12 Steps to Financial Freedom Part 1

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.

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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.

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.

Tip! Spend less than you earn. This is the fundamental money skill. It’s common sense, yet many people never learn to do it. Only by spending less than you earn can you hope to build wealth. This is easier to do if you track your spending and develop a budget, but those steps aren’t completely necessary. Even if you do nothing else in this list, spending less than you earn can put you ahead of your peers.

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.

Remember: You always have the right to ask for a discount, but it’s not your right to receive one. It never hurts to ask, but if the answer is “no”, don’t be a jerk. Thank the person who helped you and move on.

 

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Trying a Sample Diet

Stay diligent during the weekdays. Five days a week, put some serious work into your diet. Here are examples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

  • For breakfast, eat a bowl of oatmeal with low-fat milk with a few raisins or cranberries. You may also opt for a couple of eggs, a piece of fruit, or a piece of whole wheat toast with almond or peanut butter.
  • For lunch, include a lean protein like chicken or fish, with plenty of vegetables (or a salad) with beans or sprouts (a great fiber source), and an optional piece of fruit. If you need a drink other than water, go for unsweetened teas or juices.
  • For dinner, have a bowl of broth-based soup, a wrap or half a sandwich, brown rice or quinoa, and more fruits and vegetables (fresh, ideally).
  • Snacks should be protein and calcium rich, like nuts, cheeses, or yogurt.
Include exercise in your plan, too. It is recommended to get 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. You can do it all at once or divide it up into 5-minute chunks or anything in between. A mixture of weight-training and cardio is best.

  • Sprinkle into your normal routine activities like fast walking or running, swimming, or cycling. Keep in mind that everyday activities, like walking the dog, vigorously cleaning the house, and gardening count, too.

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On weekends, take it easier on yourself. You’ve put a lot of hard work into the week, and here is your reward. Don’t gorge yourself, but do treat yourself to whatever you’ve been craving. And don’t feel guilty about it – there’s a lot of science to back up the idea of calorie cycling, or eating more one or two days a week.

  • Use Saturday night to be your go-out night, where you can finally hit up that restaurant you’ve been dying to go to. Getting the craving out will keep you from rampaging through the kitchen and eventually destroying all the progress you’ve made.

Sometimes when a diet suits you, it becomes simple. No-carb can be really easy if you love meat and cheese. Low-cal can be easy if you adore fruits and vegetables. Take a look through the articles on wikiHow (or the linked comprehensive guide) and see if something calls out to you that you think you could be successful with.

  • What it comes down to is that we’re all different. Even twin studies support the idea that we all respond to diets differently (and that certain types of dieting can actually be bad for us). So if one diet doesn’t work for you, it may just be because you’re body doesn’t jive with it, not because you’re meant to be bigger. Keep trying, and you’ll find something manageable.

Changing How You Eat

Eat more often. How great would it be if you could lose weight by just eating more often? If you do it right, it could work. Eating more often (smaller meals with snacks in between) keeps us full and away from unhealthy cravings, prevents the binge, helps us feel satisfied, and may even lead to benefits like a reduction in cholesterol. As long as you’re eating healthy, of course!

  • This is only effective if you’re not eating more. Make sure that if you start snacking, your actual meals become a bit smaller. Your general caloric intake should remain the same, if not a bit lower.
Plan your meals. One of the simplest ways to stay on your dieting regimen is to plan out what you’re going to eat through the course of the week. You go to the grocery store and buy everything on your list (for your healthy meals), and there are no surprises because you’re sticking to your plan. Tempted to order pizza? Nope – you know you have that salmon in the fridge just waiting to be eaten.

  • This helps you stay at home, too. Going out to restaurants is a huge culprit in the obesity epidemic. Portions are huge, calorie counts are huge, there’s added sugars and salts, and it’s too easy to go overboard without realizing it. When you cook at home, you control every calorie that goes into your dishes.

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Watch your portions. Another easy trick to losing weight doesn’t even deal with things you can’t eat. In fact, nothing is off limits. All you have to do is watch your portions. A few bites of that chocolate cake is okay, but the whole slice? Nope, you’ll pass. You got your fix. Talk about will power!

  • To keep on the portion train, aim to eat half of your meal and box the rest up for leftovers. If you get hungry, you can eat it – or you can save it for tomorrow. It’s easy on your budget, too.
Don’t eat after a certain time at night. How many times have you been guilty of staying up late, having an extra drink, or snacking the night away without even really thinking about it? Most of us have and it’s a regular habit. However, if your dieting plan is to “not eat after 8 pm” that cuts out a lot of potential eating. You eat whatever you want throughout the day, but you cut yourself off. That could be thousands of calories you’re missing out on, and some serious weight lost.

  • The main struggle with this aspect of dieting is that it gets difficult socially. You want to go out and drink and eat and have a good time, but it’s hard with a glass of water in front of you. This comes down to your will power. If you can’t do it, try to come up with a compromise. Allow yourself diet soda or tea and veggies after hours, for example. That way you don’t feel as excluded when you’re out with friends.

 

How to Lose Weight With a Simple Diet

Drink more water. Did you know that if you up how much water you drink, the extra pounds may start falling off on their own? Yep. Drinking two cold glasses of water before meals not only fills you up so you eat less, but can up your metabolism while you eat by about 40%. A fuller stomach and a higher calorie burn means a slimmer you. Does it get much simpler than that?

  • Men need to consume more water than women, in general. Men should aim for around 3 12 liters (0.9 US gal) of water a day, and women 2 1/2. Of course, the bigger you are (man or woman), the more water you need to drink.

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Make fruit your dessert. We’ve all been there, and this happens to some of us after about practically every meal. We’ve filled up on our main meal, and now we’re eyeing dessert – even if we’re not technically that hungry. Before you slice into the chocolate cake, have a piece of fruit. Odds are your sugar craving may get sated.

  • Fruit is full of sugar, but it’s healthier sugar that won’t spike your insulin as much and get turned to fat. Your mind registers the sugar keeping you away from the cake, and your waistline stays that much trimmer. Besides, you’re supposed to get 4 servings of fruit a day – and this is a good way to do it.
Eat five servings of veggies a day. When your diet is full of greens, yellows, and oranges, you know you’re getting plenty of fiber and other nutrients, and not a lot of simple carbohydrates and bad fats – that translates to fewer calories and weight lost. Five servings of veggies a day keeps your body running on premium fuel, keeping it full on lower-calorie foods, and may even help prevent disease.

  • Not only are veggies great for you, but when you’re eating them, you’re not eating other things, like processed goods (chips, candies, etc.). And the greener the better – green beans, broccoli, kale, spinach, and green peppers are all chock-full of body-healthy and waistline-trimming benefits.
Switch to whole grains. Some people swear off carbs, and if you want to do so, great. You may experience swift weight loss results. But if that seems a little less than simple, just make sure your carbs are from whole grains. That is, you want brown carbs, not white. Think whole wheat pasta and bread, oatmeal, and quinoa. Avoid white bread, white rice, too many potatoes, and processed baked goods.

  • Carbohydrates have the unfortunate tendency of spiking our insulin levels, raising our blood sugar, and making us fat. Whole grains, on the other hand, don’t do this nearly as much. They’re a good source of fuel and energy without the unnecessary sugar explosion.
Focus on good fats. There are fats that are good for you, like the unsaturated kind found in olive oil, avocado, and nuts. These leave you sated (fat does a great job of filling us up) and don’t spike your sugar levels, keeping your insulin levels steady (and thus avoiding weight gain). It’s why the no-carb diets push eating lots of healthy fats; your body actually likes it. So instead of grabbing that low-fat granola, try a handful of nuts instead.

  • For a long, long time, fat has gotten a bad rap. The low-fat craze was huge and is still going strong. In reality, low-fat items have been processed with extra sugar to taste good (by and large, anyway), removing their “healthy” label. New research is springing up all over the place that fatty items, like red meats and cheeses, may not be that bad for us.

Swap out carbs for protein. Protein is the building blocks of the body. Without protein, your body can’t repair itself and get through the wear and tear you put on it every day. Carbohydrates are fuel that your body turns to sugar when not used. When your body has no carbs to run on, it turns to fat and then to protein. Cut out the carbs, and your body will start burning your fat stores. And what should you replace carbs with? Protein – the ultimate tummy filler and muscle builder.

  • One simple step you can take to eating healthier and losing weight is to cut out your lunchtime sandwiches and replace them with either a hearty salad or chicken or fish. Even just skipping the side of french fries can do your body good, though it’s best if you can replace it with nuts or cheeses to keep your body feeling fueled. If losing weight isn’t a good enough reason to cut the carbs, know that it can also severely reduce your risk of getting diabetes.