The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Managing Money

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Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

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how to manage your money

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You dread those cash-strapped days between your balance hitting $0 and your next paycheck hitting your bank account. You’re also in constant fear of an unexpected expense that’ll put you in the hole.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. Many people are stressed about money and barely making ends meet. In fact, Nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t have enough cash on hand to cover a $500 expense, according to a 2017 Bankrate survey.

However, you’ve probably noticed other people doing well. Maybe you’ve even wondered what their secret to making the most of their money is.

The truth is, how to manage your money effectively isn’t a secret formula  it all comes down to three core principles and disciplined behavior. Here’s a crash course in overhauling your money management skills to set yourself up for financial success.

1. Live within your means

If you consistently spend more than or about equal to what you make, you’re among the majority of Americans, according to the most recent National Financial Capability Study (NFCS) released by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.

But the first principle of healthy money management is to live within your means, which means spending less than your take-home pay. Start small with these steps.

Track your cash flow

First, you’ll need to know what your cash flow (the money coming into and going out of your accounts) looks like.

Start with your income. If you’re salaried or have predictable paychecks, then you already have a good idea of your usual take-home pay. For paychecks that fluctuate because of varied hours, tips, or commissions, find the average income you earn.

Next, you’ll need to start tracking where you money is going. Start by reviewing statements from your bank account, credit cards, and receipts. Then, classify purchases as the following:

  • Fixed living expenses: These expenses are the same each month, such as rent, insurance premiums, or a car loan payment.
  • Necessary costs: These expenses can fluctuate from month to month, such as utilities, gas, or a grocery budget.
  • Other categories of spending: Common non-necessary spending includes personal care, entertainment purchases, dining out, and so on.

Pay every bill on time

Once you know how much money is coming in, where it’s going, and in what amounts, create an accurate list of bills and financial obligations you need to pay each month. That way, you can make sure you pay each one in full and on time.

If you don’t have enough money to pay your bills, triage your money. Prioritize costs that are urgent or important to keeping you employed and everyone in your family healthy.

Also, talk to your lender or service provider before missing a payment. It might be willing to extend your due date, suspend service for a month, or otherwise work with you.

If you have enough money to cover your bills each month, you can take steps to make payments less of a hassle. Set up automatic transfers to simplify your finances and make sure you’re always paying on time. Turn on text or email alerts to notify you of upcoming bills.

Ultimately, making on-time payments is the best way to build credit. Paying on time also will protect you from budget-busting late fees, overdraft fees, or penalty APRs. And perhaps most importantly, paying your bills on time will significantly lessen your overall financial stress.

Set up a budget

A budget is an incredible tool to help you decide the best way to use your money — and make sure it ends up where it needs to go.

Explore some different budgeting systems to make the most of your dollars. Here are some ideas to get you started.

The cash-only or envelope system

Take out the money you’ve budgeted for each category and keep the cash in separate envelopes. When the cash is gone from an envelope, you can’t spend any money until next month.

Why it works: This system can make your dollars more real to you and naturally decrease your impulse spending.

Zero-sum budgeting

Assign a job to each dollar that comes into your account to cover a specific cost or accomplish a financial goal. You can use it for a bill, add it to a budget category, or transfer it to a savings fund.

Why it works: This system can help you make the most of limited funds and maximize each dollar.

The 50-30-20 budget

With this budget, 50 percent of your take-home pay is spent on needs, 30 percent on wants, and 20 percent on saving or paying off debt.

Why it works: This system can be smart for people who want a flexible spending plan that’ll get them closer to their financial goals.

Budgeting apps

Technology can help automate a lot of the budgeting work. You can opt for a simple spreadsheet or use a free budgeting app like Mint. Subscription-based apps like You Need a Budget and Every Dollar also can help you save more than you spend on them.

Why it works: In addition to setting up your budget, these apps can help you make a habit of easily checking your spending and ensuring you’re on track. You can even see how to make adjustments to your spending to come up with a little extra money each month for a specific goal.

Grow your disposable income

As you play around with your budget, you’ll become more aware of how your spending and choices affect your overall financial situation.

Once you understand your costs and make on-time payments, you’ll be ready to try to increase your disposable income. Your disposable income is the amount that’s left over each month after bills are paid — funds you can decide how to spend.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Start small. Finding even $15 extra dollars in your budget can be encouraging if you’re used to going in the red each month.
  • Identify some money sucks in your budget. You’re likely sinking cash into a few things you don’t use, such as that neglected membership to a high-end gym. Cut some of these costs to painlessly increase your disposable income.
  • Don’t overlook big expenses and bills. If your car payment is too high, for example, it might be time to sell the car and swap it for a cheaper, used model.

Then, look for immediate opportunities to earn extra money, such as picking up an extra shift at work, volunteering for overtime, or starting a side hustle. Also think about how you can work toward a raise or better career opportunities in the next six months to a year.

Build a basic emergency fund

Having a small savings buffer in place is crucial for protecting yourself against emergency setbacks, such as necessary car repairs or medical expenses. Try to build an emergency fund of $1,000 or a month’s worth of expenses — whichever is greater.

Having an emergency fund will decrease your panic when an urgent expense arises. It also will prevent costly money mistakes like overdrafting your account and getting hit with a fee or feeling cornered into credit card debt you can’t immediately repay.

2. Create a strategy for covering debt and credit costs

A huge part of managing money is knowing when borrowing makes sense and when you can’t afford it.

Being in debt means paying a major cost: interest. It also means a big portion of your budget is eaten up by payments you can’t cancel or change. That’s why paying off and avoiding debt is a core principle for how to manage your money. Here’s how you can get started.

Detail your debt, from balance to terms

I once interviewed a source about her debt payments. She had a personal loan, but the figures she cited didn’t add up. She double-checked, and, sure enough, her loan term was actually seven years, not the three she stated.

Americans tend to underestimate how much they owe on their unsecured debt, according to a 2015 study from the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Consumers reported having 40 percent less credit card debt than they actually had and 25 percent less student debt.

Even if you have a general idea of how much you owe, it’s important to get the hard facts on your debt. You won’t be able to make an informed choice when managing your debt if you don’t know how much you owe or how long you’ll be repaying it.

You can find out all this information by:

  • Logging in to your account online
  • Calling your lender or credit issuer
  • Reviewing your credit report to get a detailed picture of your various loans, credit cards, or lines of credit

Once you have all this information, create a list of each individual debt, including the following details:

  • The lender that holds the debt and what kind of debt it is
  • The current balance for each debt
  • The monthly minimum payment and the date it’s due
  • The remaining length of the loan
  • The APR or interest rate

Pay extra on your debt

There are several benefits to paying more than the minimum on your debt. You’ll pay off each balance faster, which will lower the total interest you pay on the debt. Plus, whenever you pay off a debt in full, you’ll eliminate a monthly payment and increase your cash flow.

If you’ve freed up some money in your budget with the above steps and have your bank account buffer in place, consider using those discretionary funds to make extra payments on your debt beyond the monthly minimum.

If you’re looking for the right debt repayment strategy for you, read up on the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods. They can be effective for prioritizing extra payments and building momentum.

You also can use our debt prepayment calculator to see how much money and time your extra payments can save you.

Check and understand your credit

Part of managing your debt is managing your credit.

Your credit is the history of the money you’ve borrowed and your behavior with regard to repaying this debt. It’s measured and represented by your credit score, which plays a huge role in the kinds of credit and loans you qualify for, including what interest rates you’re charged.

Take some time to request your free credit reports and check your credit score. There are many free tools that make it easy, including:

The better your credit, the more likely you’ll be able to leverage it to get the best deals and interest rates on loans. In other words, good credit gives you more financial options.

Learn about credit management, including what you need to do to build good credit. The image below outlines which factors affect your FICO score, for example, which is the credit score most commonly used by lenders.

how to manage your money

Image credit:

Understanding how your credit score is calculated also will help you find ways to give it a boost. For example, it’s important to always make on-time debt payments and limit borrowing.

Get uncomfortable about taking on debt

Lastly, adjust your attitude about debt. Become less comfortable about swiping your credit card, financing a car, or relying on a home line of credit to fund a home improvement project.

Remember: Paying with credit will add to your costs and make your purchases more expensive.

For example, if you take a vacation, charge it to your credit card with a 20.00% APR, and then repay it over the next year, you’ll end of paying a fifth more than someone who paid in cash.

Get in the mindset of planning and saving for small purchases instead of charging them to credit. And become familiar with the best practices of spending with a credit card, such as paying off your balance in full each month.

You’ll keep more of your money, widen the margins in your budget, and increase your opportunities to invest your funds and earn interest — rather than pay it.

3. Work toward a secure financial future

Your plan to manage money should cover the basics, yes. But the real magic of working on how to manage your money will happen when you make your money work for you.

By building a solid foundation and planning ahead, you’ll create a path toward a higher net worth and achieve important life goals. Here are the steps that’ll help you build lasting financial security.

Build out three to six months’ worth of emergency savings

With a small emergency fund in place, you’re prepared to roll with the punches. But what about the financial crises that are knock-down, drag-out struggles? A major medical procedure or long-term unemployment can force you to rely heavily on your savings for a while.

To weather these storms, you need to have more money saved. In most cases, an emergency fund of three to six months will keep you on your feet — and out of debt — as you find a way forward.

Make sure you’re adequately insured

Your insurance policies are another important piece of your financial safety net. When the worst happens — from a car accident to a medical emergency — insurance can give you invaluable peace of mind.

Take some time to review your insurance policies to make sure you have enough coverage in these areas:

  • Health insurance
  • Car insurance (if you own a car)
  • Homeowners insurance or renters insurance
  • Life insurance

If you’re missing any of these forms of insurance, you should look into getting them. You also might want to supplement them with disability insurance, dental insurance, or even pet insurance.

Start saving for retirement

Another important financial goal is to start socking money away for retirement.

It might seem like retirement is far away and you’ll have plenty of time to save. But thanks to the power of compounding interest and returns, money you save now will be worth much more than money you save later.

Try these baby steps to save for retirement:

  • Open a retirement account. If your employer offers a retirement account, that could be a good place to start. Otherwise, you can open an individual retirement account (IRA) on your own.
  • Automate retirement savings transfers. Set up an automatic savings transfer to your retirement account each month or every paycheck. Your employer might be able to automatically deposit a portion of your check in a retirement account, or you can set up automatic transfers from your checking account.
  • Claim the maximum employer match. Many companies will match workers’ contributions to retirement accounts. If you’re lucky enough to have this benefit, save enough to get the max matched amount — it’s basically free money for retirement.
  • Start getting educated on retirement. Saving for retirement is a long process, one that’s often tied up in the complexities of tax codes and investing. Fortunately, that gives you time to research answers to your retirement questions and learn how to maximize your savings.

As you work to manage money better, the benefits will extend far beyond your bank account.

By saving up, you’ll have more resources at your disposal — which means more financial freedom and less money stress.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 8 lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 3.20% APR (with Auto Pay) to 6.99% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 6.89% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of December 13, 2019, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 12/13/2019. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit, email us at, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

© 2018 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved. Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries, including Earnest Operations LLC, are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.

2 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.46% APR (with AutoPay) to 7.61% APR (without AutoPay). Variable rates currently from 2.31% APR (with AutoPay) to 7.61% (without AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.31% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 2.31% plus 0.75% margin minus 0.25% for AutoPay. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your credit history and the term of the loan and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.

3 Important Disclosures for Figure.

Figure Disclosures

Figure’s Student Refinance Loan is a private loan. If you refinance federal loans, you forfeit certain flexible repayment options associated with those loans. If you expect to incur financial hardship that would impact your ability to repay, you should consider federal consolidation alternatives.

4 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

College Ave Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

1College Ave Refi Education loans are not currently available to residents of Maine.

2All rates shown include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

3$5,000 is the minimum requirement to refinance. The maximum loan amount is $300,000 for those with medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary doctorate degrees, and $150,000 for all other undergraduate or graduate degrees.

4This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a refi borrower with a Full Principal & Interest Repayment and a 10-year repayment term, has a $40,000 loan and a 5.5% Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $434.11 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $52,092.61. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 1/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Mortgage lending is not offered in Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association.
As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.


There are no origination fees or prepayment penalties associated with the loan. Lender may assess a late fee if any part of a payment is not received within 15 days of the payment due date. Any late fee assessed shall not exceed 5% of the late payment or $28, whichever is less. A borrower may be charged $20 for any payment (including a check or an electronic payment) that is returned unpaid due to non-sufficient funds (NSF) or a closed account.


For bachelor’s degrees and higher, up to 100% of outstanding private and federal student loans (minimum $5,000) are eligible for refinancing. If you are refinancing greater than $300,000 in student loan debt, Lender may refinance the loans into 2 or more new loans.
For eligible Associates degrees in the healthcare field (see Eligibility & Eligible Loans section below), Lender will refinance up to $50,000 in loans for non-ParentPlus refinance loans. Note, parents who are refinancing loans taken out on behalf of a child who has obtained an associates degrees in an eligible healthcare field are not subject to the $50,000 loan maximum, refer to for more information about refinancing ParentPlus loans.


Borrower, and Co-signer if applicable, must be a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident with a valid I-551 card (which must show a minimum of 10 years between “Resident Since” date and “Card Expires” date or has no expiration date); state that they are of at least borrowing age in the state of residence at the time of application; and meet Lender underwriting criteria (including, for example, employment, debt-to-income, disposable income, and credit history requirements).

Graduates may refinance any unsubsidized or subsidized Federal or private student loan that was used exclusively for qualified higher education expenses (as defined in 26 USC Section 221) at an accredited U.S. undergraduate or graduate school. Any federal loans refinanced with Lender are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment.

All loans must be in grace or repayment status and cannot be in default. Borrower must have graduated or be enrolled in good standing in the final term preceding graduation from an accredited Title IV U.S. school and must be employed, or have an eligible offer of employment. Parents looking to refinance loans taken out on behalf of a child should refer to for applicable terms and conditions.

For Associates Degrees: Only associates degrees earned in one of the following are eligible for refinancing: Cardiovascular Technologist (CVT); Dental Hygiene; Diagnostic Medical Sonography; EMT/Paramedics; Nuclear Technician; Nursing; Occupational Therapy Assistant; Pharmacy Technician; Physical Therapy Assistant; Radiation Therapy; Radiologic/MRI Technologist; Respiratory Therapy; or Surgical Technologist. To refinance an Associates degree, a borrower must also either be currently enrolled and in the final term of an associate degree program at a Title IV eligible school with an offer of employment in the same field in which they will receive an eligible associate degree OR have graduated from a school that is Title IV eligible with an eligible associate and have been employed, for a minimum of 12 months, in the same field of study of the associate degree earned.


The interest rate you are offered will depend on your credit profile, income, and total debt payments as well as your choice of fixed or variable and choice of term. For applicants who are currently medical or dental residents, your rate offer may also vary depending on whether you have secured employment for after residency.


The repayment of any refinanced student loan will commence (1) immediately after disbursement by us, or (2) after any grace or in-school deferment period, existing prior to refinancing and/or consolidation with us, has expired.


After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship.

We may agree under certain circumstances to allow a borrower to make $100/month payments for a period of time immediately after loan disbursement if the borrower is employed full-time as an intern, resident, or similar postgraduate trainee at the time of loan disbursement. These payments may not be enough to cover all of the interest that accrues on the loan. Unpaid accrued interest will be added to your loan and monthly payments of principal and interest will begin when the post-graduate training program ends.

We may agree under certain circumstances to allow postponement (deferral) of monthly payments of principal and interest for a period of time immediately following loan disbursement (not to exceed 6 months after the borrower’s graduation with an eligible degree), if the borrower is an eligible student in the borrower’s final term at the time of loan disbursement or graduated less than 6 months before loan disbursement, and has accepted an offer of (or has already begun) full-time employment.

If Lender agrees (in its sole discretion) to postpone or reduce any monthly payment(s) for a period of time, interest on the loan will continue to accrue for each day principal is owed. Although the borrower might not be required to make payments during such a period, the borrower may continue to make payments during such a period. Making payments, or paying some of the interest, will reduce the total amount that will be required to be paid over the life of the loan. Interest not paid during any period when Lender has agreed to postpone or reduce any monthly payment will be added to the principal balance through capitalization (compounding) at the end of such a period, one month before the borrower is required to resume making regular monthly payments.


This information is current as of November 8, 2019 and is subject to change.

6 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers.

7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 1.76% effective November 10, 2019.

8 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 12/019/2019 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.90% to 8.59% Variable APR with AutoPay and 3.49% to 7.75% Fixed APR with AutoPay.

1.99% – 6.89%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

2.31% – 7.36%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.06% – 6.81%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Figure

2.62% – 6.12%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit College Ave

1.99% – 6.65%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

1.99% – 7.06%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.85% – 6.13%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.90% – 8.59%8Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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