Need to get your financial act together? The first thing to do is take stock of where you are. People who are financial messes generally aren’t tracking their expenses and only have a vague idea that there’s too much “month” at the end of their “money.” I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to feel confident about your money by ignoring it. (I’ve seen many people attempt this plan—it never works.)
1. Track what you spend for a week.
Get a sheet of paper and write “spending tracker” on the top. Now, carry this around for a week in your wallet and write down every single thing you spend. I don’t want you to edit or change how you spend—just track it. (It may be harder than you expect.) I know you’d rather download an app, but I recommend putting it on paper first—even if you feel silly doing it at the coffee shop. If people judge you, you can smugly congratulate yourself on how you’re getting your life together. Even if you hate this exercise, remember: it’s just for a week.
2. Make a mini-budget.
At the end of the week, set aside a quiet hour when you can relax with a nice beverage (financial management goes better with a warm drink in hand) and block out all the exciting parts of the internet. Don’t try to do this while watching small children or the latest episode of Broad City. Actually concentrate.
On your spending tracker sheet, go through your expenses line by line and mark each expense as “essential,” “extra thing I felt good about,” “thing I regretted later,” or “debt payment.” I like to use color pens. (Note: Essentials are not $7 Chemex brews, gas to go to Mt. Hood, or food cart lunches—essentials are only for housing, transportation to work/school, utilities, groceries, and phone service.)
Create a baseline monthly budget by adding up those categories and multiplying by four. You probably noticed this budget is missing some monthly items, like your rent or loan payments. Finally, think about your less-frequently-than-monthly expenses. For example, if you pay $500 for auto insurance every six months, include a “car insurance” line item of $83 a month ($500/6). This will keep you from panicking—and raiding your rent money—when your next big bill comes due.
3. Figure out what you owe.
If you’re drowning in student loan payments or credit card debt, it can be easy to focus solely on the monthly payments while ignoring the larger picture. But if you want to get rid of that sense of existential dread, you have to make a plan of attack. If you’re like most broke, over-educated Portlanders, finding your student loan logins might take you the better part of an evening.
The easiest place to find your federal loan payments is to log on to studentloans.gov. If you’re not sure where to start with other debts or private student loans, check your credit report for free at places like creditkarma.com or creditsesame.com. Then put all your debt into a calculator like undebt.it to figure out repayment timelines. Something as simple as $50 extra dollars a month might take years off your debt.
If you’re in default on your loans or have a credit card chargeoff, block out two afternoons over the next month to call your creditors and get a payoff plan established. Almost all will be willing to work with you, but you have to take the first step and make the call. Give yourself a small (frugal) treat for making the time to break this cycle of anxiety. It’s going to be okay! You’re doing the thing!
4. Mind the gap.
Once you’ve figured out your monthly expenses (including debt repayment), figure out the “gap”—the difference between how much you’re bringing in (your income) and how much you’re sending out (your expenses). If your expenses are higher than your income, you have two choices: reduce your expenses (spend less on groceries, cut out the booze, get a roommate, or lower your student loan payments) or increase your income (look for a new job, ask for a raise, drive for Lyft, or raise your freelance rates). It’s not rocket science; it’s just hard work. So make more money or spend less. Better yet, both!
5. Get a buffer in place.
You’ve done so much work to get organized! Now that you’ve got a monthly plan, start working toward saving a one-month buffer of expenses in your checking account. If you spend $2,000 a month, and your “gap” between earnings and expenses is $200 a month, it will take you 10 months to build up this buffer. Not only will this give you peace of mind that your checks won’t bounce, it will also act as a mini-emergency fund so you don’t put the next veterinarian trip on a credit card.
If you’ve managed to accomplish all five steps, you’ll be in excellent shape to start focusing on your next big financial goals—like building a six-month emergency fund or down payment, funding a sabbatical, or saving for retirement.
Lillian Karabaic is the host of the weekly financial advice show Oh My Dollar! on XRAY (91.1 FM). Her illustrated workbook, Get Your Money Together, features cats explaining purr-sonal finance and debuts April 2018. ohmydollar.com