Step one: Never spend money again. Boom. Done.
Lucky for you, that’s not the direction of this article. We can show you how to get ahead with your money in just 7 Baby Steps using a plan by money expert Dave Ramsey. So grab an extra pair of socks, friends, because we’re about to knock. Yours. Off.
What Are Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps?
First let’s answer the burning questions: What are these Baby Steps anyway? Who is this Dave Ramsey? Why should you listen to him?
The Baby Steps were created by Dave Ramsey, a guy who worked his way back from bankruptcy and became a national best-selling author, radio host, and financial expert. These steps to financial stability (and then some) came from his personal experience and time spent teaching others how to save for emergencies, pay off debt for good, and build wealth. They’ve proven themselves time and again as steps that work.
If you want to do better, be better, and live better with money, you’re probably looking at what seems to be a mountain of work to get you there. How do you climb a mountain? How do you reach the top of those Everest dreams? One (baby) step at a time.
Baby Step 1: Save $1,000 for Your Starter Emergency Fund
Only 39% of Americans can pay cash for a $1,000 emergency. That means 61% of them are borrowing, selling, or going in debt when life happens in a $1,000 way. And it does. Your car’s catalytic converter crumbles. Your kid busts his chin and needs stiches from the ER. Your washing machine won’t live to spin again. That’s life. Be cash ready.
How: Start saving more money and spending less. You can build up that $1,000 reserve quicker than you think—really. It just takes a little focus and some hard work. Try selling stuff, clipping coupons, saying no to extra expenses, planning your meals, eating out less, using or selling old gift cards, and downloading money-saving apps. The ways to earn or save $1,000 are nearly endless. Pick a few and get down to saving up.
Baby Step 2: Pay Off All Debt (Except the House) Using the Debt Snowball
Debt’s good for one thing and one thing only: holding you back. But you don’t want to be held back. You want to thrive—and the thriving starts here. You’ve got $1,000 saved up so in the event of an emergency you can use that money instead of going deeper into debt. Now you can attack debt with the vengeance of a knight saving his kingdom from a fire-breathing dragon. Slay that dragon using the debt snowball method. Pay off one debt at a time from smallest to largest, gaining momentum until you deliver the final blow of victory, aka become debt-free.
How: Remember those money-saving tricks from Baby Step 1? Use them and put all that extra cash toward defeating debt. In fact, turn up the heat and see how thrifty you can get while you’re on this step. It’s not forever, and when you’re living free from debt, you’ll look back and see the effort was totally worth it.
Baby Step 3: Save 3–6 Months of Expenses in a Fully Funded Emergency Fund
The debt is gone. Bye bye, debt. Talk to you never. Now, you’re going to beef up that emergency savings fund so it’s strong enough to stand up against bigger problems, like job loss. Figure out how much money you’d need to live for three to six months if your regular income went away. (If you’re a one-income household, aim for that “six months of expenses” mark. Two-income households can go for three.) Save up that amount, and store it in a high-interest savings or money market account with check-writing privileges so you can get to it if you need to.
How: You’re already in a pattern of saving. You clip and tap coupons all the time. You downloaded so many money-saving apps, you have to delete photos of your pup weekly for storage. You started brewing your own coffee at home—and even like it better. Gasp. So keep those money-saving habits going and build your savings into the mighty cash castle it’s meant to be.
Baby Step 4: Invest 15% of Your Household Income in Retirement
Retirement can seem like tomorrow’s problem. But that kind of thinking will leave you working for the rest of your life. Baby Step 4 demolishes that idea and gets you on the path to the golden years of glory. It’s time to start putting 15% of your gross household income into retirement accounts.
How: Here’s the simple breakdown. When you start this step, first look into your employer’s 401(k). If you have this offering, max out the amount of contributions you can put into this fund—if you’re able—which is $18,500 a year of your own money (not counting the employer match, if you have one). After that, you’ll call in reinforcements such as the Roth IRA, which allows up to $5,500 a year. And remember, that employer match isn’t part of the 15% you’re investing. It’s just a lovely little bonus.
Because it’s so confusing, we suggest you don’t make money moves like that without finding a reputable investment pro. These people enjoy investment lingo but know how to talk to you in a way you can understand. They’ll listen to your preferences and help guide you on your investment journey as you set yourself up to save for the retirement of your dreams.
Baby Step 5: Save for Your Children’s College Fund
No kids? Fully grown and gone kids? You can skip this step and move on to the next. Otherwise, it’s time to start researching and stashing away cash for your kids to further their education. One important note: you’ll be working on Baby Steps 4, 5, and 6 at the same time, but you’ll start them in order.
Why wait to worry about the kids until after you start saving for retirement? One reason is that your kids may or may not go to college—but you will retire. Also, there’s no reason to send them to overwhelmingly expensive universities that’ll leave you unable to pay your bills when you quit working. Putting retirement first is not selfish. It’s wise.
How: First, look at opening an Educational Savings Account (ESA) or 529 college savings fund.
Next, remember this: Going to college without going into debt is possible. Grants and scholarships abound. And your kids should always consider in-state and community college options and—by golly—working throughout school to pay for tuition and fees. Using this Baby Step and all those tactics, your kids can get a diploma without debt.
Baby Step 6: Pay Off Your Home Early
The average American has a monthly mortgage budget line of around $1,400. What if that disappeared, not because of magic, but because you paid off your house—in full. You’ve stopped renting from the lending company, and that home sweet home is yours all yours. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, really. But it’s possible to achieve, really.
How: First, look into refinancing. Do you have a 30-year or adjustable-rate mortgage? Switch to a 15-year. Are rates better? Has your house gone up in value? If so, refinancing could be the game changer for this Baby Step. Another tip is to make one extra house payment per quarter. You’ll pay off your mortgage 11 years earlier and save around $65,000 in interest alone!
Baby Step 7: Build Wealth and Give
Now it’s time to grow your wealth beyond your wildest dreams,—though they won’t seem as wild anymore because you’re going to reach them. And when you do, you’ll not only be living like no one else, you’ll be in a position to give like no one else. Your money won’t be tied up in debt or mortgages or worry. It’ll be free to share with your favorite charities or your church. You can be in a position of easy generosity. What a beautiful feeling this will be.
How: Remember your 401(k) and Roth IRA? Max. Them. Out. As your retirement fund grows, use your remaining wealth to have some fun and help others.
Why Should I Follow the Baby Steps in This Order?
1. To focus on one goal at a time
As you’re looking to all the money goals in your future, it’s overwhelming—so much to do, so little time. But there is time, and there is a proven path to break up those goals into manageable and achievable pieces that will set you up for success. Because remember: How do you climb a mountain? One (baby) step at a time.
2. To avoid going into debt again
Notice the first three Baby Steps are all about avoiding and paying off debt. They propel you to a debt-free lifestyle like a success rocket. The first $1,000 emergency fund is starter fuel, keeping you going, and still feeling secure, while you eliminate your debt. And that full fund you saved up on Baby Step 3 means you always have cash ready, so you don’t even think about running back to your borrowing ways. 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . blast off to being set against debt.
3. To keep your priorities in check
The moment often seems the most important thing. That thinking can make us pay far too much for our kid’s unicorn-themed birthday party—complete with a four-tiered cake topped with a fondant dancing unicorn and edible glitter rainbows. Teaching your kids the value of saving and dumping debt is a better gift than one you wrap with a giant sparkly bow, no matter how good all those party pics will look on Instagram.
In fact, it’s a better gift for yourself than those fancy gold-trimmed headphones that remind you to do things like take out the trash. These Baby Steps help you set up and focus on a true better-life standard, one that goes beyond social media and into what really matters.
4. To watch and celebrate your progress
When you reach the finish line of one of those Baby Steps, it’s time to celebrate. Seriously. Throw yourself a (low-cost) party! Invite friends. Create a special celebratory family dance. It won’t take the world by storm like the “Macarena,” but it will take your life by storm.
When you walk one Baby Step at a time, you can observe your improvements, applaud your achievements, and know what’s next. Because after one Baby Step comes the next.
Step. Step. Step. Save. Slay. Succeed.
What Should I Do to Get Started With the Baby Steps?
Aren’t you glad the answer is simple?
Start with a budget. Today. This is what we call Baby Step 0, and it’s the step you never stop. A budget shows you where your money is actually going, so you can start telling it where you want it to go. A budget sets up a natural accountability with yourself. A budget creates goals.
Knowledge. Empowerment. Accountability. Goals. These are all vital if you’re going to get where you want to be in life and with your money. And they all come when you budget.
So start with a budget.