Do you ever feel like there’s “too much month at the end of your money”? Are you always juggling bills and barely managing to make ends meet, let alone save money for a rainy day? Do you worry an unexpected expense like a car accident could send you into bankruptcy?
If so, it’s time to take control of your financial life. By getting your finances under control, you can give yourself a little breathing room in the short term and a chance to get ahead in the long term.
How to Get Your Finances Under Control
When you’re struggling to get by on a tight budget, controlling your finances can seem overwhelming. But it gets much easier if you take it one step at a time.
1. Create a Budget
If you have trouble managing your finances, the first thing you need to do is make a personal budget. Group all your monthly expenses into categories, such as food, rent, and utilities, and set aside money for each one. A budgeting tool like Personal Capital or YNAB can help.
Don’t forget about non-monthly recurring expenses like an annual parking permit or quarterly water bill. Add up all these periodic expenses and divide the total into 12 equal chunks if yearly or three equal chunks if quarterly. Set aside that amount in your monthly budget to cover these expenses as they occur
Budgeting experts often say you should “pay yourself first.” Set aside money for your savings goals before, not after, paying for everything else. But what if you don’t have enough to cover all your expenses and savings too? Then it’s time for the next step: finding ways to cut back.
2. Cut Your Expenses
To cut your expenses, start by looking for ways to save on luxuries like dining out or entertainment. Some possibilities include:
- Canceling your gym membership and working out at home
- Cutting out cable TV and switching to streaming video
- Taming costly bad habits like smoking and playing the lottery
However, don’t try to eliminate luxuries. Being too strict with yourself can set you up for budget failure. So leave yourself a few cheap luxuries to combat frugal fatigue.
If your budget still isn’t balanced, tackle the bigger stuff. Cut housing expenses by finding a new apartment or refinancing your mortgage. Get a cheaper cellphone plan. Look for ways to save on child care, health care, groceries, and utilities. You can even consider becoming a one-car family or going car-free.
3. Build Your Savings
Everyone needs an emergency fund. Having money to fall back on means you don’t need to rely on credit card debt to cover unplanned expenses.
To start your emergency fund, use an automatic savings plan to divert the savings money you planned for in your monthly budget to a separate high-yield savings account where you can’t dip into it. Or put it into low-risk investments with a slightly better return, like municipal bonds.
To jump-start your savings, look into ways to save an extra $1000 fast. A $1,000 cushion is enough for many unexpected expenses and provides a sense of security.
4. Identify Your Financial Goals & Create a Financial Plan
Your emergency fund isn’t the only type of savings you need. You almost certainly have other long-term financial goals. These could include retirement, college savings for your kids, paying off debt, a new home, a car, a vacation, or a wedding.
Each person’s financial goals are different, so start by identifying your top priorities. Then figure out how much money you need for each goal and your timeline for reaching it. You’ll know how much to set aside monthly for each savings goal based on these figures.
If you need help with this step, consider talking to a financial planner. Or use personal finance apps and tools available online, such as Mint and Simplifi.
5. Start Investing
You can’t grow your money enough to meet all your financial goals if you keep it in a savings account. Today, bank accounts don’t even earn enough interest to keep up with inflation. To get ahead, you need to start investing.
If you have a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k), use that for your retirement savings. Automatic withholding makes it easy, and you can get free money from employer matching.
But ensure you’re investing enough for your age and choosing the best investments in the plan. If you don’t have a workplace account, consider alternatives like a Roth IRA or solo 401(k).
To decide how to invest your money, make an asset allocation plan. Decide how much to put in stocks, bonds, and other assets based on your age and risk tolerance. Use online tools like Personal Capital to track and manage your various investment accounts.
6. Pay Off Your Debt
Debt is dead weight in your budget. The faster you get rid of it, the faster you can get ahead. Strategies to help you pay off debt faster include:
- Using the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods for prioritizing payments
- Using extra cash for small extra payments, called debt snowflaking
- Negotiating for a lower interest rate on credit card debt or a home equity line of credit
- Refinancing a home loan, student loans, or a personal loan
- Making biweekly mortgage payments
- Taking out a debt consolidation loan
- Transferring credit card debt to a 0% balance-transfer credit card
- Signing up for credit counseling
- In extreme cases, seeking out a debt settlement
7. Pay Your Bills on Time
Late payments make debt problems even worse. They tack on late penalties to the interest you already owe, and they damage your credit score.
There are several ways to ensure you pay your bills on time. You can set aside one day — say, every other Monday — to review and pay all your bills. You can sign up for reminders when a bill payment is due. Or you can make it easy with automatic bill payment.
8. Boost Your Income
If you’re already on a tight budget, cutting expenses isn’t always easy. So to boost your savings, tackle the problem from the other side by increasing your income.
Sometimes, you can give your paycheck a quick boost by adjusting your tax withholding. You can also increase earnings from your primary job by working more hours, asking for a pay raise, or applying for a promotion. If none of those works, find a better job.
You can also make extra money with a side gig or side hustle. Popular side business ideas include tutoring, being a rideshare or delivery driver, and selling on eBay.
9. Review Your Insurance
Your savings can cover most emergencies, but insurance protects you from financial ruin in a real crisis. Everyone needs health insurance, and depending on your situation, you could also need car insurance, home insurance, or life insurance.
Check all your policies to ensure you have enough coverage for your needs. At the same time, consider whether it’s worth raising your deductible or canceling some extras to lower your premiums. You can also shop around for cheaper policies using tools like Policygenius.
Finally, make a home inventory for insurance purchases. Make a list, shoot a video, or take a collection of photos of all your belongings. If you ever need to make a claim, it will serve as proof of what you need to replace.
10. Monitor Your Credit Score
Your credit score affects your ability to get loans in the future. A good credit score is your key to the best rates on any loan. By contrast, a bad credit score could keep you from buying a house, getting insurance, or even getting a job.
Since your credit score affects your life so much, it’s worth knowing what it is. There are several ways to check your credit score, including some free services. Consider a free or paid credit monitoring service to help you keep an eye on it.
Once you have the number, look for ways to improve your credit score. These include fixing credit report errors, paying bills on time, and paying down debt.
11. Track Your Net Worth
Your net worth is another key measure of your financial health. This number is simply the sum of all your assets — your home, your car, the money in your various accounts — minus all your liabilities, such as credit card debt and student loans.
Tracking your net worth over time gives you a big-picture view of how you’re doing financially. You can do it using a paper chart, spreadsheet, or financial app. Seeing your debt shrink and your assets grow before your eyes is a great motivator to stick with your financial plan.
12. Shop for a Better Bank
Your bank should be a partner in helping you get ahead. If yours costs you more every year in banking fees than it pays in interest, it’s time to look for a new bank.
There are many types of banks to choose from. Credit unions, community banks, and online-only banks can often give you better rates and service than big national banks. Check out the options in your area and the best deals available on new bank accounts.
13. Take Advantage of Employee Benefits
A workplace retirement plan is only one of the benefits you can get through your job. Check with your human resources department to see if there are any other perks you could be taking advantage of, such as:
- A better health plan for your family’s needs
- Dental and vision care insurance
- Life insurance
- Short-term or long-term disability insurance
- A health savings account or flexible spending account for medical expenses your insurance doesn’t cover
14. Talk About Finances With Your Significant Other
Your romantic partner can also be a partner in helping you achieve your financial goals. But they can also undermine your progress. If you’re trying to save and your partner always wants to spend, it can put a strain on both your finances and the relationship.
That’s why it’s crucial to be open with your partner about your finances. Let them know about your financial situation, including your income, assets, debts, spending priorities, and long-term goals. And ask them to share the same information with you.
Sharing this kind of info is vital for engaged or newly married couples, but it can be useful at any stage of a relationship. Being on the same page about your finances can help you avoid money arguments down the road.
15. Create an Estate Plan
Few people like to think about their own death. But you can be sure it’s going to happen one day, and you can’t always see it coming. To ensure your loved ones have the money they need to support themselves after your death, you need an estate plan.
At a minimum, you should make a will and keep it up to date. An online will-maker can help with this process. Depending on your situation, you may also need other documents, such as:
- A power of attorney
- An advance health care directive, also known as a living will
- Guardianship documents for kids and pets
- Trusts to manage your assets after your death
Estate planning can also involve structuring your assets to minimize estate or inheritance taxes for your heirs. However, you don’t need to worry about that unless your assets are substantial. The federal estate tax, for example, only affects estates worth over $12 million.
16. Protect Your Financial Information
Insurance protects you in emergencies. Your estate plan protects your heirs in case of your death. But there’s one more risk to protect your assets from: identity theft. You need to safeguard your personal information — both online and offline. Some precautions to take include:
- Organizing your financial documents and shredding the ones you no longer need
- Keeping a close watch on your wallet or purse
- Using strong passwords online and keeping them secret
- Using security software like antivirus software, firewalls, and virtual private networks
- Regularly checking your credit report for any signs of identity theft
17. Work With a Financial Advisor
If you run into problems with any of the steps on this list, you can turn to a financial advisor for help. Several different kinds of advisors can help you with different needs.
For instance, a financial planner can help you set financial goals and stay on target. An investment advisor or inexpensive robo-advisor can help you plan investments. And an accountant can help with taxes and estate planning, though you may also need an attorney for the latter.
18. Boost Your Financial Literacy
If you’d rather not rely on professional help, take steps to boost your own money management skills and knowledge. Ways to improve your financial literacy include:
- Reading online articles on financial topics
- Subscribing to financial publications
- Reading books on personal finance,
- Listening to financial podcasts
- Watching TV shows and online videos
- Taking personal finance courses on websites like Udemy and Coursera
19. Share With Others
As you get your finances in hand, you’ll start finding you have more money left over at the end of the month than you used to. Consider sharing your newfound wealth with others by giving more to charity.
Charitable giving doesn’t just help others. It can also increase your motivation to save and make you more grateful for what you have. Happiness economists have found that giving makes people happier with their lives.
There are many worthy organizations to choose from. No matter what your interests and values are, you can find a cause that aligns with them. Watchdog sites like Charity Navigator and GiveWell can help you find the best charities that will use your money effectively.
The biggest barrier to taking control of your money is inertia. It’s easy to get so stuck in a pattern of living paycheck to paycheck that it seems impossible to break out.
That’s why it often helps to start small. Making just one minor change, like creating a budget, can help you feel more in control and empowered to take bigger actions.
Over time, these changes can lead you to long-term financial success, like little dominos knocking over bigger and bigger ones. Any financial goal, from buying a home to achieving financial independence, can be part of your future. The key is to buckle down and get started today.