10 Ways To Keep Your Personal Finances In Check
If you were to ask 10 financial experts for a list of 10 ways to keep your personal finances in check, you would likely get 10 different answers. Ask a layperson for the same list, and you'll get something else entirely. Here's what I came up with:
#1: Know what you spend.
Write down every expenditure you make over the course of a week (or even a month, if you want to get a more accurate picture) to see where you spend your money. Review your past utility bills to run an average of how much you spend on a monthly basis. Don't forget things like cable and cell phones! Also consider irregular expenses like vehicle registrations and property taxes.
#2: Build a budget.
I know, I know, budgets are boring. As a former non-believer, I can tell you that a budget can really open your eyes to how willy nilly your spending habits may be.
Use the information you gathered in #1 to build your budget. It doesn't matter how you do it - on paper, in a spreadsheet, or, my favorite, in a specialized software program like Quicken - if it is something you will remember to maintain, then it is the proper method for you. When building your budget, make sure that your budgeted expenditure amounts are numbers you can live with and don't require you to make lifestyle changes that you are not willing to make. The exception to this is if you regularly spend more than you make, in which case a reevaluation of your priorities is in order.
Another budgeting tool to try is Wesabe. Just like some of the expensive software that's available, you can download your banking data directly to Wesabe, add tags that make sense to you, and use the system to help you track where you are spending your money. Unlike those for-purchase options, however, Wesabe also provides you with an excellent social networking site, and you can join specific groups based upon your financial goals. The online community is very supportive and full of great advice.
#3: Pay yourself first
This may sound trite, but it works. The first line item on my budget beneath net income is the amount I have auto-transferred from my checking account to my high interest bearing savings account each payday. The next line item is the amount withdrawn to invest.
Don't make enough to be able to save anything? Unless you're living in extreme poverty, I doubt it. Learn from my mistakes. Even if you can only set aside $25 a month, doing it consistently will work to your favor when you reach retirement age. Here's a savings calculator that can show you how your money can work for you.
Have investment accounts with Vanguard, ShareBuilder, ING, etc? Consider moving them all to one place for ease of tracking.
You should also consider consolidating your credit cards. Why carry around a wallet full of store cards in addition to your major cards? Use one or two major cards with the lowest interest rates you can find, and move all other balances to those couple of cards. Get rid of the rest.
If you've got multiple student loans, you may benefit from consolidating them into one student loan with a low interest rate. You can also shave one half of a percent or so off of your interest rate by setting your student loan payment up for automatic monthly withdrawal from your checking account.
#5: Organize your financial documents
Mortgage stuff needs its own file, as do bank records, insurance paperwork, tax returns, receipts for your flexible spending health plan, etc. Or, at least they do in my world.
My husband, who is actually quite fiscally responsible, has a method whereby he chucks all of his financial records into a big plastic bin with a lid. It seems to work well for him, despite the amount of anxiety it causes both our accountant and me. It may also be the reason we just found three "unclaimed property" accounts in his name for forgotten investment accounts.
I guess the moral is, find a method that works for you.
You can also check out my hub titled "Save Money by Organizing Your Personal Finances" for more information.
#6: Be judicious in your use of credit cards
As previously stated, this is a lot easier if you've only got one or two in your wallet. My recommendation is to set parameters for yourself on what is permissible to charge, like just gas and groceries, for instance, especially if you have a tendency to go a little crazy when spending.
If you like to put everything on your credit card to earn rewards, I recommend carrying a small notebook or something so that you can record every purchase you make, just like you would with a checking account. This way, there are no surprises at the end of the month.
#7: Set up an emergency fund
It's a fact of life: rainy days happen.
To prepare for those rainy days, some financial experts recommend having three to six months worth of living expenses saved in an easily accessible, high interest bearing account. Others say $500 is fine, as long as you have other assets that are relatively liquid (easily converted to cash). Either way, a fund is necessary, especially if your budget is tight. Many a budget has been ruined by an unexpected vehicle repair or emergency trip to the vet.
(As an aside, I used to think that the idea of setting aside money "for a rainy day" was because rainy days were boring and good days to go shopping. True story.)
#8: Set up automatic bill payment for regular bills
Aside from knowing that you will never make a late payment, I've found that this also helps to control spending because I want to make darned sure that I don't overdraft by cutting things too close in the old checking account.
Additionally, sometimes there is a benefit to be had by setting up an auto-draft. My student loan payment is automatically deducted from my checking account by Uncle Sam every month. For doing so, I've been rewarded with a 0.5% decrease in my interest rate.
#9: Use lists when shopping
Like the budget idea above, I know that this has been done nearly to death, but it works! It really does!
Need groceries? Make a list based upon a menu plan. Shopping for Christmas gifts? Before you head out to the stores, decide what you want to buy and for whom, and make a list. Kid made that soccer team and you need to go buy equipment? MAKE. A. LIST.
If you go shopping without a plan, anything can happen. If you start with a list, you won't stray nearly as far. I promise.
#10: Learn to forgive your own screw ups
They're as inevitable as death and taxes, so when those screw ups happen don't dwell upon them. Learn from your mistakes and get back to business.