While New Year’s is a popular time to implement big changes that could impact your financial health, it’s never too late — or early — to take steps to improve your life. Fall may be the perfect time to assess your finances, a few months before the holidays hit.
If you’re angling for more wealth in the new year, or fewer money struggles, there are several steps you can take now to ensure you’re in better financial shape for years to come.
Here are six steps to fall into better finances, sooner rather than later.
Hold the pumpkin spice everything — at least for a while
Fall is branded as the time to chug pumpkin spice lattes by the gallon, and the need for new hoodies and boots for the many, many campfires you'll attend. But, perhaps we would all be better off if we skipped out on miscellaneous purchases and went on a spending freeze instead.
If you skipped buying a $5 coffee each weekday, that’s $25 in weekly savings and at least $100 per month. You don’t have to freeze your spending forever, but taking a fall hiatus from extra purchases can help if you’re falling behind on bills.
Track your spending
In addition to a freeze, you should consider tracking your spending for a while. Break out the last few months of bank statements and credit card bills to see where every dollar went. Then, tally up all your purchases in basic categories like food, entertainment and transportation. This is a great way to see how much you’re spending each month. Trust us, what you find out may surprise you!
Start using a monthly budget
Creating a monthly budget or spending plan is a solid next step. Keep in mind that your budget doesn’t have to be restrictive — you can including anything you want in your plan each month.
While there are budgeting strategies you can try, we love zero-sum budgeting before it forces you to give each dollar you earn “a job.” You can create a simple zero-sum budget with just a pen and paper, so there’s no excuse not to get started.
Build an emergency fund
A recent survey by the Federal Reserve revealed 40 percent of adults would be unable to cover a $400 emergency expense — going without an emergency fund could get you into financial trouble.
If you want to protect yourself from life’s “what ifs,” you should start by saving up $1,000 as a starter fund — even if you can only save a little bit each payday. From there, strive to build an e-fund big enough to cover 3 to 6 months of expenses.
Boost your retirement contributions
While retirement may seem like forever away, the years may tick by faster than you think. If you want to be prepared, you should save as much as you can as often as you can.
The easiest way to increase retirement contributions is to raise the percentage you contribute to a work-sponsored 401(k). If you’re currently saving 5% of your salary and your employer offers a match up to 3% (for a total of 8%), try to boost your savings up a couple of percentage points.
If you don’t have employer-sponsored retirement, take steps to increase your retirement savings on your own. And, whether you have workplace retirement or not, you can look into opening a traditional or Roth IRA.
Pay down debt
It’s important to look at both sides when you’re trying to build wealth: You need to save and invest, but you also need to limit your liabilities.
Paying down debt is especially important if you have unsecured debt at high interest rates. Considering the average credit card APR is over 17%, you could save hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year by paying down high interest debt.
If you need some immediate help with cumbersome high-interest debt, consider consolidating it with a personal loan with a lower interest rate and better terms. You can also explore the possibility of applying for a balance transfer card that offers 0% APR for up to 21 months. Balance transfer cards sometimes charge upfront balance transfer fees of 3% or 5%, but avoiding interest payments for nearly two years can make these offers deals a no-brainer.
The bottom line
There are dozens of ways to fall into better finances this year, but they all require some work on your part. Think long and hard about what you hope to accomplish this year along with how you might want your financial life to look next year, and the year after that. With a few simple changes and enough time, you could get yourself into better financial shape than you think.
Image: Catherine MacBride