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A financial expert shares the 3 most common questions they heard over the last year

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Last year put millions of Americans under financial stress due to job losses and salary reductions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It also revealed how important it is to have emergency savings to rely on when unexpected situations arise.

For many, this financial stress also led to questions about how to manage money and prepare for the future.

Lorna Kapusta, head of women and customer engagement at Fidelity Investments, shared the three most common questions experts at Fidelity heard from clients over the past 12 months, as well as the advice she would give.

1. How much emergency cash should I have saved?

The general rule is to have between three and six months worth of expenses in emergency savings, says Kapusta.

That being said, it is important that your financial plan suits you and your needs, she adds. If you feel like you need to have more saved for emergencies, and you have the means to do that, you can sock away more.

"What we often talk about is your personal, 'sleep at night' number," Kapusta says. That's the amount you need to feel comfortable and know that you're covered if something unexpected were to come up.

For some people, that means having enough cash to cover up to a year's worth of expenses.

But be aware that having too much cash sitting in your bank account may not always be the best decision. It many cases, it may make more sense to get a larger return on your money by investing it, Kapusta says.

2. How do I get my spending in check and make sure I am saving money?

The 50-15-5 rule is a simple way to organize your paycheck so that you immediately know how to divide up your income as soon it comes in, Kapusta says. Here's a breakdown of what this plan looks like:

  • 50% of your paycheck should go to essential expenses, including housing, food, health-care costs, debt payments and child care.
    Despite this being the rule of thumb, in many cases your circumstances may make spending just 50% of your salary on essential expesnes impossible. People who live in expensive cities like New York, San Francisco or Boston will likely spend more.
  • 15% of your paycheck should go toward saving for retirement.
    "If you work for an employer that has a company match, it includes that company match," Kapusta says.
  • 5% of your paycheck should go toward building up your emergency savings.

If you did the math, then you know that leaves 30% of your salary left. This is extra spending money that you can utilize as you see fit.

You could dig into that extra 30% if your essential expenses take up more than half your budget, build up your emergency savings faster, invest it or even put it toward saving for some of your short-term goals.  

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3. What do I do with the extra money I have outside of my essential costs and saving for retirement?

Some people may be lucky enough to have disposable income left over after covering their basic expenses and saving for the future. If that's you, you may be wondering, what do I do with that extra cash? Should I invest it? Should I be doing more to save for my retirement? And how do I make sure that I'm on track for the retirement that I want?

Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for what you should do with your money, Kapusta says. It all depends on your priorities. That being said, your money should always fit into your plan for the future, near or far.

When examining your priorities, think about what you plan to pay for in the next five, 10 and 20 years that may alter your finances. Your goals may include things like buying a house, planning for a large wedding or even paying for your child's college education.

Reaching out to a financial expert could also be beneficial, Kapusta says. A professional can help you learn how to balance your budget in order to achieve your goals, whatever they may be.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.