When people hear the words “financial planning,” they often think they’re not at a point to even need it. Among those who don’t plan their finances, a recent survey reports that 42% say it’s because they don’t think they have enough money and 22% say it’s too complicated.
But the fact is, you don’t need to wait until you have a lot of money to start planning your finances. Everyone can benefit from some level of financial planning vs. just “playing it by ear”. Here are a few first steps to begin thinking about your finances and then planning for them.
Here are 11 simple ways to start planning your finances, even if you think you never have before. Find the ones that work best for you, in any order — and congratulate yourself if you can cross a few off the list because you’re already doing them!
1. Direct deposit your paycheck
Direct deposit is an electronic transfer of your paycheck each payday right into your bank account. It’s an employer benefit that eliminates the need for a paper check, saving time and making your money more immediately accessible. Directly depositing your pay and linking your savings and checking accounts can help you better manage your finances — and make it easier to plan to save by automatically transferring a portion of your pay toward savings.
2. Open the right savings accounts
Think of your bank accounts like financial tools. To help your savings grow faster, explore a high-yield savings account or money market account with no fees and low or no minimums that pays a higher rate of interest than traditional savings accounts. Some financial institutions will also allow you to set up separate accounts, or sub-savings categories within one account, which you can devote to specific goals and track savings progress. For example, one could be named “family outings” and another could be dubbed “new home down payment.”
3. List goals, short-term and long-term
Planning your finances starts with setting your goals. Organizing them into things to tackle within, say, a month or a year and goals that will take longer. This helps focus money priorities and avoids the feeling of being overwhelmed.
For instance, a short-term goal might be creating a small savings account or paying off one credit card. A longer-term goal could be getting ready to buy a home or committing to save for retirement.
4. Keep a money calendar
Make a separate money calendar and put it to work to track your spending and saving. Use it to enter daily, weekly and monthly expenses as they occur. With this method, you’ll be able to quickly spot spending trends and opportunities to save. It can also help you avoid bank overdraft fees or being late on a bill.
5. Adjust as you go
It’s important to know that flexibility is a key to being successful when planning your finances. Depending on your circumstances, it might be necessary to adjust the budget, add to debt payments or tighten up spending in certain months. As you build a workable plan, recognize that things can change, and you may need to respond accordingly — whether it’s to cover expenses or allocate money toward goals you’ve set.
6. Use the 30-day rule for non-essentials
Being more deliberate with purchases is a part of financial planning, too. So, try to make one financial decision at a time and then step back and wait before you buy discretionary items. Allowing a month to pass can help focus on a need vs. a want. And that lets you weigh whether the purchase decision really fits into your plan now or later.
In a way, the 30-day rule is a great start to planning your spending.
7. Create a debt payoff plan
Chipping away at debts brings lots of financial benefits. It can decrease the amount of interest paid over time, improve your credit score, free up more of your money for savings and other needs, plus help better prepare you to reach important future goals, like buying a car or home.
Start by looking at exactly what you owe, including the balance, the interest rate and the minimum payment. Then, choose a method to focus on reducing it. For example, the debt avalanche method tackles the highest-interest debt first, while the debt snowball method prioritizes paying off debts with the smallest balances first. Both approaches create an organized plan for results that can help keep you motivated and focused on making progress.
8. Take advantage of retirement saving and investing opportunities
Learn what types of tax-advantaged retirement savings plans may be available from your employer, which can help you build a nest egg for the future. Some employers will match contributions to accounts like 401(k)s or Roth 401(k)s, up to a certain level — free money that can build your savings faster. If you don’t have access to a retirement plan at work or are self-employed, there are other retirement account options that you can open yourself, such as traditional or Roth IRAs or SEP or SIMPLE IRAs.
If you have children, exploring the benefits of state-sponsored 529 college savings plans can also help you save with tax-free investment growth that can be tapped for college expenses someday.
9. Create mini plans for extra dollars
When you’re working toward your financial goals every little bit of money counts. So, if you have a small windfall coming in — say, a tax refund, a bonus or income from a side gig — make a “mini” financial plan for it. The idea is to earmark extra funds for positive moves. For example, consider splitting the money four ways: pay off debt; put some aside for savings; allocate a portion for investing; and spend a little, too. In this way, you’re making every dollar work for you in ways that contribute to financial goals.
10. Protect what’s yours by reviewing insurance
People with a strong financial strategy always envision positive outcomes, but also plan for the unexpected. Ensuring adequate insurance coverage is a defensive financial move that can help protect you and your family from unforeseen events that could disrupt your finances. Review the following insurance you may carry:
11. Recruit an accountability partner to help support you
Having someone keep us on track and offer advice and support can help us stick to the financial resolutions we make. Finding someone you trust to brainstorm, discuss your plans with, and help you follow through can make any endeavor more successful.
Planning your finances doesn’t have to be an impossible chore, and you can tweak your personal blueprint as life changes dictate. The bottom line? The sooner you take action — at any level — the better prepared you’ll be to make the financial progress you envision.