Master Your Personal Finances

Ritholtz Wealth Management's Ben Carlson talked about the "20 most important personal finance laws to live by" in Fortune recently.

It's a good list, and we've talked about a lot of these topics on my radio show and in this letter.

So today I want to share Ben's rules and my take on each topic.

1. Avoid credit card debt like the plague

The first question I ask anyone who wants to invest is do you have credit card debt. I always recommend paying off credit cards before the interest on that debt snowballs.

2. Building credit is important

We've gone through seven ways to raise your credit score to 740. Pay your bills on time, pay attention to your debt utilization ratio, and watch for hard inquiries and errors on your credit report.

3. Income is not the same as savings

High income doesn't make you rich; low income doesn't make you poor. It's all about what you set aside, not what you spend. And whatever you do, don't quit your day job to day trade.

4. Saving is more important than investing

You have no control over things like recessions or interest rates. What you can control is your own savings rate. Here's some simple advice: Pay yourself first and set a high savings rate. Even if you hit the lottery, don't spend more than 10% of your windfall.

5. Live below your means, not within your means

I disagree with this one. Yes, you should live below your means for the first half of your life. That way, in the second half, you can live at/above those means. You should be decumulating at this point. That includes selling some of your investments.

6. If you want to understand your priorities, look at where you spend money each month

My priorities are food and clothes and music. I also believe in spending money on loads, or fees, for professional asset management.

A lot of people think they save money buying no- or low-load mutual funds and ETFs.

But the longer you hold those funds, the more you amortize that sales charge over time. Plus, you're less likely to trade in and out of assets that are designed to reward you over the longer term.

7. Automate everything

A lot of people automate payments, because late or missed payments can hurt your credit score. You can also set a calendar reminder to make sure you pay on time each month.

I prefer to pay bills manually because I like to see what I've been spending money on. I also trade better when I speak directly with my broker, rather than using an online trading platform.

8. Get the big purchases right

This is an elegant way of saying, "It's the big things that count."

Don't overextend yourself on things like housing, transportation, and education because they aren't fixed costs. The added expenses can really add up.

If you save money first, it will take the pain out of your next big purchase.

9. Build up your liquid savings account

You have to build your emergency fund before you even think about investing. Save $10,000 or six months' worth of expenses, whichever is greater. Don't count on someone else bailing you out if you get in a jam.

10. Cover your insurable needs

You should have life insurance equal to 2X your income for each dependent. Choose your provider as carefully as you choose your policy.

11. Always get the match

If your employer-sponsored retirement plan comes with a match, you have to take advantage of it. That's free money. Make the minimum contribution, and preferably more.

12. Save a little more each year

The average person spends $67 a day. That's $6,000 a year just on discretionary items like gas, streaming TV subscriptions, and takeout food. If you save just $17 of that, you can fund an IRA where you have the opportunity to earn interest and/or dividends.

13. Choose your friends, neighborhood and spouse wisely

Warren Buffett said the two most important decisions you'll ever make are your career and your spouse.

Life is a lot easier when you're with someone who agrees with how to spend money. Have those hard conversations before you say "I do" to someone with a different money mindset.

14. Talk about money more often

Most people don't like to talk about money. I'm not scared to talk about money. Call my radio show anytime at 1-888-DILLIAN (1-888-345-5426) and listen live from 6–8 pm Eastern every weeknight to hear my answers to your questions about money and investing.

15. Material purchases won’t make you happier in the long run

I disagree with this one. Buying stuff makes me pretty happy. Depriving yourself of your daily Dunkin’ run or other small luxuries will make you miserable.

16. Read a book or 10

Invest in your financial education. I have been reading about the markets for two decades, and I have no plans to stop. The more you know about how the markets work, the less likely you are to fall for a financial fast-talker who promises you easy or instant riches.

17. Know where you stand

What is your net worth? What do you want it to be? Set some goals. Paying off debt means no more interest charges. You can do a lot of things with that money, like build an emergency fund, invest, or buy something that will bring you happiness.

18. Taxes matter

Personal finance is mostly about the big stuff, and that includes taxes. Not just the ones you pay on your income. Depending on where you live, property taxes can affect your home's value… and that impacts your bottom line.

19. Make more money

A lot of people say, "What's the point of making more money? You just move the goalposts. You are never happy."

Just because you move the goalposts doesn't mean you aren't happy. It's perfectly natural and healthy to want more. Here are three ways you can make more money.

20. Don’t think about retirement, but financial independence

It's never too late to start "Saving and Investing for Retirement." You don't have to retire, per se. Keep reinventing yourself so you can "work"—and earn—on your terms.

Your goal is to live a stress-free financial life. Put a plan in place so that your needs—and your family's—can be taken care of.

Jared Dillian
Jared Dillian