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Watching Every Cent

Watching Every Cent

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    If you’ve been working on getting your personal budget balanced, going offline can make some sense. There are plenty of web applications and other tools that really do well at interpreting your spending patterns and other information just by taking a look at your monthly bank statement. But there’s really no substitute for doing some financial tracking on your own.

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    Every Little Cent

    One reason many people seem to struggle with building a budget that actually works for them is a lack of understanding when it comes to telling where their money really is going. Between cash, debit cards, credit cards, automated payments, one-click purchases and all the other myriad ways we can pass our money along to someone else, is it really any surprise that creating a spending plan that works longer than a week is a difficult proposition?

    Building a budget that is truly effective requires a very thorough understanding of your own spending. There is a relatively simple approach to getting the necessary grasp on your typical spending — tracking every cent you spend.

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    It isn’t a long term approach, of course, but if you’re working on getting your finances under control, a good first step is to spend a week or a month simply observing where you’re actually spending your money. It’s a matter of making a note every time you pull out your wallet, whether you’re spending cash or using plastic. At the end of your observation period, you’ll have a list of transactions that will give you a much clearer view of your expenses than a bank statement can. At a bare minimum, you’ll have an idea of where the cash you pull out of the ATM goes.

    Keep It Simple

    For most people, tracking spending for a full month will give you the best picture of finances: how you spend right after your paycheck comes in can be quite different from how you spend during other parts of the month, for instance. However, it is difficult to keep up with tracking your spending for that long. There are a few ways to make the process easier:

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    • Keep a notebook with your wallet, so that you have to pull it out whenever you’re making a purchase.
    • Write down every transaction, even if you get a receipt. It helps turn the process into a habit — and you’ll have one document with all your information.
    • Go with the paper route. Messing with texting your expense to yourself or shooting off an email just adds more hassle than a simple note.

    The important part of keeping this sort of ‘every cent counts’ record is to get the best data possible to work with. While some people can build a budget that they can stick to without such specific records, the fact of the matter is that most of us struggle to stick to a budget if we have spend without accountability. For those of us who fall into that category, budgeting becomes much easier when we already know how much we spend in a given category over the month. We know where we should cut back — and where we can cut back.

    Processing Data

    At the end of the observational period, you’re likely to have at least a few pages worth of records that you’ll need to interpret into a usable format. You may be able to spot patterns without doing anything in the way of processing, but it’s probably worth investing some time in the project and creating a spreadsheet with each of your expenses. Categorizing your expenses can make spotting patterns much easier — like picking up a candy bar every afternoon for a snack. These sorts of patterns are the starting point for changing your finances for the better. There are both good and bad spending patterns, and being able to see them can make a major difference in your ability to budget.

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    Once you’ve gone through all the data you’ve collected, it’s time to compare it to what you’d like your budget to actually be. There may be a large discrepancy between your plan and reality — the typical reason that so many budgets fail — so make note of where those big differences are. Breaking just one or two patterns may make all the difference in bringing your actual spending in to line with a budget: if something like a daily candy bar is driving up your budget, taking a step to eliminate the need for that candy bar (like bringing a snack to work along with your lunch) can make a dramatic difference. It’s worth noting that breaking a habit is often difficult — replacing it is usually easier. That fact applies to spending as much as any other habit.

    After an observational period, it almost always makes sense to end your financial tracking. It’s useful to get the sort of data you need to form a lasting budget, but it can be a fairly time-consuming process. Furthermore, you probably don’t need a cent-by-cent accounting of your finances beyond the planning stage. You may need to occasionally revisit your daily spending habits to make sure you’re still on track, but otherwise, reviewing your bank statements and receipts will more than suffice. It’s also worth looking into some sort of financial tracking application: while they may not be so useful in understanding the details of your spending, they can provide you with a broad overview that can be enough to guide you if you’re already on track.

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    Last Updated on September 2, 2020

    How to Set Financial Goals and Actually Meet Them

    How to Set Financial Goals and Actually Meet Them

    Personal finances can push anyone to the point of extreme anxiety and worry. Easier said than done, planning finances is not an egg meant for everyone’s basket. That’s why most of us are often living pay check to pay check. But did anyone tell you that it is actually not a tough task to meet your financial goals?

    In this article, we will explore ways to set financial goals and actually meet them with ease.

    4 Steps to Setting Financial Goals

    Though setting financial goals might seem to be a daunting task, if one has the will and clarity of thought, it is rather easy. Try using these steps to get you started.

    1. Be Clear About the Objectives

    Any goal without a clear objective is nothing more than a pipe dream, and this couldn’t be more true for financial matters.

    It is often said that savings is nothing but deferred consumption. Therefore, if you are saving today, then you should be crystal clear about what it’s for. It could be anything, including your child’s education, retirement, marriage, that dream vacation, fancy car, etc.

    Once the objective is clear, put a monetary value to that objective and the time frame. The important point at this step of goal setting is to list all the objectives that you foresee in the future and put a value to each.

    2. Keep Goals Realistic

    It’s good to be an optimistic person but being a Pollyanna is not desirable. Similarly, while it might be a good thing to keep your financial goals a bit aggressive, going beyond what you can realistically achieve will definitely hurt your chances of making meaningful progress.

    It’s important that you keep your goals realistic, as it will help you stay the course and keep you motivated throughout the journey.

    3. Account for Inflation

    Ronald Reagan once said: “Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber and as deadly as a hitman.” This quote sums up what inflation could do your financial goals.

    Therefore, account for inflation[1] whenever you are putting a monetary value to a financial objective that is far into the future.

    For example, if one of your financial goal is your son’s college education, which is 15 years from now, then inflation would increase the monetary burden by more than 50% if inflation is a mere 3%. Always account for this to avoid falling short of your goals.

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    4. Short Term Vs Long Term

    Just like every calorie is not the same, the approach to achieving every financial goal will not be the same. It’s important to bifurcate goals into short-term and long-term.

    As a rule of thumb, any financial goal that is due in next 3 years should be termed as a short-term goal. Any longer duration goals are to be classified as long-term goals. This bifurcation of goals into short-term vs long-term will help in choosing the right investment instrument to achieve them.

    By now, you should be ready with your list of financial goals. Now, it’s time to go all out and achieve them.

    How to Achieve Your Financial Goals

    Whenever we talk about chasing any financial goal, it is usually a two-step process:

    • Ensuring healthy savings
    • Making smart investments

    You will need to save enough and invest those savings wisely so that they grow over a period of time to help you achieve goals.

    Ensuring Healthy Savings

    Self-realization is the best form of realization, and unless you decide what your current financial position is, you aren’t heading anywhere.

    This is the focal point from where you start your journey of achieving financial goals.

    1. Track Expenses

    The first and the foremost thing to be done is to track your spending. Use any of the expense tracking mobile apps to record your expenses. Once you start doing it diligently, you will be surprised by how small expenses add up to a sizable amount.

    Also categorize those expenses into different buckets so that you know which bucket is eating most of your pay check. This record keeping will pave the way for cutting down on un-wanted expenses and pumping up your savings rate.

    If you’re not sure where to start when tracking expenses, this article may be able to help.

    2. Pay Yourself First

    Generally, savings come after all the expenses have been taken care of. This is a classic mistake when setting financial goals. We pay ourselves last!

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    Ideally, this should be planned upside down. We should be paying ourselves first and then to the world, i.e. we should be taking out the planned saving amount first and manage all the expenses from the rest.

    The best way to actually implement this is to put the savings on automatic mode, i.e. money flowing automatically into different financial instruments (mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc) every month.

    Taking the automatic route will help release some control and compel us to manage what’s left, increasing the savings rate.

    3. Make a Plan and Vow to Stick With It

    Learning to create a budget is the best way to get around the uncertainty that financial plans always pose. Decide in advance how spending has to be organized

    Nowadays, several money management apps can help you do this automatically.

    At first, you may not be able to stick to your plans completely, but don’t let that become a reason why you stop budgeting entirely.

    Make use of technology solutions you like. Explore options and alternatives that let you make use of the available wallet options, and choose the one that suits you the most. In time, you will get accustomed to making use of these solutions.

    You will find that they make it simpler for you to follow your plan, which would have been difficult otherwise.

    4. Make Savings a Habit and Not a Goal

    In the book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocate that, in order to achieve any goal, it should be broken down into habits since habits are more intuitive for people to adapt to.

    Make savings a habit rather than a goal. While it might seem to be counterintuitive to many, there are some deft ways of doing it. For example:

    • Always eat out (if at all) during weekdays rather than weekends. Weekends are more expensive.
    • If you are a travel buff, try to travel during off-season. You’ll spend significantly less.
    • If you go shopping, always look out for coupons and see where can you get the best deal.

    The key point is to imbibe the action that results in savings rather than on the savings itself, which is the outcome. Focusing on the outcome will bring out the feeling of sacrifice, which will be harder to sustain over a period of time.

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    5. Talk About It

    Sticking to the saving schedule (to achieve financial goals) is not an easy journey. There will be many distractions from those who are not aligned with your mission.

    Therefore, in order to stay the course, surround yourself with people who are also on the same bandwagon. Daily discussions with them will keep you motivated to move forward.

    6. Maintain a Journal

    For some people, writing helps a great deal in making sure that they achieve what they plan.

    If you are one of them, maintain a proper journal, where you write down your goals and also jot down the extent to which you managed to meet them. This will help you in reviewing how far you have come and which goals you have met.

    When you have a written commitment on paper, you are going to feel more energized to follow the plan and stick to it. Moreover, it is going to be a lot easier for you to track your progress.

    Making Smart Investments

    Savings by themselves don’t take anyone too far. However, savings, when invested wisely, can do wonders.

    1. Consult a Financial Advisor

    Investment doesn’t come naturally to most of us, so it’s wise to consult a financial advisor.

    Talk to him/her about your financial goals and savings, and then seek advice for the best investment instruments to achieve your goals.

    2. Choose Your Investment Instrument Wisely

    Though your financial advisor will suggest the best investment instruments, it doesn’t hurt to know a bit about the common ones, like a savings account, Roth IRA, and others.

    Just like “no one is born a criminal,” no investment instrument is bad or good. It is the application of that instrument that makes all the difference[2].

    As a general rule, for all your short-term financial goals, choose an investment instrument that has debt nature, for example fixed deposits, debt mutual funds, etc. The reason for going for debt instruments is that chances of capital loss is less compared to equity instruments.

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    3. Compounding Is the Eighth Wonder

    Einstein once remarked about compounding:

    “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… He who doesn’t… Pays it.”

    Use compound interest when setting financial goals

      Make friends with this wonder kid. The sooner you become friends with it, the quicker you will reach closer to your financial goals.

      Start saving early so that time is on your side to help you bear the fruits of compounding.

      4. Measure, Measure, Measure

      All of us do good when it comes to earning more per month but fail miserably when it comes to measuring the investments and taking stock of how our investments are doing.

      If we don’t measure progress at the right times, we are shooting in the dark. We won’t know if our saving rate is appropriate or not, whether the financial advisor is doing a decent job, or whether we are moving closer to our target.

      Measure everything. If you can’t measure it all yourself, ask your financial advisor to do it for you. But do it!

      The Bottom Line

      Managing your extra money to achieve your short and long-term financial goals

      and live a debt-free life is doable for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort. Use the tips above to get you started on your path to setting financial goals.

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      Featured photo credit: Micheile Henderson via unsplash.com

      Reference

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