Busy, busy, busy. Time, it seems, has never felt more elusive. Working, making time for family and friends, working out, walking the dog; our to-do lists change in length, but never disappear. Throw a couple of kids and a house into the mix, and you soon realize that time can sometimes be worth as much as–or more than–money.
What often falls through the cracks in the hustle-bustle can be managing personal finances. It can be hard enough to keep your day-to-day tasks–like paying bills and comparing plans and prices for services–on track, let alone long-term financial planning. But you're in luck. Here, we share guidelines for streamlining your day-to-day financial life while still keeping an eye toward the future. And no, you don't need 29 hours in a day.
Instead of a strict budget plan in which you try to account line for line for every last thing, "Begin with the end in mind," says Kathleen Grace, CFP, CIMA, and author of Prince Not So Charming. That means identifying which goal is most important to you, what you want to accomplish more than anything else. Maybe that's maxing out your 401(k) contributions, or putting aside money for your child's college fund. Whatever it is, that gets taken care of first. A plan like this is certainly easier to stick with than a generic budget, as it supports your primary goal.
Then, after you put aside money towards your goal each month, use whatever you have left to live on. Subtract fixed, essential expenses like housing and your utility bills. Whatever is left is your discretionary income, with which you have to cover food, clothing, and any other flexible expenses.
Many people find this a lot easier to stick with than a traditional budget plan, like John Henry Lauro, a dad of three. He always intended to max out his 401(k), but the money never seemed to be there at the end of the month. He, too, struggled for years with a traditional "envelope-system" budget, saying he'd maximize his 401(k) contributions as soon as he had a little more money. Of course, that day never came. Then he started having automatic withdrawals taken from his paycheck right off the top. "It's so easy. And it's amazing how I suddenly have the money I never did before."
Cary Carbonaro, author of The Money Queen's Guide and MBA, CFP, is a fan of making financial housekeeping as effortless as possible. One of her top recommendations is to take advantage of one of the many online tools that allow you to create a budget, track your income and expenses, and set savings goals. You can even get weekly reports sent to your inbox so it's hard to lose track of things.
To get over the "I know I should, but..." savings hump, consider setting up automatic withdrawals from your checking account into your savings account once a month, as Patti Blaeser, an insurance adjuster and mom of a teenager daughter, does. "It's been a great help in getting into a painless college savings habit. I don't request an ATM card for that account, so the money is harder to get at."
Experts often advise saving 10 percent of your income, but if that's too high, start low and work your way up as you're able. Even putting away 1 percent is better than nothing, and it gets you in the habit of saving regularly. Best of all, you don't even have to think about it. Many employers allow employees who opt for direct deposit to designate an amount to savings and the balance to checking.
Almost everyone bounces a check or has to pay a late fee at least once.If you have a super-busy lifestyle, it can happen more frequently. And it can be really frustrating to cough up fees when you're working so hard to get ahead. Set up an email or text notification from your credit card issuer for a week before your payment is due. Other companies, even utilities, may do this as well. Some banks will also set up a notification when your checking account balance drops below a set amount.
Putting everything on one credit card, something many people do to maximize reward earnings, gives you a tidy, comprehensive record of all your spending every month. Some card issuers even break out your spending into categories, which makes it easy to trim and adjust spending as needed.
"If you put savings together in one big lump sum, it doesn't have emotional reach for you," says Lewis J. Altfest, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Finance at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University and author of the academic textbook Personal Financial Planning (McGraw Hill)."It's easier then to take money out as things come up. A better idea is to use the buckets approach." He explains that with this tactic, everything you need to save for is put into a separate savings account, or bucket. For example, one for your son's college tuition, another for a car, and a third for a home renovation.
Before you can pull out of savings for other things, you're forced to decide which goal is going to get delayed or compromised. We've all heard how our emotions can trick us into spending more. But it's also possible to trick our emotions in order to save more. "This approach makes it more likely for people to save and not run into problems," says Altfest.
Some credit cards have your back, so to speak, more than others. See if your card issuer offers a card option that waives late fees, doesn't impose penalty rates, or even offers streamlined telephone customer service to those card holders. For more advice on becoming a savvy credit card user, check out 6 Tips for Becoming a Smart Credit Card User.
Motivated to get on the right path towards achieving financial success? Check out 4 Ways to Make Progress Toward Your Financial Goals.