Saving money for something Big, like a car, house, or Fuck Off Fund, doesn’t necessarily mean cutting yourself off from avocado toast and lattes — but it does mean spending more (or, uh, at least a little) time looking over your bank statements. If your palms are getting sweaty just thinking about finances, you’re in the right place! NOW is a great time to start thinking about what’s happening to your money, even — and, well, especially — if you don’t have a lot of it.
Traditional tools (401(k)s, mutual funds, and the like) can be very intimidating for those who are just starting their financial journey. You already know: Saving money regularly (even if it’s a tiny amount) should be a priority, but how to actually make sure you have money to spare for those savings isn’t as obvious. So, we’re going to offer some simple, expert-recommended changes you can make to start getting serious about your cash.
1. Instead of buying a new phone every year, replace your battery.
An easy one: If your iPhone starts to feel sluggish, don’t spend hundreds upgrading to a new phone after only a year or two. Just get a replacement $29 battery through the Apple Store or authorized service provider. Apple recently admitted to slowing down phone performance as the device’s battery ages, and, after customer outcry, it lowered the price of replacement batteries.
2. When you eat at restaurants, avoid ordering juice or soda.
Jamila Souffrant of Journey to Launch, a certified financial education instructor, maximizes her savings by never buying nonalcoholic drinks while eating out at restaurants: “I always ask for tap — it’s free!” Drinks are often overpriced, and those extra dollars saved will add up. Plus, water’s good for ya.
3. Insist on paying for what you ordered, rather than splitting the bill evenly.
Dining out with friends while on a budget is *extra* challenging. “The best thing you can do is take the reins on the planning, because you have the opportunity to pick a budget-friendly place or find a deal,” said personal finance author Stefanie O’Connell.
No one wants to seem cheap, but if you’re determined to hit that savings goal, O’Connell recommends speaking up about getting separate checks or paying for what you ordered. “It’s uncomfortable, but everyone can empathize with finances being tight. Chances are, they’re going through the same thing,” she said.
Tab (free, iOS and Android) is a simple bill-splitter app that uses your phone’s camera to digitize and itemize the receipt. Pass the phone around, and everyone can claim their items by tapping on each dish or drink they ordered. Multiple people can claim a single shared item, like fries, too. The app automatically calculates tax and tip, and no one pays extra.
Ultimately, saving up doesn’t mean you should stay in. Going out to maintain relationships with people you care about — or taking advantage of a networking opportunity every now and then — can be worthwhile, too. “Money you spend socializing with people is valuable because network-building is valuable,” said O’Connell.
4. Unwanted subscriptions may be hiding in the App Store.
I finally canceled HBO Now, which I haven’t used since the Game of Thrones season finale nearly five months ago. Shame.
The App Store subscription page is buried under many menus, which is probably how I ended up forgetting about those HBO charges. Open the App Store. In the “Today” tab, tap the nameless round icon in the top right. On the “Account” page, tap your name up top, and use Touch ID or Face ID to continue. Scroll down to where it says “Subscriptions” and tap. Here, you’ll see past and present recurring charges, and the option to cancel.
(If you’re an Android user, you can just go here.)
Eliminating recurring charges (think: the gym you never go to, magazines you don’t read, etc.) can cut down on your overall spending big time. “Many people have their payments posted automatically, and [subscriptions] are very costly in the aggregate,” said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a former financial news journalist and current CEO of the Money Coach.
So watch out for those forgotten subscriptions. Khalfani-Cox recommends using TrueBill, an app that can identify and cancel recurring charges for you. But even TrueBill can slip up and miss subscriptions, and you’ll need to be OK with handing over your financial data in exchange for TrueBill’s free services.
5. Go through your inbox and unsubscribe from retailer emails.
If you’re an impulse shopper, “you don’t need an email in your inbox every day advertising a new sale,” said O’Connell. “Don’t see shopping as an activity. It’s an errand,” she advises.
Gmail makes letting go easy. Most retailer emails will be grouped in the Promotions tab. Click on an email, and at the top, near the sender email address, hit the “unsubscribe” link. To really curb temptation, unfollow those brands on social media, too!
6. Use the most simple expense tracking system possible.
You don’t need a crazy spreadsheet to get your finances under control. If your budget method is easy to understand, you’ll actually stick with it. “I am a strong proponent of budgeting, but don’t make it too complicated,” advises Souffrant.
If you want to use an app, some popular tools, like Mint, are good for long-term trend analysis but can be too dizzying for everyday tracking. Daily Budget (free, iOS) is the simplest, most clutter-free app I’ve used. It’s a basic money-in, money-out tracker that calculates how much you can afford to spend each day. Every time you buy something, there’s a simple interface to add expenses, and if you don’t spend your daily allowance, it rolls over to the next day. Left for Spending (free) and Simple Daily Budget (free) are two similar apps for Android.
If DIY is more your style, your budget can be as simple as two columns, Souffrant said: “On one side, necessary expenses, and on the other, nice-to haves. Understand which expenses are what, and for nice-to-haves, ask yourself, ‘Can you part with it?’” Maybe the $30 boutique exercise class that made you feel amazing is 1,000% worth it, but that $55 face cream isn’t adding that much to your quality of life. Add all of your expenses up and compare that total with your income to see how much you’re spending versus earning.
7. Mint is good for low-balance and excessive spending alerts, though.
When your bank account dips below a certain amount, Mint can send you an email or push notification if your bank doesn’t already do so, which Khalfani-Cox recommends to avoid overdraft fees. You can adjust Mint notifications on your account’s settings page.
8. Eliminate “mindless” spending by putting up visual reminders of what you’re saving for.
When O’Connell was budgeting for a vacation, she printed out a photo of the destination, and wrapped it around the cash in her wallet: “Every time I made a purchase, I had to consider the trade-off. Do I want to save for Europe or buy tacos right now?”
9. Automatic savings apps, like Digit, are helpful starts, but make sure they’re just that. You can save more elsewhere.
There are a slew of new apps, including Digit and Acorns, that set aside small amounts of cash automatically, based on your spending and income. “It’s a great first step, and using these apps are worth it if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, to prove to yourself that saving money is possible. But once that’s done, take over,” said O’Connell. She said putting your savings in a high-yield savings account, Roth IRA, or employer-sponsored 401(k) could earn you more interest — money the bank pays you.
10. Have student loans? Pay off the most expensive (usually private) loans first.
“If a borrower can afford it, it may make sense to prepay their loan. That’ll lower the amount of interest over the life of the loan,” said Jennifer Wang of the Institute for College Access and Success. Thanks to a 2008 bill, you can prepay your loans at any time without being charged a penalty, and, according to Wang, if you have a private loan with a high interest rate, you should it when possible, because it could save you a lot. Use this FinAid calculator to see just how much.
But, most importantly, you need to contact your lender and say you’re prepaying the principal (the loan balance) and not paying ahead (after prepaying, you should also continue to make your monthly payments). Paying the principal lowers the amount of total interest you’ll need to pay in the long run, while paying ahead means you’re paying next month’s minimum payment in advance.
Federal loans have more protections (in case of unemployment, for example) and repayment flexibility, Wang said, which is why it may be optimal to pay the minimum on those. If you work at a nonprofit or for the government, your federal debt can be forgiven after 10 years’ worth of on-time payments, no matter how much you still owe. And if you sign up for an income-based repayment plan, you may be eligible for forgiveness after 20 years of on-time payments.
11. The bottom line: Set aside 30 minutes to review your finances every week.
“Take care of your money, like you take care of your body when you go to the gym,” said O’Connell. You should dedicate time to look at account balances and review spending weekly according to the author, who views the practice as a form of self-care. Staying on top of your budget can mean peace of mind when/if you finally DO indulge in that latte.
Look at your credit score routinely, too. Khalfani-Cox recommends creditsesame.com, which is a free tool that not only shows you your score, but offers instruction on how exactly to improve it as well. “A bad score hurts your ability to save, get loans, [and] put yourself in the market for a car, a house. You may not realize the vast way your credit impacts you,” she said.
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
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