Author: Kailey Hagen | January 16, 2020
Get your finances into shape this year
Whether you've made it a formal resolution or not, you're probably here because you want to get a little better at managing your money. A good budget lies at the foundation of all successful money management strategies, so this is a good place to begin.
Sticking to a budget can sound restrictive or intimidating, especially if you've tried and failed to do so in the past. But the following 30 tips can make it a little easier.
1. Get an emergency fund
Medical emergencies, appliance failures, and job losses all have two things in common: They're stressful and they're expensive. Even if you've been following your budget perfectly up until that point, an emergency's unexpected costs can make it impossible to stay on track going forward. Unless you have an emergency fund.
An emergency fund is spare cash you keep on hand for these situations so they don't devastate your budget. Yours should contain at least three months of living expenses or six months if you want to be extra safe. You should also make sure that it contains at least enough to cover your health insurance deductible in case you have a medical emergency. Decide what you can afford to set aside each month toward your emergency fund and keep saving until you reach your goal. Always replenish your emergency fund after you draw upon it.
2. Use a budgeting app
Tracking your budget used to involve spreadsheets and complicated math, but today, there are many budgeting apps that do most of the work for you. They can help you track your purchases, identify areas of overspending, and help keep you on track for your savings goals. Many of them are free to use. Give one of these a try if you struggle to keep track of your spending every month.
3. Don't get too granular
Budgets that are too granular are time-consuming to keep up with and you're more likely to give them up. "Grocery shopping" or "clothing" should be detailed enough. You don't have to break down costs for every single item that you bought. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide how much detail you want in your budget, but remember, you'll have to stick to this budget month after month, so you want it to be easy to work with.
4. Find someone to hold you accountable
Those who lack willpower to save money on their own may have better luck working with a partner. This could be a spouse, a friend, a family member, or a coworker. Talking through your challenges with budgeting and giving each other encouragement can help keep you on track. You might also be able to help each other save money by sharing money-saving tips and seeking out free activities instead of ones that cost money.
5. Institute a waiting period
Force yourself to wait at least 24 hours before buying an item you don't actually need. Use this time to reflect upon whether you actually need the item and to shop around for better deals and coupons if you decide to buy it. Sometimes, just getting yourself past that initial "I need it" impulse can prevent you from making a purchase you'd regret. If you still want to buy the item but decide that it's not smart to buy it immediately, you can set aside a little money for it each month until you've saved enough.
6. Use coupons
Coupons can help you save money on many of your purchases, including everyday items like groceries. Scan your local newspaper for coupons and check for coupon codes online. You might also consider subscribing to the mailing lists for your favorite stores so you can stay up to date on upcoming sales and receive coupons. This might not be a smart move if you're tempted to buy things just because they're on sale, though.
7. Know what you're saving for
You probably have some savings goals, like retirement, in your budget. Keeping these in mind can help you stay motivated to stick to your budget instead of spending impulsively. You might want to put up pictures of what you're saving for or make a list that you can review periodically. Whenever you're tempted to stray from your budget, ask yourself if the item you want to buy is worth delaying your savings goals even longer.
8. Automate your savings
Automating your savings eliminates the risk that you'll forget to set aside money for your savings goals yourself. See if your bank account permits auto-transfers from your checking account to your savings account. Otherwise, set reminders for yourself so you remember to transfer the funds each month. Do this before you make any discretionary purchases so you don't accidentally spend more than you meant to.
9. Don't forget about irregular expenses
It's easy to remember recurring monthly expenses when creating a budget, but they're not the only costs you'll run into throughout the year. You might have some bills you only have to pay quarterly or annually and then there's wedding season, planned vacations, and the holidays to think about.
Think about your year ahead and write down all the irregular expenses that you foresee. You may also want to go back through your bank and credit card statements from the last year to check for irregular expenses you may have forgotten about.
10. Don't store your credit cards in online accounts
You're much less likely to go through with an online purchase if you have to reenter your credit card information every time. This is a simple trick that can help you resist the temptation to spend impulsively. It may not work on every site, though, as some automatically save your credit card information when you create your account.
11. Tune out ads
Ads are designed to make you want to buy something, and it's often something you don't actually need. Ads today are tailored to you based on your previous shopping and search habits, making it more difficult to ignore them, but you have to find a way to tune them out. Install an ad blocker on your cell phone and your internet browser to reduce how many ads you see and unsubscribe from mailing lists if you're easily tempted to buy.
12. Stick to your shopping list
You should always make a shopping list, whether you're buying groceries or holiday gifts, and stick to it. It can help speed up your shopping as well as prevent unnecessary purchases. Preparing your shopping list in advance can also help you identify the items that you want so you can seek out coupons to help you save even more money.
13. Take advantage of sales
When you plan to purchase a big-ticket item, try to wait for an upcoming sale. The company might advertise sales in its newsletter or on its website. Many companies also run sales around the holidays. Sometimes, you can get the best deals by buying things right after a season ends, like buying next year's lawn care supplies in the fall. If you need to save up to purchase your big-ticket item, figure out how much you must save per month in order to reach your goal by the sale date.
14. Think of cost in hours
Another mental trick you can use to prevent yourself from buying things you shouldn't is to think of cost in terms of hours. For example, if you make $20 per hour and you want to buy something that's $200, ask yourself if that item is really worth 10 hours of work before you buy it. Thinking about it in this way gives you a better sense of the hard work that went into earning your money and the real value of the item you want to buy.
15. Stick to cash
When we use a credit or debit card, it's more difficult to gauge just how much money we're spending, but when we use cash, we're more aware of it. Consider switching to cash if you're guilty of overspending on your cards. Some people employ an envelope system where they designate a certain amount of money for each of their expenses and place the allotted cash in different envelopes to make sure they stick to their budget.
16. Coordinate with your spouse
Married couples need to make sure both partners are on the same page with their budget. It doesn't matter how well one person sticks to it if the other is spending money left and right. Sit down and discuss your expenses and financial goals and decide how much you're going to allot to each one. Check in with each other periodically to make sure that you're on track and make adjustments to your budget if need be so both partners are happy with it.
17. Seek out free entertainment
Rather than shopping at the mall, going to dinner and a movie, or hitting the bar with friends, consider activities like hiking, a game night at home, or picking up a new hobby. Seeking out new, less expensive activities can help save you money and it might also introduce you to new people and interests you wouldn't have otherwise discovered.
18. Go generic
Generic products are often just as good as name-brand products and cost a fraction of the price. Whenever possible, buy the generic product unless you notice a significant difference in quality. Most of the time you won't and the few dollars you save on every purchase will begin to add up. You can track these savings if you'd like to keep yourself even more motivated to stick to your budget.
19. Shop around
Do your research online before purchasing a big-ticket item to see if you can find the same or a comparable product for a more affordable price elsewhere. But make sure you only shop on legitimate websites. Always make sure the site begins with "https" and has a small lock icon near the URL bar. This is how you know you're dealing with a secure website that protects your financial information. You should also check local stores near you if they happen to sell the product you're interested in.
20. Kick expensive habits
Smoking is a costly habit that can lead to even more costly medical problems. Drinking excessively and eating a lot of junk food can also cause health issues down the road. Aim to kick those habits this year, not only for your financial wellbeing, but also for your physical wellbeing so that you can go on to live a long and healthy life. Consult your doctor if you're unsure of how to achieve these goals.
21. Use your credit cards wisely
Credit cards can be a smart way to make purchases if you restrict yourself to spending only as much as you can pay back at the end of the month. Then, you won't have to worry about paying any interest and you can earn credit card rewards. Once you've accumulated enough rewards, you can use them to finance future purchases. Check with your credit card issuer to see what types of rewards you can earn with your card.
22. Cut unnecessary expenses
Trimming the fat from your budget can make it much easier to stick to. Once you've made a list of all your purchases, look for expenses you probably don't need to pay for anymore. This might include subscriptions you're not using, excess cell phone data, or dining out too often. Reduce or eliminate these expenses to free up more money for your savings goals.
23. Pay down debt
Debt payments have to be part of your budget if you have any, but you have some control over how long you have to pay for them. Paying extra per month if you can afford to do so can help you pay your debt off more quickly and save money on interest. High-interest debt, like credit card debt, is especially important to get rid of because it offers you no benefit and it can grow over time instead of shrinking if you're not serious about paying it off.
Make a list of all your debts, including how much you owe and their APRs. Plan to make the minimum payment on all of them and then place your extra money on the debt with the highest interest rate first. When that's paid off, move onto the debt with the next-highest interest rate, and so on, until all your debts are paid off.
24. Don't window shop
Browsing your favorite store's website or walking through the mall when you don't need to buy anything can tempt you into spending money unnecessarily. Avoid shopping until you actually need something and then go into it with a list of what you plan to buy. Resist the temptation to browse for other deals just because you're there.
25. Negotiate your bills
You might not realize it, but there are many bills you can negotiate, including medical bills, cable and internet bills, and cell phone service. You can also negotiate fees and interest rates with your credit card issuer. It's worth a shot if you'd like to save yourself a few dollars each month. The worst that they can say is no.
Come prepared to explain why you think you deserve what you're asking for and research competitors' offers to give yourself more leverage. You can also highlight your loyalty to the company if you've used its services for a long time.
26. Seek out ways to boost your income
When your budget is tight and you can't cut costs any further, try increasing your income instead. You could work overtime when you need a little extra cash, request a raise, or switch employers. Starting a side hustle is another option. Think about how much extra cash you want and which path you think will best work with your lifestyle. Remember, you still owe taxes on all your extra income, even if it doesn't come out of your paycheck every month. You might have to set this money aside yourself and pay it in quarterly to the government.
27. Don't be afraid to say no to others
Whether it's a toddler begging for a new toy or a relative asking to borrow a few dollars, it's OK to say no. If you have the money to give and you want to, that's fine, but if you don't, don't let anyone else derail your budget. Giving into every request for money could threaten your financial stability and then you won't be able to help anyone.
If you'd like to give but cannot afford to do so financially, see if you can help out in other ways, like helping the person create a budget or find a job that will give them the money they need to cover their expenses on their own.
28. Let yourself have some fun
Budgets that are too rigid are the hardest to stick to. You have to allow yourself some money to spend on wants every month. But don't go overboard. First, figure out how much money you need to cover your living expenses. Then, allot a certain amount for savings, and then you can spend the money that's left over afterward guilt-free. If you don't spend all your discretionary money one month, you can roll it over into the next month or put it toward your savings goals.
29. Build in a cushion
It's always a good idea to leave yourself some extra wiggle room in your budget in case some expenses cost a little more than you thought. If gas prices go up, you might end up spending more to get to and from work than you thought. Or you might need to spend a little more on groceries one month. Having a little extra room in your budget will prevent these small fluctuations from turning into a problem.
30. Make adjustments to your budget as needed
Your budget might not be perfect right out of the gate. That's OK. Review your budget every month and reallocate your funds as necessary. You might realize that you assigned way too much money toward groceries and not nearly enough for transportation costs. Change things up for next month and keep making adjustments until you find a budget that works for you. Just make sure you're covering your important expenses first and not spending too much money on discretionary purchases.
Ready to make 2020 your best year yet?
Every budgeting trick on this list may not appeal to you, but try out a few and see what kind of a difference they can make. The important thing is to stick with them. It might take a little time to get used to, but you'll be glad you did when you see the difference that budgeting can make to your bank account and your overall financial security.
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