12 Steps to Financial Freedom, Part 2

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Step #5: Optimize your accounts

For seventeen years, I was an account holder at a large national bank. I paid an $8 “service charge” every month, as well as many other fees. I received terrible service and earned no interest. Over the last couple of years, I’ve finally begun to optimize my accounts. If you haven’t already done so, consider the following:

  • Open an online high-yield savings account. Interest rates are about as low as they can go, and should increase in the months and years ahead.
  • Choose a rewards checking account. Believe it or not, it’s possible to find checking accounts that pay interest. The best online checking accounts are paying about 1% right now, depending on your balance. But you can usually find an even better deal through your local bank or credit union. Check out this list of rewards checking accounts for rates of up to 5%.
  • Use a rewards credit card. If you have trouble with credit, it’s best to avoid plastic altogether. If you can use credit responsibly, be sure to choose a credit card that pays you. Avoid cards that carry an annual fee. Find a rewards program that matches your lifestyle. But don’t choose a card just because it offers a signup bonus or because it gives you a discount at your favorite store. Remember: your goal is to find a useful tool. Look for a long-term relationship you can live with.

It’s important to choose accounts and systems that work for you. I signed up for a rewards checking account at a local credit union, but the nearest branch is fifteen minutes out of my way. I never used it, so the credit union closed the account. I compromised by opening on online checking account instead. I earn a lower rate, but it’s an account I’ll actually use.

Tip! When optimizing your banks and credit cards, consider using multiple accounts at each institution. For example, I have ING Direct subaccounts that allow me to target my savings. I save for vacation in one account, for a car in another, and I use a third account for emergency savings.
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Step #6: Start an emergency fund

For years I lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I spent everything I earned. This worked well until something went wrong. Suddenly I’d find myself without money to pay for a car repair, or facing an expensive doctor’s bill. I financed emergencies with credit cards. Eventually I saw the light and built up a rainy-day fund.

After you’ve optimized your accounts, make it a priority to save for emergencies. In The Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey explains why he believes an emergency fund should come before anything else:

Since I hate debt so much, people often ask why we don’t start with the debt. I used to do that when I first started teaching and counseling, but I discovered that people would stop their whole Total Money Makeover because of an emergency — they felt guilty that they had to stop debt-reducing to survive.

Open an online high-yield savings account and add $20 or $50 to your account ever time you get paid.

Two years ago, I opened an account at ING Direct, where it’s simple to schedule automatic deposits. After you’ve saved $1000, then you can attack your debt.

Related >> Learning to love the emergency fund.

Step #7: Get out of debt

Are you struggling under a heavy debt load from credit cards or student loans? Make it a priority to unload some of this this burden in 2012. At the end of 2007, I said good-bye to 20 years of debt — it feels fantastic to have that weight off my shoulders.

If you have the mental discipline, you’ll save money by paying down your high-interest debt first. But if you’ve tried that method before and failed, consider using a debt snowball. Pay your debts starting with the smallest balance first. Here’s how:

  1. Order your debts from lowest balance to highest balance.
  2. Designate a certain amount of money to pay toward debts each month.
  3. Pay the minimum payment on all debts except the one with the lowest balance.
  4. Throw every other penny at the debt with the lowest balance.
  5. When that debt is gone, do not alter the monthly amount used to pay debts, but throw all you can at the debt with the next-lowest balance.

The debt snowball can give you awesome psychological payoffs, keeping you motivated to stay in the game. It’s not mathematically ideal, but it worked for me (and for many others besides). However you choose to get out of debt, stick with it. Don’t give up.


Tip! The perfect is the enemy of the good. When you spend so much time looking for the “best” choice that you never actually do anything, you’re sabotaging yourself. And an ideal solution that you don’t follow through with is worse than a good solution that you’ll actually use. Choose a good option and act.

Step #8: Fund your retirement

If you’re young, you probably don’t think you need to start a retirement account. You’re wrong. No matter how old you are, now is the time to begin saving for retirement. The extraordinary power of compound interest favors the young — and in a big way! In The Automatic Millionaire, David Bach writes:

The single biggest investment mistake you can make [is] not using your [retirement] plan and not maxing it out.

If your employer offers any sort of retirement-contribution matching, such as a 401(k), be sure to take advantage of it. It may not be “free” money, but it’s darn close. Also consider starting a Roth IRA.

After reading The Automatic Millionaire a couple years ago, I opened a Roth IRA at Sharebuilder. It was easier than opening a checking account. I’ve managed to make the maximum contribution since 2006. In 2008 and 2009, I maxed out my 401(k).

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