About half the U.S. population doesn’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency, according to a report from the Federal Reserve. If you’re among the 47% of cash-strapped Americans or your personal finances are otherwise pinched, now’s a good time to evaluate how to manage your money. Saving is important since it can prevent you from having to take out high-cost loans to cover expenses, which can damage your bank account further. Of course, it’s not always easy to pinpoint how to save money. One of the most important steps involves taking a good, hard look at the money you have coming in versus the money you have going out so that you can establish a solid budget — and stick to it. Here are five easy steps to help you get control of your personal finances.
1. Evaluate Your Income
How much money do you have coming in? Including your paycheck is a given, but don’t forget other income: A second job, alimony, child support or any other miscellaneous cash that you might have coming in. Write it all down and add it up.
2. Calculate Your Expenses
One of the most difficult steps in establishing a budget is determining how much money you’re spending — that is, how much money is going out. First, make a list of all your fixed expenses. This should include:
- Mortgage payments
- Car payments
- Child care expenses
- Other subscription services
Next, include variable expenses such as food, gas, entertainment, etc. Don’t forget about miscellaneous and maintenance expenses like property taxes, car maintenance, tag renewals, birthday gifts, etc. Once you’ve added up your outgoing monthly expenses, subtract them from your income and that’ll tell you whether you’re spending more than you earn. You’ll also get a better idea of where you can cut back.
3. Trim The Fat
Now that you’ve gotten the hard part out of the way, it’s time to look at where you can cut back. If you’re spending $60 a month at the local coffee shop for your daily double mocha lattes, consider only splurging once a week and switching to coffee at home. One way to easily determine areas where you may be able to cut costs is to evaluate which expenses are actual “needs” or “wants” or “nice-to-haves.” This can add a whole new perspective to your budgeting efforts and give you the extra push you need to cut the expenses that aren’t necessarily “needs.” Other ways to scale back on your overall spending and/or design a better budget include:
- Shopping around to see if you could secure a cheaper contract with your service providers, including your cable company or cell phone provider
- Calling existing service providers to see if you qualify for a lower rate or discount
- Looking into budgeting apps that can help you monitor your monthly spending and provide alerts if you’re spending more than you should overall or in specific categories
- Paying credit card bills more than once a month to prevent balances from climbing too high
- Considering a balance-transfer credit card that offers a 0% introductory annual percentage rate to minimize the costs associated with any high-interest credit card debt you’re carrying. (Note: Most balance transfers will cost a fee, usually around 2% to 3%.)
4. Pay Yourself
In today’s economic environment, it’s more important than ever to have a financial cushion for emergencies. Don’t forget to leave room to pay yourself. Setting aside enough money for savings or an emergency fund can make all the difference in the world when you’re blindsided with an unexpected job loss or financial emergency. Ideally, you should aim to have at least three to six months’ salary in your emergency fund, but even having $1,000 as a backup is better than no backup at all. If you’re struggling and can only afford a little each week, setting aside even $10 a week is better than nothing.
5. Stick to It
So you’ve established a solid budget and have a great plan in place — but how do you stick to it? It’ll take some dedication on your part, but the reward is well worth the effort. If you have a spouse, work together to hold each other accountable for any spending oversights. If one of you overspends, set rules that the guilty party has to contribute more to that month’s savings fund — a sort of quarter-jar method with a twist. It’s much easier to do when you’re working at it together and you can make it more of a competition to keep it interesting. If you’re single, consider creating a support group among your friends with a monetary reward for reaching your budgeting goals. Whether it’s a vacation fund or a night on the town, the extra incentive will help keep your eyes focused on the goal and make it fun in the process.
Monitor Your Credit
Keep in mind, too, that having a good credit score can also be instrumental when it comes to controlling your finances, since it ensures, should you need financing for an emergency, that you can qualify for the lowest interest rates. You can pull your credit report for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, at Credit.com. If your credit looks shoddy, you can try polishing it by disputing credit report errors and/or establishing a good payment history with a new line of starter credit, like a secured credit card or credit-builder loan. You can also work to pay down existing high debts.
Jeanine Skowronski contributed reporting.