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Finances Like a Real Adult: Fiscal Responsibility for Millennials

02/24/2014 10:24 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

As I approach my 25th year, I've come to realize that some things need to go. The multi-armed lamp from college in my living room? Replaced by a slightly better lamp from Target. The requisite Audrey Hepburn poster that every girl in America had at some point in her life? Replaced by a Banksy print.

I can try to adult-ify my apartment all I want, but one thing remains true -- my finances need to be handled, and I'm the only one who can take control of them. It's no longer permissible to get by on the credit card I've been using since college. I should probably do things like sign up for a 401(k) and invest in things like a real adult.

The problem is, I just really, really, really don't want to. So in an attempt to make this a good old fashioned finance party (!), I've enlisted the help of the best apps and resources to help us get through this extremely painful moment in growing up. Let me walk you through this, ya'll.

Step 1: Find a credit card that actually gives you rewards

It's time to pay off the emergency credit card and get one that actually rewards you for using it. Building good credit will come in handy when it's time to buy a house or apply for a loan or whatever, and using a good credit card responsibly is the first step towards those things you'll eventually want.

First, check your credit score on a site like Freecreditscore.com to find out what you can qualify for (just don't forget to cancel the free membership after a few days otherwise they'll charge you every month, unless you want them to track your credit for you). Once you have your credit score in hand, start thinking about what kind of rewards you like. Do you travel a lot? Go HAM on a Google search for credit cards that give you great perks like airline miles and free travel insurance.

Creditcards.com lets you choose which kind of rewards you'd like best and then lists all of the cards available. Keep your credit score in mind as you go through your choices; if you haven't built up your credit much or have missed a few payments on your current credit card, you might not qualify for some of the top notch cards. Once you've narrowed your choices down, go to Nerdwallet.com for a great side-by-side comparison of your top two choices, and then apply away! Keep in mind that for every credit card you apply for, an inquiry will show up on your credit report, so try not to apply for more than one card in a short period of time. Any more than two inquiries, and your credit score will dip a bit.

Step 2: Track your spending habits

If you're anything like me, you never quite know where your money goes until it's laid out in front of you. Mint.com does an excellent job tracking your monthly expenses and putting it all in a convenient little pie chart so that you can see (and cringe) at how much your weekend bar tabs are actually costing you. Once you connect your bank accounts (it's safe, I've done it), they categorize your spending and allow you to set budgets so that you don't spend as haphazardly as you might otherwise. They also have an app, handy for getting alerts for when you're over your budget and keeping track of your money on the go. Now at least when you're spending more than you earn, you'll know about it! Mint also keeps track of your investments and student loans, making it a great snapshot of all your finances in one place.

Step 3: Actually use your flex spending options

If your company offers flexible spending accounts (FSA), you sure as hell better be using them. By taking money out of your paycheck before it's taxed and putting it into an account for medical expenses or transportation/parking (aka things you're paying for regardless), you'll be saving a ton of money that would otherwise go to the government. Just be sure to estimate your monthly expenses on medicine and transportation accurately, otherwise you could end up losing money at the end of the year if you don't spend it all. It helps that many accounts now give you a separate card to use for those expenses rather than reimbursing you as they did in the past, and some even have apps that let you check your balance right from your phone.

Step 4: Build your savings

Before you start investing, you've got to make sure that you have money on hand that is easily accessible in case of an emergency. While any kind of savings is good, consider an account that will actually make you more money than your typical low interest savings account. A money market account will oftentimes earn you twice the interest of a typical savings account, while a certificate of deposit will earn you very high interest (albeit with a limit on when you can access the money). Research which kind of account makes the most sense for you (again, nerdwallet.com has a fantastic post on high-yield savings accounts).

Step 5: Contribute to your retirement

Yeah, it's weird to Google "retirement investments" when you were just researching which body painting party to attend and your tattoo artist just emailed you with new sketches. Still, it's a necessary investment to make, even if it means fewer drinks at the bar this weekend. Sign up for your company's 401(k) plan and figure out how much of your income you're willing to part with, keeping in mind that sometimes, an employer will match the amount that you contribute. The earlier you start accumulating this old age money, the more you'll have by the time you're ready to retire, even if it's just $20 a paycheck. You'll also have the option of either paying taxes immediately or paying them when you take the money out in the future; choose to pay them later, since as a senior citizen, you'll be in a better tax bracket than you are now. Consider looking into a Roth 401(k) as well; though you can't contribute as much as you can to a 401(k), you're allowed to add money and take it out (after retirement) without any taxes at all.

Step 6: Take a deep breath, and invest in the stock market

I know, I know. This is the hardest step of them all, because let's be real, investing is terrifying and confusing and sometimes involves people who do things worthy of a Martin Scorsese movie. It doesn't have to be this scary though, especially with the free help you can get from companies like Macroaxis. Rather than just choosing one company to invest in, Macroaxis has you choose an industry in which you'd like to invest and then analyzes the real-time risk and return landscape so that you can build a portfolio with as little risk and greatest rewards possible. Their mathematical model will tell you how much money to invest in each stock within your portfolio and helps to predict the future of investments so that you can build the right portfolio rather than just choosing the right stocks. By using a company like Macroaxis, you'll be able to use a less hands-on (therefore less expensive) broker to buy your stocks, but you'll still have the advice that a more expensive broker would have given you. Of course, this is all pointless unless if you've already paid off your high interest debt, since any money you gain from investments will just end up going right back into paying off the interest from your debt.

With all of this, you too can roll in money.

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