When you spend your days caring for others, it can be particularly hard to care for yourself. One of the most overlooked ways to do this is future financial planning. Life can get busy, especially when it feels like you are living paycheck to paycheck, and it can be a headache to even begin examining your finances and planning for the future.
While it may be daunting to get started, the good news is that there are proven ways to reduce spending, save for retirement, and achieve financial peace of mind. Many of them are easier than you might think! In this article we will examine seven helpful strategies for better financial planning.
1. Establish a base of emergency savings
Living with little to no savings is frightening. And while it may be no easy task, it is important before any other steps toward financial freedom that you build up at least a few months of emergency funds—ideally six months, but three is a good starting goal. These would be just the costs to cover basic needs such as rent/mortgage and food in the event of an emergency. Wherever you see any extra money, don’t spend it. Instead, put it into an easy-to-access account, and continue doing this until you’ve got a few months of funds built up. Do whatever you need to do to collect money—cut costs, pick up extra shifts, sell unneeded stuff, etc.—to complete this step so that you can proceed to the next steps with some security.
Once you have saved up a safety bucket, it is time to start seeking ways to decrease month-to-month spending, paving the way to more savings. We’ll start with eliminating debts.
2. Eliminate debts step by step
Financial experts stress that the most important way to gain financial freedom is to reduce and eliminate debt as quickly as possible, leaving you more money month to month with which to invest, save, and even be generous. It’s a kind of snowball effect strategy: paying off debts from smallest to largest. For example, if you owe the least on some household appliance, next to least on a vehicle, more on student loans and most on a home mortgage, then you would strategically put any surplus money you have into paying off your debt in that order. Even eliminating just one of these monthly payments puts more money into your pocket, allowing you to save more for the future.
3. Budget over all
Creating a budget to live by is fun for some, and dreadful for others. I lived for years without a budget, and always dreaded looking at my statements at the end of the month, almost always surprised that I spent more than I realized. This was a sure way to lose money I could have been saving. Though it can be a lot of work getting started, the good thing about a budget is that once you’ve determined your regular costs, sticking to it is pretty simple—with some new disciplines and routines that will become habitual with time.
There are many programs to use for budgeting. Many people like to use Excel, either making their own or using a template. For others, there are all kinds of apps designed specifically for budgeting, such as Mint—which is great for budgeting as a couple. Such apps can sync to your bank account and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, even sending reminders and high spending alerts. Whatever you choose, just stay consistent with it.
When making a budget, what you need to do first is calculate all your regular, static costs—housing costs, any loans that you have not yet eliminated, utilities, charitable giving, etc. You can look for ways to reduce these of course, but for now we are just getting a feel for what needs to be spent each month. Next, it is important to look at other essential spending that is more flexible, such as food and transportation. Then you’ll examine non-essential spending and decide where you can cut. Print out statements from the last 3 to 6 months and categorize spending to determine how much on average you spend per category. This part can be very eye-opening: We’re spending how much on take-out?! But it’s also the part where you can really start to reduce spending. Do I need all these monthly subscriptions? That grocery spending seems higher than necessary—can I shop smarter? Do I really need a gym membership?
Many families and individuals are amazed to find that they can cut hundreds of dollars each month just by keeping track of spending and staying within set parameters. You may have to make some lifestyle changes—that is a choice you should make for yourself—and that can be challenging, but if it helps you put more away for retirement, isn’t it worth it? Everyone has different preferences and consumer habits. So, this lifestyle change will look different for you than it would for me. For instance, you may value fashionable clothes, and perhaps you can cut costs by shopping clearance or even at consignment stores more than you normally would.
Regardless of your shopping preferences, there is one category you can likely reduce costs in no matter what: food. Let’s dive deeper into that.
4. Plan meals the smart way
For my family, one of the biggest changes to our monthly spending came after realizing how much we were spending on groceries and dining. Even though we cooked a lot of our own food, we only thought about food on a day-to-day basis, causing us to be inefficient with ingredients, and let more food go to waste. We also didn’t think we ordered take-out that often, but the amount we had spent at restaurants seemed way higher than necessary.
We began making a weekly meal plan, often including at least a couple bulk recipes that stretched cheap ingredients over several meals and allowed us to take food to work rather than spending lots of money at the cafeteria. We started our meal plan by examining what ingredients we already have, and picked recipes that use them up, and shop only for what we are lacking to make the recipes. This goes a long way to cut down on food waste and eliminates unnecessary spending at the grocery store. This shift not only has saved us hundreds per month, but it has also cut down the time we spend thinking about what to eat each day.
I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but learning to prepare more food on your own is an excellent way to cut down on costs. So, I’d highly recommend taking steps to learn at least some basic cooking staples to throw in here and there.
5. Get DIY savvy
There are lots of ways to save around the house by learning how to make minor repairs. Try to borrow tools that you won’t need to use often, rather than buy them. Get creative with storage instead of spending lots of money on expensive storage solutions. Or up-cycle old furniture. This is a relatively easy way to save hundreds, if not thousands per year.
6. Seek automatic savings options with your bank
Many banks offer programs that automatically transfer sums into your savings account. Some simply round up the change on every deposit or withdrawal. Others allow you to choose a specific amount for a certain time each month. Having this done, can allow you to plan your budget around what’s left after putting some money away each month, rather than the other way around.
7. Start an individual retirement account
Lastly, it is very important to have some sort of retirement plan in place. You may be entitled to one through your employer, or perhaps you are married and your spouse is. If so, be sure you are making the best out of those accounts by depositing as much as you are able from each paycheck, especially if your employer matches those contributions up to a certain amount.
If you do not have a retirement plan through your employer or your spouse’s, you can start an individual retirement account (IRA) or agreement. There are various types of IRAs. Talk to your bank to get the differences explained as well as for some useful info on how to start one.
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