10 Personal Finance Basics

By Jacqueline DeMarco · February 27, 2024 · 11 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

10 Personal Finance Basics

Though money is a very important aspect of life, the topic of personal finance (or financial literacy) isn’t part of most people’s education, neither in school nor at home.

Not knowing financial basics can leave you to wing it when it comes to your money management, meaning you might wind up living paycheck to paycheck, having too much debt, or not saving enough for retirement.

To help you avoid those situations, read up on personal finance basics — the smart and simple steps to budgeting wisely, saving well, and spending sensibly.

These 10 personal finance basics can put you on the path to taking control of your cash and achieving your money goals.

Key Points

•   Personal finance basics include budgeting, saving, investing, managing debt, and understanding credit.

•   Budgeting involves tracking income and expenses, setting financial goals, and making informed spending decisions.

•   Saving is important for emergencies, future goals, and retirement. It involves creating a savings plan and automating contributions.

•   Investing helps grow wealth over time. It involves understanding risk tolerance, diversifying investments, and considering long-term goals.

•   Managing debt requires understanding interest rates, making timely payments, and prioritizing high-interest debt repayment. Understanding credit involves monitoring credit scores and maintaining good credit habits.

Personal Finance Definition

Personal finance is a term that involves managing your money and planning for your future. It encompasses spending, saving, investing, insurance, mortgages, banking, taxes, and retirement planning.

Personal finance is also about reaching personal financial goals, whether that’s having enough for short-term wants like going on a vacation or buying a car, or for the longer term, like saving enough for your child’s college education and retirement.

💡 Quick Tip: An online bank account with SoFi can help your money earn more — up to 4.60% APY, with no minimum balance required.

Top 10 Basics of Personal Finance

Here, learn about 10 of the most important foundations of mastering personal finance.

1. Budgeting Is Your Friend

Budgeting and learning how to balance your bank account can be key to making sure what’s going out of your account each month isn’t exceeding what’s coming in. Winging it — and simply hoping it all works out at the end of the month — can lead to bank fees and credit card debt, and keep you from achieving your savings goals.

You can get a quick handle on your finances by going through your statements for the past several months and making a list of your average monthly income (after taxes), as well as your average monthly spending.

It can be helpful to break spending down into categories that include basic needs (e.g., rent, utilities, groceries) and discretionary spending (e.g., shopping, travel, Netflix). To get a real handle on where your money is going every day, you may want to track your spending for a month or so, either with a diary or an app on your phone.

Once you know everything that typically comes in and goes each month, you can see if you’re going backward, staying even, or ideally, getting ahead by putting money into savings each month.

If you aren’t living within your means, or you’d like to free up more cash for saving, a good first step is to go through your budget and look for ways to cut back discretionary spending. Can you cook more instead of going out? Buy less clothing? Cut out cable? Quit the gym and work out at home?

You can also consider ways to bring in more income, such as asking for a raise or starting a side hustle from home.

Recommended: Use the 50/30/20 monthly budget calculator below to see how your budget should be allocated across needs, wants, and savings.

2. Building an Emergency Fund

You can’t predict when your car will break down or when you’ll have to make an emergency trip to the dentist. If you don’t have money saved up for what life throws at you, you can risk racking up high-interest credit card debt or defaulting on your bills.

To avoid this, you may want to start putting some money aside every month to build an emergency fund. A common rule of thumb is to keep three to six months of basic living expenses set aside in a separate savings account.

It can be a good idea to choose an account where the money can earn interest, but you can easily access it if you need it. Good options include: a high-yield savings account, online savings account, or a no-fee bank account.

Recommended: Ensure you’re prepared for the unexpected by using our emergency fund calculator.

3. Avoiding a Credit Card Balance

When you have a credit card at your disposal, it can be tempting to charge more than you can afford. But carrying a balance from month to month makes those purchases considerably more expensive than they started.

The reason is that credit cards have some of the highest interest rates out there, often over 20%. That means a small charge carried over several months can quickly balloon into a much larger sum. The same is true for other high interest debt, such as some private or payday loans.

If you already have high-interest debt, however, you don’t need to panic. There are ways to pay off that debt.

The avalanche method, for example, requires paying the minimums to all your creditors and putting any extra money toward the debt with the highest interest rate first. Once that’s paid off, the borrower puts their extra cash toward the debt with the next highest rate, and so on.

4. Paying Your Bills on Time

If you miss bill payments or make late payments, your creditors might impose late payment penalties. If you delay payment for a prolonged period, your account could go into delinquency or be sent to collections.

Late payments can also affect your credit score — the number lenders use to help judge whether to give you loans and credit.

Your payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score, so a history of late and missed bill payments can be a major strike against your score. A poor credit score can make it difficult for you to get loans, and the loans you do get are likely to have higher interest rates.

To make sure you never miss a due date, it can be helpful to make a list of your bills and their due dates, set up auto payments when possible, and sign up for reminders.

Get up to $300 when you bank with SoFi.

Open a SoFi Checking and Savings Account with direct deposit and get up to a $300 cash bonus. Plus, get up to 4.60% APY on your cash!

5. Starting Early to Save for Retirement

When you’re young, retirement can feel far away. But putting money away as early as possible means you’ll have more years to save, spreading the savings across your life rather than racing to catch up.

Perhaps the biggest reason to start as early as you can, however, is the power of compound interest.

Because you earn interest not only on your contributions, but also on accumulated interest, small amounts can grow over time. If you have an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k), you may want to consider contributing, especially if your employer offers to match your contributions.

Depending on your situation, you may be able to open a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or SEP IRA, as well.

6. Investing

Saving for retirement may not be enough for you to have what you need to live comfortably after you stop working. Plus, there may be things you want to be able to afford later in life but before you reach retirement age.

If you have children, for example, you may want to start a 529 plan to help you invest for their college educations.

For other long-term savings goals, you may want to invest additional money, keeping in mind that all investments have some level of risk and the market is volatile, meaning it moves up and down over time.

To get started with investing, you can choose a financial firm you want to work with and then open a standard brokerage account. From there, you can put your money in a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (which bundle different types of investments together), or, if you’re prepared to do a fair amount of research, pick and choose your own stocks and bonds.

7. Getting Insured

When it comes to insurance, sometimes it’s best to prepare for the worst. That means making sure you have health insurance and car insurance (which is required by law). You also may want to consider renters or homeowners insurance to protect your home and belongings.

If you have children or other people who are dependent on you financially, it can be a good idea to get long-term disability insurance and term life insurance. Many people can purchase health and disability insurance through their employers. If you don’t have that option, it’s possible to go through an insurance agent, broker, or the insurance company directly.

8. Taking Advantage of Credit Card Rewards

If you have a decent credit score, you can look into getting a credit card with rewards that may give you travel miles or cash back on your purchases. If travel is your priority, you may want to look for a flexible travel rewards credit card, meaning their rewards can be applied to many different airlines and hotels.

You may want to look for a card that not only offers rewards but also offers a nice signup bonus for spending a certain amount within the first few months. One with no annual fee would be ideal, too.

Whichever card you pick, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with its rewards program: the value of its rewards units (points, miles or cash back), how to redeem them, whether your rewards expire, and any minimum redemption amounts.

You may also want to keep in mind that credit card interest rates are typically a lot higher than credit card rewards rates. So, to avoid seeing your earnings swallowed up by finance charges, it can be wise to make sure to pay your full statement balance by the due date every month.

9. Checking Your Credit Reports Regularly

You can request a credit report for free each year from the three main credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — at AnnualCreditReport.com.

It can be a good idea to periodically order a copy of your report and then scan it for any errors or signs of fraudulent activity. If you see anything that isn’t right, it’s wise to contact the credit reporting agency or the account provider as soon as possible and file a formal dispute if needed.

Checking your report can help you spot — and quickly address — identify theft. It can also help you make sure there aren’t any errors on the report that could negatively affect your credit score. If you ever want to obtain a lease, mortgage, or any other type of financing, then you’ll likely need a solid credit report.

10. Choosing Your Bank Wisely

There are lots of financial institutions out there, so it can be a good idea to shop around and make sure you find a place that really suits your financial needs. Choices include:

A Traditional Bank. These typically have physical locations throughout the country and offer a wide range of financial products and services. If you want to know you can have an in-person chat about your money, this option might work well for you.

Credit Union. These are non-profit organizations owned by the members of the union. They’re similar to a traditional bank, but membership is required to join, and they’re often smaller in scale and have fewer in-person locations. However, they may have lower fees and higher interest rates than a traditional bank.

Online Bank. These institutions don’t usually have any in-person locations — everything happens online. Because of this, they often have very competitive fees and interest rates. If you don’t necessarily need in-person money talk and would prefer to handle your money at home (or on the go), an online bank could be a great option.

When making a bank choice, it can be a good idea to make sure the bank you choose has a user-friendly website and app, as well as conveniently located ATMs that won’t charge you a fee for accessing your money.

💡 Quick Tip: Most savings accounts only earn a fraction of a percentage in interest. Not at SoFi. Our high-yield savings account can help you make meaningful progress towards your financial goals.

3 Personal Finance Rules to Know

Once you’ve established some fundamental procedures, you can start thinking about some overarching rules that can help you make better money decisions. Three rules you may want to keep in mind include:

•   Keep your goals in mind. Without a clear set of goals, it can be difficult to do the hard work of budgeting and saving. Defining a few specific goals — whether it’s buying a home in five years or being able to retire at 50 — gives you a picture of what personal financial success looks like to you, and can keep you motivated.

•   Learn to distinguish wants from needs. Merging these two concepts can wreak havoc on your personal finances. Needs generally include food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, reliable transportation, and minimum debt payments. Everything else is likely a want. This doesn’t mean you can’t have wants, but it can be important not to trade financial security in pursuit of these things.

•   Always pay yourself first. This means taking some money out of each paycheck right off the bat and putting it towards your future goals. Setting aside money in a savings account, IRA, or 401K plan via automatic payroll deductions helps reduce the temptation to spend first and save later.

The Takeaway

Being good with your money requires a set of basic skills that many of were never actually taught in school. Fortunately, It’s never too late to educate yourself about personal money management.

Learning personal finance basics like how to choose a bank, set up a budget, save for retirement, monitor your credit, avoid (and deal with) high-interest debt, and invest your money are key to reaching your goals and building wealth over time.

One simple way to become more organized with your money is to open the right bank account.

Interested in opening an online bank account? When you sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, you’ll get a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), pay zero account fees, and enjoy an array of rewards, such as access to the Allpoint Network of 55,000+ fee-free ATMs globally. Qualifying accounts can even access their paycheck up to two days early.

Better banking is here with SoFi, NerdWallet’s 2024 winner for Best Checking Account Overall.* Enjoy up to 4.60% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.

SoFi® Checking and Savings is offered through SoFi Bank, N.A. ©2023 SoFi Bank, N.A. All rights reserved. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.
The SoFi Bank Debit Mastercard® is issued by SoFi Bank, N.A., pursuant to license by Mastercard International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.

SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a recurring deposit of regular income to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government benefit payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, or are non-recurring in nature (e.g., IRS tax refunds), do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.

As an alternative to direct deposit, SoFi members with Qualifying Deposits can earn 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Qualifying Deposits means one or more deposits that, in the aggregate, are equal to or greater than $5,000 to an account holder’s SoFi Checking and Savings account (“Qualifying Deposits”) during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Qualifying Deposits only include those deposits from the following eligible sources: (i) ACH transfers, (ii) inbound wire transfers, (iii) peer-to-peer transfers (i.e., external transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc. and internal peer-to-peer transfers from a SoFi account belonging to another account holder), (iv) check deposits, (v) instant funding to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, (vi) push payments to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, and (vii) cash deposits. Qualifying Deposits do not include: (i) transfers between an account holder’s Checking account, Savings account, and/or Vaults; (ii) interest payments; (iii) bonuses issued by SoFi Bank or its affiliates; or (iv) credits, reversals, and refunds from SoFi Bank, N.A. (“SoFi Bank”) or from a merchant.

SoFi Bank shall, in its sole discretion, assess each account holder’s Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits throughout each 30-Day Evaluation Period to determine the applicability of rates and may request additional documentation for verification of eligibility. The 30-Day Evaluation Period refers to the “Start Date” and “End Date” set forth on the APY Details page of your account, which comprises a period of 30 calendar days (the “30-Day Evaluation Period”). You can access the APY Details page at any time by logging into your SoFi account on the SoFi mobile app or SoFi website and selecting either (i) Banking > Savings > Current APY or (ii) Banking > Checking > Current APY. Upon receiving a Direct Deposit or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits to your account, you will begin earning 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% on checking balances on or before the following calendar day. You will continue to earn these APYs for (i) the remainder of the current 30-Day Evaluation Period and through the end of the subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period and (ii) any following 30-day Evaluation Periods during which SoFi Bank determines you to have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits without interruption.

SoFi Bank reserves the right to grant a grace period to account holders following a change in Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits activity before adjusting rates. If SoFi Bank grants you a grace period, the dates for such grace period will be reflected on the APY Details page of your account. If SoFi Bank determines that you did not have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits during the current 30-day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, then you will begin earning the rates earned by account holders without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits until you have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits in a subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period. For the avoidance of doubt, an account holder with both Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits will earn the rates earned by account holders with Direct Deposit.

Members without either Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits, as determined by SoFi Bank, during a 30-Day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances.

Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 10/24/2023. There is no minimum balance requirement. Additional information can be found at https://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .


All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender