Photo (cc) by Don Hankins
Did you make a New Year’s resolution? If not, there’s still time — after all, the year’s still “new” until you remember to stop dating things 2011.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be covering topics to help you meet financial resolutions, like learning to budget well and getting out of debt. But whether your resolution is getting in better physical shape, dropping bad habits, or improving your finances, odds are it’s about changing your behavior – no walk in the park. One thing that will help? Using simple shortcuts that remove some of the pain from the process.
In the digital age, shortcuts to solutions are often called “hacks.” In the video below, I’ll share a few of my favorite money-related ones. Check it out, then read on for more.
Now let’s look at these money-making and saving hacks in more detail and add a couple more.
1. Saving more
Problem: You want and should be able to save more, but it never seems to happen.
Hack: Take your discipline (or lack thereof) completely out of the equation by automating your savings. Save before you see the money by transferring it automatically from every paycheck into savings, either regular or retirement. If your employer can’t make it happen, talk to your bank, broker, or mutual fund to schedule regular transfers to savings or investment accounts. Instead of trying to find the money every month, you set it once and watch the money pile up.
Not only is saving automatically more efficient, it’s more effective. If you take the traditional approach – waiting until you’ve paid all your bills before saving what’s left – there’s often nothing left to save. There’s a reason “pay yourself first” has been the mantra of the money-enlightened for decades: It works.
2. Paying bills on time
Problem: Forgetfulness leads to late bills, which leads to fees and potential damage to your credit score.
Hack: Most banks and credit unions offer automated bill payment you can set up online. Utilities and other companies offer this service too, and might waive convenience fees or offer discounts for the right to suck money directly from your account. If your monthly bills include debt payments, automatically pay more than the minimum to work off debts faster. Remember what I said in the video above: Minimum payments are for losers.
One caveat: Make sure you maintain a sufficient checking balance to auto-pay all your bills without over-drawing your account. If there’s even a chance you might, set up an auto-transfer from savings or a credit line to cover any potential shortfall.
3. Creating a budget
Problem: You see the advantage of budgeting, but feel overwhelmed by the idea of creating spreadsheets, then tracking and recording where your money’s going.
Hack: Traditional budget worksheets are so 2011. It’s time to throw out the paper and pencil and let your computer or phone do the heavy lifting. Use a free service like Mint.com to establish goals, automatically track your spending, and give you a complete picture of exactly where you are 24/7. For even more convenience, look to the dozens of apps – many free – that can put your computerized budget into the palm of your hand. This app review article from Moolanomy is a good place to start looking.
4. Allocating assets
Problem: You’d like to invest part of your retirement or other long-term savings into stocks or other risk-based investments, but have no idea how much to put where.
Hack: Take your age from 100. That’s the percent of your savings to at least consider investing in stocks. So if you’re 25 years old, you’d put up to 75 percent in stocks. If you’re 60, your stock percentage should be around 40 percent. As for the remaining portion, split it equally between a money market account and an intermediate term bond mutual fund. For specific investments in each of these categories, use low-cost index funds. For example, the Vanguard 500 Index fund is a good pick for a stock investment.
Caveat: The hack above isn’t a rule, it’s a rule of thumb. Don’t ever put money into any fluctuating investment that you’ll need within five years, and don’t ever risk so much that you lie awake at night. There’s no amount of return worth sacrificing your peace of mind.
5. Spending less
Problem: You pay more than you have to because you didn’t check online before leaving home and don’t want to waste time and gas comparing prices all over town.
Hack: Smartphone apps such as Google Shopper, RedLaser, and Amazon Price Check let you scan barcodes and search for products to check prices online and locally. And don’t ever buy anything without looking for online coupons. One place to start – our deals page.
6. Saving more, Part 2
Problem: You don’t make enough to automate your savings and never seem to have anything at all saved.
Hack: While tracking and analyzing your expenses is the only way to know if there’s really any money hiding in your budget, the time-honored technique of using a change jar is a low-tech and simple way to save. When you come home, simply empty your pockets or purse of change.
Want to turbocharge your change jar? In this post a few months back, guest columnist Len Penzo suggested adding dollars to the mix: “When you are out during the day, don’t spend any dollar bills you get as change. Then, after you come home and are ready to make contributions to your jar, be sure to include all of those unspent dollar bills along with your coins – and if you have no singles, then pull out a fiver and drop it in the jar.”
Since I read Len’s post, I’ve started doing this and the amount I’ve saved is astonishing. Try it.
7. Using coupons
Problem: You’d love to use more coupons and discount codes, but don’t have time to clip them or scour the Web.
Hack: Set up an RSS feed to automatically create and maintain a searchable collection of deals and discounts. The easiest way to do it: In addition to getting our free newsletter and checking out our deals page, subscribe to feeds from deals sites like Slickdeals, Techbargains, and Dealnews using a free feed reader like Google Reader. (We’ve bundled some good ones for you – check out No. 9 in 9 Best Ways to Get Free Stuff.)
8. Avoiding parking tickets
Problem: You’re accumulating parking tickets because while your intention is to run inside a store for just a minute, that always seems to be the minute parking enforcement is dropping by.
Hack: One of the best pieces of advice I ever read: Always keep change in your car so you can feed the meter. Not in your pocket or purse – in your ash tray. Sounds simple, but do you do it? Since I started a few years ago, I’ve pretty much eliminated this maddening budget-buster.
What are your favorite hacks?
The hacks above are a few of my favorites, but they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. So, what about you? What simple techniques have you used to save more, spend less, or otherwise reach your financial goals? Let me know on our Facebook page!