Since many of us are stuck at home with our fiscal future full of bumps and potholes, I’ve found it to be a good opportunity to assess my relationship with personal finances. Full disclosure, I am a bit of an “Excel geek,” so expense tracking and spreadsheets are definitely in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, this process need not be a burden, even for those of you who hate looking at numbers or facing the realities of your own spending habits. Getting your financial house in order may just be one of the most productive and important things you do this year. As someone who has just gone through the process, here are my favorite strategies that have worked well for me.
Analyze Last Year’s Income vs. Expenses
I, like so many others, spent the better part of a month not spending much money because we were told to only go out if we had to. When I saw how much my credit card bill went down, I decided to analyze what I had been spending money on. For me, the easiest way to start this process was to export digital copies of online credit card “year-end summary” statements, and input those numbers, broken out by category, into an Excel spreadsheet. Since your credit cards conveniently categorize everything for you, pulling this together should be a cinch. Next, I added in any expenses that came out directly from my bank accounts, and when all else fails, I estimated the rest. The objective of this exercise is to scrutinize where all my spending went, how much I saved at the end of the year, and whether those numbers fell in line with my wealth building goals. I learned that I didn’t save nearly as much as I had planned to. It became painfully apparent that my Amazon purchases and fine dining habits would be the areas where I need to show more willpower in the coming year!
Forecast Out A Roadmap
Again, that “Excel geek” is jumping out in excitement at this one! By looking at where I spent my money last year and how much I was able to save, I paved the way for a better future. For this exercise, I spreadsheeted all my estimated income and expenses for the year, broken out for each month. I know this sounds like a daunting task but, trust me, you will feel the satisfaction when it’s complete. I listed out every reoccurring expenses line by line, like my housing expenses, insurances, media, subscriptions, etc., and then created variable expense lines for dining, groceries, shopping, and entertainment costs. I also factored in travel, vacations, and any other personal hobbies I plan to enjoy. Once finished, I was able to better visualize how much I can save for the year and the lifestyle that comes with it.
I bet you will come to the same realization as I did—without a huge sacrifice, I could save an extra 10%-20%. This conscientious adjustment to spending will put me in a much better position to build my wealth more diligently than ever before.
Pay Down Your Debts
Debt can be terrifying and crippling. I personally prefer to live with less today than feel beholden to a credit card company or bank with never ending payments for something I couldn’t realistically afford in the first place. However, for the vast majority of Americans, debt is unavoidable and something most everyone will have to deal with at some point, regardless of best laid out plans. If you find yourself in debt, what can you do?
The first thing I did was pull together all my outstanding loans, and list them from highest interest rate to the lowest. This gave me a plan of attack. I work diligently every month to pay off my highest interest rate loans first—until, one by one, I have eliminated each of them. It is incredibly satisfying each time I remove an item from my list. It can be a hard-fought battle, but once I am done, I will be able to direct those payments toward building my wealth, rather than worrying about putting money in other people’s pockets. As a rule of thumb, I tend to focus my attention on paying off any debts with interest rates over 5%.
Refinance Your Mortgage, Student Loans or Car Loans
With interest rates as low as I have ever seen them in my lifetime, refinancing debt is an opportunity you do not want to overlook. As of today, www.bankrate.com shows that you can refinance your mortgage with a 3.5% APR for a 30-year fixed loan. You could also take out a personal loan of up to $100,000 for 2-7 years for as low as 5.99% APR1. For those of you who have high interest rate debts and are looking to lessen the burden of interest payments you carry, this could be a great solution. Credit card payments can also be negotiated at lower rates.
Cancel Unnecessary Subscriptions
Having too many unnecessary or frivolous subscriptions can add up over time and have a negative effect on your bottom line. I took a hard look at all my subscription services: music, cable, gym memberships, diet programs, media services, periodicals, etc., to evaluate whether my usage is worth the cost. In the end, I could save hundreds or even thousands of extra dollars per year by cutting out unused or underused services.
Create an Emergency Fund
At any stage of life, it’s important to have a financial nest egg for unforeseen events or difficulties that may arise. Whether it be a health woe, a lost job, damage to the house, or a dead car, at some point trouble can and does come for all of us. If you are reading this and have no emergency funds, then work hard to put away that first $1,000. It’s a good idea to save enough to cover 3 to 6 months’ worth of your average expenses. A smart place to keep these funds is in an interest-bearing Money Market Account, where it will stay safe and grow for when trouble seeks you out.
Conduct a Monthly Temperature Check
Finally, and the most important in my opinion, is to maintain your budget with a monthly “temperature check.” For me to follow the roadmap I built, I need to be aware of how my plan is working, where I was still overspending, and what levers I might pull to reach my financial goals. Viewing my personal budget monthly helps me alleviate unnecessary stressors of failed expectations, unforeseen events, and momentary lapses. By actively using and adjusting my monthly budget, I have created a more structured path to building wealth, and with a little extra elbow grease, and am on track to achieving financial freedom!
Sapers & Wallack is Here to Help
If getting your financial house in order seems like a stressful, complicated task, and the notion of building wealth seems like a far-off fantasy, do not bury your head in the sand! Come talk to our financial services team and let us help you find the tools and plan to set up your financial freedom.
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Other ideas from pay down your debts, creating an emergency funds and reducing your expenses to build your wealth were influenced by the books:
A Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins
Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
All ideas incorporated in this blog have been actual actions I have personally undertaken with my own finances and speaking from my own experiences.