1) BUDGET- Write what you make, put that on one side of a sheet of paper, write all your expenses in list form on the other side of the paper. Add it up and subtract expenses from income. Hopfully you have a positve number. If not, well, you need to slash and burn some expenditures. Also look to see if at least 10% of your income is going towards savings, and what percentage is going towards debt. Look to live within your means, so do not be shy about including things in your monthly expenses, your budget has to be realistic or you will come up short at the end of the month because you forgot something like my one friend's "hangover" item line-- weekly take out food because she's too hungover to cook :) Also put in long term savings goals, like retirement accounts, college funds, vacation funds, etc. If you don't do this, you can't do the rest, because more than anything a budget maps out where your money goes. And if you have no idea where your money goes, I would also suggest doing a one month spending diary. The subconsciousness of your wallet is dying for a heart to heart.
2) KILL DEBT Pay off your mortgage, car loan, student loan religiously. Carry ZERO credit card debt. There is nothing in the stock market right now that will even approach your credit card APR. Why is this relevant? Because paying interest is savings in reverse. I'm sure you've heard it a million times, but there it is again. Look at your big expenses and anticipate them. For example, maybe every year your largest expense is vacation, and then you take the year to pay it off. Instead, open an online savings account and every month save the same amount you would pay to a credit card and earn interest instead of pay interest. You can still pay for your vacation of a credit card, let's say you want the points or the consumer protection, but now you can pay it off in full. So look at your credit card bill annually, assess where the biggest total amount charged is coming from, and find a way to save for it a little each month instead. Also, check your credit score at least once a year, raise your limit if you're carrying a balance (to increase your credit to debt ratio, part of your FICO score), and twice a year call to lower your APR.
3) FUND RETIREMENT I don't know about you, but if the state of my Social Security is tied up with Congress and the White House some thirty years from now, I'm saving for it my my own damn self. My advice, fully fund your 401k/b, then fully fund your Roth IRA- in that order. Not everyone has the first, but everyone who has earned income reported to the IRS should open a Roth. Remember you can only fund it with as much money as reported to the IRS, at a $5,000 annual max.
4) UM-B'RELLA-ELLA-ELLA... When it rains it pours, and you need more than Rihanna stuck in your head. A rainy day fund, an emergency fund, a my ass is grass fund. Whatever you call it, at the bare minimum save three months worth of total expenses. But ideally 6 to 12 months worth. Save every month in a high yield savings account, usually online banks have the highest rates.
5) LIFE INSURANCE If you have kids, or you are thinking about it down the line, get life insurance. However, do not put your children as the beneficiaries. No court is going to give a minor that money. Set up a trust for your kid(s), and have the trust be the beneficiary. Talk to a lawyer and an accountant. And by the way YOU need life insurance, NOT your kids. Gerbers and others sell life insurance on the life of the children. Morbid, for one, and completely unnecessary, for another. But back to the basics. The no frills calculation, for illustrative purposes only, is ten times your income. So a $30k salary would get $300K in life insurance (per parent if you have a partner and kids). Go here to calculate how much insurance you need. The most basic version is an at least 10 year TERM life insurance policy, remember you can always change your beneficiaries without a problem. So you pay every month for 10 years and it has no cash value unless you die, at which time the policy you purchased, let's say $300k, will pay out in full. Life insurance policies that do have monetary value are anything but basic, they're as complicated as all get out, and I won't even get into it here. I say, don't get fancy unless your financial situation is fancy, and it makes more sense to save money in IRAs and a 401k/b. And why get life insurance even if you don't have kids? Mostly because you want to lock in a low rate while you are young. Also, for same sex couples, life insurance (and IRAs) have beneficiary agreements that are iron clad. There is no disputing the recipient of this part of your estate, which may be an unfortunate issue for some. And last but not least, it's about the cheapest part of your Basic Financial Plan by far, probably a lot less than your cable bill.
6) SAVE FOR COLLEGE If you have kids, the sooner you start the better. Check out the different plans here. But if you can only save for retirement OR your kid's college, save for retirement. You can't take out a loan for that.
7) KILL THE FLUFF The fluff I'm referring to is not the better half of a peanut butter and fluff sandwhich, but that weird thing you got from a great uncle or some other relative, particularly annuities. I know so many people who were given an annuity and have no idea what it is or what to do with it. Annuities are complicated and there's lots of them. They do not always make the most sense for you, from a financially efficient standpoint. Show your random financial assets to an accountant and see if they can translate it for you. You may be unwittingly changing your retirement picture by having certain assets, so it's better to know what, exactly, your financial fluff is all about.
8) GOALS Maybe you want to buy an apartment, or you want to go to South America for a year. Figure out how much it costs and how much you have to save each month to get there. And don't forget to add it to your budget :)
So that's it, and that's a lot. For some people it will take months, if not years, to be able to achieve each of these steps. That's okay. Sometimes just seeing the trees in the forest is relief enough. And remember, these are the basics. The realities of your situation are the nuts and bolts.