Back in the day you could manage your money with a passbook savings account, checkbook, and notepad. When I was growing up, most families didn’t have credit cards to keep track of, let alone a half-dozen of them. Families didn’t manage investments in 401(k) and IRA accounts either, instead relying on company pensions to secure retirement. Without cable, the Internet, and cell phones, there were fewer monthly bills to manage. We weren’t bombarded with e-mail offers and Internet specials. We didn’t have to contend with flexible spending accounts, multiple vehicles to maintain and insure, or home equity lines of credit to tempt us to spend more than we have.
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Today, with more financial choices and constantly changing technology, it is easy to become overwhelmed trying to manage your finances. While you go back in time, you can take some simple steps to help declutter and de-stress your finances. So here are seven tips to help you bring back some sanity to your financial life.
1. Automate Bill Payments: One of the easiest steps is to set up automatic bill pay for your monthly bills. Payments can be automated from a bank account or credit card. Not only do you save the time it would take to write out checks for each bill, but you also avoid accidentally missing a payment. And you can automate the payment of everything from your mortgage to utilities to your phone bill.
2. Automate Savings: You can also automate savings by having money from your paycheck or checking account automatically deposited into a high-interest savings account or brokerage account. Likewise, by signing up for your company’s 401(k), you automate retirement savings. By having savings taken from your paycheck, you save the hassle of transferring the money yourself and are more likely to save.
3. Budget Less: While budgeting is an important part of sound money management, sometimes we take it too far. Like going on a crash diet, some try to micro-manage every dime they spend. If that works for you, stick with it. But for many, the burden of managing every expense is more than they can handle. The simple solution is to budget only those categories of expenses that cause you to overspend. Whether it’s eating out, buying clothes, or waiting in line for 24 hours for the latest iPhone, budget just those categories of expenses that give you the most trouble.
4. Consolidate Bills: Buying multiple services from the same company can save you time and money. For example, you can bundle your Internet, cable and phone service with the same carrier. These packages not only save money, but also reduce the number of monthly bills you have to manage.
5. Keep Business Expenses Separate: If you are self-employed or run a small business, keeping track of business expenses adds another layer of complexity to your financial life. Having run a business since 2007, I first made the mistake of charging business expenses to my personal credit cards. At tax time, separating personal and business expenses was a real headache. The simple fix is to get a business credit card. Most come with no annual fee and offer a simple way to keep track of business expenses.
6. Diversify Investments Instantly: Managing investments can be extremely complicated and time-consuming. For those that enjoy investing, analyzing companies and evaluating investment opportunities is time well spent. For others, however, you just want a simple way to save for retirement. The good news is that virtually all major mutual fund companies offer what are called lifestyle funds. These mutual funds invest your retirement savings in stocks and bonds based on the number of years you have until retirement. As you near retirement, the allocation between stocks and bonds adjusts automatically towards more conservative investments. By investing in just one mutual fund, you get instant diversification and a sound asset allocation.
7. Use Technology Wisely: Technology can help us manage our finances. It can also consume a lot of our time if we let it. Today there are many options when it comes to money management, ranging from free online solutions like Mint.com to computer software like Quicken. And there are even more options if you carry a Smartphone. The key is to find one solution that works best for you and stick with it. For me, it’s a simple spreadsheet, but there are many free and low cost budget tools to choose from. Sometimes less is more, and that’s certain the case when it comes personal finance technology.