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The 17 biggest money lessons of 2017 to end up richer and wiser — and ready for 2018
As 2017 turns into 2018, here are the most important financial and career lessons of the last year to take with you into a smarter, richer, happier, better future. winyuu and Khongtham/Shutterstock

As the sun sets on 2017, it’s time to look back at a year when the stock market — and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — roared, Donald Trump spent his first year as president, the United States tax code got its biggest overhaul since the 1980s, powerful men in politics and across global industries faced professional consequences for sexual assault or harassment accusations, and millennials were chastised for eating avocado toast.

More quietly, internet freedom took a hit, with a loosening of net neutrality rules, and consumer rights were eroded as watchdog agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, took a deregulatory turn. Finally, while many low-income workers saw (or will soon see) a rising minimum wage, income inequality has shown few signs of abating.

Still, the year gave us more than doom and gloom, and even some of the hard knocks — like a widespread credit bureau data breach that exposed our private information — hopefully has left us a bit tougher and wiser about how to protect ourselves in the future. Here’s a look back at all the biggest lessons we learned, good or bad, and how the insights around our finances, careers and more in 2017 might help us get ahead in 2018.

1. When the stock market reaches new highs, you’ll want to check your parachute

The market continued its surge in 2017, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average approaching 25,000 by late December — up nearly 25% for the year. While Trump says the market rose because of him, aside from the short-lived election bump and a more recent surge in anticipation of corporate tax cuts as part of the tax reform bill, “the markets have done no more than reward U.S. stocks for riding the coattails of global growth,” Foreign Affairs reported.

All this market froth makes bears jittery about the next drop. To protect yourself from whatever 2018 brings, check your asset allocations and make sure you are on track to reach your investment goals. If time is passing and you’re getting worried about your retirement fund, a good rule of thumb is to have no more than 80% of your assets in stocks, to mitigate a painful surprise. And always keep a little emergency cash set aside, just in case.

2. For now, cryptocurrency is more of a lotto ticket than an “investment”

A form of cryptocurrency, bitcoin was invented in 2009 and is based on a distributed ledger technology called the blockchain. In 2017 alone, bitcoin’s value rose from less than $1,000 per coin to nearly $20,000 – before plunging back below $14,000 as of Dec. 22.

While skeptics and fans alike admit the digital currency appears to be too volatile right now to be a reliable store of value, enthusiasm for bitcoin — which can be used to buy everything from beer to real estate — has steadily risen, fueled most recently by stock exchange trading of bitcoin futures. Yet huge roadblocks remain if bitcoin is to remain king, including overcoming the unsustainable energy consumption levels required to mine bitcoin, the fact that buying and selling it comes with slow transaction speeds and high costs, and the growing field of competitor cryptocurrencies.

While you may be experiencing FOMO if you don’t own any bitcoin, ether tokens, bitcoin cash, Ripple or other cryptos, you should “invest” only as much money into cryptocurrency as you’d be willing to lose completely. And before you do, make sure you’ve first fully funded your emergency fund, 401(k) or IRA and any other long-term savings goals. Finally, potential buyers should beware of cryptocurrency scams.

3. You’ll have to fight to get paid what you deserve

As the power of unions and workers declines, bosses are getting more. CEOs made 271 times more than the average employee in the U.S. in 2016, up 37% since 2010, according to a 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute.

The big winners? Thomas Rutledge of Charter Communications was the highest paid, earning $98 million in total 2016 compensation some $82 million more than he made in 2015, the New York Times reported. And Uber is reportedly paying its new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi around $200 million this year. Meanwhile the average worker bee makes about $47,000 a year, with real hourly earnings up just 0.2% in the 12 months ending November 2017.

What can you do to fight this tide in your own life — and make more? Always negotiate your pay before accepting a new job. After you land it, use smart strategies to work toward a raise or promotion. If you feel stuck, look for a higher-paying job in your current field or in one with better financial prospects.

4. It’s probably not avocado toast keeping you from getting rich

Australian multimillionaire Tim Gurner caught flack when he implied that millennials can’t afford to buy homes because they are blowing their cash on avocado toast: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 ($15) and four coffees at $4 each,” the construction tycoon told 60 Minutes Australia in May.

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The internet roared back and pointed out that the problem isn’t millennials’ breakfast choices, but soaring home prices. The median home value is around $203,400, up 6.5% in just the last year. To hit the typical 20% down payment (which works out to about $40,000), you’d have to give up more than 5,000 servings of avocado toast. What’s more, despite steep home prices, millennials make up 42% of all new home buyers, more than any other age group, according to Zillow Group’s 2017 Consumer Housing Trends report.

If you’re in the market for a home, look into a lower-cost mortgage like via FHA, VA or USDA. To save for the down payment, consider creating a separate account for that goal and bank extra money from a raise, consider getting a side gig and start squirreling money away using apps like Acorns or Digit.

And check out more myths about why you’re broke — so you can stop feeling guilty and start racking up more savings.

5. It pays to stay educated about education and student loan rights — and scams

Another move by the Trump administration: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is eroding the Obama borrower defense rule that protected students against misleading practices by for-profit educational institutions.

The rule was designed to prevent students who attended for-profit schools from being financially misled or cheated, like being made false promises about career potential.

If you attended a for-profit school and feel you’ve been the victim of misleading practices, you need to apply to have your student loans forgiven: It’s not automatic. If you’ve simply fallen behind on your payments, you’ve got options, too, such as asking for a deferment, forbearance or consolidating your loans. Just beware of scammers offering quick debt forgiveness.

6. Workplace discrimination is alive and well

Despite recent strides, the LGBTQ community faces a number of financial hurdles, ranging from a lack of workplace protections to a notable wage gap between gay and straight men and women. In addition to arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation, the Trump administration has attempted to erode transgender rights in particular: In July the President tweeted that transgender people would be barred from the military, on the grounds that the government cannot afford the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” involved.

Two federal judges have already blocked the proposed ban on the grounds that it violates the Constitution, but the Justice Department says it is “evaluating next steps” — meaning the battle may not be over. While most states offer no legal protection for workers who are fired for their sexual orientation or for being transgender, If you are the victim of workplace discrimination, you can fight back: Consult a lawyer about your options and consider filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

7. It’s more important than ever to be vigilant in protecting your financial data

Personal information for 140-plus million consumers in the U.S. was leaked in a breach between May and July, including Social Security numbers, birthdays and addresses. While data breaches are becoming increasingly common, including subscriber data for 14 million Verizon accounts and the account information for 57 million Uber drivers and riders, the Equifax breach is particularly troubling both for its scale and the sensitive information stolen.

What’s more, Equifax is one of three agencies charged with monitoring and retaining loan and credit card payment activity in order to determine the credit scores that determine credit worthiness and the interest rates you pay.

The breach serves as a reminder that there is no time like the present to protect yourself. First, change all your passwords annually. Next, get a copy of your credit report. If you see an account you didn’t open or a suspiciously high balance, contact the card company immediately. Dispute fraudulent charges. And if you’re the victim of identity theft, consider a credit freeze and follow these steps from the Federal Trade Commission to start your recovery plan.

8. Your 2018 taxes could look very different

The Republican tax reform bill that passed on Dec. 19 slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% while raising the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples (up from $6,350 and $12,700, respectively). The bill will take effect in 2018, leading the president to claim that Americans will see fatter paychecks by February as a result of lower withholdings, but some Americans will still see their tax bill increase, including homeowners in high tax states like California and New York, who won’t be able to deduct more than $10,000 combined in state, local and property taxes.

While the implications of the new tax code are still being examined, you can check out our Payoff guide to how you might be affected.

9. You should be ready for higher interest rates

The Federal Reserve increased interest rates three times in 2017 — now to a range of 1.25% to 1.5% for the benchmark lending rate — as the U.S.’s annual GDP growth rate chugged along at just over 3%. It’s a positive sign for the economy that reflects low unemployment of about 4%, increased consumer spending and more business investments. Raising rates also helps to keep inflation in check by encouraging saving and dampening spending.

If you’ve got money in the bank, the higher interest rates will increase your annual returns on a savings account. But if you owe money on a credit card, you’re probably already paying more in interest as the average interest rate on credit cards increased nearly 1% over the past year. Rates on new mortgages and other loans will also increase. The best way to take advantage of the higher rates is to put more of your savings in high-interest accounts and pay down credit card debt.

10. Data analysis, coding and engineering jobs are hotter than ever

With technology and other changes expected to make as many as five million jobs disappear by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum, it’s important to find a career in a field that will still be around a decade from now. Consider the fields of computer, math, architecture and engineering, where two million new jobs are expected to be created. Specific emerging fields to look into include data science, machine learning and big data.

To position yourself to move into some of these hot fields, consider getting a degree in math, engineering or computer science. If you can’t afford to quit your job and go back to school full-time, you can take online courses to beef up your skills — and your paycheck.

11. You might not want to count on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Established in the wake of the financial crisis to protect people from abuses by banks, debt collectors, payday lenders and other financial firms, the CFPB has returned $12 billion to consumers since 2011. Notably, it fined Wells Fargo $100 million for opening phony consumer accounts and has fined 14 lenders, including Citibank, for shady student loan practices.

But Trump’s appointment of budget director Mick Mulvaney as the agency’s new director could significantly alter the CFPB’s mission, as Mulvaney has previously called the agency the “very worst kind of government entity,” in part because there is no congressional oversight. If the CFPB’s autonomy gets rolled back, as expected, you could be on your own when it comes to dealing with certain consumer abuses by banks or financial companies. That means you need to be even more vigilant when it comes to spotting and fighting back against bogus charges and avoiding taking on loans you can’t afford.

12. The 2018 issue not to sleep on? Net neutrality.

Net neutrality laws enacted in 2015 required internet service providers to give the same service to everyone at the same price, much like other utility companies such as gas, water or phone service. On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, rolled back those laws.

What’s the big deal? With big providers like Verizon or Charter now essentially unregulated, the big fear is that they will create fast and slow lanes with preferential pricing schemes that will raise costs for consumers — especially those in rural areas with little or no choice of ISPs.

While the ruling will likely be contested, your best bet for voicing concern is to comment on the FCC site or contact your state representative.

13. There’s no place for harassment in the workplace

No longer dismissed out of hand or kept hush-hush, sexual harassment allegations took center stage in 2017, forcing dozens of accused perpetrators — including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and John Conyers — to leave their jobs. While much of the focus has been on powerful men in high-status industries, the problem appears to be widespread in blue-collar jobs like unionized auto workers and hotel housekeepers, too.

Employees who are being harassed should document the abuses, consult a lawyer and carefully weigh their options. While you can also contact human resources, they have been known to side with alleged abusers in some cases, so it is also wise to seek outside legal counsel. In some cases, simply getting a new seat assignment can halt the problem, but unless you can prove the allegations and are willing to endure any negative fallout (and legal costs), you may have to look for a new job to put an end to the misconduct.

14. You should be paid fairly for overtime

Some 4.2 million managers and administrative workers were on the verge of getting paid overtime as a result of Obama’s “Final Rule,” which would have made certain white-collar workers who earn up to $47,476 a year eligible to receive overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week (up from the current $23,660 salary cap for overtime eligibility).

But the Obama rule stalled when a federal judge issued an injunction blocking it just days before it was set to take effect on Dec. 1, 2016, and it hit the skids altogether in August 2017 when a district court judge struck it down on the grounds that the new salary cap for automatic overtime pay was too high.

Federal rules set the minimum requirements for who should be paid overtime and when, but many states have stronger protections in place. For example, in California, some workers earn double time after just eight hours of work in a day, even if they clock less than 40 hours of work per week. So check your state laws to make sure you are being paid fairly.

15. The health insurance landscape is about to shift

Republicans couldn’t muster enough votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act outright, but tax reform dealt the ACA a serious blow by eliminating the individual mandate. That will make the exchanges more expensive since fewer healthy people are expected to enroll in them and insurers would be forced to raise premiums to cover the cost of care for of the sicker people who choose them. As many as 13 million additional people are expected to opt out of health insurance by 2027 and monthly premiums will increase by 10% each year, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to reduce health expenses despite rising costs.

Millions more people will opt out of health insurance as a result of the repeal of the individual mandate.
Millions more people will opt out of health insurance as a result of the repeal of the individual mandate. Kaiser Family Foundation/https://www.kff.org

For one, always use a doctor in-network and avoid upcharges for extras, like fancy frames for eyeglasses that cost more than your vision plan allows. When it comes to prescription drugs, request lower-cost generic medication, whenever possible, and choose less expensive retailers like Costco and Sam’s Club instead of CVS or RiteAid. If you do get a surprise bill in the mail, go over it with a fine-toothed comb to ensure you actually received the services billed, then politely dispute any charges that aren’t warranted.

16. Racial and gender wage gaps have not closed

Equal Pay Day, which marks the date when women’s wages finally catch up to what men made the previous calendar year, fell on April 4 in 2017. Since women make 80 cents to every dollar a man pulls in, they have to work a full 15 months to make what a man earns in just 12 months. Throughout their career, women lose about $400,000 because of the wage gap, according to non-profit organization, Equal Pay Today.

Black women have to work even more to catch up, with their Equal Pay Day falling on June 5, while Latinas’ falls on July 25.

Although you may feel defeated reading these numbers, there are ways to earn more money like applying for higher paying jobs, working in industries where the wage gap is lower, and reporting any wage discrimination violations.

17. A living wage is still the Holy Grail

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, but the cost of living keeps rising: A worker earning $14,500 annually in 2009 would have to earn more than $16,500 in 2017 to come out even, according to the American Institute for Economic Research. What’s more, a single parent of two children earning the federal minimum would currently have to work 143 hours a week — the equivalent of 24 hours a day, six days a week — to earn a living wage.

To help make ends meet for low-paid, hourly workers, cities and counties across the county are raising the minimum wage, with workers in 20 states greeting the New Year with higher pay, of as much as $11.75 for most fast food workers in New York state and $12 an hour in Portland, Oregon.

If you are struggling to make ends meet, start by creating a budget to see where your money goes. Then look to save money by getting a roommate, skipping takeout or restaurant meals and getting a cash back credit card for an additional discount on everything you buy. If student loans are busting your budget, look into consolidating them or getting a deferment. You can also get them forgiven if paperwork is missing or if you work in public service for ten years. And anyone can benefit by checking out our guides to saving money fast and mindlessly.

Finally, if you’re lucky enjoy to be paid a living wage already? Pay it forward this holiday season — by tipping the hardworking service people in your life.

Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life.