Nearly every expert will tell you that meticulously monitoring your spending (Excel spreadsheet and all) is the surest way to stay on track financially. And for the three or four of you out there with the capacity to do that, congratulations. The rest of us can rely on these alternative strategies—just as effective and a lot less labor-intensive.
1. Hide the Money
It’s harder to spend what you don’t have easy access to. So be sure to set aside a percentage of your pay in savings before it ever hits your pocketbook.
Simply have your employer withhold money from each paycheck for your 401(k) or 403(b) retirement account. Make sure to reserve enough to get the full company match, if your employer offers that benefit. If you use direct deposit, you can request that your funds be funneled into both a checking account and a savings account (which doubles as an emergency fund). Another option: Have your bank set up a standing automatic withdrawal that will transfer a sum from checking to savings. Schedule this transaction for the day after each paycheck is generally posted, so that the money goes away before you’re aware of it, says Meg Favreau, the senior editor of the financial website WiseBread.com. Even after your emergency account is fully funded (that is, with enough money on hand for about eight months’ worth of expenses), keep setting aside at least $25 per paycheck to have a more secure safety net, says Brian J. O’Connor, the author of The $1,000 Challenge ($16, amazon.com).
2. Make a Choice: Paper or Plastic?
In an ideal world, financial pros say, you would live a cash-only lifestyle to minimize the risk of overspending. But in the real world that’s almost impossible. You can’t shop online with a stack of greenbacks. However, it’s best to choose one payment method and stick to it as much as possible, says O’Connor, since that makes it easier to track your total spending.
Use (mostly) cash if you carry a balance on your credit card or find that charging things encourages you to buy more than you can afford. Here’s how: Once you’ve socked away some money in savings (see step 1) and paid your regular bills, withdraw the amount that remains from your paycheck, says Favreau. (Just be sure to leave in enough money to avoid bank fees and overdrafts.) Put the cash in one envelope and use it for all your discretionary outlays: food, clothing, going out. Or, if you want to designate a specific dollar amount for different expenses, give each category a separate envelope.
Use (mostly) one credit card if you pay your bills in full each month. Credit cards famously prompt poor spending choices, but they also allow you to look at your account transactions and see where you’re spending money, says O’Connor. (Especially helpful: Some providers send out year-end statements, often organized by spending category.) Plus, if you use a rewards card, you can rack up points in a hurry. Don’t have one? Go to creditcards.com to find a rewards card that matches your spending habits.
3. Tally Your Regrets
Chances are, you’ve heard of the “latte effect.” This is the phenomenon in which people habitually fritter away small amounts of money on frivolous things and are barely aware of the cumulative cost until they add it all up. This is often cited as an expense that can be reduced by budgeting. But there’s another way to eliminate mindless expenditures, according to Gregory Karp, the author of The 1-2-3 Money Plan ($18, amazon.com). Just look at your credit-card and bank statements several times a year. For each purchase, he says, “ask yourself, ‘Do I regret buying that?’” You may be shocked to realize that in one three-month period you spent $95 on iTunes downloads and 10 percent of your take-home pay on takeout.
Write down any purchases that make you wince, and keep that list posted by your computer or on your cell phone. “Being aware of where you’re spending too much should deter you from making the same mistakes again,” says O’Connor.
4. Maintain an Extra Savings Account for Long-Term Goals
Maybe you wish you could afford a new computer. Or you’re hoping to celebrate your wedding anniversary by taking a cruise. One easy move can make it more likely that you’ll succeed. Instead of just stashing money in an undesignated savings account, Brad Klontz, Psy.D., a financial psychologist in Kauai, Hawaii, and a coauthor of Mind Over Money ($11, amazon.com), suggests that you create a new one with a name that specifically refers to your goal: “Tom and Samantha’s Trip to Greece,” say, or “Elinor’s Laptop Fund.” (At many banks, if you transfer a specific amount into this account each month or maintain a minimum balance, you won’t be assessed maintenance fees.)
“Saving money is an abstract concept, but doing this exercise taps into the emotional part of your brain,“ says Klontz. “You are less likely to feel like you’re doing without, because you’re saving toward a clear goal that you genuinely want to achieve.”