One of the most heart-wrenching issues I have with our modern day education system is how little emphasis they place on money management. You’ll learn about the Baroque period, how to identify 50 different types of rocks (literally had to do this), and what Buddhism is all about, but money? Nah. We’ll skip it. And even if you do take a personal finance course, it’s all so academic that it’s hard to apply it to real life.
When I graduated from college and was in the midst of my first month at my “real” job, I remember heading to the movies and thinking how nice it was to not worry about buying a $5 Icee at the theater. The freedom! The liberation! The independence!
And then at the end of that month, reality smacked me in the face when I looked at my bank account and had no idea where all that money I had earned went. I thought I was making a killing, but I soon learned my salary didn’t get me as far as I thought it would. Cue a defeated 22 year-old and some sad, dramatic soundtrack.
Being the type A individual that I am, I nipped that issue in the bud fairly quickly. I started to pay attention to my finances, redirect my goals, and I developed my first ever budget. And it’s one I continue to use today, although that Excel file is a little more sophisticated and about 8 tabs longer. Did I mention that I was type A?
However, even though my budgeting process resembles the neurotic tendencies of the Seinfeld cast, it has helped me buy my own home, save 40% of my income every year, and earn a net worth 20x the average of my peers. I’m sitting pretty, and because I know how wonderful financial stability and hitting your goals is, I want you to as well.
Organizing your finances isn’t as daunting or boring as you think. Yes, you may have to put on your personal finance hat and crunch some numbers, but essentially, all it is is a way for you to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. And that’s the big picture, right? To pay off your student loans, retire early, or travel Europe for a month. They are wonderful things to aspire to, and I want to help you get there.
I’ve listed the strategies I’ve implemented to organize my finances below, which means, yes, you get to learn in 10 minutes what has taken me 8 years to accumulate. Say hello to the fast track.
Word to the wise: Don’t feel like you have to do everything that I do or implement all of these strategies at once. Start with one area you could improve, and focus on that until you’ve mastered it. Remember, making leaps towards your goals is great, but baby steps are pretty wonderful, too. Progress is progress, no matter how small.
MANAGING MY MONEY
This was probably the most important step when I decided to take control of my financial situation. I knew the goals I had for myself, where I wanted to be, and I didn’t want to depend on anyone else to help get me there. So what did that then mean? I needed to start treating my money with a little more respect.
When I first started managing my money, I could use all the help I could get, so I signed up with Mint. They had (and still have) a great platform, and it made tracking my finances fairly easy.
However, the control freak in me started to want a little more flexibility in how I was tracking my financial progress, so I developed my own personal budget template, which has since morphed into an 11-tab Excel file. But don’t worry – for those of you non-Excel/personal finance lovers, I’ve created a simplified version that even those of you new to the budget process will fall in love with. Download it here.
I knew that one of my first goals out of school would be to buy a home. I graduated in the midst of the housing crash, so interest rates were low, inventory was high, and deals were cheap. It wasn’t my only motivating factor for planting roots, but damn, sometimes you can’t pass up a great deal.
I knew, though, that in order to get the best deal on a home, I needed to qualify for the best interest rate, which means I needed to have a bomba$$ credit score. At the time, however, I had little to no credit: just two store credit cards I had opened in college. No car loans. No student loans. Nothing.
So what did I do? I opened up my first credit card. I made sure I increased my spending limit each time it was offered to me in order to lower my debt utilization percentage but NOT increase my spending along with it. I kept my other store cards open so that I had a longer history. And I made sure to pay that card on time, every time.
In the beginning I used it solely for gas, then I added groceries, and then when I had a good handle on my money (and banks stopped giving away debit card rewards), I started putting almost everything on the card. It allowed me to build some credit history and show the banks that if and when I wanted to buy a home, I was a great risk to take on.
One of the key factors in building credit is paying your bills on time, and I quickly learned how easy it could be to miss a payment. Like, REALLY easy. So, to mitigate that risk, I decided to hire my own little personal assistant to make sure I never missed one again. And in walked Prism.
Prism is a free app you can download on your phone that notifies you when a bill is available, how much you owe, and when it’s close to coming due. You can even pay through the app itself, although I personally don’t use that function. If you’re interested in learning more, read my article on it here.
I can’t tell you how many times it has saved my butt from late fees and credit score dings, and for that reason, I highly recommend it. I mean, life sometimes just gets too chaotic and before you know it, it’s the 25th of the month and you’re behind on your rent payment. Oops.
Budgeting may be the #1 way to take control of your money in my book, but automating your savings is the best way to hit your financial goals.
When I first graduated from college, my checking account acted as my savings account. Not the best move to mingle the two, but I was pretty frugal, and the balance kept climbing.
At some point, however, I knew that I needed to separate the two, not only to take advantage of gaining a little bit of interest, but also to have a very distinct and separate line between what was to be used for my goals and what was to be used for my day-to-day spending.
I chose to go with an online savings account separate from my checking provider for two reasons: 1) they offer higher interest rates and 2) it’s not as easy to transfer it to my checking to use for idiotic reasons. Because at 2am on a Saturday morning, a weekend trip to Vegas always seems like a good idea. But it’s not. Definitely not.
So I opened an online savings account with American Express and set up automatic transfers from my bank to occur monthly. And for 5+ years now, I’ve put at least 10% of my income per month in that account. And do you know how much time it takes now to make sure I’m saving towards my goals? None. Absolutely zero.
FYI: If you’re not sure how much to save each month, look to see how much wiggle room you have in your budget. Then, set that money aside for 3 months to see if it’s feasible (do NOT touch it if you don’t have to). If so, then setup the automatic transfer for that amount. You can always stop it or lower it later on if your situation changes.
Simple truth: while our parents could depend on pensions and Social Security to fund most of their retirement, we just don’t know if the same options will be available to us. A little scary, I know, which is why we have to take funding our retirement into our own hands. And do it as early as possible.
In all honesty, I don’t love watching the markets. Some people are enthralled by it, but me? Not my passion. However, I know that in order to retire in the fashion that I want to, I need to force myself to be a player in the game.
I have a 401(k) through my full-time job, and I contribute up to the match (and then some) each year to that account. A portion is automatically taken out of my paycheck each month, and doing this is so helpful because let’s be real: I won’t spend what I never have. So instead of that $100 going towards a nice dinner, I’ve used it to afford 20 nice dinners down the road. My future self is throwing me high-fives right now.
[Related: 5 Ways You’re Screwing Up Your 401(k)]
While it’s not automated, I also fund my Roth IRA each month to add to my retirement savings. You can automate this portion through an online brokerage as well (think TD Ameritrade or Betterment), but you can only contribute $5,500 per year, and I’m too OCD about even numbers to contribute $458.33 to it each month. So I just set a reminder on my phone and throw $500 at it each month excluding December, when expenses are higher due to Christmas anyway.
TRACKING MY PROGRESS
I’m a competitor at heart, so having goals and tracking my progress towards them have always seemed like little games to me. Maybe not as fun as a good drinking game, but games nonetheless. And ones I wanted and still want to win.
I currently use two tools to track my progress towards my goals: my net worth calculator and personal goal tracker (get both of them here!). Each month I’ll update the numbers to see how much my net worth increased and how much closer I am to reaching my savings goals, and let me tell you, I live or die by my progress.
Both of these tools force you to write down and keep track of your goals, which are essential to hitting them on time. It keeps it at the forefront of your mind so that when you’re tempted to buy those front-row seats for your favorite band, you’ll be able to easily turn them down. (Ok, maybe not so easily but you’ll do it.)
Again, what’s right for me isn’t necessarily going to be right for you, so glean what you can from this article and try to make just one positive change that will get you closer to your goals. We’re 2 ½ months into 2017 – don’t lose sight of those money resolutions you made!
Now let’s hear from you: What is one transformational way you’ve organized your finances?