If you’re the type who always ends up with $5 in your account just before payday and has no idea how that happened, you may be in need of some budgeting assistance. Being a millennial can be financially complicated; our generation has high levels of debt and student loans, and financial predictions indicate that millennials may not be able to retire for a very long time. Given these factors, it’s important to take care of yourself financially, know where your money is going, and make good spending decisions. But budgeting can be stressful, especially if you don’t have a sense of what’s in your accounts day to day. But by staying on top of that information and making informed choices about how to manage your money, you can make it more of an automatic habit.
Budget-balancing can be tricky because of unexpected expenses, debt repayment, irregular earnings, and just plain losing track of where the money goes. To step up to the plate, you’ve got to be prepped to do some work — but luckily there are plenty of hacks to make money-tracking easier, keep your spending in check, make your cash work harder, and take are of your debts in manageable ways. Break out the spreadsheet and colored pens; we’re about to get into hardcore budgeting — without the need for a pricey financial planner.
1Track Your Spending & Income
Invest some time in actually tracking what money comes in and where it goes over the course of a week or a month. Set up a spreadsheet, or use an app like Mint or You Need A Budget to hook up with your bank accounts and see the realities of your cash flow. Budgets Are Sexy also has a range of downloadable templates to fit your needs.
“When creating your budget, focus on including expense categories that reflect where your money actually goes,” financial advice organization The Balance wrote. That means thinking hard about what you actually do with your money: coffee, cash to help a friend, an Uber, the ingredients you bought on that late-night shopping trip for cake-baking, it all counts.
2Use An App For Your Receipts
This is particularly useful if you work from home or use expenses for your job, but if you also want to track your personal expenditure. A receipt-scanning app can put all your purchases in one place. Expensify and Zoho Expense are both popular for the purpose — so do it for a week and then check what you’ve discovered.
3Deal With The Fear Of Looking At Your Bank Statements
Whether you receive paper bank statements or emails, it’s a good idea to check them over and try to track down any unfamiliar expenses. Not only is this a good measure to prevent fraud on your accounts, it provides a good month-to-month demonstration of your money flow and how small purchases can add up in surprising ways.
If you find you’re anxious about looking at the statements, you probably carry some fear over money and spending that’s preventing you from managing your income as well as you could. Don’t dismiss that; think about your approach to money and what makes you worried or afraid. Then make strategies that might make you feel more in control.
4Keep Track Of Your Subscriptions In One Place
If you’re like me, you lose track of the fact that you’ve subscribed to both Netflix AND Amazon Prime and get a nasty surprise at the end of the month. Whether it’s beauty box subscriptions, the gym, entertainment, magazines or something else, put a special section on your budget for subscription services and how much your monthly or annual membership actually costs.
5Use A Calendar To Keep Track Of Direct Deposits
Paying bills by direct deposit? Great idea — but if you pay them on varying days, or don’t keep track of which payments go where, you can end up caught out when multiple ones go out at once and you suddenly dip into overdraft. Make clear notes on a calendar or something else you use regularly, like an alarm on your phone, about how much money is going out in automatic payments — for rent, your phone, internet and anything else — and when. Use post-it notes on your wall if it helps.
6Check Your Credit Score For Free
Yes, you need to keep on top of your credit score. The good news is that apps like Mint now allow you to check it for free and make better decisions about your financial health based on what you find. Credit Karma also offers your credit scores for free, and both apps provide the information from your credit report to give you a better look at your credit habits and how you might make your score look a little shinier in the future.
7Invest Your Spare Change
If you have some spare money every month and already use a savings account, it’s possibly also worth building some investment into your budgeting to help provide more resources in the future. You pay a small fee for the apps like Acorns to invest your spare change and see a small return on the investments, helping you build up a little reserve of cash.
However, this only works if you’re micro-investing, or investing very small amounts, explains Money Under 30: “Spare change’ investment apps clearly have the potential to be useful for beginner investors or even college students who have a limited income and want to avoid complex processes and services. However, once your account reaches $5,000, you must carefully re-evaluate the pros and cons and to ensure your earnings are not being eaten up by the higher fees.”
8Use Cash For Your “Problem Areas”
You’ve been budgeting and note that you always seem to go over your spending goals in one particular area: buying books, for example, or eating out. To help stick to a budget, stop electronic purchases in this area (no more Kindle or buying by card) and use cash instead. “If you always go over on your clothing budget, consider taking out a certain amount of cash each week or month for that category,” suggests The Balance. “Once the money is gone, it’s gone. This will help you stick to a budget, even in your problem areas.”
9Don’t Ignore Your Debts
Debt can be terrifying, but it will get worse if you leave it out of your budgeting considerations. “Avoiding your debts will not make them go away, so gather this information, including total principal, interest rates, minimum payments, and loan terms for each debt,” says Finance Superhero. That includes student debt and credit cards, plus any personal debts you have to anybody you know.
10Comparison-Shop For Providers
There are a lot of services you may have signed up for a while back that aren’t necessarily the best bang for your buck. (Think your phone company or your gas.) International bank ING suggests shopping around. “Do a comparison on your gas and electricity providers (OK, it does involve looking at those boring little figures, but trust us it’s worth knowing what rates you’re paying),” they say. “Similarly, there’s usually a fair bit of choice when it comes to phone, internet and insurance providers, so ask what deals they can offer (especially if you’ve been a long-standing customer and have paid your bills on time).” Put in your research, see if your contract allows switching, and then be prepared to negotiate with your current provider: they might offer you a sweet deal.
11Make A “Transition Budget”
Want to move towards spending less overall? It’s a good idea to make a ‘transition budget’, where you make several budgets for the next few months that gradually achieve your spending goals. It’s more sustainable than changing all at once, says WalletHacks. “The basic idea is that we transition your current budget to your ideal budget over the span of six months. It’s not one budget, it’s six,” they say. That way you can identify what you have to spend money on, like rent, and what’s more flexible and can be changed long-term.
12Know The Details Of Your Credit Cards
What are the actual terms and conditions of your credit cards? Do they offer instalment payment plans (IPPs) for big-ticket items? How much of your credit balance are you actually using? Keep all the details of your credit cards and if you aren’t sure, ask. As a grown-ass adult, you need to know what you’re using.
Finance Superhero also suggests trying for a better interest rate on your credit cards. “If you’re facing high interest rates, you should definitely call to negotiate better rates, especially on credit cards,” they say. “Be persistent and don’t take no for an answer. You’ll be surprised at the results.” Yes, talking on the phone sucks, but you might make a big saving.
13Make Savings Automatic
Set up a savings account and then forget it exists? The answer to that, says The Balance, is automatic saving. “Making deposits into a savings account automatically and regularly relieves the need to think about it — the money is deposited before you have time to worry about expenses or how much money will be left over. In fact, once automatic savings deposits become a habit, you may find you don’t miss the money at all,” they say. Set it up and increase or decrease the limit depending on how it affects your cash flow.
14Consider The 50-20-30 Plan
15Write Out Your Financial Goals
What do you actually want from your money in the future? Do you want to own property, travel to a particular place, save for having a baby, be debt-free, or something else? Writing out your financial goals, short and long-term, can be helpful for clarifying what you want your money to actually do for you.
16Try A Personal Emergency Buffer
If something goes wrong, you might drain your savings and go back to zero. Which is why a personal emergency stash in a separate account you can’t touch unless something’s gone really wrong — a burst pipe, an exploding car, a big medical bill — is a good idea. Make that a priority if you’ve just started saving and build up a buffer so that emergencies don’t rack up more debt.
17Pay Off High-Interest Debt First
Juggling debt? Experts note that the high-interest loans and debts are the ones that will feel crushing long-term, so it’s a good idea to prioritize those right now. This, MoneyGoody points out, is the approach advocated by money guru Suze Orman: “Paying off high interest debt first saves you the most money in the long run. The sooner you’re able to pay it off, the less interest you’ll end up paying.”
18… Or If You Have Multiple Student Loans, Look Into Snowballing
Student debt from various sources can feel intimidating, but there are various ways to handle it. If you don’t qualify for loan forgiveness, says The Street, examine refinancing or a strategy called “snowballing”: “Order your loans from the smallest to the largest. “Pay the minimum amount on all loans, except the smallest one. Devote as much money as you can to the smallest loan until it is completely paid off. Repeat steps 2-3, each time with the smallest debt until all debts are paid in full.”
19Talk About Budgeting With Your Partner & Friends
If you’re in a relationship with somebody and spend money together — whether you share a bank account, pay rent or just go out to dinner a lot — it’s important to share your budgeting goals with them. That goes for friends who influence your spending decisions, too: if you can’t afford that trip to Tulum, you need to be upfront about it. “You need to be on the same page with your spending habits. You won’t be able to progress financially if your significant other isn’t supportive,” says Young Adult Money, and that also applies to friends and family.
20Do Not Dive Into Your Savings For Non-Emergencies
You know how it goes: you’re running a bit low this month, so you dip into your healthy savings account to help out. Don’t do it! Restricted access savings accounts are a good idea if this is a common issue for you: they make it difficult to access your savings and give you higher interest rates in return. They can be certificates of deposit or money market accounts, and your bank probably has other savings accounts for long-term financial goals that are meant to sit and accumulate interest without you touching them. Work out which is best for your savings level and see if a limited access savings account is a good idea for you.
21Yep, Start Thinking About Retirement Now
I don’t care if you still get pimples, you need to start thinking about retirement. “Because of compound interest, the sooner you start saving for retirement the more you’ll be able to grow your financial nest egg. Your employer may be able to help, too. When choosing a job, look for companies that offer employer-sponsored retirement programs such as a 401(k),” says the Travis Credit Union. This type of saving is a good candidate for long-term limited-access saving. Even if you have irregular earnings or lots of debt, it’s still worth talking to your bank about what you can do about retirement: even if it’s not much right now, it can add up in the future.