At Ally Bank, we believe that smart financial planning can help you reach new levels of success. We also believe that financial planning, like a lot of skills, is something you can always improve on. Recently, we spoke with Alexa Von Tobel, CEO and founder of the financial planning website, to ask her about the LearnVest approach to financial planning and her recent book Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money.
Von Tobel is uniquely qualified to discuss financial planning. While attending Harvard College, Von Tobel realized that most people her age never received a solid foundation in financial education. After working as a Wall Street trader, Von Tobel enrolled in Harvard Business School in 2008. Even though she was studying at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, Von Tobel decided to pursue other plans.

“I dropped out in the heart of the worst recession in years,” Von Tobel tells us. “It was a crazy thing to do, but I realized that then, more than ever, people needed real guidance around their money.”

Instead of completing her degree, Von Tobel became a Certified Financial Planner and wrote a business plan for a financial planning website that could help “millions of people with their money.” Her business plan won a start-up competition and LearnVest was born.

The Importance of a Plan

Although it may sound evident, Von Tobel reminds us that “not having a plan” is the biggest mistake people make about financial planning.

“Everyone needs a plan,” Von Tobel says. “I always say, not having a financial plan is a plan — just a really bad one.”

That’s where LearnVest’s financial planning program comes in. After signing up, users are paired up with a financial planner. Together, they follow a program designed to help organize, plan, protect and build finances, all while advancing toward achieving real goals.

“Our motto is ‘Make progress on your money,'” Von Tobel tells us. “Everyone can do something to improve their finances.”

So, how can you better plan your finances today? Von Tobel emphasizes taking action today and not “waiting for a moment when [you] have more money or time.”

“All too often, people procrastinate—waiting for a moment when they have more money or more time,” Von Tobel says. “It’s important to take action today. The earlier you start, the better.”

We asked Von Tobel to name one thing that anyone could do today to help them be more financially prepared.

“Take a few minutes to create a budget,” she says. “One of our favorite budgeting methods is the 50/20/30 budget. 50% of your take-home pay goes to your Essentials, 20% to your Future and 30% to your Lifestyle (all the fun stuff).”

Here on the Ally Straight Talk Blog, we agree with Von Tobel that having a budget is a smart component of any financial plan, and also suggest that using a savings calendar can also be another great tool for planning your savings.

Creating a budget, though, is just part of getting your financials in order, says Von Tobel. “It’s critical to track every dollar,” she adds. “Once you have a plan, you have to stay in the loop to make sure you’re sticking to it.”

Avoiding Financial Fear and Stress

If you’re just starting to make a financial plan (or want to change a current plan) it’s only natural to feel a little apprehensive.

“Money is one of the leading causes of stress,” says Von Tobel. “It’s an incredibly emotional topic, and through the thousands of people I’ve met, I’ve never met anyone who says ‘I’ve got this. I feel great about money.'”

Von Tobel addresses fear of finance in her latest book, aptly titled Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money.

Noting how discussions around money can be a bit “taboo,” Von Tobel tells us that she wrote the book to start a conversation and “break down fears and help people make progress on their money.”

Major life events can be particularly frightful as they relate to finance, Von Tobel notes. “Having a financial plan is especially important as your life changes—whether you’re getting married or having twins or switching jobs,” she says. “These major events affect your finances, and we can’t afford (literally) to play it by ear.”

Navigating these big events is the critical reason why Von Tobel advocates a savings plan. “I recommend setting up an emergency fund with at least six months of your take-home pay saved up, ready to go in case anything happens,” she says. “The goal is to help you breathe easier and sleep more soundly.”

If that sounds like a tall order, Von Tobel reminds us that you don’t have to manage your finances alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and talk to a professional,” she says. “Personal finance is confusing, and you likely don’t have the time to master it on your own.”

At Ally Bank, we agree that personal finance isn’t something to fear. In fact, we believe that money can actually be a source of happiness in your life. As we recently showed in our Money-and-Happiness survey, successful management of your finances — which can lead to increased savings — can actually make you happier. Which, according to Von Tobel, is really the main point of having a financial plan.

“Money isn’t about being rich,” Von Tobel says. “It’s about enriching your life.”

What steps do you take to make a financial plan? How do you keep financial fear and stress at bay?