When I was in the third grade they tried to teach me multiplication. But no matter how many times they drilled those times tables into my head they wouldn’t stick.
By fifth grade, I’d managed to learn most of them, but I still had to count on my fingers to do addition. And that was only the beginning of my long, discouraging relationship with math.
Unfortunately, my dislike of math kept me from doing a lot of other things involving numbers, not the least of which was managing my finances. I maxed out credit cards, used up every bit of overdraft protection I had, and spent — not on expensive items, but frequently and with impunity.
While my husband worked fifty hours a week and earned a comfortable salary, I raised four kids, earned sporadically, and managed to keep us from going under with a combination of revolving debt and windfalls from family — yes, we’ve been privileged and we know it.
But every new year I decide to take on one life improvement. I focus on it, stick to it, and spend twelve full months mastering it. This year it’s finances. After not quite sixty days, our financial situation has improved immensely. So here are my very rudimentary tricks to getting control of all those numbers.
Earn more. I realize this sounds a lot easier than it is but bear with me. I’ve been a full-time writer for six years. Some years that was great, other years not so much, and 2018 was the worst year ever. I knew going into 2019 I had to do something different, so I did, I gave up something I had loved and moved to a different arena of the writing industry. It paid off immediately. I’ll never be rich off my writing, but I’ll never again allow my income to languish as it had been.
Whether you need to fine-tune your career, take on a second job, or do something even more radical, if you’re in financial trouble, you can’t discount finding ways to earn more. We live in the gig economy, so a lot of us are already overworked. If you’re one of those people, please don’t think I’m telling you to work more.
But if you have one standard schedule job, can you do something else occasionally that will add a few hundred dollars to your income? My son works full-time as a bartender and earns just enough to get by.
If he took on another shift each week or started petsitting or housesitting he could easily earn an extra $50–100/week. He doesn’t have to do it forever, but imagine what a difference $400–500 a month could make over half a year.
Spend less. Okay, this one is tricky and if you’re already living paycheck to paycheck it might not be possible. But be honest and take a long hard look at all the things you spend money on. I started by going through my online bank records and looking at where my money was going.
Do you want to know the answer?
Eating out/coffee, and online subscriptions. Those little $4.99 or $9.99 or $12.99 a month subscriptions add up and let’s be honest, do you really need an organic snack box delivered to your door monthly?
I canceled all my monthly subscriptions (except Prime and Netflix of course!) and honestly, I haven’t noticed they’re gone.
And then there’s the food.
The cost of food has outpaced inflation in the last decade (source), and in some respects, that’s okay because part of those costs is raising minimum wages for food industry workers, but it definitely shows up in our bank accounts.
Let’s be clear, I hate cooking, so eating out has always been a fallback for me. But when I looked hard at my expenses, I realized I’d let it get out of control. I can buy pre-prepared food at the grocery store for less than eating out, and if I really want to save, I can suck it up and cook.
Use cash and give yourself an allowance. How much do we all love our debit cards? It’s so easy, so convenient, you never have to keep the right amount of cash on you. And therein lies the problem. It’s really hard to track your spending when it’s hidden inside a little plastic card.
So I decided to go old school and give myself a cash allowance each week, then I instituted rules for how the cash would be used — in my case, eating out, gifts for special events like birthdays, postage/mailing/shipping, coffee, drinks with friends, and anything else that wasn’t essential. Gas and groceries aren’t included, monthly bills like utilities aren’t either.
And the allowance has become like a game to me. I work to see how much I can keep over the course of a week, and now I’m to the point where I even make one week’s allowance last for two! Determine an amount that works for you, set the parameters, and see if using cash for your incidental spending helps keep it under control.
Review all the automatic deductions from your checking account. Do you know how you set up all those bills to be paid automatically from your checking account? Love that, right? Yes, and so do the businesses you set it up for.
They especially love it when you don’t pay attention to what’s being pulled out and they keep getting paid for things like the two cable boxes you haven’t used or even seen in years. That was $30/mo I’d been wasting for nearly two years. There was also a bank fee that had been deducted four months in a row that wasn’t legit, Amazon charges that weren’t mine, and Verizon cell service I didn’t even realize I had for my iPad.
You’re probably a lot more responsible than I was, but it’s definitely worth the two hours to look over what auto deducts are being taken from your account. I even managed to get some of those things reimbursed.
Start Saving. I’m sure you won’t be shocked to hear I’ve never been a saver. We had access to lots of credit by virtue of our incomes and home ownership, so if there was an emergency, that’s what got used.
But I knew I needed to remedy this, so I did two things: First I set up an account at a different bank than my main one. This is where I put all extra money and money that’s to be used for a specific purpose like my daughter’s college tuition or a trip fund. When it’s in a separate bank it’s harder to dip into it, and it keeps it out of the normal spending stream.
The second thing I did was get the Acorns app. Acorns is not the only app for micro-investing, but it’s the only one I found that will do what they call “roundups” with your money. On Acorns I set up an investing account (you can choose from five options based on your risk tolerance), then I committed to contributing $5/week to it.
But knowing that won’t get very far very fast, I also set it to gather “roundups” from my checking account. This means that if I spend $5.60 on something using my debit card, Acorns will grab $.40 from my checking account and invest it. You don’t even notice, and in just a few weeks, I’ve managed to accumulate $130.
The app estimates that given average investment returns, over the next forty years I could accumulate $103,000 just by doing what I am now. No, it won’t make you rich, but especially if you’re young, it can add up to a significant chunk of change. And the best part is, you can access it within a few days if you need it for an emergency (note there are tax consequences and I’m not an accountant so talk to them about all of that).
And finally, pay down and restructure debt. One of the reasons I decided to take control of my finances was to avoid the debt trap. We were very fortunate to have made a good real estate sale in 2017, and we paid off all of our consumer debt.
As 2019 rolled around I could see it starting to grow again, and I knew I couldn’t allow that to happen. We have very moderate consumer debt right now, and I’m determined to keep it that way. I’m paying over the minimum payments each month, I’ve reduced our expenses and set up savings accounts so there’s no risk of using credit cards for a normal life.
And I’ve gotten smart about which credit cards we hold. Knowing that we wanted to take a trip to Europe at the end of 2019 to visit our daughter during her study abroad program, I set out to find the best travel points credit card around.
I ended up with the Capital One Venture card, and now whenever I use it (I decided to use it for anything over $100, but I have friends who use it for everything every day), I get points that can be redeemed for our trip. The app for the card is excellent, so as soon as the charge shows up on my phone I press a button, pay it off in full, and avoid even a cent of interest. With the bonus points, they give to new customers, I’ll be getting at least one of our three international roundtrip tickets for free, and possibly some of the hotels too.
Finances and lifestyles are very different depending on your stage in life, income, assets, family size, etc. So while the specifics of the things I’ve done might not work for your scenario, try to look at the overall concepts: approach it from both ends (income and expenses) and the middle (reviewing everything from your bank accounts to your credit cards).
What I’ve found is that the combination of all those things has equaled significant improvements. A few months ago I was struggling every time the mortgage was due because I never had enough cash at the right time of the month.
Since January 1st, I’ve had excess cash throughout the entire month, I haven’t used my credit cards once (except to gain airline points and then it was paid off immediately), and I have savings for the first time in my adult life. Trust me when I say paying attention to numbers can be worth it, and if I can do it, anyone can!
SE Reed is a USA Today Bestselling author of romance fiction (as Selena Laurence), and a freelance writer. Subscribe to her newsletter which she writes and curates with content on reading, writing, love, and being your best self.