When it comes to personal finances, sticking to the basics can do wonders for your bottom line. And that means making sure you have all the must-have financial accounts to manage all your household’s money needs five minutes from now or in 2050.
A few accounts are “critical for financial security and well-being” and every American should have them, says Michael Gerstman, CEO of Dallas-based financial planning firm Gerstman Financial Group.
Here’s a list of accounts financial advisers say you need:
Keep in mind that each serves a different purpose — such as saving for an emergency or building a retirement nest egg. It’s also important to know that each account becomes much more valuable and useful to you and your family when they work in tandem. Think of these accounts as key links in a chain; if every link is intact, your personal finances will be far sturdier.
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1. Savings account/emergency fund
Having a little money squirreled away that you can access quickly in the event of an emergency or temporary job loss is a basic building block of personal finance.
“A savings account is necessary for the accumulation of wealth, as well as for housing an emergency fund in the event of an unexpected expense that hasn’t been budgeted for,” says Gerstman, adding that how much you should save depends on your personal situation.
A money market account, he says, can be a good alternative to a savings account, as they often pay a higher rate of interest.
But you’ll want to make sure the money in a savings account is as “accessible as possible,” adds Chrisanna Elser, founder of financial website ThefinU. Many savings accounts and money market accounts, she points out, typically limit withdrawals to six per month.
A rule of thumb is to set aside three to six months’ worth of living expenses, says Ken Mahoney, CEO of Mahoney Asset Management.
“Having peace of mind” that you’re able to keep up with the bills or pay for car or home repairs when an emergency strikes will allow you to focus on other key parts of your financial life, he says.
One more thing: Resist the temptation to tap your emergency fund unless it’s necessary.
“Don’t be dipping into it to pay for drinks on the weekend,” Mahoney says.
Tip: “People should have a plan in place that allows them to put a certain percentage of each paycheck into savings,” says Gerstman. “This can, ideally, be done through direct deposit. Set it and forget it.”
2. Checking account
Everyone needs an account that money flows into and out of on a regular basis. A place where your paycheck can be direct deposited, and you can use to pay the monthly bills. An account that you can access easily by mobile app, phone, ATM or visiting a bank branch.
A checking account fits the bill.
“Checking accounts are built to be a cash flow manager,” Elser says.
These accounts also allow you to “record transactions that you can reference later” in the event of a dispute or you need proof a payment was made, Elser adds. If you set up a direct deposit of your paycheck, many banks will “waive” fees, she adds.
Tip: “Low fees and convenience should be paramount,” Gerstman says. “With the advent of virtual banks and online banking, it’s pretty simple to accomplish these objectives.”
3. Retirement savings account
Retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs are the places you park cash for the long haul and receive tax breaks from the government to do so. This is not money earmarked for emergencies. Or to build a down payment on a house you want to purchase in a year or two.
“These accounts are for the future,” Elser says. “These should not be trading accounts. Structure the account to fund your long-term goals, not your short-term whims.”
Both 401(k)s and IRAs allow your money to grow tax-free. Traditional versions let you sock away before-tax dollars and make you pay taxes upon withdrawal. Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, by contrast, are funded with after-tax dollars but offer tax-free withdrawals.
“There are huge tax benefits to these plans,” Gerstman says. “This is a huge benefit.”
The downside to retirement savings accounts is that you could be subject to early-withdrawal penalties and tax payments if you access the money before IRS-designated cut-off ages.
Retirement savings plans benefit from your money growing and then earning interest on prior gains — or earning interest on interest — a concept known as “compound interest.” Your personal retirement account is an income stream to tap in retirement in addition to Social Security or an employer-paid pension if you work at a company that still pays out a traditional pension.
“When you retire,” Mahoney says, “you don’t want to rely on Social Security.”
Tip: “These accounts should be funded on autopilot via (regular) payroll deductions or systematic withdrawals from checking accounts to make them effortless,” Elser says. For people contributing to an IRA, “determine at the beginning of the year how much you’d like to contribute, divide that by 12 months and make that contribution each month,” Gerstman says.
For those who’ve already set up the three must-have accounts listed above, here are a few more accounts to consider.
*Cash value life insurance policy
This type of insurance not only has a death benefit, but also builds equity in the form of cash value.
“I consider cash value life insurance to be the ‘Swiss Army’ knife of your financial portfolio,” Gerstman says. “This is the most underrated asset that I’ve seen.”
This type of insurance can be used for short-term cash needs, such as an emergency fund, he says. It can also be used as a retirement supplement plan. When you tap the cash value of the policy, there are no penalties or any requirements to pay it back, Gerstman says. The death benefit, though, is reduced by the amount of cash taken out, he says.
*Mobile payment account
For pure convenience and to provide a fill-in when small businesses don’t take credit cards, mobile payment apps like PayPal and Venmo provide a useful role, says Elser of ThefinU.
These funds allow you to invest without withdrawal restrictions that come with retirement accounts. They also provide a place to invest money that’s not needed for the short-term or targeted toward retirement.
“Brokerage accounts are a sweet spot for the goals about five years out or to fund short-term accounts when they are needed,” Elser says. “They give you the ability to earn higher returns on your money than you would in a savings or checking accounts.”
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