Recently, we discussed the benefits of paying yourself first. But exactly how do you go about doing that (especially if you feel like you're living paycheck to paycheck already)?
If you are just starting to manage your money or you simply struggle when it comes to budgeting in the first place, paying yourself first may seem like one of those personal finance concepts that sounds good in theory but is difficult to put into practice in reality.
Fortunately, you can start small, get some good habits in place, and scale up from there. Here are five strategies to help get the ball rolling so you can start paying yourself first.
Strategy 1: Reduce your spending and bank the difference
The first step in implementing this strategy is similar to how you start to budget:
1. Figure out where your money is actually going. Using an app like Mint may help you identify and categorize your major expenses. (Full disclosure: Mint is at its best if you use a debit or credit card for all your transactions. Cash spending is a little trickier, though not impossible, to track.)
2. Figure out what to cut or reduce. Maybe you downgrade your cable package to a plan that doesn't have the premium sports channels, switch to a no-contract cell phone plan, and increase the deductible on your auto insurance to lower your premium.
Now comes the trick:
3. Bank the difference. Add up your monthly savings from the changes and set up an automatic transfer to your online savings account for that amount. After all, what is the point of saving money if you don't actually save it?
This can be addictive! If you channel your savings into one sub-account, then as you see it grow each month, you may be inspired to make even more cuts so you can increase the amount of your transfer and watch the savings grow.
Strategy 2: Start small
But maybe that first strategy sounds intimidating though you aren't sure you can actually save that much each month (especially if you're currently spending more than you earn). If you really are starting from nothing, part of the problem may just be a matter of perspective. It's unreasonable to think that you'll go from zero to thousands of dollars in savings overnight.
Instead, try starting with $20 per month. Surely you have that much to spare, right? Set up an automatic transfer for that amount and see how it feels. This is actually how I started to save money, although it was for a different reason.
Back in the day when I opened my first savings account, an automatic transfer of at least $25 per month was required for the account fees to be waived. That's no longer the case, but the transfer was already set up, so I never changed it. See? Laziness working in my favor!
Here's the trick with this strategy:
Once you've been successful doing this for a month or so, bump that amount up. Can you save $40? $50? More? You'll realize when you've hit your limit. And while the amount you are saving may not seem like much in the beginning, starting easy with something you can accomplish is kind of the point. Plus, the balance will grow quicker than you think!
Strategy 3: Bank your side-gig income
So you've got a side gig or second job. You're in good company! Anyone can start a side business these days. But where does the money from your supplemental income go? If the answer is to your regular checking account and you're still not saving any money, you may be able to put those funds to better use by funneling them directly to a savings account.
If it's a second job, then go ahead and set up direct deposit to go straight to a high-yield online savings account. Out of sight, out of mind — until you log in and admire your new-found savings! If your side gig is your own business, then hopefully you've got a business checking and savings account set up so you're not mixing those funds with your personal money.
Keeping personal and business funds separate can make tax time easier and help you determine whether your side gig is successful. It also makes it clear how often you are paying yourself and how much you're earning. Better yet? When you cut yourself a paycheck from your business, deposit it into your savings account rather than your checking account. Bank it, baby!
Strategy 4: If you're coupled up, live off one income
This one's simple too. If you're a member of a dual-income couple, then try to live off only one of your incomes. In this scenario, one of you has their paychecks direct-deposited into checking, while the other (preferably the higher earner, but do what works for you) has their paychecks deposited into savings.
A true one-and-done, this strategy probably enables saving the most money, and doing so very quickly. But here's a couple caveats to remember: Obviously, both parties should have access to both accounts, and you should both be on the same page when it comes to saving and spending goals. Communication is key here.
However, assuming that is the case, the sky's the limit. This strategy is especially effective for those who are planning to go down to one income at some point anyway — for example, those who want one spouse to stay home with a future family. Even if you don't have plans to become single-income in the works, an accident or illness may make the decision for you, so it's best to be prepared.
Strategy 5: Participate in your employer's retirement plan
OK, this one is kind of a gimme, but it bears repeating. If your employer offers a 401(k) or similar retirement plan, you should be contributing! Saving for retirement is the ultimate form of paying yourself first.
The benefits are numerous. You may reduce your taxes in the here and now. You allow compound interest to work its magic on your behalf. If your employer offers a match, you literally get free money! I'm not seeing any downsides here.
Plus, participating in a retirement plan through your employer is another one-and-done method of saving. Rather than having to remember to do something every single month, you fill out the forms, turn them into HR, and — boom! — you're providing for your future self. What could be simpler?
Like with so many things, when it comes to paying yourself first, a lot of times the hardest part is getting started. I know that when I started saving, it seemed like I was never going to get anywhere. But today I'm 35 and have $50,000 in retirement accounts and over $8,500 in savings.
One of the funny things I have found is that once I put money in savings, I'm super reluctant to pull it out again. It seems almost sacrilegious! Instead, I get really creative about solving day-to-day money “problems” without tapping into my emergency fund.
Have you tried any of these strategies, or do you have another you'd like to share? How do you pay yourself first? Let us know in the comments below!