By Andrew Housser
An estimated 44 percent of Americans age 18 and older are not married -- that equates to 102 million single people. When the only person you have to answer to is yourself, it can be easy to allow yourself a little too much financial freedom. And of course, the fiscal downside to singlehood is that you do not have access to the financial support provided by a partner's income should you hit a rough patch. That means that in many ways, single people need to be smarter about their assets and expenses than those who are married. These tips can set you on the right path.
1. Pay attention to expenses. You may only have to look out for "Number One," but that does not mean you should spend frivolously, rack up credit card debt or do anything to negatively affect your credit score. Learn to create and use a simple budget. Review your expenses and your income every month. Scrutinize spending habits and make smart choices about cutting back. Make sure you are saving, not just spending.
2. Be smart with debt. Limit credit card charges to 30 percent or less of your card balance. Always make at least the monthly minimum payment, and always pay on time, to keep your credit rating from taking a hit. Check your credit score at least once a year. You can request a free copy of your credit reports every 12 months via Annual Credit Report. Carefully review identifying information and make sure all of the accounts listed are yours. If you find an error, send a letter via certified mail to the creditor and the credit bureau requesting the item be corrected or removed.
3. Prepare for emergencies. In today's economy, you may find yourself unexpectedly unemployed or unable to work due to health problems or an injury. When situations like these occur, an emergency fund is a must-have to see you through. You should save at least six-nine months of living expenses. Think about it—a commitment to divert $100 from your weekly earnings into a savings account would give you savings of $5,200 by the end of the year.
4. Save for retirement. Never neglect job benefits, including workplace retirement plans, such as a 401(k). Many employers match some or all employee contributions. Not contributing to the plan is like saying "no thanks" to free money. Alternatively, open an individual retirement account or IRA. Single people in their 20s and 30s should strive to save at least 10 percent of their income. It is a good idea to increase this amount with every pay raise. People in their 40s and 50s can aim to put away at least 20 percent of their incomes. It can be tempting to dip into retirement funds to pay off debt, cover a big home expense or simply to go on an exotic vacation. But doing so can cost you plenty. In addition to losing interest on the withdrawn money, you also can expect to incur penalties and taxes.
5. Take a look at your tax situation. If you received a large tax refund this year or were surprised by the amount that you owed, take a look at the deductions you are taking on your IRS Form W-4. Getting a large tax refund is an indication that too much is being withheld from your paycheck. Of course, you do not want to owe a lot, either, come April. Your goal should be to break even with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). To ensure that happens, use the IRS Withholding Calculator and adjust your federal income tax withholding allowances accordingly.
6. Plan for the inevitable. You may still need a life insurance policy even if you do not have children. Without one, your parents or siblings could be liable for your debts, including funeral expenses. If you are a single parent, however, life insurance is especially important. Purchase a policy that pays at least six to 10 times your salary. It is just as important that you have a will. Without one, the state gets to decide how your assets are distributed among your relatives.
It can be tempting to be more of a spender than a saver when you only have to look out for yourself. But remember that you will want to retire one day. And you are just as vulnerable to job cutbacks and health problems as others. In addition to taking the steps above, consider consulting a financial adviser who can help you develop a plan that protects your future fiscal well-being.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.