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Money Anxiety? Here’s the Expert Advice I Followed to Get Smart With My Finances

Boosting your financial literacy helps you get better control of your money. And it doesn't have to be overwhelming.

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Toni Husbands / CNET

I was in my early 30s before realizing how unprepared I was to thrive financially. Juggling the minimum payments on student loan debt, a car loan and several credit cards, I was building a life on a shaky financial foundation. It wasn’t until, after attending a conference, I read my first personal finance book that I opened my eyes to a brand-new world -- the possibility of living debt-free.

If you’re on a mission to sharpen your money skills, there are plenty of resources available to help you. But sifting through a mountain of financial advice, how-tos and best practices can cause a serious case of analysis paralysis -- spending so much time researching what to do that you never take action. 

Navigating the financial world without knowledge is like sailing a choppy sea without a compass. Sure, you might get lucky and reach your destination, but the odds are stacked against you.

You’re in good company if you’ve ever felt this way. A majority of Americans (56%) reported feeling anxiety when thinking about their finances, according to the most recent National Financial Capability Study (PDF) by FINRA, a financial regulatory agency organized by Congress. 

But getting smarter about money doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can start today, making concrete changes that will positively impact your future. Learn what experts say you can do to overcome any challenges you may have managing your money. 

What is financial literacy?

The National Financial Educators Council defines financial literacy as “understanding the topic of money.” But that’s a broad statement.

Digging a little deeper, Brian Seymour, CFP with Prosperitage Wealth, explained the concept this way: “Financial literacy equips individuals with the knowledge to manage money effectively, ensuring financial stability and independence.”

The Consumer Federal Protection Bureau refers to this knowledge as financial capability -- a concept that combines the information and skills needed with the action required to make the best decisions about financial products and services. According to the CFPB, financial education should help you:

  • Control your finances on a daily and monthly basis
  • Weather financial emergencies and setbacks
  • Make progress toward your financial goals
  • Enjoy life according to your financial abilities

Why financial literacy is essential

Everyone has financial goals, whether that’s being able to pay your monthly bills or cover your expenses in retirement. “Not understanding key financial concepts can lead to poor financial decisions, resulting in excessive debt, inadequate savings and a reduced quality of life,” Seymour said. 

Without a robust awareness of financial literacy concepts, he explained, you’re more susceptible to long-term negative consequences, including:

  • Stress
  • Inability to achieve financial independence
  • Decreased personal and family financial well-being
  • Reliance on high-cost financial services such as payday lending
  • Vulnerability to financial scams

“Navigating the financial world without knowledge is like sailing a choppy sea without a compass. Sure, you might get lucky and reach your destination, but the odds are stacked against you,” Seymour added.

The National Financial Capability Study lends credence to the importance of a financial education. 65% of respondents with above-average financial literacy scores had three months of expenses set aside in savings. Only 42% of those with below-average scores reported having the same amount.

Roadblocks to becoming financially literate

The path to improving your financial literacy skills may not always be clear-cut. As Michael Liersch, head of advice and planning for Wells Fargo, pointed out, the way we talk about and access money is constantly evolving.

“There’s no clear set of information that everyone knows,” Liersch said. Your experience with money and how your parents and friends talk about it significantly impacts how you learn and develop your financial literacy skills, he added.

Disparities in financial education

There’s also a large disparity between those who received any sort of financial education and those who did not. In 2023, the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College graded each state’s financial literacy curriculums. Those that received an A required students to take a financial education course to graduate, while those that received an F had no financial education requirements or offerings.

Here’s how each state was graded for the class of 2023:

With students across the country starting out on an uneven playing field, many enter the college or workforce without having a sound understanding of how to manage their money or newly acquired student loan debts.

Focusing on the wrong concepts

And even if you do receive financial education, it might not be as helpful as it seems. Elle Martinez, a personal finance podcaster, blogger and author of Jumpstart Your Marriage and Your Money, noted that most financial advice revolves around increasing your credit score. But she thinks people may misunderstand this three-digit number. 

“The credit score measures how well you manage debt. It’s not an accurate measure of your financial picture,” Martinez said. I couldn’t agree more. I recently wrote about my own struggle paying off over $26,000 in debt. I thought I was financially literate because I had a high credit score, but when I found myself battling thousands of dollars in credit card debt, I knew something was wrong.

While your credit score is important -- without a higher score you can be locked out of getting a loan, credit card or mortgage -- Martinez encourages you to focus more on improving your overall financial health by budgeting, paying your bills on time and reducing your debt. As a result of doing these things, your credit score will likely increase.

Trusting money advice on social media

How does Gen Z get their money advice? TikTok. Popular trends on social media, from loud budgeting to soft savings, can help you prioritize your money goals and set better boundaries and transparency around financial goals.

Jordan Gilberti, senior lead planner for Facet, is a big fan of loud budgeting. “Instead of coming up with excuses to miss a gathering with coworkers or friends, you can be open and honest about your budgeting constraints,” said Gilberti.

But he warns that you can’t trust all of the financial advice you see on social media. “As a certified financial planner, I’m concerned about how easy it is to get bad [financial] advice from social media,” he added. Always speak to a trusted professional to make sure any new money trend makes sense for your specific financial situation.

How I sharpened my money skills

In the beginning, I focused on learning more about these basic financial concepts that make up financial literacy:

  • Budgeting
  • Saving money
  • Debt management
  • Investing
  • Safeguarding my money

Understanding these five essential financial topics helped me better manage my money on a day-to-day basis and make better-informed decisions about my future.

But where you should start depends on how you prefer to consume information. Liersch recommends dividing your pursuit into two broad categories: general financial literacy information and advanced topics. General information includes topics such as budgetingpaying off debt and building an emergency fund

More advanced topics, such as retirement planning, require advice from an expert with personal knowledge of your specific situation. You can begin your search for assistance with your Human Resources department. Your benefits may include financial planning assistance associated with your retirement plan manager. Organizations such as the CFP Board also provide a directory of certified financial planners you can search based on your location and their areas of expertise.

When focusing on improving your general financial literacy skills, be sure to vet resources to ensure they offer reliable advice that will help -- and not hurt -- your financial development.

“Financial literacy equips you with the tools to chart your course, avoid treacherous waters and reach your financial goals with confidence,” Seymour added. “Whether it’s that dream vacation, a comfortable retirement or starting your own business, financial literacy is the map that gets you there.”

Here are four ways you can get started:

1. Visit your local library

The library is a wonderful -- and often overlooked -- resource. In addition to physical books, most libraries offer audiobooks, as well as free workshops on money topics. 

Libraries are a great starting point because you can browse a large selection of authors without spending valuable cash you could use to accomplish your financial goals. As Martinez pointed out, librarians vet resources based on technical expertise, academic credentials and motivational quality. “I appreciate the care that goes into deciding what makes it onto the bookshelf,” she added.

Pro Tip

Use the library to find experts knowledgeable in the general areas of financial literacy where you need the most help. Once you find a relatable author, find out if they host a podcast or have other resources that can help you learn more.

2. Explore free online resources

The internet is a great place to find free financial education. However, you should critically evaluate the reputation and quality of information provided by any source you find online. Free information can be helpful, but view it as general education that may not apply to your specific situation.

Some options to consider include: 

  • Podcasts: Financial experts produce podcasts on a wide range of topics, from improving your credit score to complex investing concepts. Financial podcasts allow you to listen to long-form discussions about financial topics at your convenience. I like hosts who can mix seasoned financial advice with humor, such as Joe Saul-Sehy of Stacking Benjamins or the team from BiggerPockets Money podcast.
  • Workshops: Taking in an in-person lecture or presentation is another great way to improve your financial knowhow. Often, free workshops cover basic concepts and allow you to interact with the speaker in real-time. If you find the speaker to be reputable and easy to understand, you can search to see if they offer any other resources, such as a book or podcast.
  • Webinars: Webinars are virtual workshops you can watch live or, if they offer a recording, at your convenience. Some cost money, but there are plenty available free of charge. Some presenters interact with participants, usually through a chat feature. This can allow you to ask questions and receive immediate feedback during a live session.
  • Social media: Many financial experts, banks and investment firms offer general financial advice on their social media accounts. Following these accounts is a great way to sprinkle your timelines with helpful money tips and information that may inspire you to further explore concepts that catch your attention. Financial content creators to check out include Haley Sacks (@mrsdowjones), Soledad Fernandez (@wealthparatodos) and Bola Sokunbi (@Clevergirlfinance). 
  • Budgeting apps: Budgeting apps offer helpful features that can eliminate the monotony of creating and sticking to a monthly budget. Using apps like Rocket Money or PocketGuard, you can monitor your spending, track your goals and set financial priorities, all from the palm of your hand. 

3. Check with your local bank or credit union

Some banks and credit unions offer their customers financial literacy resources. Alliant Credit Union, for example, has several videos on its website covering topics such as establishing financial goals and saving for your children’s college education. You can also sign up for one-hour webinars on a variety of financial literacy topics they host, free of charge.

Banks and credit unions are also starting to build financial tools into their mobile apps, which can help you develop better money management skills. Wells Fargo, for instance, offers LifeSync®, an app that’s free to all customers.

Pro Tip

The FDIC also offers a free education program called “Money Smart” to help you boost your financial literacy.

4. Contact a financial advisor

If you prefer to talk with a financial professional, your current financial institution is a great place to begin. Your bank may have a wealth management department that provides access to financial advisors or financial coaches who can go through your budget or review your credit report and provide tips on how you can improve areas of your financial life.

Nonprofit organizations, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, can also connect you with a member organization that provides free or low-cost one-on-one financial counseling.

Improving your financial literacy can have a big payoff

Improving your financial literacy requires a commitment to ongoing learning, adapting to changes in the financial marketplace and comparing your progress to your goals. But the time and effort will be worth it.

I don’t regret any time spent learning more about the basic concepts of budgeting, credit management, or investing. I’m better equipped to make sound financial decisions or determine which experts I should consult when facing new problems or questions.

“By investing in your financial knowledge, you’re investing in a brighter, more secure and fulfilling future for yourself and your loved ones,” Seymour said. “So, set sail on the journey of financial literacy today and discover the freedom and possibilities that await.”

Toni Husbands is a staff writer with CNET Money who enjoys exploring topics that promote financial wellness. She began writing about personal finance to document her experience paying off $107,000 of debt, which is detailed in her book, The Great Debt Dump. Previously, she contributed as a freelance writer for websites, including, Centsai and Wisebread. She was also a regular contributor to Business AM TV, and her work has been featured on Yahoo News. Being a part-time real estate investor and amateur gardener also brings her joy.
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