Money Challenge: Can you take control of your assets in seven days?

"Your Money", an occasional blog about money and financeHow do you achieve financial security?

If you said, “Winning the lottery”, there is a gain of financial security that will cost you your privacy, but the latter is beyond the scope of this blog.  Furthermore, waiting for that “inheritance from my [still alive] grandfather” does not solve your financial troubles now.  In order to gain financial security, you must live beneath your means so that you can pay off debts and start saving.  Easier said than done?  If you follow the steps in the seven-day plan I describe towards taking control of your money, you will be surprised, and all it takes is 20 minutes a day for one week.  If you have arrived at your child’s school half an hour early so you can get a parking spot, you’ve waited at least 20 minutes, so instead of Tweeting, updating your Facebook status, or checking into foursquare and ousting the mom parked behind you as mayor of your child’s school for the umpteenth time, let’s get started already!

Day 1 – Organize Your Financial Records
Just how did you get yourself in a financial hole?  The personal reasons do not matter, but a number of other factors do, particularly how much you earn and where it goes.  Gather the following records so you can make the first calculations:

  • Recent pay stub – Shows how much you bring in from work
  • Latest tax return – How much you receive from investments and other sources of income
  • Checkbook and most recent printed or online bank statements – Tells you where you are spending most of your money
  • Current credit card bills – Explains how much additional money you spend that your paycheck does not cover

Day 2 – Figure Out Where Your Money Goes
With your financial statements in hand, you can now prepare a summary of your monthly expenses.  List all of your expenses, even down to your daily lattes from Starbucks, and map out where your cash goes.  Use a journal or download a budget tracking app for your iPhone and keep track of your purchases.  You may find that you waste money, and lots of it, but we are here to fix that.

Day 3 – Categorize Your Expenses
Split your expenses into one of three categories:

  • Regular payments such as mortgage, utilities, car payments, car/homeowners/life insurance, etc.
  • Occasional expenses with some room for reduction such as food, clothing, or transportation.
  • Expenses you can do away with entirely such as eating out at restaurants, going to concerts, buying lottery tickets, etc.

The last two categories provide you with the most opportunities for cutting back.

Day 4 – Devise a Plan for Living Beneath Your Means
Reduce your monthly expenses so that you spend less than you take in.  For example, if you decide to add $500 a month towards paying off your credit card balance, you must cut $500 a month in expenses at the bare minimum.  Make a list of the expenses you are eliminating and how much you hope to save.

Day 5 – Develop a Debt-Reduction Strategy
With the extra money you are saving, begin paying off your debts, starting with your high-interest credit card bills.  Work out a realistic target date for when you want each debt to be paid off completely.  Setting lofty or ambitious dates will set yourself up for failure.

Day 6 – Establish a Savings Plan
Start saving while reducing your debts.  While this move is financially counter-intuitive, especially when paying off credit card debt at 20% interest while saving money at 4% or 5%, it is a psychological boost for yourself to be saving any money.  Furthermore, any savings put away now will come in handy if an illness or job loss occurs unexpectedly.

Day 7 – Start an Automatic Investment Plan
Saving now and investing in the future are two activities that people wish they had done only when it is too late.  Working from that perspective, doing the following is a crucial step towards learning from experience.
Call your bank, credit union, or mutual fund company and arrange an automatic investment plan, committing $50 to $100 (or more) from your paycheck each month towards an investment account.  The money invested can become the basis of your retirement portfolio or your child’s college fund.

Whether the economy is in decline or rising, being in control of your assets will help you achieve financial security, and it all begins with a plan.

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Francis M. Unson
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