Just about everyone has financial goals in mind. It might be to save enough to buy a house. It might be to put aside more to invest for retirement. It might be to start a college fund. You probably already have a good idea of what your top financial goal should be. What all such goals have in common is that they require more than just wishing. They need a budget. While anyone can create financial goals, not everyone reaches their goals. Here are five essential rules for making sure you actually stick with your budget and make those dreams happen.
1. Make a Plan
When we say make a plan, we’re really talking about creating a budget. Success in almost every realm requires planning. This truth especially holds in the area of personal finance. For example, if you are in debt, you must determine which of your debts to pay off first and how much progress you should be making each month.
If your goal is to retire early, you must determine how much to save to make that a reality. A plan is also crucial for turning an amorphous dream into something concrete — for example, a vague desire to spend less is not specific enough to be useful. You need to get down to details. Rather than resolving to spend less, consider a concrete action like, “I will make my coffee at home three mornings a week.”. Then, take the money you would have spent on coffee and put it in an envelope for savings.
2. Set Mini-Goals
Budgeting is an ambitious idea, especially if some of your financial goals are enormous undertakings that will take many years to carry out. A perfect example of this would be investing enough money for retirement. The issue with really massive goals like this is that they are hard to get your head around. Such plans can feel daunting since their resolution lies so far in the future.
The answer is to break down the larger goal into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, you might start by aiming to get just $100 invested for your retirement, then increase that amount by $100 until you have reached $1000 a month. Smaller goals like this give you the sense of satisfaction you need now to stick with a budget that is aimed toward future endeavors.
3. Live Within Your Means
You hear this phrase often, but it’s more than a cliche. Living within your means involves never spending more money than you have right now. It’s a practice that’s easier said than done, but if you are serious about sticking to your budget, it’s necessary.
When you live within your means, you understand the difference between “needs” and “wants” and can choose accordingly. If you have to go into debt to cover one of your wants, consider how much that item will cost you down the road. This is especially important if you purchase it on credit, which brings us to our next point—credit cards.
4. Avoid Credit Like the Plague
This is one of the most challenging tips for many people to implement, especially those who are living paycheck to paycheck. However, the interest on credit cards can destroy the best-laid plans. Everyone knows this, but we still ignore the advice.
If you can pay off the full balance of your credit cards each month, do it. Minimum payments are a prison that can keep you in debt for years, so at least aspire to pay a little above and beyond the minimum each month.
If money is simply too tight to pay down your debt, consider a side gig to make some extra money. You can do lots of things that will earn you a bit of extra cash each month so you can whittle your credit card balance down. One gig many readers turn to when times are tough are paid surveys for cash. Yes, there really are legit survey companies that pay, and signing up for one can be a great way to earn a little extra money to help stick to your budget.
5. Track Your Progress
When it comes to sticking with your budget, tracking your progress is one of the most important ways to stay on course. After all, a plan is only as good as your ability to actually carry it out. After the initial work of planning, it can be easy to lose focus. Self-discipline is the answer, but how do you go about it?
If you are trying to cut your spending by 10 percent a month, look over all your purchases at least weekly, if not daily. Thinking about finances might not be enjoyable, but generally, the more time spent on money matters, the better. As time passes, you must regularly reevaluate your progress and modify your plan. You may find your initial goal was too ambitious and opt for a more modest strategy — or the reverse.
Some people like to use budgeting software, while others prefer an old-fashioned pen and paper ledger. Many financial experts recommend creating a visual—something you can regularly see, such as a colorful chart on the refrigerator or a sticky note on the dash of your car. If you prefer to be more discreet, track your progress on an index card and keep it someplace you look regularly, like your desk drawer, produce bin, or medicine cabinet. While unconventional, these visual reminders can help you accomplish your goals.
Personal finance and sticking to your budget is all about trade-offs. After all, money would hardly be a matter worth worrying about if there were no conflicts between various wants and needs. Sticking to a budget means making your financial goals a top priority. While some costs (such as bills) must take precedence, your goal must be a higher priority than discretionary spending on stuff you don’t really need, such as expensive clothes or fancy vacations.
7. Embrace the Frugal Lifestyle
Many people equate frugality with boredom when, in fact, it’s one of the most creative traits you can cultivate. Depending on your tastes and preferences, you can embrace frugality in one or more areas of your life. For example, if you usually order out, get the family together, and create a copycat dish from your favorite restaurant at home.
While food is one of the most obvious ways to begin living a more frugal lifestyle, there are other ways, too. Make homemade gifts, repair items rather than replace them, purchase from thrift stores, yard sales, and discount shops. Once you get the ball rolling with frugal habits, you’ll never go back to your days of overspending.
8. Stay Motivated
Remember your reason. Motivation can easily flag when pursuing a goal — especially if your pursuit involves changes that aren’t exactly fun, such as spending less on eating out and other leisure activities. Recalling the original reason why you chose your goal will restore your motivation. If you want to save more for retirement, remember how important it is to care for your future, senior self — being in financial straits post-retirement would be miserable. If you want to buy a house, think about how great owning your own home will be.
It’s sad when a financial goal someone very much cares about does not come to fruition. Too many people only wish after their personal finance goals, without ever taking real steps toward making them real. Whether you want to pay off your credit card debt quickly, put away more per month into your IRA, or something else, creating a solid budget and then sticking with it is the way to accomplish these tasks.