Are you suddenly feeling too far out on a spending limb? Time to dial back, spend less, save more.
But you can't fix all your budget problems at once especially if you're trying to dig out of a hole. What should you do first, and what are the next steps along the road?
For some answers, I turned to the experts at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors who get people out of jams like these. Not every adviser takes the same approach. But after weighing all the opinions, I worked out a list that I think should help people in almost every situation:
- Face the real problem. Credit cards don't sneak out at night and go shopping all by themselves. Where your money goes shows where your values lie.
"The choice isn't between college saving and a 401(k), it's between saving and leasing a BMW," said planner Paul White of Manassas, Va. Until you change your attitudes, no financial plan in the world will do you any good.
- Lower your spending. I know this is a subversive suggestion but think about living on less than you earn. Harvest the surplus for savings and debt repayments.
Where do you find extra money in a budget that's already tight? If you're married, start with total disclosure. Spouses with separate checking accounts may have no idea what the other buys. Then move on to the cash you take from ATMs. For a month, write down everything you buy.
Identify "extras," cut them back, then cut them out. Cancel all big expenses for a couple of years. Then practice all the classic tricks: Shop only with cash (you spend less when you're using real money). For plastic, use a debit card instead of a credit card. Don't even carry a credit card (surprise! you can actually live without it).
- Add to retirement savings. Use payroll deductions or automatic transfers from a bank account. Freelancers with irregular incomes should take a percentage off the top of every check. Automatic deductions create what planner William Starnes of Hockessin, Del., calls "artificial scarcity." Less money hits your bank account, which will make your spending fall.
Why put retirement first? Because life is long, you get tax breaks and payroll deduction works. Save enough in 401(k)s to get the company match, if you have one. If not, save anyway.
- Start reducing high-interest credit-card debt. Send your tax refund check straight to Visa or MasterCard. Look for other ways of making one-shot payments from bonuses, yard sales or savings accounts.
If any cards carry small balances, repay those first and then cancel them. (That gives you a sense of accomplishment.) Transfer balances to a lower-rate card, if you can get one. Set up a monthly payment schedule for wiping out the debt.
Compulsive spenders need to stop using credit cards, cold turkey. If you say you can't use only cash because you don't have enough money in the bank well, that's the point. You can't afford your current life.
- Don't borrow against your house to pay off consumer debts. I concede that, on paper, that course makes sense. Mortgage interest is tax deductible (if you itemize) and the rate is lower than you pay on credit cards.
"But debt consolidation and home-equity loans are Band-Aids on bullet wounds," said planner Sherry Hazan-Cohen of Plano, Texas. "You have to stop the bleeding first."
- Start an emergency fund. Some of you would put ready cash first on this list (well, maybe second). I'd agree if your job is insecure. But it seems to me that the minute you build an emergency fund kaboom, along comes an "emergency."
I'm all for having cash savings on tap, but only after you've ended impulse spending and repaid your consumer debts.
- Save money for college. This comes last. You (or your kids) can borrow your way through school but you can't borrow your way through retirement.
Somehow, education gets paid for loans, work, grandparents, lower-cost schools. I know it sounds selfish, but in the savings queue, you come first.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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