Spring is here. And with the sight of flowers blooming and birds chirping comes spring cleaning. Besides decluttering your home, dusting forgotten corners, and sprucing up your abode, give your "money house" a good once-over.
Feeling overwhelmed? Not sure where to start? Don't be. Here's a simple, step-by-step guide on spring cleaning your finances to give your money habits a polish.
The word "budget" might lead to feelings of fear or dread. We get it. Often, it brings up images of detailed spreadsheets and needing to pay attention to every dime that leaves your wallet.
Here's the thing: The more awareness you have over what comes in and out of your bank balance, the more free you will feel. Why's that? Staying on top of your money situation can give you greater feelings of control. In turn, you can make adjustments as necessary.
A popular budgeting style is the 50/30/20 rule. This is when 50% of your take-home pay goes toward needs, 30% goes toward wants, and 20% toward savings and paying off debt. These are just guideposts, and you can tweak the percentages according to your situation.
Another popular budget is the guilt-free budget, where you pay yourself first by putting money toward your savings and debt, and the rest you can spend on whatever you please. The other way you can do it is to add up your expenses and debt, and figure out what you have left over to spend.
There's no “right” way to budget. It's all about what works for you. So get started, tinker around, and have some fun.
If you already have a budget, give it an update. Go over your current expenses and see what's changed. You can also review bank account and credit card statements to gauge exactly how much you're spending in certain categories. If you've been spending too much on, say, eating out, commit to scaling back.
Should there be major life-changing events on the horizon which can impact your budget—such as, a new baby to your family or sending a child off to college—plan accordingly. Figure out which expenses might balloon in the near future, and what might decrease.
Your eyes may gloss over at the numbers and nitty-gritty of creating a budget. And without linking your budget to your hopes, dreams, and desires, managing your money might feel less meaningful. Sit down and think about your goals and aspirations. Do you want to start a business one day? Buy a home? Or maybe you want to send your kids off to college?
Another question to ask yourself: What is "enough" for you? What kind of lifestyle would you like to achieve to feel comfortable and happy?
Jot it down. Create a vision board. Defining these things for yourself will give your savings and debt payoff goals greater purpose.
Credit enhances your purchasing power as a consumer. And if used responsibility, it can help you enhance your life and have access to opportunities you wouldn't have otherwise. For instance, buying a home, getting a car, or or sending your kids off to college.
To get approved for the most favorable rates and terms on a loan or credit card, you'll want to have the strongest score possible. And on top of practicing good habits, such as making on-time payments, having a diverse mix of credit, and perhaps signing up for a credit builder loan, you'll want to keep an eye on your credit.
You can review your credit report for free (that's right, free) by requesting a credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com. Typically you can get one free copy per year from each of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. But the good news is that since the pandemic, free weekly reports are available and have been extended through the end of 2023.
We get it. When it comes to our debt, sometimes it's easier—and less stressful—to do the equivalent of sticking masking tape on our "check engine" light rather than looking underneath the hood. But getting a big-picture look at your debt situation can help you make more informed, empowered choices.
To start, tally up your debt. This might include credit card debt, medical bills, personal loans, student debt, a car loan, and what have you. Start by doing a tally on how much debt you have, the monthly payments, and the interest rates. Check to see if any are in debt collections.
If you're in a financial bind—it happens to all of us—and are struggling to keep up with payments, consider all your options. You can reach out to the lender or credit card company and see if they would be willing to change the payment date, lower your monthly payments, or put you on a new payment plan.
If your financial wellness is fair-to-middling, you're certainly not alone. According to the Federal Reserve Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households 2020 report, 18% of adults say they were "just getting by" and 7% found it difficult to get by.
The good news is there is a way to improve your financial situation. How? By contributing to a savings account. Commit to stashing away some money a few months here and there. To put things on cruise control, set up an automated savings plan. For instance, save $5 a week. Over a year's time, guess what? You've accumulated $260 in savings. Aim for $20 a week, and you'll find a sweet little cash cushion of $1,040.
An unexpected medical expense. A leaky roof. Or a natural disaster like a tornado or wildfire. All these can be anxiety inducing and leave you with a hefty bill. But a rainy day fund to cover these unexpected—and inevitable—hiccups can keep you afloat and give you some peace of mind.
You might've heard the general recommendation to have at least six months' basic living expenses squirreled away. That might feel like a lot, especially when you're juggling the day-to-day, debt payments, and other financial priorities. Set smaller goals for your emergency fund as checkpoints. For instance, start with $100, then bump up your goal to $200, then $500. Don't forget to celebrate with small rewards along the way!
Depending on where you're standing, retirement could feel like a lifetime away. And while you probably are aware you'll need to save for a nest egg, that priority can get buried. If your workplace offers an employer-sponsored retirement account, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), make a promise to yourself to open an account.
Set aside a percentage each payment that automatically goes into your plan. If your employer provides a match, which means they'll match X percent up to X percent of your contributions, then try to put in enough to get the match. Otherwise, that's free money you're leaving behind.
If your workplace doesn't offer a retirement account, look into opening an IRA. It's just as easy and you can automate contributions. If you're in between jobs or financially stretched thin, do your best not to borrow or cash out of your retirement savings. It might seem tempting and an easy way to access needed funds, but there may be an early withdrawal penalty and tax consequences. If you have questions about your situation, you should explore all your options and potentially seek professional help from a certified financial counseling agency.
Making these money moves will lay the groundwork for better financial habits and help you build for a brighter tomorrow. Why not get a jump on it today?
A personal finance writer for over 8 years, Jackie Lam covers money management, lending, insurance, investing, and banking, and personal stories. An AFC® accredited financial coach, she is passionate about helping freelance creatives design money systems on irregular income, gain greater awareness of their money narratives, and overcome mental and emotional blocks.
Her work has appeared in publications such as Bankrate, Time's NextAdvisor, CNET, Forbes, Salon.com, and BuzzFeed. She is the 2022 recipient of Money Management International's Financial Literacy and Education in Communities (FLEC) Award, and a two-time Plutus Awards nominee for Best Freelancer in Personal Finance Media. She lives in Los Angeles where she spends her free time swimming, drumming, and daydreaming about stickers.
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