MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now to matters of personal finance, as you may know, we are celebrating TELL ME MORE's fifth anniversary on the air. We're celebrating all week long.
Now, five years may not seem like a long time, but our next guest says it's more than enough time to put a plan in place that will help you achieve your financial goals. Here to tell us more is the person we have turned to most often for insight into personal finance issues.
Alvin Hall, our original money coach. Thanks for sticking with us over the years, Alvin. Welcome back.
ALVIN HALL, BYLINE: Oh, thank you so much for having me on this anniversary show. I mean, I've really enjoyed over the years of sharing all of my observations, knowledge and insights about personal finance with your listeners. Congratulations.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you for hanging in there with us.
So the first thought I - you and a number of other people who work in this area constantly emphasize the importance of saving and I wanted to ask if -that's front and center. How do you start? If you haven't been a saver, if you - do you put a goal in mind, a specific goal in mind? How do you get started?
HALL: You just need to start putting money into a savings account. It doesn't make much difference how little the amount is. You need to get started and part of the process is setting a goal for how much you want to save. That's really key because then you give yourself a goal to work toward.
People keep saying to me, well, I only have $5 or $10 or maybe $20 to put aside. Every little bit helps because, over time, it can add up to a substantial amount of money.
MARTIN: So set a specific amount that you want to save over the next five years and then do what?
HALL: And then stick to it and add additional money to that amount over a period of time. I think of a great friend of mine here in New York City. She was about to turn 40 five years ago and she said, by the time I turn 40, Alvin, I want to have a quarter of a million dollars in my savings account. That's a lot of money for most people, but she sacrificed and worked toward it and she called me recently and told me that she had exceeded that amount. And she isn't earning a huge salary. She just made adjustments in her lifestyle and put the money in places where it could grow a little bit better than normal.
MARTIN: One of your other bits of advice may be counter-intuitive, but you say build in treats for yourself.
HALL: I really believe that. I think treats keep you motivated. Man or woman can live by bread alone. You can't sacrifice to live every single day because then you'll yo-yo. You'll say, oh, I want to go out and buy this and you'll buy too much or you'll see something that you want and you'll indulge way too much.
What you need to do is to set treats. Every time you accomplish something significant, you save an amount of money. You've been disciplined about something over a period of time. You then give yourself a treat and that treat needs to provide you with long-term satisfaction so you don't need to go out and buy something again. And it needs to be motivational. It needs to keep your eyes focused on your prize.
MARTIN: Well, give an example. Do you mind telling us what are some of the treats that you've built in for yourself over the years to...
HALL: Oh, yes. One of the things...
MARTIN: ...to keep you motivated?
HALL: Keep me motivated. Well, I do set specific saving goals for myself because, essentially, I'm a freelancer and so I'll say, if I can pay all the money I need to into my pension by July 1st every year, then I can take myself out in New York City to one of my favorite restaurants. That's really important to me because I love good food and a good meal will have resonance for me for a long time. Or I'll say I'll go to a concert by one of my favorite singers. That will be motivation enough for me. And then I'll give myself another goal, which will motivate me further.
MARTIN: Do you mean to tell us you won't go out to dinner till July?
HALL: No. I do go out to dinner, but I don't go out to dinner to one of my favorite restaurants...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HALL: ...because it's a little pricey and, when I go there, I want to have the wine, I want to have a cocktail, I want to have the full experience. You know, yes, I go to diners regularly, but one of my top notch favorite restaurants in New York City - it's a lot of money and so it's a goal. It's a treat I give myself and I love it every time I walk through the door.
MARTIN: To which I have never been invited, I'll just let you know. This leads me to another one of your tips. Use credit prudently. Now, what does that mean? Because I think a lot of people will interpret that in very different ways.
HALL: I think so. I will readily admit that some credit cards and some types of debt are predatory. Some issuers create these credit cards that are not to your advantage, but if you're using a regular credit card, then you should be able to charge no more than you can afford to pay off at the end of every month. Today, that's much more easy. Why? Because these credit card companies will send you alerts or you can go online and check your balance.
Occasionally, all of us may need to carry a balance for three or four months. If you do that, then set a time limit by which you're going to pay that off and make the sacrifices until that time. It's a short window of time. You should be able to stay focused on that.
And if you're going to use credit, make credit help you twice. Not only should you pay it off at the end of every period, but you should also have some treats associated with the credit card. They should give you air miles, cash back, so therefore you make your money work twice for you as a reward for your good behavior.
MARTIN: And, finally, you also say periodically check your credit score and your credit report. Why is that so important?
HALL: Well, clearly, today, credit scores are very important to be able to get good deals on mortgages and other credit card, but when credit reports were first created, we never imagined the way they would be used today. Online, all you have to do is Google credit report and employment and you discover that some - not many - employers actually will check your credit history to see if you're in debt, if you handle money responsibly. They use this as a way of determining whether or not you're worthy for the job.
So I tell everybody these two measures. Your credit report and making sure your credit score is good. These are key to modern life today because the old days when you would sit in front of somebody and they can look - they would look into your eyes and determine if you were trustworthy. Much of that only happens in the latter stages of getting a job. In order to get through the first cut, you need to make sure that your credit report and credit score are good just in case your employer checks them. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to the Society for Human Resource Management and other sources, prospective employers may check credit reports, but not scores. Credit-reporting agencies do not include scores in the credit information that is sought by employers.]
MARTIN: Well, Alvin, thank you so much for giving us these important tips and we look forward to more conversations about personal finance and the economy in the years ahead. Hopefully, more encouraging ones than we've been having over the last five years.
HALL: I agree. The markets have been bad for many people, but I think people can take the wisdom from this show and apply it to their lives and not be hostage by the past...
HALL: ...but build better financial futures for themselves.
MARTIN: Alvin Hall is an author and expert on personal finance. He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks, Alvin.
HALL: Congratulations on your fifth anniversary again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.