Calculating and understanding your net worth is one of the easiest ways to find out if you are "on track" with achieving financial success. It's essentially a scorecard that gives you a glimpse of your current financial picture. Unfortunately, figuring out your net worth can be a little bit daunting when you're first starting out as a mental health professional.
The reality is that early in your career, your net worth will be almost embarrassingly low. If you had to take out student loans to pay your way through undergrad and graduate school and eventually to earn a professional degree . . . you most likely have a negative net worth.
While obviously a negative net worth sounds, well, negative (see what I did there?), practicing good financial habits can push it toward the positive end of the spectrum in a relatively short period of time.
So what is net worth and how do you calculate it?
According to the traditional definition, your net worth is the total of all of your assets minus your liabilities. That seems simple enough, but the vast majority of people that I've encountered in writing about personal finance have a tough time actually identifying what is truly an asset and what is a liability!
First, let's start with the definition of both terms and some real-world examples of each one:
Assets are items that have tangible value like your 401K, cash, any stocks you own, and a home.
Liabilities are items that you owe money toward or that cost you money such as car loans, student loans, credit card debt, and a mortgage.
To figure out your net worth, you'll just need to use the simple equation of Assets – Liabilities = Net Worth.
Here's the reason that understanding your net worth is so important
The fact of the matter is that most people I speak to don't actually keep track of their finances nearly as well as they should. It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of trying to make money and pay the bills, but as it goes with most things, it's much more effective to develop a long-term strategy for your finances rather than focus on what is happening in the moment.
Periodically checking in on your net worth (I'd suggest at least once a month) makes it much easier to see any progress that you are making as you start to implement healthy saving and investing goals throughout your career.
It also makes things ridiculously simple in terms of just understanding if you are financially on the right track or not. If your net worth is going up, you're essentially doing the "right" things with your money and just need to optimize for faster growth if possible. If your net worth is moving down consistently, you'll need to reevaluate your financial habits altogether.
Common misconceptions about assets and liabilities
While the definitions I previously outlined for assets and liabilities seem fairly simple, certain objects that many of us use on a daily basis can be slightly confusing when it comes to the actual net worth calculation.
For example, cars are generally a source of confusion. When you take out a loan to purchase a car, the loan amount is considered a liability. The car itself is considered an asset because it has value and you can sell it. The amount that actually is applied to your net worth is the difference between how much the car is actually worth and how much you still owe toward the car loan.
Here is a simple example using a new car:
Let's say you finance a new car for $30,000. Cars generally depreciate anywhere from 10%–20% the moment you drive them off the lot, but for simple numbers we will use 10%. So that means that the day you purchase the car, you will owe $30,000 to the loan servicer, but the car is now worth only $27,000 (10% less than the purchase price).
To find how the car applies to your net worth, you would subtract the asset ($27,000) from the liability ($30,000) and find that you owe $3,000 more on the car than you could reasonably sell it for!
That $3,000 liability would go as a negative toward your net worth.
Here is another simple example using a home:
If you purchased a $100,000 home a few years ago and still owe $70,000 toward the mortgage, that property would in theory be a $30,000 asset because you could (depending on your local real estate market) sell the home for $100,000. So in other words, the equity that you have in your home is generally counted as an asset to your net worth, unless there is a severe drop in real estate prices in your area.
How can you increase your net worth over time?
The easiest ways to increase your net worth are to take control of any debt you may have by paying it down, or focusing on saving and investing money as your career progresses. The idea boiled down to its most simple form is that you want more money coming in than going out in the form of spending or borrowing.
Like anything else, you need to start early and develop the habit of looking at your net worth regularly. Too many people are either embarrassed or overwhelmed by the numbers instead of looking at them objectively and using the information to take action.
The sooner you start to aggressively seek a higher net worth, the faster you can check your biggest financial goals off of the list.
-- Bobby Hoyt is a former high school teacher who paid off $40,000 of student loan debt in a year and a half. He now runs the personal finance site MillennialMoneyMan.com full-time, and has been seen on CNBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Reuters, Marketwatch, and many other major publications.