Five Ideas for How to Solve Your Financial Problems
Do you feel like your finances are a mess? What exactly qualifies your finances as a ‘mess,’ anyway? There are lots of rules of thumb and general advice out there—you should have two months’ worth of wages saved as an emergency fund, you should have three times your salary saved for retirement by age 40, and the like. What if you don’t; are your finances a mess? If you’re like most Americans, that may be the case.
The truth is that about 63% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and 30% of Americans struggle to come up with $400 to pay for an emergency expense. Regardless of your personal circumstances, here are five steps to consider taking to improve your financial situation.
1. ASSESS YOUR SITUATION & IDENTIFY NEXT STEPS
Before we can take steps to clean up our personal finances, we must first understand where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow or at least some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
We often fall in love with the ‘makeover’ story on TV, like dramatic weight loss or a home renovation—the magical transformation in a short period of time. If your finances are a mess, chances are that didn’t happen overnight, so it’s unfair to expect that cleaning them up can or will happen on a similarly short timeline. As they say, patience is a virtue and it’s important to take smaller steps over time to create sustainable habits for long-term stability. As a high school basketball coach, if I find my team trailing our opponent, I always remind them that there’s no 10-point shot that’s magically going to give us the lead; we’re going to have to stay focused, be disciplined, and chip away at the deficit one basket at a time.
How did we get into this mess in the first place? The answer(s) to that question can inform how we get out. Perhaps you tend to overspend or rely on credit cards. Or maybe you’ve experienced hardship outside of your control like medical bills, or necessary but unplanned auto or home repairs. Below we’ll look at some examples of how we can try to curb our spending, limit or end our reliance on borrowed money to make purchases, or lessen the burden of certain expenses such as medical bills.
Now that we’ve identified where we are today financially, let’s think about the future and where we want to be. One of my favorite questions begins with, “If you had a magic wand…” because it lets us make full use of our imagination. So, if you had a magic wand, what would your post-mess finances look like? The answer will be different for each of us based on our unique perspectives. What does financial success look like to you? Regardless of what that vision includes—Lamborghinis and international travel or a more modest lunch with friends and a new pair of shoes—it can’t be achieved without concrete, actionable next steps. Let’s start with a detailed review of our finances.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to create a budget. Take an in-depth look at how much money you have coming in monthly versus what your monthly expenses are. Depending on how dire your finances may currently seem, perhaps it’s appropriate to consider how to stop living paycheck to paycheck or think about creative ways to save money on a tight budget. One approach you can take to lighten the expense side of your budget is to categorize your monthly expenses into essentials, non-essentials, and luxuries.
How many of your non-essential and luxury expenses can you reduce or eliminate, even on a temporary basis, until you make some progress towards your financial goals? Do you have any habits that you could scale back or do without? Cut out some of those first; subscriptions like wine-of-the-month clubs or streaming services are an easy place to start. Are there skills you can use to accomplish tasks without having to pay someone else for the labor? Things like DIY home projects, car maintenance, or making your daily coffee at home. Can you turn the temperature down one or two degrees at home? Think of these as short-term sacrifices for long-term success and sustainability.
3. DEBT AND PAYMENTS
This is where patience and sticking to your aforementioned budget become critical. Remember, there’s no 10-point shot that is going to magically fix your finances overnight.
Instead of paying the minimum, can you make full bill payments more often to cut down on the total interest paid? Based on your short- and long-term goals, does it make sense to make additional principal payments, or would that money be better used somewhere else, such as your emergency fund or investments?
Another tactic that can be helpful in tackling debt is negotiation. Many may not be aware that medical bills, for example, can be negotiated. I had the pleasure of hearing career development expert Brooks Harper speak at a recent Vermont Chamber of Commerce event. He has a quote about negotiating in job interviews that can be applied to the debt you’re faced with, too: “In order to G-E-T you have to A-S-K.”
Are you a habitual late payer? I get it—you grab the mail when you get home from work, it lands on the ‘dump it’ table, and you forget about it until your cat knocks the pile onto the floor. Automate as many of your payments as possible. The catch is that you then have to ensure you have sufficient funds to cover these payments, which may not be a safe bet for everyone. This is another place to exercise that budget you created earlier.
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4. THE EASTER EGG
If you’re paid bi-weekly, there’s a bit of an ‘Easter egg’ hidden in your finances that you may not have even thought of! In a typical year, there will be two months where you receive three paychecks instead of two. Consider each of these a ‘bonus’ and put them towards the most immediate need related to your financial goals. Whether this is building your emergency fund or making additional payments on your debt, make these ‘extra’ checks count.
5. ADDITIONAL INCOME
Once you’ve balanced your budget and created your financial plan, there is another approach you can take to attempt to expedite your journey to financial success.
Are there things taking up space that you could sell for extra money? Start small and organize your closet. Do you have items that you don’t wear regularly? If you’re like me, you’re sure to stumble across an item or two you’ve probably never even worn! You can consign these items locally or via apps like Poshmark or Mercari. You won’t reap the original value of the items but they’re not investments that will increase in value. You’re probably better off with money in your account versus another hanger in your closet.
Look for short-term job opportunities if you have some time in your schedule. Are local employers looking for seasonal help? Check Front Porch Forum for people in your community looking for assistance. Even if these are one-time opportunities, they could help you start or bolster your emergency fund or cover a principal payment on a bill.
Perhaps you have a hobby or specialized talent that you can leverage to generate additional income. Sites like Fiverr and Upwork are great for connecting you with folks that may be interested in your services. Nothing, in particular, coming to mind? Take a peek at “How to Start a Side Hustle and Make Extra Money” and see if that helps generate some ideas.
Do you have the space in your home to rent a room or start an Airbnb? This approach is probably best suited for after the pandemic, so maybe a thought for the future.
A recent survey produced by Capital One highlights that “77 percent of Americans are anxious about their financial situation” and “58 percent feel their finances control their lives rather than the other way around.” Financial difficulties, and the worries that go along with that, are more common than you may think. Hopefully, with the steps outlined above, you can begin to regain control over your finances and, thus, your life.
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