by J.D. Roth
Here then are twelve simple but effective steps to take control of your finances.
Step #1: Set financial goals
The road to wealth is paved with goals. If you don’t know why you’re doing this — why you’re making sacrifices, why you’re working so hard — it’s too easy to fail. But if you set goals, they can help guide you even when things get tough. When you have to make decision, your goals can help you stay focused on what’s important.
For your goals to be effective, they have to be personal. They have to mean something to you. Right now, one of my goals is to save money for travel. A couple of years ago, my goal was to save for a Mini Cooper. Before that, my goal was to get rid of 20 years of debt.
To keep your focus front and center, you might use web-based tools like Joe’s Goals, StickK, or 43 Things. You might find an accountability partner. Or you might advertise to yourself. And be prepared for setbacks. You’re not going to meet your goals without mistakes. Stuff happens. The best way to deal with problems is to have a plan before they occur.
Step #2: Track every penny you spend
The authors of Your Money or Your Life urge readers to “keep track of every cent that comes into or goes out of your life.”
[This is] the best way to become conscious of how money actually comes and goes in your life as opposed to how you think it comes and goes…This is the step that somehow makes the biggest impact.
Last year, I stopped tracking my spending. I was spending less than I earned, and I figured it was too much work. I regretted that. In fact, I’ve vowed to resume tracking my spending again. I’m glad I did. I was able to see some trouble spots (comic books!) and make corrections.
It doesn’t matter how you track your spending — the most important thing is to do it.
- You can use a cash notebook.
- You can use an online tool such as Mint.
- You can use a piece of software like Quicken. (Here’s a list of 16 powerful personal finance programs.)
Whichever method you choose, stick with it. Make it a habit. Don’t fudge the numbers. Record your transactions as soon as possible. Most of all, don’t judge yourself. Tracking your spending is an exercise in data collection; it’s not the appropriate time to change your habits.
Step #3: Develop a budget
After you’ve tracked your spending for a few weeks (or months), use the data you’ve collected to develop a budget. According to The Millionaire Next Door, budgeting is one thing that sets the wealthy apart from the rest of us — 55% of millionaires keep a budget.
Many people — myself included — fail to budget for a variety of reasons: it’s boring, we don’t think we need it, or we don’t know how. But this simple act can provide a roadmap for your money.
There are a variety of budgeting methods you can choose, from Andrew Tobias’ three-step budget to the 60% budget. My recent favorite (and a favorite of GRS readers) is Elizabeth Warren’s balanced money formula: 50% to Needs, 20% to Savings, and everything else to Wants. Simple but effective.
Crave more budgeting tips? Check out this article highlighting 13 tools for building a better budget. Hate the idea of budgeting? Consider the spending plan, a budgeting method for non-budgeters.
Step #4: Review your bills (and ask for discounts)
At least once each year, you should review the contracts and agreements you have with various banks and service providers. This is also a great time to review your financial accounts to be sure everything still matches your needs.
- Read your credit-card agreements and make sure you understand everything. (If you don’t, then ask questions.) When I read my own agreements, I dial the customer service line and ask for clarification.
- Check your service levels. We have a tendency to keep paying for the same service we’ve always had, whether it’s with our phone, our electricity, or our gym membership. Now’s a good time to make a quick check to be sure you’re only paying for what you need.
- Ask for lower rates. All the way back in 2009, G.E. Miller shared how he cut his cable bill by 33% without losing any service. Many GRS readers reported similar success. Look through your monthly bills to see if there are any you could call to ask for a reduction on. If you are paying for channels you never use, think about switching to a streaming service you will actually use.
- If you rent, review your lease or rental agreement to be sure you’re clear on all of the policies. While you’re at it, consider asking for a rent reduction. Sound crazy? If you’re a good tenant and regularly pay on time, it’s not so far-fetched.
- Review your insurance. Are you carrying policies with three different companies? Consolidate them at one place. Check the deductibles on your auto and homeowners insurance. Are they too low? Could you afford to raise them and “self-insure” the first $1,000 of damage? And is your liability coverage high enough?
- Go over your investment accounts. Check your balances and asset allocation. Are you too heavy in stocks for your risk tolerance? Should you own more stocks? If so, shift things around to get to your target allocation.
This step may be boring, but it’s important. Terms change all the time. Your financial situation changes. Spending one afternoon a year to review your agreements (and ask for discounts) can keep you from getting trapped in contracts you don’t want and save you money in the process.