One of the underlying principles of Lifehacker is that not every hack works for every person. This is especially true of money advice, because everyone’s individual situation and goals will vary dramatically from everyone else’s. You might overspend when using a credit card, for example, so advice on the best rewards card doesn’t work for you.

But there are some rules-of-thumb that make sense for pretty much everyone to follow. Those include:

Don’t Accrue Credit Card Debt

This one is obvious, but it bears repeating: If you’re using a card to “pay” for something because you don’t have the money in your bank account, you’re digging yourself into debt, and you’ll end up paying significantly more in the longterm. On a similar note, you shouldn’t spend more than you earn, and you should always pay your bill on time, even if you can only make the minimum payment. But those go without saying, er, writing, right?

You might think that this applies to all debt, but that’s not the case. There’s a difference between “good” debt and bad debt. To put it simply: Good debt, like a mortgage or car loan, will typically help your credit score because it is secured by something tangible, while bad debt, like credit card debt, will harm your credit score because it is not.

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What Is ‘Good’ Debt?

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Student loan debt is a trickier topic—it can be good debt for many people, in that it might help boost a credit score and open up more opportunities. But it can also be bad if it oppressively overshadows every financial and career decision you make. As with all things, there are shades of gray and variations between the two extremes.

Exceptions: You’re in the midst of a disaster/emergency and have no other recourse but to use a credit card.

Contribute to Your 401(k) Up to the Employer Match

401(k) accounts get a bad rap, and some of that is warranted. They can be expensive to operate and offer limited investing options, plus they’re no substitute for a defined benefit plan for most workers. Not everyone has access to one or spare cash to put away. But, they’re also one of the most efficient financial vehicles offered to full-time workers.

If you’re unhappy with your 401(k) options and fees, which is a legitimate critique, then at least contribute up to the match so that you’re getting your full compensation. As I wrote previously:

You should think of that money as part of your compensation. Would you be ok with your employer paying you $49k instead of $50k when you agreed to the latter? No? It’s the same thing with your 401(k) match. Suddenly your two percent contribution becomes four percent. They should be giving you the money anyway, but they’ve put this requirement on it, so you should do it regardless. If you don’t put in enough to get the match, you’re essentially forfeiting a portion of your salary.

Plus, 401(k)s lower your taxable income, giving you a tax break now, and you’ll benefit from the compound interest if you leave your money alone.

Exceptions: You need some money in the short term, but plan to increase your contributions once you’re caught up.

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401(k)s Aren’t ‘Bullshit’

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Open Your Bills and Financial Documents When You Get Them

Last week I logged into my Fidelity account to download some tax forms. When I did, I saw that the account tied to my old employer was completely drained of money. Balance: $0. I had a momentary freakout, and then texted an old coworker. Turns out the company had switched providers, which I would have known if I bothered to open my mail. The upshot of this sad tale: Open your mail, especially if it’s from your bank or another financial institution you do business with. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches (and shock).

Exceptions: Now, thieves are banking (sorry) on you opening your mail, which also means you need to be on the lookout for scams. This is especially true for seniors. Generally, skip out on anything promising you a certain return, or, if you have student loans, claiming that they can make them disappear.

Something else you’ll want to ignore? Credit card convenience checks. Don’t use them.

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How to Banish Junk Mail from Your (Real World) Mailbox

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Pay Yourself First

This is one of those tips that gets thrown into every “how to save more article,” but that’s because it’s the best way to actually save money. Pay yourself first, before you spend on superfluous expenses, and you’ll get ahead in the long run and be able to live more comfortably and stress-free day-to-day.

That means automating your savings from your paycheck, ideally before you even receive it. Better yet, make that money more difficult to access: Put it in a separate, high-yield account, or use an app like Digit to save.

Exceptions: You have at least $1,000 or one month’s worth of expenses saved and you want to pay off some of your debt.

And speaking of boring…

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The Money Advice I Wish I’d Learned Sooner  

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Your Finances Should Be Boring

Get-rich-quick schemes and sophisticated investing products you don’t really understand might seem too good to be true, and that’s because they are. Many financial services and products exist solely because they make other people lots of money. The tried-and-true best products and strategies are relatively simple and straight forward. This piece details those strategies and how they help you build wealth over time. When in doubt, follow Jack Bogle.

Exceptions: You’re already rich and you like to play around with day trading. Just kidding, don’t do that either.

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Your Finances Should Be Boring

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Read Everything Before You Sign (or Buy)

While this one also seems obvious, there are plenty of less-obvious situations it applies, ranging from housing to credit cards to loans:

  • Ask your landlord what happens if your roommate moves out mid-lease, or if you lose your job and need to terminate early. Make sure that’s spelled out in your lease.
  • You didn’t realize your car loan included an extended warranty.
  • Your gym automatically renews for a year-long membership after the one-week trial.
  • Your payday loans costs you significantly more than you understood when you signed up.
  • Your student loan interest starts accruing while you’re still in school.
  • A credit card you use has a deferred-interest policy that kicks in after a certain number of months.
  • Something that was verbally agreed to in a house purchase (for example) wasn’t included in your closing documents.

Exceptions: None.

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You Still Need to Read Terms of Service Documents, Unfortunately

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Know That Past Performance Does Not Ensure Future Results

When writing about investing for the longterm, Lifehacker recommends low-cost, diversified mutual funds and ETFs, which have historically returned better results at a cheaper cost than actively-managed funds. But as with most things in life, there’s a huge caveat: Results aren’t guaranteed. No one can actually predict what the stock market—or your bank, boss, spouse, etc.—will do. That’s important to keep in mind when researching any sort of fund, credit card or bank account.

Similarly, know that nothing—except death and taxes—is guaranteed. If someone is trying to sell you a product with a “guaranteed, 100 percent happening” return or outcome, call bullshit and walk away.

Exceptions: None. Everything changes and nothing stays the same.


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