Boost Your Financial Fitness With These 11 Small Money Moves
By Allison Martin
How much time do you spend on your finances each week? A couple of hours? Or do you rarely spend any time at all?
It's understandable that people shy away from what appears to be a daunting task, which is why we have broken it down here. It turns out that it's really just a lot of smaller tasks — none of them particularly difficult.
Tackle these 11 small money moves, and the payoff will be big — for your wallet and your peace of mind.
1. Modify your spending habits
Many people complain about not having enough money to make ends meet, yet refuse to cut back on discretionary spending. Can't think of anything to cut back on? Try those quick runs to the nearest fast-food joint, daily trips to Starbucks or cable upgrades, just to name a few.
You can also improve your spending habits by shopping smarter. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Buy secondhand. Craigslist and garage sales are my best friends when I'm searching for big-ticket items because I simply refuse to pay full price. In fact, I've saved more than 50 percent in some instances on items that would have easily cost more than $1,000 in the store.
- Bargain shop. You can also reduce your spending drastically by avoiding full-priced items in the store. I can't remember the last time I paid retail for a piece of clothing; the clearance rack is my best friend. This may seem difficult initially, but the best way to avoid temptation is to embed in your brain the following: "If it's not on sale or clearance, I'm not buying it." Sounds corny, but it works!
- Never pay full price. As I said before, avoid the regular-priced racks altogether. Also, check online for promotional offers and check the store policies to see if they allow price matching.
2. Use cash-back sites
When you shop online, use cash-back websites — our favorite is Ebates, but there are many — to cut costs on things you need. Not sure how they work? In this article, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson demonstrates the process, showing how he got printer cartridges priced at $25 for just $4.74. He found it to be far easier and generate more savings than anticipated.
"I thought (cash-back sites) were too complicated: wrong," he writes. "I thought they were too much hassle: wrong. I thought the amount of money at stake wasn't worth worrying about: wrong again. If you're not using a cash-back site, you're wasting money."
3. Create a spending plan
Having a hard time keeping your spending under control? A budget establishes a clear plan that dictates where your money goes each month. It lets you make provisions for savings and figure out where you need to trim your discretionary spending.
Track what you spend for at least two weeks to gauge your actual spending patterns. A free online service like our partner Powerwallet can track expenses for you.
Determine if your expenses exceed your income, and make cuts if necessary. Over time, you can adjust and fine tune your budget to meet your financial goals.
For additional tips to get you started, check out "8 Secrets for Building a Budget You Can Live With."
4. Open a savings account
If you haven't already done so, contact your financial institution to open a savings account. If you are choosing a bank or credit union, be sure to look for the best interest rate you can get. Our Solutions Center savings page is a great place to start shopping.
If you already have a savings account, but still struggle with increasing the balance:
- Allocate a percentage of your monthly income to your stash, either manually or electronically. The latter may work best to guarantee that you won't be tempted to skip a month.
- Make a plan for irregular income before you receive it. Expecting a hefty tax refund or a raise at work? Saving this cash is a great way to boost your emergency fund.
5. Be vigilant about your account activity
Haven't paid much attention to your statements in the past? Now's the time to start. Identity theft is at an all-time high, and your account activity may serve as the first indicator that you have been victimized.
Start by reviewing the activity on both your bank and credit accounts at least once a week, and review the comprehensive statement when you receive it at the end of the month. If you fear that you have been a victim of identity theft or a data breach, check out the newly launched FTC website, IdentityTheft.gov, designed to make it easier for victims to report and recover from these incidents.
6. Check your credit
Reviewing your credit report takes only a few minutes, yet so many people choose not to do so. Would you want to end up with a higher interest rate on a loan because of a mistake on a credit report that lowered your credit score — a mistake that could have been corrected with a quick call or letter to the creditor?
A Federal Trade Commission study of the U.S. credit reporting industry found that 5 percent of consumers had errors on one of their three major credit reports that could lead to them paying more for products such as auto loans and insurance.
Haven't checked your credit in a while? Head on over to AnnualCreditReport.com.
7. Gather pertinent documents
Have you prepared for someone else to handle your affairs if you were suddenly unable to do it? If not, now's the time to gather important documents that pertain to both your finances and health care. These include:
- A will: If you don't draft this important document and die without one, state laws will determine where your assets go. Is that what you really want?
- A durable power of attorney for finances and for health care: This document names a person to oversee your finances and your medical care if you become incapacitated.
- Life insurance documents: Don't leave your beneficiaries in the dark about the policies you have.
Of course, each of these documents should be stored in a safe place in your home or in the cloud. Make sure those who will handle your affairs know where to find them.
8. Renegotiate interest rates
Have you tried reaching out to lenders to secure lower interest rates on your debt? Here are two things to try:
- Request a lower APR on your credit card. Pick up the phone and give the credit card company a ring to see if it can do anything for you. You never know until you ask, and the worst thing the representative can say is no.
- Look into refinancing your auto loan and/or mortgage. Depending on the loan, a reduction of a few points could save you thousands of dollars. Interest rates are at one of the lowest points in history.
9. Adjust your tax allowances
Does your tax liability or refund always seem to catch you by surprise? It is definitely jarring to get a big bill at tax time — and it can throw a wrench in budgeting, or force you to borrow. Getting a big refund seems better, but in reality it means you paid too much to the government during the year, and could have been using that money to invest or pay down debt.
Try using the IRS Withholding Calculator to determine if you need to adjust your allowances on Form W-4.
10. Maximize 401(k) contributions
If at all possible, contribute the maximum amount allowable under law to your 401(k), but certainly no less than the amount needed to capture your employer's entire match. You definitely don't want to leave free money on the table.
There are other ways to build retirement funds:
- Explore your options. Don't have a 401(k) at work? Explore other options like an IRA or Roth IRA so you won't be left scrambling when retirement time rolls around.
- Maximize your Social Security benefits. How much you receive depends on the number of years you worked, how much you earned, when you decide to start collecting and other factors. Read here for "16 Ways to Get Bigger Checks from Social Security."
11. Make your money work for you
Are your investments in your 401(k) and other retirement funds getting a decent return? Are the fees taking too much of a bite out of your earnings? Are your investments allocated in a way that's appropriate for your age and risk tolerance? See: "How to Evaluate Your Retirement Funds in 15 Minutes or Less."
Also, remember that the earlier you invest, the more compounding interest will work in your favor.
Does this list sound arduous? Just tackle one small task at a time, and systematically check them off the list as you go. The payoff will be big — financial fitness for the long run.