Financial worries are a fact of life for many Americans. But you don't have to accept that money struggles will be a problem forever. There are concrete steps that will help you take control of your money by tackling some of your biggest financial concerns.
In fact, here are six steps you should seriously consider taking ASAP so you can turn things around if you're having a hard time managing your money.
1. Get on a budget
This is common advice for a reason -- it's nearly impossible to manage your money effectively if you have no idea where it's going. You need to figure out what you're currently spending on, decide what changes you want to make, and give each dollar you earn a purpose. As part of your budgeting process, allocate at least some of those dollars to accomplishing financial goals.
There are lots of different kinds of budgets. For people facing financial struggles, a detailed budget that deals with every dollar is the best place to start, meaning your budgeted spending and saving matches your expected monthly income. Start by tracking your spending for 30 days to see where your income goes naturally. Then, allocate a set amount of money to different categories of spending and saving, while also leaving yourself a little wiggle room by budgeting between $50 and $100 for unexpected expenses.
If you can't make the income and outflow numbers add up, you know you have a serious problem that requires bigger changes. But, if you're able to tweak the numbers, reduce spending on certain areas, and divide up your monthly income into needs, wants, and saving, you're in pretty good shape. Try not to exceed your pre-determined spending limit because a budget does you no good if you don't use it.
2. Cut expenses
One of the big reasons for making a written budget is to identify areas where you're overspending. If you can reduce outflow on nonessentials, you'll have more money left over to do important things such as paying off debt and saving for your future.
Some common areas where people can cut spending include dining out, gym memberships, cable TV, shopping, travel, and entertainment. Try working out at home, taking your lunch to work, using coupons, and looking for free events in your area.
But if you have a big budget shortfall, you may need to cut more than your spending. Selling your expensive car and buying a cheaper used one, downsizing to a less expensive apartment, moving to a cheaper area, or taking in a roommate are all major cost-saving options that would have a huge impact on your financial situation.
3. Save up an emergency fund
If you are living paycheck to paycheck with no money saved at all, of course your financial life feels out of control. An emergency fund can help you regain control while keeping you out of debt.
Emergencies are inevitable, so set aside a good amount of cash to cover them. Ideally, you should have three to six months of living expenses saved up in an emergency fund so you're prepared for big disasters such as a job loss or serious health issue. But you can start small with an emergency fund -- especially if you have a lot of consumer debt to pay down.
Include saving for an emergency fund as a line item in your budget and put at least something away for emergencies every single month. Don't touch the cash in your emergency savings account unless you have a truly pressing financial need that you'd otherwise have to turn to a credit card or personal loan to cover. When you do tap the fund for emergencies, you need to build it back up so it's ready to help you out for the next expensive surprise you encounter.
4. Stop incurring new debt and make a debt payoff plan
Most people who are struggling financially are dealing with debt. If you're one of them, paying off what you owe could free up a huge amount of cash you can use for other things.
If your creditors are currently charging you high interest rates, or if you owe lots of different creditors, consider refinancing debt using a low-interest personal loan or transferring the balance of your cards to a 0% APR balance transfer card. Lowering your rate and consolidating your debt makes paying it off much easier. Paying off one lender instead of many can help you send as much extra cash as possible toward paying down debt.
If you can't consolidate and refinance debt, or if you're still left with multiple creditors, decide which creditors to pay first. There are two different approaches: You could use the debt snowball method and pay off debts with the lowest balance first, then shift extra payments to your debt with the next lowest balance. Or, you could use the debt avalanche method and pay off your highest-interest debt first, then move on to the debt with the next highest rate. Both approaches can be effective, with the debt avalanche saving you the most money, but the debt snowball can help you stay motivated as you see debt balances disappear.
Once you've paid down your debt, make a commitment not to go into debt again. You can do this by living on a budget and having a robust emergency fund to pay for the unexpected expenses that crop up.
5. Earn extra income
You can only cut spending so much, but there's no limit to the extra money you can earn. Asking for a raise, taking on a side hustle or joining the gig economy can boost your earnings substantially. This extra money can be used for debt repayment, savings, or giving you enough cash to cover the essentials.
If you plan to ask for a raise, come prepared with evidence of your professional successes and, ideally, with data showing others in a similar position are earning more. If a raise isn't justified right now, ask your employer how you could earn one in the future. The company you work for will likely be happy to see you're taking initiative and will provide you with insight into new responsibilities you could take on or skills you could develop to advance your career and move to a higher pay grade.
6. Automate your financial life
Financial management is tricky because it can be tiresome to force yourself to sacrifice and be responsible with money every single month. But you can eliminate a lot of temptation and ensure you're using your money wisely by automating your financial life.
Once you have a budget with a set amount of money allocated for savings and debt repayment, set up automatic bill pay and automatic transfers to your savings and investment accounts. Set up these transfers to happen the day you get paid, then limit yourself to only spending what's left over.
If your money goes where you need it to without any added effort, you won't have to force yourself to make the smart financial choice every time. You'll just have to adjust to living on what's available, as the rest of your money will be out of your hands.
Take these steps today
Taking these six steps today could help you significantly improve your financial life. While it may seem like a lot of effort, it's worth doing so you can invest in your future and alleviate your financial worries once and for all. Once you get started and see your debt balance go down and your savings balance grows, it will all be worth it in the end.