Let’s be honest. A whole slew of Americans — almost two-thirds by several counts — have no idea how much money they spend in a month. They also have little idea where their money goes. Yes, taxes and other deductions take a chunk right off the top of their paychecks, but the rest seems to just fly out the window (or into the ether) without a trace. If this sounds familiar, the first piece of good news is that it’s not just you. The second is that, yes, there is a way out of this financial fog, into a space where you control your hard-earned money.
It’s called a budget. And you need one. Here’s how to proceed:
Figure Out What You Want
First, spend some time thinking about what you want to do financially in the next six months or a year. Would you like to start or build up your emergency fund? Maybe pay off some pesky credit card debt? Or perhaps you just want to grow your savings. No matter the goals, make them specific, set a timeframe for each, prioritize which are most important, and write them down. For example, if you want to bulk up your emergency fund to a full six months’ worth of living expenses, run some numbers to see how much your basic necessities set you back each month. We’re talking rent, utilities, health insurance, groceries, and transportation if you need to travel for your job. Once you have that number, multiply it by six. Then, figure out how much you can set aside monthly to achieve that goal. It may take a while, and that’s understandable. Even slow progress is progress!
Track Your Spending
There are online tools that can help with tracking: Mint, YNAB, and others. Some are free. Some have a small monthly fee. But, if you are starting a budget from scratch, it’s a good idea to gather two or three months of your financial data to get a true understanding of your personal spending patterns. That means everything from credit card bills to statements from your financial institution to your Venmo transactions. If tracking endlessly seems daunting, we know from practice that even a month of real-time tracking can be enough to raise your awareness to a take-action level.
Once you have everything together, it’s time to make adjustments. Where could you spend less? Where could you spend a lot less? After you’ve identified the amount you think you can save in total each month, divide by four then schedule a weekly transfer out of your checking account and into savings to make it happen.
Automate to Help Yourself Succeed
We know that making these changes is hard, so automating — scheduling the aforementioned electronic transfers, for example — is like giving yourself some helpful guardrails. But don’t stop with this one. If you want to make sure you’re saving in 529 college savings accounts, IRAs and other retirement accounts, Health Savings Account or for other particular goals, automate transfers into those accounts too. And consider putting certain bills on automatic payment as well. It’s like insurance against paying late.
We know some people can feel like a budget is as restrictive as a crash diet. It may help to think about it as a map to where you want your money to take you long term. If you’re interested in particular budgeting strategies, we’ve got a number for you to take a look at here.
Making Up Your Mind Is the Most Important Move
The big thing that many people don’t understand is that although making sure that all of the pieces fall into place eventually is important — the most important thing you are changing is your mind. By deciding that you’re going to get your finances and your budget under control, you’ve taken one big step…maybe the biggest of all…toward financial security. You’ve got this.
If you would like some help with your budget, reach out to one of Town & Country’s personal finance coaches. We can work with you on building a budget that works for you and share resources and tools to help get and stay you on track. Visit tcfcu.com; call 800.649.3495 to schedule an appointment today.