In recent years, it has become obvious that Americans need to get up to speed on personal finance. From indebted students to overburdened families to unprepared retirees, consumers keep getting burned by their lack of basic financial knowledge and an unfriendly finance system.
GoBankingRates recently did a survey to see just how much people know about basic personal finance concepts. The results were stunning.
On average, 1 in 3 Americans were in the dark about simple money terms.
Almost 40% of respondents didn’t know what a 401(k) was, and baby boomers in particular had a very limited understanding of the factors that determine their critically important credit scores.
Respondents across age groups struggled to name the three main bureaus that assign credit scores, and they disagreed over the meaning of "net worth."
Being clueless about personal finance isn't just irresponsible, it’s downright dangerous to your financial health.
Get ahead of the pack with this crash course on basic financial concepts that will help you navigate the world of credit, saving and growing your cash.
1. Credit score
Your credit score is the single most important indicator of your creditworthiness to lenders and banks. You'll need a good credit score if you hope to land a great rate on a home mortgage, a car loan or a new credit card.
When you use credit, you're borrowing money that you must repay when your bill comes due. Each lender reports your repayment history to major credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, which then use that information to create a three-digit credit score that predicts how likely you are to pay back money you borrow.
Credit scores range from 350 (meaning there's a very high risk you won't repay a loan) to 850 (very low risk). Generally, a score of 700 or higher is considered to be a good score.
Do you know your credit score?
For a small fee you can get your credit scores and reports from all three credit bureaus through myFico. If your credit score needs improvement, check out our article on how to fix your credit score in just a few easy steps.
2. Personal loan
Unlike credit cards, a personal loan has a fixed term and payment plan, meaning you have to pay the money back within a specified time frame. Some people use personal loans to consolidate and pay down their debt through a single lender.
When you take out a personal loan, you receive a lump sum of money that you must repay — along with interest — in monthly installments.
Personal loans generally must be paid off within two to five years. A lender will refer to your credit score to decide whether to give you a loan and at what interest rate. As with all credit, defaulting on your loan or failing to pay it on time will harm your credit score.
If you're in the market for a personal loan, consider using this personal loan search from Even Financial. Based on the information you provide, Even Financial will match you with the right loan at the best available rate. The service is free and won't affect your credit score.
Are you ready to become a homeowner? You'll need a mortgage.
It's a loan you get from a bank or other lender to help you buy a home. The house or condo that you buy functions as collateral for the loan.
A mortgage loan is paid in monthly installments, often over a period (term) of 30 years.
Your mortgage interest rate makes a big difference in the total amount you'll end up paying for your home, so it's worth your time to find the best rate you can get.
The most common mortgage is a fixed-rate mortgage, where the interest rate remains the same through the term of the loan. Fixed-rate mortgages can be more expensive than adjustable-rate mortgages, which have interest rates that can rise over time. However, a fixed-rate loan is better for budgeting.
If you're in the market for a mortgage, consider using Lending Tree's table below to find the best rate.
4. Credit card
A credit card lets you borrow anywhere from very small amounts of money on up to thousands of dollars to make purchases or pay for regular transactions, such as a monthly cellphone bill. Once a month you will be required to pay back at least a portion of the money you borrowed.
Credit cards are known as a "revolving line of credit" because you can repay your loan and then use the card again.
Credit card companies charge you interest on your purchases if you don't pay your bill within 30 days, and the interest rates are typically much higher than for other kinds of loans. Your credit card balance (how much of the available credit you're using) and repayment history can affect your credit score for better or for worse.
If you're in the market for a new credit card, compare credit card offers below.
5. Savings account
A far better option than stuffing your cash under the mattress, a savings account allows you to deposit money in a safe place and withdraw it only when you need it. It's not intended for daily transactions, and there's usually a limit on how often you can withdraw your money.
This can be a good thing, forcing you to save for a rainy day.
Savings accounts with banks and credit unions are virtually risk-free when they are federally insured, and with online banking, moving your money in and out of the account can be a snap.
Saving accounts usually accrue interest on your deposits, but the interest rates tend to be quite low. High-interest savings accounts give you a better return on your money, making them a great option for growing your money faster while still keeping it safe.
Find out how much you need to save each month to reach your savings goal.
6. Certificate of deposit
A certificate of deposit ("CD") is a savings certificate with a fixed maturity date (six months, one year, three years, etc.) and a fixed or variable interest rate. Your access to the funds in a CD is restricted until the maturity date. The certificate can be issued in any almost amount.
CDs are typically issued by banks and are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ("FDIC") up to $250,000 per individual.
They're a great option if "out of sight, out of mind" is an appealing savings strategy.
7. Car lease
Leasing is a bit like renting: The car is yours for a few years, and then you return it to the dealer.
Leasing a new car can cost less per month than financing a new car, but there likely are limits on how you can use the vehicle, like restrictions on the miles you can drive in a year and the amount of wear that's allowed. And, you'll still be paying interest on your monthly (or semi-monthly) payments.
It's absolutely crucial to read all of the fine print on a leasing contract and to know how you intend to use the car.
At the end of the lease's term, you'll typically have an option to buy the vehicle.
If you're in the market for an auto loan, use this calculator to find out what you can afford.
A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement saving plan that was essentially invented to replace expensive corporate pensions.
Having a 401(k) allows you to save and invest a part of your paycheck before your income is taxed. Typically you can choose between several mutual fund options that include stocks, bonds and money market investments.
The best feature of the 401(k) is that your employer will match your contributions up to a certain amount. For example, if you put in $1,000 annually, your employer might put in $1,000, too, depending on your income.
Plus, as long as your money is in your retirement account, it will not be taxed. Instead, your money is taxed when you withdraw it at retirement, presumably at a lower rate because you'll have less income.
An individual retirement account, or IRA, is an investing account that you open through a brokerage firm or bank.
You put money into the account and use it to buy investments like stocks and bonds. These investments are then "held" in the account, and your gains are not taxed until you withdraw your money when you're retired.
Plus, the funds you put into a traditional IRA are tax-deductible, meaning the more you contribute, the less you'll pay in taxes.
A Roth IRA is a little different: You can only contribute post-tax dollars, so your contributions are not tax-deductible, but you won't be taxed when you withdraw the money in your retirement.
When an employer offers health insurance that comes with a high deductible, the plan might be accompanied by a health savings account, or HSA.
An HSA allows you to store and grow money that you can use for out-of-pocket medical expenses, including deductibles, copays, and coinsurance.
HSAs are loaded with perks. They're taxed at a lower rate than IRAs and 401(k)s. You can put your money in before your income has been taxed, you won't pay tax on the money while it's in the account, and you don't have to pay tax when you use the funds to pay for health expenses.
What's more, your HSA can be invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds to make your money grow faster.