For a few years, I went through tough financial times. I was getting further and further into debt, not paying some of my bills (which then went to collectors) and always behind, even on payday. It took me awhile to step back and realize that this situation was all of my own making, due to my own choices and financial habits, and that it was possible to change.
Today, things have gotten better, although I’m not out of the red yet. I have begun saving, I’ve paid off several small debts and am well on my way to paying off my credit card (which I’ve canceled), and hope to pay off my car by the end of the year. I plan to be debt free in a little over a year, with good prospects after that. I’m also planning for retirement, a little travel, and a simple house. My finances are much better off today than they were just a year and a half ago.
The typical recommendation from financial advisors and blogs is that you start by tracking all of your spending on a daily basis. But mine is attempting to be practical — I’ve been there, in the trenches, and I know that keeping track of daily spending can be difficult. I advise you to do it, but if you don’t, for whatever reason, don’t let that stop you from fixing your finances.
My recommendation is that, whether or not you track your spending (and you should), at least do the following:
1. Stop the bleeding
Stop using your credit and debit cards immediately. Cut them up, or put them in the freezer in a ziploc bag filled with water, effectively freezing your cards. Also stop taking other loans, either from banks or finance companies or friends or family. Stop getting into more debt.
2. Start saving now!
The next most important step you can take, in the beginning, is to start a small savings account if you haven’t already. Begin depositing into it regularly, at least $100 per paycheck but more if you can. If you can’t find $100 then see the next step for how. Make it an automatic deposit, the first bill you pay each payday, because it is the most important! A savings account will help you smooth out your finances — when an emergency comes up, like your car breaking down or someone having to go to the hospital, you won’t be thrown back into debtedness or brokedness. You will have some cash to pay for that emergency, and you can use your regular paycheck for regular expenses.
3. Look at discretionary spending
If you can’t find $100-200 to save per paycheck, then you need to cut some things from your spending. This is where tracking your spending comes in handy, but even if you don’t, you know some of the extras you spend on – coffee, snacks, candy, desserts, eating out, magazines, shopping for clothes or gadgets or toys or shoes, books, going out … these are just a few of the examples. I’m not saying you need to cut everything out, but if you can cut a few of them, or maybe just one at a time, that can add up. Then, take the money you didn’t spend on those discretionary items, and put that amount into savings each payday. Increase this over time.
4. Start a debt snowball to begin getting out of debt
If you haven’t read about debt snowballs, they’re simple. List out your debts and arrange them in order from smallest balance at the top to largest at the bottom. Then focus on the debt at the top, putting as much as you can into it, even if it’s just $40-50 extra (more would be better). When that amount is paid off, celebrate! Then take the total amount you were paying (say $70 minimum payment plus the $50 extra for a total of $120) and add that to the minimum payment of the next largest debt. Continue this process, with your extra amount snowballing as you go along, until you pay off all your debts. This could take several years, but it’s a very rewarding process, and very necessary.