I’m a finance writer with a confession to make: Even though I’ve published dozens of articles helping families set financial priorities and achieve their goals, I’m not happy with the way my family currently manages our money.
It’s not that we’re in terrible shape. Thanks to 1. A TON of privilege and 2. Various smart habits over the years, we've got a lot in our favor, financially. Our credit cards, and even our cars, are paid off. The only debt we carry is the mortgage. Our retirement funds are on track for our age (I’m a little behind due to paycheck-to-paycheck living in my twenties, but my husband’s ahead, so it evens out). We generally live within our means.
The problem is we live *all the way* within our means, spending too much on wants and investing too little into savings. We’re on a maintenance path, not a growth path.
This year, that changes, starting right here on this website. If you can relate to feeling financially stuck, let’s break the pattern together!
With a second baby on the way, my sights are set on finding our family’s “forever home,” and I’ve set myself a 5-year deadline to come up with a down payment. Maybe you’re saving toward a first home, catching up on retirement savings, or building an emergency fund for security and peace of mind. Whatever your big goal may be, these strategies can get you closer this year:
Write It Out
You know how sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with a fantastic idea you’re sure you’ll remember in the morning? How often do you actually remember it? Same for epiphanies in the shower. Having an idea is great, but often fleeting.
Write ideas down, though, and they’re much more likely to stick. Make sure you’re setting a specific goal. “Save money” or “save *more* money” doesn’t mean a lot. “Save $10,000 by December 31st” is much clearer.
Break It Down
I love making big plans, but I can get intimidated by tackling the whole project in one swoop. Or, sometimes, I get super excited to attempt a major leap, and burn out because I’m pushing my pace way too fast.
Where I live, I regularly see house listings for around $400,000 for homes that fit my family. According to REALTOR Magazine, the average homebuyer offered 11% as a down payment, and borrowers under 35 offered only 8%. We’re shooting for a 10% payment. Ten percent of $400,000 is $40,000, which, divided into a 5-year plan, results in $8,000 per year.
Taking it down even further, we should be saving about $670 per month, or about $154 per week. This is much more achievable than going for the whole chunk of cash ASAP.
Make Saving Money a Game
Part of the reason I’m starting this blog at all is because it’s fun. I love writing, and I’m excited about the idea of connecting with other people interested in being smarter with money. Counting dollars by myself sounds miserable. Making a space to share thoughts and meet people is like throwing a little online party.
I’m also something of a planner geek, so I’m trying bullet journaling to blend organization and creativity. It’s so easy to find ideas on Pinterest for whimsical budget trackers and savings challenges to add a fresh spin to a plain checking-to-savings transfer. Pick a cheap or free treat you’ll actually love, and reward yourself if you win your monthly challenge.
Change One Habit
I’m not going to suggest you cut down to the leanest budget you can live on. Feeling deprived on a diet tends to make you want to binge on whatever treats are nearby. A starvation budget is the same. If I feel like I can’t have anything I like, it makes me resentful, and more likely to splurge on things I would never have bought otherwise.
Instead, think in terms of changing one habit that costs money. For me, that means skipping my Stitch Fix box. I just got new things for Christmas, and a friend passed on a whole bag of maternity hand-me-downs. There’s no way I need new clothes right now! But I can guarantee I’d talk myself into buying some cute things if they showed up at my doorstep.
Choose one change to focus on, and follow through by stashing what you’d otherwise spend into your savings account.
No matter how badly you want a certain goal, you’re bound to lose motivation at some point. Motivation is based in excitement, and once the novelty wears off, the energy fades. Sticking to a plan for the long haul takes time, and time requires discipline.
Being disciplined is great because unlike feeling motivated, you can be disciplined no matter your mood. Motivation kicks in when a plan feels good (whether it’s because the end goal is so enticing, or you’re currently scared off by a threat in your current life). Discipline is the action, plain and simple. You can grumble all the way through it without affecting its power.
One way to build discipline if you’re out of practice following a habit, rather than your mood, is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Delete shopping apps, unsubscribe from promotional emails from your favorite store, and toss catalogues in the trash as soon as they hit your mailbox. I’m even avoiding Buzzfeed this month because they tend to publish lists of cheap tchotchkes that are Millennial catnip. (I like succulents in rose gold planters. I’m a little basic like that. Don’t judge me.)
If you do stumble across an appealing new purchase, try setting a deadline. Chances are, no matter how urgent the ad sounds, this item really will still be around in a day, a week, or even a month. Will you still want it?
To recap, your budget is more likely to reap rewards if you:
Write a specific goal
Break the goal into a manageable mini-task for the week or month
Find an enjoyable way to track savings
Change one habit to redirect money
Cut your biggest temptation
Ready to start the year off strong? Subscribe for practical ideas to save money without missing out on fun!