Every morning I wait for the elevator in my building, stand in line to order coffee at a cafe, and will the subway to arrive while pacing the platform. Those few-minute blocks of time are all opportunities to master my money game.
That’s because it’s easier to chip away at big financial goals, one by one, if you break them into more manageable chunks. The first task often takes so little time, you can do it on your phone while waiting in line at the supermarket. When you’ve got a few minutes to kill, inch closer to goals like paying off your student loans and saving $1 million for retirement with these quick maneuvers.
1. Pre-qualify to refinance student loans
What it is: Refinancing student loans is a way to lower your interest rates based on your current financial health. Perhaps you took out a private student loan at 8% interest. That loan was based on your income and credit profile, and that of your co-signer if you needed one. If, years later, you have solid income and a credit score higher than 650 (nice work), you might qualify to get a lower interest rate — say, 5% — by refinancing.
How to do it: Many student loan refinancing lenders let you fill out a short form with your education and income information to see whether you’re pre-qualified to refinance. They may also show you the likely interest rates you’ll receive. You can also apply directly on lenders’ websites, though the time commitment for each application varies.
How long it takes: Three minutes.
Next steps: If you’re approved and move forward, a private lender will pay off your student loans and issue you a new one at a lower interest rate. Take care refinancing federal loans, because you’ll lose certain benefits, like access to payment reduction programs.
2. Check your credit score
What it is: Financial institutions use your credit score to determine whether they can trust you. The higher your score, the more likely it is your bank will issue you a car loan and a potential landlord will rent to you. In general, your score will range from 300 to 850; scores of 720 or higher are considered “excellent.”
How to do it: Many online resources, including NerdWallet, will let you check your credit score for free. You may also be able to access it through your credit card company.
How long it takes: Three minutes.
Next steps: If your score isn’t where you want it to be, focus on paying your bills on time, eliminating errors on your credit report and paying off your credit cards each month. These strategies could add 100 points to your score.
3. Capture your 401(k) match
What it is: If your employer matches your contributions to a workplace retirement fund, it’s paying you to save for retirement. That’s essentially free money. One common formulation is for employers to contribute 50% of the first 6% of salary that you save in a 401(k), according to Deloitte’s 2015 Annual Defined Contribution Benchmarking Survey. That means if every month you save $200, your company will contribute an additional $100, for a total of $300 saved.
How to do it: If you have an online retirement-savings portal at work, log in and take a look at your transaction summary. Your employer might have auto-enrolled you in its retirement plan; make sure your savings rate is equal to or larger than your employer’s full match. If you can’t tell what the match is, ask your colleagues in human resources.
How long it takes: Five minutes; more if you need to contact HR.
Next steps: Increase your contributions online or by emailing your plan’s representative. No workplace retirement account or no company match? You’ve got other retirement savings options.
4. Add up your checking account fees
What it is: The checking account you opened in high school or college may no longer make sense for you. It’s definitely time to switch if you’re overwhelmed by bank fees, which cost the average consumer $1,000 over 10 years, according to a NerdWallet study. If you don’t check your account activity often, you may not even know you’re paying them.
How to do it: Log into your account and bring up your transactions for the past year. Add up the monthly maintenance, overdraft and ATM fees you paid. My bank let me search transactions using the keyword “fee.”
How long it takes: Five minutes.
Next steps: If you’re racking up fees or lacking other must-haves like mobile banking or A-plus customer service, consider switching to a low-fee checking account instead.
5. Pick your target home price
What it is: Homeownership offers flexibility (paint everywhere!) and privacy (no roommates!), which might be a mere daydream now. But you’re smart to start saving if buying a home is a goal for, say, five years from now.
How to do it: Use a home affordability calculator to determine the home price and monthly payment you should budget for when you start looking. Enter income and debt load information and how large a down payment you’ll have saved by your planned purchase date. Play with the inputs to see how much you’ll pay per month if you put more down or pick a different loan term.
How long it takes: One minute.*
Next steps: Keep saving diligently, and look into local and national first-time home buyer programs. They could help you get a lower interest rate on your mortgage or even assistance with your down payment.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet.
*Still not sure you’re ready to be a homeowner? We at Self-Help can help you weigh the pros and cons. Contact us or find out more here.