to solemn ethical codes and complex financial regulations. Regrettably, the guild has a less-than-pristine reputation thanks to a (very small) handful of bad apples who make unsavoury headlines with their periodic misconduct.
Any accountant worth his or her salt (not to mention his or her practice license) will tell you that transparency is to be prized above all else—not just when it’s legally required, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s very often the antidote for conflict and uncertainty.
In the private sphere, financial transparency means being open and honest with those closest to you: your spouse or partner, children, close relatives. Money doesn’t have to dominate your private conversations, but you should absolutely follow some basic ground rules of disclosure. And, to avoid losing sight of goals and progress in the mess of other obligations you no doubt have, schedule regular check-ins with your partners in financial planning.
Are you ready to organize your personal finances?