Quick Tips to Get Your Finances in Shape
As the year draws to a close, people often start taking stock of their finances. Making a plan for getting your finances in shape is a great way to start off the new year. Smart money management requires more than just paying bills on time and clipping coupons to save.
To make a real long-term difference, start with small, actionable changes. Whether you want to save more for retirement or reduce your debt, these 30 quick tips can help you get your finances in shape.
List Your Debt
You can’t start making financial changes if you don’t know how much debt you have. Knowing how much you owe and how long you have to make payments will help you make a plan for paying off all the debts. To start, take a look at all your bills and outgoing expenses. Jot down any unpaid balances. Be sure to include all your credit cards, student loans, mortgage payments and auto loan payments.
Once you have all your debts listed, make a plan for paying anything that is past due (if applicable). Once any past-due debts are paid, take a look at the debts with the lowest balances.
Set Your Goals
Goals are important to your financial success. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry about setting too many big goals. Start with small actionable items you can accomplish easily. Even if a goal seems too small to list, it isn’t. Accomplishing 10 small goals will feel a lot better than having two large ones sit unchecked on your list.
Financial goals can be anything from packing your lunch for work four days a week to setting aside money for a down payment. Think about your small goals as stepping stones to your bigger ones. The more days you take your lunch, the more you’re saving for your down payment.
Conduct a Year in Review
To see where you can improve, take stock of the year you just had. Go through your bank statements to see what you spent your money on and how much you saved. Doing a yearly review can help you see how you’re already doing. If there’s room for improvement, you can use those details to set your goals.
A lot of calculators are available online — maybe even through your own bank — to help you total up your spending for the year. Some apps and systems can also categorize your spending. You can see how much you spent on dining and entertainment compared to groceries, for example. The numbers can be pretty shocking at times.
Saving can seem like an overwhelming process at times. Although saving money may seem hard, it doesn’t have to be. Without even looking at your expenses and your budget, you can probably automate some small saving amount right now. Start with $25 a month. Simply go into your bank account and set up an automatic transfer of $25 from your checking to your savings account on a specific date each month.
Once you lay out your goals and take stock of your debts and expenses, you can go back and adjust that number, if necessary. If possible, bump up your automatic savings amount to $50 or $100 a month. The key is to make the process automatic, so you won’t even miss the money.
Keep Track of Your Spending
Keeping track of your spending is probably the most important thing you can do. If you’re just spending your money without any transparency, you’re probably not saving and investing as much as you could. You may also be paying for things you don’t even realize you’re paying for — subscriptions you no longer use, for example.
Tracking your spending doesn’t have to take a huge spreadsheet. Various apps and automated systems can help you do this for free. Make it as easy as possible so you won’t put off doing it. Tracking spending helps hold you accountable, and it helps you easily see where you can cut back on spending.
Pay Down as Much Credit Card Debt as Possible
Having a lot of credit card debt is a problem for several reasons. Not only does it lower your credit score, but it will also cost you a lot of money. When you have credit cards that are almost at their limits, lenders see it as a problem. To them, it’s a clear sign that you’re overspending, which doesn’t make you look like a trustworthy candidate for a loan (should you need it).
The other problem with high balances on your credit cards is that the interest charges will cost you a ton of money over time. Before you put money anywhere else, focus on paying off your credit cards.
Technology can be your best financial assistant. Tons of apps as well as features offered by your own bank allow you to set alerts for any number of things. Let’s say you set an alert to notify you every time you or your spouse spends more than $100. Now, when your spouse spends $200 on a new jacket, you are notified, which helps you track your spending and stay accountable for your spending choices.
You can also set alerts to remind you that you need to pay a bill or cancel a subscription service. This helps you stay on top of payment due dates and avoid expensive late fees.
Take a Day Where You Spend No Money
Although it may seem impossible, occasionally try to avoid spending money for a full day. Chances are good that once you do it, you’ll want to do it again. You may even decide to make a monthly or weekly habit of it.
Not spending any money feels liberating. Your finances will be under your control for the day. To set yourself up for success, make sure you have groceries and plan to spend the day at home. Take the day to go for a run, walk your dog or binge-watch your favorite shows. Eat at home and invite friends over if you’re feeling stir crazy. In fact, you probably have some friends who need to save some money as well.
Meal prepping is all the rage right now. Although it may seem overwhelming to cook an entire week’s worth of food on a Sunday, it doesn’t have to be. Focus on quick, healthy meals that are easy to make and prepare on the fly. Choose a few main items that can be used for several meals. Be sure to come up with different preparations and recipes so you don’t get burned out and order a pizza.
The point of meal prepping isn’t to have a five-star meal every night. It’s to have quick meals ready to go in a short amount of time at home so you aren’t tempted to eat out, which is both expensive and unhealthy.
Kick Up Your Retirement Savings
If you haven’t looked at your retirement savings in a while, it’s probably a good time to take a peek. Every year, you should be looking at your accounts to see how much you’ve contributed. If you’re like most Americans, you probably aren’t saving enough for retirement.
If possible, go into your retirement account and kick up the percentage of your contribution. It’s always best to choose the maximum percentage if you can afford it. If your employer matches your contribution, this is especially important. An employee match is free money. The best part is this whole process can usually be done on your phone or online in less than five minutes.
Make a Tax Folder
Making a tax folder is one of those underrated organization habits, but you’ll be grateful you did it when tax time rolls around. To start, make a folder on your desktop or on a secure cloud server so it doesn’t get lost if you switch computers. Next, start saving all your important tax documents in this folder.
Tax documents include obvious items like your W2s and 1099s, but you may overlook additional documents like those relating to charity contributions. If you ran a 5K in the summer and donated $100, you probably got a receipt from the organization. As soon as you get these types of items, save them in a hard copy version of your tax folder.
Use Cash to Budget
If you’re having a hard time setting a budget and sticking to it, stop using your credit cards. Instead, take cash out of your bank account and designate it for certain things. Let’s say you only want to spend $100 at the grocery store. Take $100 out in cash and leave your cards at home when you go to the store. If you pay using a card — even a debit card — it’s far too easy to ignore your budget and pay more than the $100.
You can use envelopes to designate cash for most expenses. You can take cash to pay for dinner out, shopping trips and lunch money. If you really want to make sure you can’t overspend, leave your credit card or debit card at home.
Use A Hidden Bank Account
Having a checking and savings account at one bank is convenient, but it may be too tempting to spend your savings or transfer money. In addition to your main account, it’s a good idea to open a savings account at another bank. You will have to manually deposit money into your account, but you’ll be less likely to touch it after that.
Make sure you don’t get a debit card or checks for the account, of course. If it comes with starter checks, store them somewhere safe and out of sight. Set a monthly reminder to put a certain amount of money in your savings account. Once a year, take a look to see how much the balance has grown.
Chances are you’re paying for at least one monthly subscription you aren’t using. Go through your expenses and take stock of everything. From music streaming to video services you don’t watch, write them down and start canceling.
If you’re paying for three online music services at $10 each, canceling two of them frees up $20 a month. That’s $240 a year you could be saving or investing. This also applies to gym memberships and group fitness classes. If you pay for a gym with free classes, stop paying for the separate yoga class every month and go to the free class at the gym.
Update Your Beneficiary Information
Updating your beneficiaries is one of those boring adult tasks that often gets forgotten. The end of the year is a great time to update this information. Let’s say you’ve gotten married or had a child. You’ll want to include your spouse or your children as beneficiaries.
Beneficiaries are often on multiple accounts, so make a list of everything you should update. Remember to log in to your 401(k) and your investment accounts, in addition to your mortgage and bank accounts. If you don't have a will, make this the year you prepare one. You can seek legal assistance or start the process yourself online.
Know Your Credit Score
Knowing your credit score is crucial to your financial health. If you have a low score, you can expect to pay higher interest on things like cars and mortgages. You may also have to make higher security deposits on apartments or could even be denied credit.
It’s a good idea to download a copy of your credit report at least once a year. You can do this free online or by contacting the three bureaus directly. Your bank or credit card company may also let you access this information for free. Reviewing your report also lets you see if you have any errors on your report that need correcting.
Make a Plan to Fix Your Credit Score
Once you download a copy of your credit report and see your credit score, it’s time to get to work on boosting your score. The fastest way to boost your credit score is to pay off as much debt as possible. Your score is higher when you aren’t using all your available credit.
Moving forward, vow to make all your payments on time. If you think you might miss a payment, call and make arrangements to pay a portion, if possible. Late or missed payments kill your credit score. If you see anything you need to dispute, make those calls sooner rather than later.
Use Banking Apps
Your bank probably has an app you can download if you haven’t already. Take advantage of mobile banking whenever you can. Mobile banking apps can be used for depositing checks, making payments and checking your balance. You can even set an alert to remind yourself to transfer money and then do the transfer right from your phone.
Some great apps out there also track your spending and help with budgeting. There’s just something about logging your spending that makes you pay closer attention to it. When you see you spent $30 at a coffee shop last week, you may think twice before doing it again.
Assess Your Income
If you’ve been at your job a while, it may be time to take stock of your salary or your hourly wage. If you haven’t had a performance review in a while, ask to meet with your manager to discuss your performance. If you’ve been working hard and doing a great job, make a case for a raise or a bonus.
If you don’t think you can earn more money at your current job, do a yearly pulse check to see if it’s time for a change. You could also look at side hustles or second jobs to boost your income. Earning more money is the fastest way to achieve a big financial goal.
Know Your Net Worth
Once a year, it’s a good idea to check in on your investments and liquid assets. Knowing your net worth can help you know where you stand when it comes to retirement and emergencies. To find your net worth, start by assessing the value of your home if you own one, minus any amount you owe on a mortgage. Your home is likely your biggest asset.
Next, download your latest investment statements. Look at your retirement accounts, IRA account, stock account and any other accounts you may have. Finally, jot down all your savings account balances. When you add up the value of all these items, you get your total net worth.
Utilize Auto Pay
Auto pay is the easiest way to make sure you don’t miss a payment, and most creditors offer it. With auto pay, your bills are automatically paid online through your creditor. If your creditor doesn’t offer this service, you may be able to auto pay using your own bank. When you use your bank to pay a bill, the bank pays electronically using your account number or pays using a paper check (rare).
Remember that missing a payment is one of the most common ways to damage your credit score. Auto pay is an easy way to prevent this from happening. Another nice perk of auto pay is that you can easily look back at how much you’ve spent.
Delete Coupons and Marketing Emails
Marketing emails and coupons are all a trap to get you to spend money. If you never get a coupon in your inbox, it’s like the sale or coupon never existed. With sales, it’s best to keep an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Take a few minutes to unsubscribe from some of the marketing emails you get every day.
Even though you think you’re saving money by using a coupon, you’ll save even more if you don’t buy anything at all. Most retailers make it really easy to find coupons and sales these days. If you end up really needing something later, you can always look for an online coupon when you need one.
Buy Holiday Gifts All Year Round
Holiday shopping doesn’t have to start in November and kill your budget. You can slowly start holiday shopping at any time of year. When you see something selling at a deep discount, grab it and save it for a holiday gift. If something is out of season or goes on sale for another holiday, you might be able to score an unconventional gift at a discount.
Estate sales, garage sales and online marketplaces are also great ways to score deals for the holidays. Even if most of these sales take place in the summer months, you can stock up during garage sale season and save your purchases until the holidays.
If you’re ever offered a discount to pay for a whole year of something at once, do it. It may seem like a big chunk of money at the time, but when you pay over time, you either pay much more or you pay interest. If you’re not financially able to pay all at once, think twice about doing it in the first place.
Some gyms, for example, offer a discount if you pay for your membership annually or quarterly. Other examples include email or cloud services and music and television subscriptions. Other companies may offer you zero interest for a short time period. If you take advantage of this, be sure to pay before the interest is due.
Round Up Purchases to Pay Student Loans
Some online services and even banks allow you to round up your change. Let’s say you make a purchase for $1.51. The remaining $0.49 after rounding up to $2 could go toward your student loans. You can sign up for these services using your student loan provider, bank or online companies that specialize in this.
Some companies will allow you to sync your purchases and round everything up to the nearest dollar. All your extra virtual change then goes toward paying off your student loans. Even if it only adds up to a couple of dollars a day, it still adds up pretty quickly over the course of a month or a year.
Sell Stuff You Don’t Need
Everyone has stuff they don’t need. Go through your closets once or twice a year and pull out any items you don’t need that you think you could sell. You may even have items that still have price tags on them because you forgot you bought them — or failed to return them. Instead of just letting the items gather dust, take them to a resale shop.
There are also tons of online resale marketplaces out there. Take quick photos of your items, type up short descriptions that include the condition and set your price. In just a few minutes, you can post all your items for sale online.
Stop Buying Coffee
Buying coffee is one of those daily rituals that you may not consider an expense. Coffee shop coffee is a very real expense, and buying it every day is a luxury. If you spend $5 a day on coffee, seven days a week, that adds up to $35 a week or a whopping $1,820 a year. Think about what you could do with $1,820 a year.
Instead of buying coffee, make your own coffee at home. Because you’re saving money by not buying coffee out, you could even splurge on a nicer coffee maker or artisan beans. Treat yourself to a nice mug, and your daily coffee will still feel like a nice treat.
Pack Your Own Lunch
Brown bagging your lunch is not only great for your health, but it’s also great for your wallet. Even if you buy a salad in a bag kit from your grocery store for $2, that’s still a lot cheaper than buying a salad out every day.
When you meal prep for the week, include lunches as well. One meal can serve as dinner one day and lunch the next. Spending $8 a day on lunch, five days a week adds up to $2,080 a year. That $2,080 does a lot more good in your retirement account or emergency fund than in your stomach.
Wait 24 Hours Before Checking Out Online
The ease of shopping online has made it almost impossible to not overspend. With just a click of a button, you can have whatever you desire on your doorstep within days, sometimes even hours. From the comfort of your couch, you can buy a new outfit for Friday night and have it delivered the next day.
Instead of just buying whatever you want whenever you want it, place a mental 24-hour hold on your items. Put them in your online cart, and if you still think you need them after 24-hours, then go ahead and make the purchase. Chances are good that after sleeping on it, you will realize you don’t need all — maybe not any — of the items.
Plan Your Budget for the New Year
Once you’ve successfully mapped out your goals and to-do items, it’s time to set some budgets for the new year. Stick to realistic budgets you can actually maintain. If you’re currently spending $500 a month on groceries for a family of six, it’s probably not reasonable to think you can cut that bill down to $100.
Remember to set budgets for several different areas as well. You can make a budget for groceries, entertainment, shopping and anything else that isn’t a fixed cost. Fixed costs typically include your housing payment, your student loans and things like your cell phone bill. You can also set budgets for big-ticket items like new vehicles and vacations.