Sometimes, it’s the little things that count. Let’s get it straight, these tips won’t make you rich overnight, but, if implemented right, they can become healthy financial habits and help you build a strong financial future.
Most people handle their finances passively. You get paid, money gets used for rent, food and other essentials, and at the end of the month, little is left. In fact, a CareerBuilder survey reports that 78% of U.S. workers are living paycheck to paycheck. And the Federal Reserve says 40% of American households could not cover a $400 emergency without borrowing money or selling possessions.
Time to change that and find room in your budget, whatever you make, to protect yourself against life’s unexpected curve balls, save and invest for your future.
Start with a budget
Do you know where your money goes each month? How much is left at the end, or should be left in order to make your life goals a reality?
A budget can be as detailed or as flexible as you want it. You should start by getting a few months worth of bank statements, and tally that up to define:
- Your fixed expenses: These are expenses you have every month, such as your rent or mortgage, HOA fees, broadband and phone bills, etc… but also periodic expenses like annual home insurance premium, professional license, quarterly transit pass, vet bills for your pets, car insurance and so on.
- Your variable expenses: They also are recurring expenses, but with a variable amount every month. Things like groceries, gas, electric bill, date night … by averaging them over a few months, you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect for the months to come.
- One off expenses: These are things you didn’t plan for, or that are exceptional in your budget. It could be a car repair bill, the cost of attending a wedding, a root canal,…
While it is hard to plan for many of these expenses, they do happen. So again, averaging their impact on your budget over the last year can be a good exercise to save ahead instead of charging your credit card when they do.
Now that you know what you spend every month, deduct that from what you make, and see how much is left. If you are in the black, excellent! Time to start funneling some of that money into savings accounts. If you are spending more than you earn, debt is accruing and you need to go again through these expenses and see where you can reduce your spending.
Analyze your budget
Is your money going where it really counts? If you are living paycheck to paycheck, every dollar needs to be put to the best use possible in order to get ahead.
When you look at these old bank statements, is anything catching your eyes? It could be a magazine subscription you forgot about and never read anymore, a membership to the gym or a local place you seldom frequent, or the $30 dinner you order every Thursday because you get off work late and always forget to cook an extra portion the day before.
Try to be mindful of your spending for a week or two. Write down expenses if you have to, or just ask yourself
- Do I really need to spend money on that?
- Can I avoid that expense the next time around?
- Am I getting the best deal for my hard earned money?
Build money saving habits
Now that you know the weaknesses in your budget, tackle them one by one. It takes a few weeks to build a habit, such as making coffee at home instead of grabbing a latte on the go ($5 a day, $100+ a month in your bank account), brown bagging your lunch ($10 a day, $200+ a month), cycling to work (tons of gas and car maintenance saved), planning your meals (an easy $50-100 saved in food waste and take-out),… but if one little habit saves you $50 per month, at the end of the year you will have a $600 emergency fund built up!
Implement one habit at a time, and once you have mastered it, move on to the next one.
A lot of money is spent for lack of preparedness. We pay for convenience when we did not plan ahead. If you’re going on a run or a hike, bring a bottle of water with you instead of buying one at a convenience store. Freeze leftovers for a night you don’t want to cook.
Know where the free parking spaces are when you go somewhere. Have your student ID if you go out somewhere that offers a discount.
Download cashback apps and look for coupons for paid entertainment.
Have only $20 cash in your pocket when you go out for drinks.
Christmas comes around every year. Book your tickets in advance if you are visiting your family, and buy presents throughout the year if you see the perfect gift going on sale. Save a twelfth of your Christmas budget every month so you can pay for everything upfront.
The same goes for every big recurring expense. If you can’t save for your property tax or car insurance premium ahead of time, ask for a monthly payment plan so it doesn’t get you by surprise.
Challenge your monthly bills
How long have you been with your utility provider? Your cell phone carrier or internet service provider? If the answer is over a year, chances are you are paying too much.
There are plenty of comparison websites to allow you to check in just a few clicks if there is a better offer out there. The same goes for car insurance, healthcare, and many monthly services.
Companies attract customers with a juicy discount that lapses after 12 months.
Now you have the option to switch, or simply call your current provider if you are happy with their services, and ask to talk to retentions. It is much more expensive for a company to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one, and the competition is fierce out there. More often than not, they have margin for negotiation and will offer you a better deal.
One phone call to reduce your internet bill by $10 will save you $120 a year. That’s a solid use of 15 minutes of your time.
Reduce your debt interest
Everything is negotiable, and so is debt. If you have high interest consumer debt, your first step is to see if you can transfer that to a 0% balance credit card. The internet is your friend, and you should get an answer quickly.
Transferring $1,000 of debt from a 20% APR card to a 0% card will save you $200 a year. Don’t forget to put a reminder in your agenda a few weeks before the deal expires, to either pay the card in full or transfer to another 0% deal.
If your credit score is too low to get a 0% balance transfer credit card, you can always call your credit card company and let them know you are having a hard time making payments. Ask if there is any chance they could reduce the interest on the card. Once again, it is cheaper for the company to agree to such a proposition, than to risk default on the debt.
Refinance your secured loans
Refinancing your mortgage and your student loans is much easier than it seems. A quick online comparison will let you know what offers are out there, but there are often fees involved. So for an apples to apples comparison, find a mortgage refinance calculator.
It will take into consideration the fees attached to the refinance, let you know how much money you would save over the life of the loan, and how many months it would take to recoup the costs of the refinance.
Even half a point in mortgage or student loans rates can add up to thousands of dollars in savings over 15+ years. As for today, it should result in a few more dollars in your bank account every month.
Kill your debt
While low interest debt is generally fine to carry, and will help you get an education or move up the property ladder, high interest debt can cripple you for years and prevent you from achieving your financial goals.
If you are carrying high interest debt from credit cards, a car loan, a personal loan etc.. start throwing your newly found monthly savings at your principle. The debt avalanche method suggests you start with the debt that carries the highest rate of interest in order to have the biggest impact possible.
Make the biggest payments you can without threatening your bottom line. Even paying off $50 on your card and later that week putting back $50 for groceries will give you a month or so interest-free to pay off the groceries.
Little amounts do add up, so if you didn’t go out tonight, put $20 towards your credit card debt. If you found $5, send that over. Birthday money? How about 20% of it to make you debt free?
Debt should be a priority, before investing, because if you are paying double digit interest to borrow money, paying debt off is like getting an instant return on your investment. Making that much in savings is basically impossible.
Have a savings challenge
Who said money had to be boring? Ok, it may not be super fun, but the freedom and options you can buy with money sure are.
So while you are doing great so far if you have implemented all these tips, how about pushing yourself a little harder for a few weeks?
You are free to define the terms of your savings challenge. Some people like to save $1 the first week, $2 the second week, and so on for a year…adding up to $1,378 on week 52. Cancun Spring Break anyone?
You could save 1% of your income, and increase to 2%, 3%… with each paycheck. Save all the spare change in your pocket at the end of the day, save all $5 bills. Whatever it is, try to stay the course for 30 days, and see if you can extend. Put the money towards your debt payments or other financial goal.
Have a no spend day
When there is no money to spend, no money is spent. That can also lead to a lot of fun alternatives and creativity.
A potluck with friends in the park instead of an expensive outing. A date night at the free art gallery, or whatever is on your town’s cultural calendar.
There are tons of free things to do everywhere. Run, hike, swim, bike, organize a game night, explore your local museums on free days… and build priceless memories.
Live like Grandma… (ok, with a laptop)
Most households a couple of generations ago lived on one income and raised way more kids than we do today.
Sure, you need a laptop and a smartphone to navigate life, but how about looking back at how Grandma raised the whole family on a tight budget and adopting a few of her thrifty habits?
Learn how to make meat go further in a meal by throwing it in a bean stew, how to mend your clothes, clean with baking soda and vinegar, shop the garage sales, and simply how to be content with what you have, which is a lot.
Grandma didn’t need to get a whole new wardrobe every season. There is no rule that suggests you do. Take good care of your possessions and they will last for a long time.
Everything has a cost. The second bedroom that sits empty 50 weeks per year is costing you a few hundred dollars a month.
The storage unit for the extra stuff you never use, another hundred.
Parking space, insurance and maintenance for a second car, yet another couple hundreds.
Look for surplus in your life and downsize to a level where you are still comfortable. Maybe instead of a two bedroom in the suburbs you can now afford a one bedroom closer to work and in a walkable area.
Aside from items of sentimental value that you can take back home, the rest of your storage unit can be sold and re-bought second hand on Craigslist should you ever need something again.
Pay for quality
That is the whole difference between being frugal and being cheap. Frugal people will spend extra money to buy things that last a lifetime. A cast iron pan, power tools, classic items of clothing… over the long term, buying quality items will save you money.
There is also a nice feeling of enjoyment when you get to work with great tools or wear that perfect little black dress over and over again.
Some brands are so proud of the products they offer, they back them up with a lifetime warranty. So even if you are just starting to equip your first home, you can find many of these brands second hand, or wait until you have the extra money to spend on sturdy things.
Take a pan for example. You can get one for under $10 that will break within a year. A nice cast iron pan, or stainless steel will set you back $25-30 and last forever. Be smart with your spending.
Have a plan
Failing to plan is planning to fail as wise Ben Franklin said. Why do you want money? It can be for debt repayment, planning for a holiday, a wedding, buying a house…
The bottom line is, money buys options. Even if you don’t have your life figured out 30 years ahead, money will always come handy. Maybe you won’t like your new boss and your savings will allow you to get a lower paying job instead of staying in a toxic environment. Maybe you will fall in love and money will let you relocate to the other side of the country, or work part time when your first child is born.
In the meanwhile, you should have short term plans for your money. Saving for a car replacement, that summer road trip, birthday gifts for your mom’s 60th, …
Then define your mid-term goals and see how much money is required to go back to college or move to a better neighborhood. $10,000? $50,000? Break that goal into smaller, manageable monthly amount, and keep your eyes on the prize when you are tempted to overspend.
Automate your finances
Nothing is more boring than looking at a budget spreadsheet all day long, unless you are a money nerd.
The good news is, there are tons of solutions that do not require a spreadsheet. Why worry about how much will be left at the end of the month to save and invest if your retirement and savings contributions have been taken automatically away from your checking account on payday?
Set up autopay, get all your bills taken care of, and never pay a late fee again.
Install saving apps that automatically round up your purchases and transfer the difference to savings or student loans. Effortless, yet efficient.
The less you leave up to your willpower, the stronger your financial plan.
Optimize your finances
You have come that far, congratulations! Now that you have more breathing room in your budget, it is time to optimize your finances.
As we saw previously, the first step was to get out of high interest debt, but now what? Should you pay your mortgage off? Invest? Save for retirement?
How about taxes? Can you legally reduce your tax burden? One big way to do so is by maxing out your 401k, Roth IRA and other tax advantaged accounts. Then a quick consult with a tax professional every year to talk about your goals and strategy might prove to be well worth the cost.
Optimizing your finances is a pretty personal matter. Some people are debt averse and would rather pay off a 3% mortgage than be indebted. Other would opt to invest in the stock market for higher returns. Some still will see the higher mortgage payments as forced savings because they lack the discipline to invest.
Do what works for you, and adjust along the way.
Put time on your side
Compound interest is where money really shows its power.
If you start saving just $100 a month at age 25, which should be easy to do with these tips, and stay the course until age 60, assuming a rate of return of 8%, you will have $230,917.50 saved up for retirement. Just $42,000 in monthly deposits, and a whopping $188,000 in interest!
Forego saving until age 45, and save $500 a month to catch up for 15 years, your total deposits will amount to $90,000, yet your nest egg will only be $174,172.57. Let’s not even get started about how finding $500 a month at a time in life where you are raising kids and trying to fund their college education will be extra hard.
Time is your biggest ally as a Millenial. Start saving early, and let your money make money.
Track your net worth
If you are serious with your finances, there is nothing more motivating than tracking your progress and celebrating the little milestones on your financial journey.
Getting to a $0 net worth is pretty big if you started with a lot of student loans or consumer debt. Your first $500 saved for an emergency, that will prevent you from paying a ton of interest the next time you need some quick cash.
The first time you max out your retirement contributions, the first four, five, six figure net worth month… These are all causes for celebration!
It is hard to see the big picture when you are young, drowning in debt, and can’t start to envision how you could possibly save for anything, let alone a big ticket item like retirement or a down payment for a house.
So tracking your progress, even small, can help you gain momentum and give you the strength to stay the course. Personal finance is not about deprivation, it is about prioritizing and planning ahead so your dreams become a reality.