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03/23/2018 12:55 pm ET

How To Get Good With Money In A Year

The authors of 'The Financial Diet' share the small things you can do over the next 12 months to improve your cash flow.
Agustina San Martin/EyeEm/Getty Images

We live in a world that encourages us to spend wastefully, accumulate more than we need, and put off things like retirement savings until we’re basically retired. It’s easy to look around us and see all the things we could be buying to become the person we want to be, and treat fiscal responsibility like the exclusive domain of antisocial dweebs. But in development and running The Financial Diet every day, I have realized that the first concrete steps to becoming the kind of person who is ” good with money” are rather easy and straightforward ― these are the basic of getting good with money in a year that we have learned in three years of building The Financial Diet, and being on serious financial diets ourselves.

1. Create a Budget
Without a budget, you have no chance of getting control over your money ― and getting it to do what you want. Sit down with a few months’ worth of card statements and bills, track exactly what you’re doing, and sort everything into a category going forward.

2. Build an Emergency Fund
We recommend that you have three months’ worth of all living costs saved up in an easily accessible, regular savings account. You can do up to six months’ worth, but, at least initially, three months is the best balance between “doable” and “providing the necessary security.” This emergency fund (and about $1,000 in your checking account for day-to-day use, once bills are paid) are really the only money you should keep in regular bank accounts. The rest of your savings should go to much more useful and valuable things, like retirement (but more on that later).

3. Do a Credit Card Check-Up
Comb through statements and purchases from the last three months, and make sure you’re not utilizing more than 30 percent of your available credit (this impacts your credit score), and raise your limits if you can (and if you trust yourself) to grow the gap between “what you can use” and “what you do use” ― you want as much unused credit as possible. Determine if the rewards systems (travel, cash back, etc.) you have are the most valuable to you, and if you’re using them to their fullest extent. Last, set up your bills to be paid on your credit card each month, then set up an automated payment from your checking account to your credit cards to pay them in full each month ― this ensures you maximize the rewards you get with money you were already spending.

4. Automate What You Can
Card payments, bill payments, and savings transfers should all be automatically made from your checking account. This way, you won’t tempt yourself to not save, nor will you take a credit score hit by forgetting to pay something.

5. Know (and Build) Your Credit Score
Use a free online service such as CreditKarma to find out what your credit score is ― and many such services will also tell you how to improve it. Check your score at least twice a year ― always with soft inquiries, unlike hard credit checks, which happen when you try to get approved for something ― and set challenges to yourself to see how high you can get it (and keep it).

6. Plan for Retirement
Lay out a basic plan for retirement savings. This may sound daunting, but if your employer offers retirement accounts, you can simply set a meeting with your human resources rep to go over your options. Initially, open at least one retirement account based on your needs (there are seven types of retirement accounts, for different needs). After your emergency fund (three to six months’ worth of living expenses) is set up, your retirement fund is the first place you’re allocating savings.

7. Run a Career Check-Up
Compare your salary against others in your field using sites such as Glassdoor. Ask yourself serious questions about your job fulfillment and performance (Are you happy? Are you working toward something specific? Do you see areas to grow in your current job and at your current place of employment?). Brainstorm ways you could improve and brush up on what you could be doing better ― from individual tasks to general career development. Set goals for one, five, and ten years down the road in your professional life, and write them down.

8. Add at Least One Source of Extra Income
There are endless side jobs and gigs out there to supplement income, bolster savings, hone new skills, or even make a career transition. Even if you just dedicate a few hours a month to a side job, even one additional stream of income has a huge impact. Whether you’re babysitting or tutoring English from bed via Skype or working a full-on part-time job, always have at least one side hustle on the burner.

9. Treat Yourself
Set mini-goals for yourself across a number of areas (think things like savings, career growth, or personal development) and reward yourself when you hit them. Whether it’s a well-earned massage, cocktail, vacation, or fancy dinner, take time for sensible self-care and treat yourself for the milestones you’ve hit ― it will make doing the right thing for yourself most of the time feel manageable, intuitive, and even enjoyable.

I promise you that taking the time to think through these steps will set you up with the right skills (and develop that delayed-gratification muscle) to make life for Future You a whole lot easier.

Reprinted from THE FINANCIAL DIET: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money. Copyright © 2018 by Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage. Published by Henry Holt. Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage are co-founders of the website The Financial Diet.

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