The hardest part of money management is just getting started. Once you have some momentum, it’s easier to make the right choices. Kay has been reading personal finance blogs for almost a year now, and she knows that she needs to make some changes, but she doesn’t know how to begin. She writes:

I want to get serious about being good with my money, but I don’t know where to start. I never developed good financial habits, and now I’m paying for it. I was married to a man who was also bad with money, and I’ve only been on my own for six years, but I continued those same bad habits. I’m 39, have no savings and about $28,000 in debt.

Next May, I will lose half of my child support when my son graduates from high school, and the rest the following May when my daughter graduates. Because of that, I feel like I should focus on getting rid of the debt, so I have less money going out. But if I don’t have emergency savings, then there’s no way to keep from incurring more debt. Of course, I don’t have any money saved for retirement, etc., which is another worry.

Basically, I have a list full of high-priority financial needs, but trying to do everything at once is going to get me exactly nowhere. (I know, because I’ve been trying and failing since last summer!) I did cut up my credit cards, but that’s about as far as I’ve got. Help!

It’s tough to get started because it seems like there’s too many things to do. Which choice is best? Should Kay eliminate debt first? Save for retirement? Build her savings?

Here’s the secret: There’s no one right answer. Some choices are better than others, it’s true, but the best way to take control of your finances is to do something. Action beats inaction. Taking any step in the right direction will help Kay move closer to financial stability.

All the same, some options may be better than others. As important as I think retirement savings is, I wouldn’t start there. Better to get the now under control first and then worry about the future. In Kay’s position, I would focus on three things:

Reduce expenses
Kay doesn’t mention what her expenses are, but if she’s like most people, she’s probably spending more than she needs in a variety of ways. When I was getting out of debt, I found that cutting expenses one at a time helped to create a better cash flow, giving me some breathing room.

I didn’t try to slash everything, but picked one expense after another. I:

Each of us spends differently. When you decide to get your finances under control, you need to examine your own spending patterns to find the areas you can cut. Focus on one item. Once you’ve trimmed that, look for another. This gets easier with time.

Build savings
As Kay boosts her cash flow by cutting expenses, she should use this extra money to save. Even when you’re struggling with money, it’s vital to set aside for future emergencies. If you can only afford to save $25 per month, then save $25. If you can afford to save $100, then save $100. Just get in the habit.

For many people, the best way to learn to save is by making the process automatic. I also found it necessary to create barriers so that it wasn’t possible to withdraw this money on a whim. In both cases, I recommend opening a savings account at a different bank from where you hold your regular checking account.

In my case, that meant opening a savings account at an online bank. I used ING Direct, but there are many other excellent options. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. Don’t overthink it; you can always change your mind later. Create a link between your existing checking account and your new online savings account. Set the new account to pull $20 or $50 or $100 a month automatically. Treat this like any other bill. Use this money for emergencies only.

Tackle debt
After reducing expenses and building an emergency fund of $500 or $1000, the third step is to make a plan for tackling debt. For me, that meant drafting a spending plan:

My spending plan prioritized my debts and helped me allocate future raises and bonuses. Your plan will be different. It might be more elaborate or less elaborate than mine. The important thing is to establish one.

If you’re struggling with debt, I highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball strategy. Here’s how it works:

  1. Order your debts from lowest balance to highest balance.
  2. Designate a certain amount of money to pay toward debts each month.
  3. Pay the minimum payment on all debts except the one with the lowest balance.
  4. Throw every other penny at the debt with the lowest balance.
  5. When that debt is gone, do not alter the monthly amount used to pay debts, but throw all you can at the debt with the next-lowest balance.

Because it emphasizes paying down low-balance debt as quickly as possible, the debt snowball provides quick wins. Those who’ve never been in debt frown at this strategy because it costs a little more than starting with high-interest debt. But as somebody who fought debt demons in the past, I’m here to say that the psychological boost from the debt snowball is worth the extra pennies.

Conclusion
If, like Kay, you’re struggling to get started with smart money management, then break the task into smaller pieces. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. Reduce expenses, build savings, and tackle debt. Yes, it’s important to save for retirement. But I believe that you need to start with the basics, to staunch the bleeding and heal the wounds before you begin gathering strength to face tomorrow.

In other words, don’t worry about a Roth IRA or a 401(k) at the beginning. Focus on building a strong financial foundation so that you can meet the needs of today — and next year. Once you’ve accomplished this, attack retirement savings with vigor.

What advice can you offer Kay? How did you get things turned around? What were your first steps?

For more on this subject, check out my recent article about where we’re starting from. Photo by Jurassic Jim.

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