No more procrastinating: Blogger Stefanie O’Connell shares online tools and advice to get your finances in order—starting this week.
Much like scheduling your next dental cleaning or renewing your passport, taking steps to improve your financial life is one of those priorities that somehow manages to fall to the bottom of the to-do list time and time again.
Whether it’s a matter of procrastination or being overwhelmed by the magnitude of your debt, the piles of receipts filling your desk drawer, or the jargon-filled 401k paperwork still waiting to be filed, choosing to do something and engage with your financial life is a vast improvement upon the inertia of personal financial procrastination.
If you’re feeling inspired and ready, but aren’t sure where to begin, here are five things you can do to get started and improve your finances this week.
Check your Credit Reports
Improving your credit is one of the best ways to reduce both the present and future costs of your essentials—the interest rate on your mortgage, your car insurance premiums, even your cell phone bill.
“Some fixes are easier than others,” says Shannon McLay, founder of The Financial Gym.
“A quick fix is monitoring your utilization rate,” she adds. “I had a client with a credit card utilization over 80 percent and her credit score was 645. We knew that she wanted to finance a car in the near future, so with her recent tax refund, she paid down her credit card below 30 percent and within 90 days her score jumped to a 763. She literally went from a fair or average score to excellent in a few months just by focusing on her utilization rate.”
I like to check each of my three credit reports once a year at Annual Credit Report to keep tabs on my current credit profile and make note of any discrepancies. With strong credit in my corner, it’s much easier to approach lenders and service providers to negotiate top rates.
We’re talking potential savings of thousands, if not more, over the course of a lifetime—all of which can start this week with a quick visit to a free website.
Review Your Spending
It’s time to actually open those monthly credit card statements and face the reality of your spending. If you’re not one for paperwork, download an app like Mint that automatically tracks your spending for you.
Once you’ve got the numbers laid out in front of you, use a pen or highlighter to separate each transaction in your purchase history into one of these four categories—keep, cut, reduce, or renegotiate.
Whether that sounds simple or painstaking, this 10- to 20-minute task fits into even my most busy days, generating renewed mindfulness around my daily spending decisions and inspiring the changes necessary to bring those choices into alignment with my big picture goals and priorities.
Renegotiate your Recurring Bills
If your spending assessment reveals recurring expenses that you don’t want or can’t cut out, carve out an hour this week to research alternatives.
Your cell phone bill, for example, may be a necessity, but not at the rate you’re paying. Call your service provider to see what alternative packages are available or if you can score a discount on what you’re already getting. My brother just canceled his cable service to cash in on new customer deals elsewhere. There’s almost always a better deal to be had.
If your negotiation attempts fall short, don’t hesitate to pull the plug. An hour of comparison shopping online and some follow-up phone calls can net you savings for months to come.
Rethink Your Debt
Much like your cable bill or gym membership, your debt also has the potential to be renegotiated, refinanced, or repaid in a way that better suits your current circumstances.
“The first thing people should do is list out all of their balances and find out their interest rates. If borrowers are unsure where to look, a good place to start is the National Student Loan Data System for student loans and Annual Credit Report and account statements for credit card debt,” says Lockert.
“Also, it’s crucial to talk to your loan servicer or lender to discuss your payment options. They may seem like the bad guy, but they want to help you,” she adds.
Don’t be shy about calling up your lenders to ask for a lower interest rate or to negotiate a payment plan with more favorable terms.
Saving money by negotiating better interest rates or reducing your essential expenses won’t do you much good if that extra cash never makes it into an actual savings or investment account.
Natalie Bacon, founder of TheFinanceGirl.com, takes away the temptation to blow her cash on surplus stuff she doesn’t need by automating her savings.
“I automate my personal savings and retirement savings through direct deposit out of payroll at my job. I also have automatic transfers set up through my personal banking. This helps me save more than I would otherwise because I’m a spender at heart. If I never see the money, I never have it to spend—it goes straight into savings,” says Bacon.
By automating a system of paying yourself first, you help ensure that your diligent cost-cutting actually manifests in increased savings. If you need more help staying accountable, download an app like Level Money on your smartphone that tracks your bills and savings goals, letting you know just how much you can afford to spend without sacrificing your amounts owed—to others or yourself.
These simple reviews, renegotiations, and savings set-ups can save you significant sums without a taking major toll on your time or energy. No matter how packed your calendar, set aside 20 to 60 minutes this week for improving your financial fitness. It’s not only doable, it’s worth it.
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