We polled local experts for tips on how to better manage your salary, no matter what your income level.

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Is your paycheck spent before it hits your checking account? Wondering how to make better spending choices? We polled local experts for tips on how to better manage your salary, no matter what your income level.

Fund your 401(k)
If your employer offers a 401(k) program, take advantage of it, says Robin Tan, a certified financial planner with Kirkland-based KMS Financial Services. Max it out, if you can. If you can’t, contribute at least to the level your employer matches. Not all companies offer 401(k) matching; if yours does, it’s free money.

Maintain an emergency fund
Retirement saving should come first, but a close second is an emergency fund, says Tan. Ideally, you should sock away 10 percent of each paycheck. If you can’t do that, come up with a percentage that works for you, and save it.

Financial Planning Day

Free advice: Meet one-on-one with dozens of professional financial planners to discuss your personal-finance questions at this annual event from the city of Seattle and the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound. Oct. 12, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Garfield Community Center, 2323 E. Cherry St., Seattle

The amount ultimately does matter — experts suggest having at least six months of living expenses set aside — but what’s more important is the habit of saving, says Stacy Ployhar, principal of Seattle-based 2020 Financial Planning. “If [your money] is just sitting in a checking account, it’ll get spent.”

Automate your savings
Once you’ve decided on an amount to save each month, set it up so that the amount gets taken out of your paycheck automatically and goes into a designated savings account. “Try to put the money into a bank account you don’t really see,” says Tan, who advises clients to check out online savings accounts, which often have a higher yield than those at brick-and-mortar banks.

Save for retirement before saving for college
We’ve all heard about the heavy loan burdens facing new grads. Still, retirement should be your priority. Your kids can work as well as take out a loan, says Ployhar, who adds: “There’s no loan available for retirement.”

If new parents are already contributing at least 10 percent to their retirement accounts, she counsels them to enroll in and start funding a Guaranteed Education Fund (GET) or 529 plan when the kids are young.

Ask for discounts
Don’t haggle over vegetable prices at Fred Meyer, but do ask for a discount when you book a hotel or renew your auto insurance, says Tan. If you don’t have health insurance, ask for a discount from your doctor. “Watch what you’re spending on, and make sure you’re getting value,” he says.
Shop in the morning
Don’t buy a car or go to the supermarket at the end of the day if you can avoid it, says Ployhar. Spend your money earlier in the day, when you have the mental resources. “At the end of the day, we’re tired, we’ve been making decisions all day, we want to reward ourselves, and we don’t have the same willpower,” she says.

Identify wasteful spending
Tan recommends scrutinizing your expenses every six months. Are you shelling out for magazine subscriptions that you don’t read, or a gym membership that you never use? He also suggests combing through your credit-card statements every month to look for mistakes.

Quarantine estimated taxes
If you are an independent contractor and don’t earn regular wages or a salary from an employer, you need to estimate the amount you’ll make in a given year, divide that by four and pay the IRS every quarter. Be conservative in your estimates, and put the money in its own savings account so you’re not tempted to spend it, Ployhar recommends.

Live below your means
If you live within your means, that means there’s nothing left over to save, says Ployhar. And that can feel like a bummer, especially when you want to spend rather than save.
“We want to do fun stuff, and sometimes we can’t see the abstract goals like saving for retirement. We can’t touch them,” says Ployhar. “But they are massively empowering, provide peace of mind and set us up for our future.”