As you stroll by the packed windows of January-effect health clubs, consider this: the first month of the year is a time of good intentions that pave the way to…well, despair, anyway. I’d be willing to bet more than half of those health-seeking treadmill joggers in the window will get home and spend time staring at spreadsheets, trying to make their personal financial situation healthier, too. Sadly, we know that a large percentage of these do-gooders won’t make it to Valentine’s Day, and many won’t even make it past their first January paycheck. They’ll suffer from the dreaded “goal release,” and settle back into old habits. One big reason: They’re being too hard on themselves. The best way to make a goal and stick to it is to make it easy. I’m here to help. Here’s a few very practical things you can do right now so you really will be better with money in 2018. (Oh, and as for better health, start here: Make a 5-minute exercise routine that requires no special equipment and do it every day!)
1) Weekly ‘bad news’ text alerts
This is really easy, and every effective. Nearly everyone is surprised when their credit card bill arrives at the end of the month, especially that dreaded January credit card bill. A simple way to avoid that bill shock is to tell your bank to send you a text message every week with your balance. (It’s probably free, and simple to do via online banking.) That way, the bad news is right in your face. I have mine arrive on Friday, just as I might be gearing up to overspend on a happy hour. It’s sobering, but it works. Also, you’ll be surprised how strong the temptation is to not even open the text message (even for me!). That should tell you how strong the “ignorance is bliss–until the end of the month” force can be. This works with checking account balances, too, by the way. That also will help you avoid overdrafts.
2. Try a a credit cleanse! (An all-cash week)
This is a related, but also powerful, tip. Plenty of research shows people spend more when they are paying later. In a new book called Dollars and Sense by Dan Arielly and Jeff Kreisler, the authors say that cash leaving your fingertips is quite literally painful — it activates pain centers in your brain. Swiping a credit card does not. This gap between spending and pain is what causes people to overspend. Anything you can do to close that gap is going to help you spend less. Moving to an all-cash life is a drastic step in that direction, and if you can manage that, you probably aren’t reading my advice. Down here on planet Earth, credit cards are part of life now. You probably use them. But simply moving to all-cash for a week or two will remind you how much money slips effortlessly out of your hands each week on small things like lunch and coffee. Think of it as a week without cookies or desserts, which can help reset your palette to enjoy healthier foods. Do this two or three times a year and you’ll reset your spending palette.
3. Make a spreadsheet.
Or a Word doc. Or a Google doc. Or a text message. But make SOMETHING.
Just, write it down. It’s easier than ever to type out a list of monthly expenses and income. Heck, spreadsheets are free now, thanks to Google. And, they’re easy to view and update from anywhere. Seeing your numbers in black and white is always sobering. But it works. It doesn’t have to be hard. You can do it in the time it takes to read this paragraph. Just write out your rent, car payment, utilities, food bill, etc, on one side, and your paycheck on the other. Use fancy software to debit one from the other if you like. Update it monthly if you like. But write it down.
4. Find the ‘One Surprise’
Somewhere in your life is a place where you spend more than you think every year. Maybe it’s a pub around the corner. Maybe it’s Target. Maybe it’s an airline. But somewhere, there is the One Surprise. January is a great time to find out which company is the beneficiary of a little too much of your charity. Lots of credit card companies provide you with tools to see which merchants get your money. Sort them by amount. Then ask yourself: “Could I spend even 10% less on hamburgers or towels this year?” I promise, this will be the easiest way to cut down on expenses in 2018.
5. Ask yourself the ‘5 questions’
I’m a big believer that many troubles occur because people simply lose touch with their day-to-day financial reality. They’re busy raising kids, trying to please their boss, trying to take care of a sick parent, and so on. Life is messy. Regular, simple check-ins with money can help avoid those big, painful surprises. In my book Stop Getting Ripped Off, I suggest people ask themselves 5 financial questions on a regular basis to make sure they’re financial train is still running on the tracks. They are:
- How much cash do you have in your primary checking account right now?
- What is your retirement account balance?
- What is the interest rate on your primary credit card?
- How much money did you spend last month? And ..
- How much would you need to survive for 6 months if you lost your job?
You might be able to come up with better questions for your personal situation, but you get the gist. If you can’t answer simple questions like this, you have dangerously checked out of your financial situation. (In a fairly recent test, one third of people couldn’t ever answer the credit card interest question!)
6. Just avoid bingeing
Diets fail for plenty of reasons, but here’s a big one: the occasional carton of ice cream. You can make good decisions all week, but one night of weakness undoes all that hard work. Worse yet, we tend to give ourselves too much credit for the good decisions, and not enough blame for these slip-ups. University of Colorado researcher Margaret Campbell calls this “progress bias.” With money, it can look like this: you spend an entire week week bringing lunch to work instead of eating out, saving $50, and then treat yourself on Friday to a $100 dinner as a reward. Clearly, that math doesn’t work. It’s not the small mistakes that kill your budget, it’s the big ones. Simply avoid these financial sand traps and you’ll have much better odds at staying on track.
7. Be kind to yourself
Finally, I believe this is the most important tip of all. Readers of my Restless Project series know I firmly believe that many American families are victims of economic forces that are far beyond their control — namely, housing costs are double what they were a generation ago. By that, I mean housing eats up twice as much of a typical family’s budget every month. So if you feel like you just can’t make the numbers work each month, you are right. Only 46 percent of people told Pew recently that they earn more than they spend every month. Obviously, that’s unsustainable. It’s part of the reason we are all driving each other crazy. And it’s definitely part of the reason you feel like “there’s always something” that screws up your well-laid financial plans. Throw on top of that the gig economy and the surprise-paycheck phenomenon, capricious weather and high heating bills, record student loan balances, tax uncertainty…and, well, you get the picture. Beating yourself up over financial troubles won’t help. Do what you can. Make plans. Try your best. But when things go wrong, don’t despair. Just try again next month. Know that you are fighting a pretty tough battle right now, with very little margin for error, and mistakes are going to happen.