Many people make big plans when it comes to money: We all want to save more, spend less, pay off credit card debt, and max out our retirement contributions. And with good reason — a sense of financial security can ease stress and anxiety. In fact, a whopping 87% of Americans say that nothing makes them happier or more confident than having their finances in order, according to a survey conducted by financial services company Northwestern Mutual.
Unfortunately, the same study showed that many of those same individuals felt anxiety, insecurity and fear over their money, with 44% saying that finances are their dominant source of daily stress.
The true key to stress-free financial success lies in creating realistic goals that work for your lifestyle. Here are seven suggestions to jump-start you on the path to financial peace in 2021.
- Automate your savings
We all know that saving money is important. But when it comes to actually following through, most people can’t rely on determination alone to stay on track.
However, don’t feel bad: It isn’t your fault.
It’s difficult to muster up enough willpower to maintain healthy habits all day, every day. This is why diet plans disintegrate, workouts fall by the wayside — and why people slip back into old financial habits.
Instead, savvy people use systems to take the place of discipline. Most employers allow you to have your paychecks direct-deposited into multiple bank accounts, so instead of having all the funds land in your checking account, you can automatically direct some toward savings. For most, putting aside money in a rarely-used account is enough to keep it out of sight, out of mind, and remove the temptation to overspend.
So if you can spare the cash, siphon off your monthly savings directly from your paycheck. As an added bonus, some high-yield savings accounts (HYSA) actually offer rates up to 0.75% right now, according to online resources such as DirectDeposits. When you use one of these HYSAs, your emergency fund can even earn you a few dollars while helping you keep your financial peace of mind.
Automated systems work for other types of savings as well. Have a big vacation coming up? Break down the total cost into a monthly amount that’s automatically deposited into a bank account that’s separate from your everyday checking account. Want to max out your Roth IRA this year? Have your employer direct $500 from each paycheck into a separate savings account instead of your checking account. These are called “sinking funds,” and are designed to be emptied at a specific time, such as when you book your trip.
- Keep your mind on your money (and your money on your mind)
Tracking your finances is a crucial aspect of financial responsibility. It doesn’t matter how much you save, budget (more on that later), spend or invest if you don’t know how much money you have.
There are many online tools created specifically to help you track your net worth — a fancy term for the sum of all of your assets, such as your cash, savings, stocks, 401(k) contributions, minus your liabilities: credit card debt, student loans, mortgage, and so on. Having an idea of how everything works together helps you identify areas of improvement.
It’s also important to keep an eye on your credit score, which you’ll need for credit card applications, or to finance a car or home. There’s no need to pay a fee to find your score: there are a number of ways to access free credit reports.
- Set a realistic budget — and stick with it
Budgeting is a lot like saving money: We all know we should do it, but few of us actually stick to it. From there, it’s easy to fall into guilt and despair, which just makes budgeting even less appealing.
But just like with dieting, building in realistic expectations is key to creating a sustainable budget. If you force yourself to live on $500 a month, you’ll quickly overspend and lose momentum. It’s OK to give yourself an allowance for fun money if it helps you stay within your limits for other expenses.
And if you find yourself bottlenecked when tracking your expenses, there are dozens of budgeting programs available, with many available in app form as well as desktop. Mint.com and You Need A Budget (YNAB) are two of the most popular tools available, both with active user communities that offer personalized tips and personal anecdotes.
Small business owners may benefit from using QuickBooks, which can help separate business and personal expenses.
And of course, you can always keep things simple by using a basic Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet. You can either make one yourself, or purchase a cheap template online.
- Purchase with intention
We’ll say it again for the people in the back: Cutting out all frivolous spending is neither fun nor sustainable. If you’re an insatiable shopper, setting a zero-dollar clothing budget for yourself all but sets you up for failure.
Instead, consider ways to indulge yourself without breaking the bank or the budget. If you know you’ll need a new swimsuit this summer, start thinking ahead about the style or look you want. That way when the season rolls around, you’ll be able to shop with a specific item in mind instead of buying several suits on a whim — and forgetting to return half of them.
If you’re adventurous or interested in sustainable buying, you can also visit consignment and thrift stores for clothing, furniture and jewelry. Not only are you more likely to find beautiful, unique pieces, you’re also saving money on retail prices while keeping unwanted items from contributing to landfills.
- Spend on services that improve your quality of life
If self-care isn’t already a category in your budget, add it right now. Caring for yourself doesn’t have to be costly; even a cheap hot bath with Epsom salt goes a long way.
Therapy isn’t cheap, but it can be one of the most important ways to invest in yourself. A better understanding of your needs will help you set boundaries and perform more effectively at work and at home, which can lead to increased productivity and happiness.
Hiring a cleaner is another investment many career professionals make in the name of boosting mental health. Unless you’re one of the rare, lucky people who genuinely enjoys tidying up on the weekends, you can outsource this chore for the cost of a fancy dinner out, and use your downtime to rest and relax in preparation for the coming workweek.
- Invest in yourself now, reap the benefits later
Between student loans, the rising cost of living and various other expenses, the idea of saving for retirement can seem like a pipe dream for many people. But it doesn’t take much to get started in investing, and the younger you are, the more you benefit from the power of compound interest, which exponentially grows your initial investment with time.
One of the easiest ways to invest in your future retirement is by taking advantage of your 401(k) match from your employer, if you have one. Many employers typically offer to match between 3% to 6% of your annual contribution toward your 401(k) retirement account.
Let’s say your employer offers a 4% match toward your annual contribution. You may not be able to afford the 2021 contribution limit of $19,500. But you may be able to afford $780 over the course of a full year, (which comes to just $2.14 per day) and your employer will give you another $780 to match your contribution. That leaves you with $1,560 set aside for retirement.
- Prioritize the belongings that matter most to you
Most people own a lot of “stuff,” like the jeans we keep around in case we get skinny again, or the hideous trinket your mother-in-law gave you last Christmas.
According to Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo, we keep most of our belongings purely out of habit, obligation or cluelessness. Instead, Kondo advocates a unique method of decluttering: Only keep the belongings that “spark joy” for you.
As an added bonus, you can always sell the items you no longer need — and the extra funds can go into your savings account. eBay is one of the original online platforms for resale, but a number of companies now offer sleeker platforms for a more contemporary approach.
Brands like ThredUp will send you a large bag to fill with unwanted clothing and shoes, and pay for your shipping to boot. In turn, you’ll receive a modest commission for each item the company accepts for resale, and can either have the rest returned to you or donated directly to charity.
Poshmark is another popular resale platform. The premise is very simple: Take photos of the item you want to sell, then upload them directly into the app. People can purchase your item outright at the price point you set, or they can send an offer for you to negotiate a new price. The company takes 20% of your item’s final value in exchange, and will send you a shipping label to print out and attach to your package for the seller.
Of course, you can also find your local resale or consignment shop, or donate your items directly to Goodwill or The Salvation Army. Companies like Buffalo Exchange purchase your items outright, while consignment shops typically showcase your clothes and shoes but do not pay you for them unless a shopper purchases your item.
At the end of the day, money can’t buy happiness. But managing your finances with intention will give you a head start.