Budgeting. I know, it sounds like the absolute worst—especially if you’re not in the habit. But hear me out for a second: Taking control of your finances isn’t as angst-inducing as most people make it out to be. And, actually, you’ll feel less anxious about money when you know where your paycheck really goes each month.
So how do you get started? Try these four simple steps to help you understand your spending, simplify your finances, and even keep a little more in the bank each month. (No coupon clipping or Ramen noodles required.)
1. Direct Deposit
If you don’t get your paycheck by direct deposit, you’re wasting valuable time standing in line to deposit it (and possibly costing yourself overdraft fees). But if your check goes right into your account on payday, you know the money will be there when your bills come out, and you won’t have to worry about making it to the bank before it closes on Friday.
To simplify your finances even further, set up an automatic deduction to divert some of your paycheck into a savings or retirement account—if that money never even touches your checking account, you’ll be much less tempted to spend it! Contact your bank to get information on savings accounts, money markets, or Roth IRAs, or look into 401(k) or 403(b) plans with your employer. Once you’ve decided on the best option for you, direct at least $50 to this savings or retirement account each month.
2. Auto Pay
Car insurance, rent, utilities, your cell phone. You probably have more monthly bills than you care to think about—but regardless, you need to stay on top of how they get paid.
This one’s easy. Set up automatic payments, either through your service providers directly or via your bank’s online bill-pay, and you’ll stop having to worry about late fees—plus you’ll save on postage and sometimes even get a small discount! Sounds like a simple change, but according to David Bach, the Today Show’s financial guru, automating your finances is the best decision you can make for your money (watch his explanation here).
And don’t worry about the amount of your bill changing without you realizing it—most companies will still send you written notification before any increases or adjustments to your account.
3. Track Expenses
Let's face it: You probably forget about many of the small swipes you make multiple times a week—snacks at the gas station, Starbucks runs, a sandwich on the go—which can leave you wondering where all your money went at the end of the month.
So what’s the best way to keep track of everything? I’ll admit to actually enjoying balancing my checkbook, but don’t worry—you don’t have to: There are tons of tools out there that make it super easy to keep track of what you’re spending. If you want to actually write everything down (experts say this will make it more real), I recommend the Mead Budget OrganizHer available at Target. (Visit Mead Home Manager to download free inserts to customize your notebook.)
If you hate writing down every little swipe, sites like Mint.com or LearnVest will automatically pull information from your bank accounts, credit cards, retirement accounts, and loans to analyze where your money is going. Both sites also have tools to help you set a monthly budget (with categories!), set savings goals, find money-saving tips, and more.
4. Review at the End of the Month
One of the most important parts of budgeting is evaluating how you’re doing and adjusting as needed. So, at the end of the month, sit down (Grab some ice cream! Make it fun!) and review where your paycheck has gone. How much did you spend on eating out? Are you paying your bills on time? Do you have any money left over that you could put in savings or toward a credit card?
When you sit down to compare your budget to your actual expenses for the first time, you’ll probably be surprised to see what the numbers tell you about the state of your finances. But, being honest with yourself is the only way you’ll be able to make progress, set reachable goals, and get on the path to a secure financial future. (Yeah, I’m going to be talking about savings, investing, retirement, and more—but we’ll get to all of that later!)