Do you lack the discipline to save? So do I, but discipline is nearly irrelevant.
When I was a financial adviser, I enjoyed sitting across from people and peeking into their financial closet. It felt like I was looking at people's darkest secrets: how much money they had, what they earned, how they invested.
I'll let you in on two secrets:
1) Nearly everyone is messing up some of their financial life, and they know it.
2) Even wealthy investors struggle with some basic concepts.
And here's a bonus third secret:
3) People usually hired me because they didn't think they had the “discipline” to save on their own.
The funny part of this story: it doesn't take discipline to save.
Maybe you can make a case for “discipline,” but I can't. You certainly need energy and motivation to decide it's time to begin securing your financial footing. You might need patience to study what methods of saving are available. Discipline? Overrated.
Contrary to what you may have been told, a wealthy person's secret weapon isn't discipline; it's systems.
My wealthiest clients who built fortunes without the benefit of an inheritance were systematic investors. They generally made money doing something other than investing and were passionate about that other task. Whether it was entrepreneurship, engineering, being a physician (though generally my physician clients weren't rich; they only appeared to be rich), each spent far more time earning money than shepherding it and were great savers because they'd created alerts, spreadsheets and applications to quickly help them manage their financial lives.
One client couple, Don and Karen, came in to meet with me because, according to Karen, “We can't save.”
I pointed to their financial statement. “you have $450,000 in your 401(k) plan and you're 35 years old! Of course you can save!”
“No,” Karen retorted. “We can save in a 401(k), but if you put money in our hands or our checking account, it vanishes.”
I'm sure they thought I was a genius when I uttered the next phrase: “Well, why don't we organize your outside savings to act like your 401(k)?”
I'm a flippin' rocket scientist.
I joke, but you may have similar problems. If so, ask: where have I built good systems and how can I parlay that skill into other areas of my financial existence?
Here are some some simple systems to get you rolling:
What tools should I use to get out of debt?
Debt management isn't about finding a magic tool, it's about the system. So the answer is whatever tool you'll actually use is the one that's the key to success. You don't lose weight by skipping from diet to diet, and you won't save a dime going from tool to tool. Find one. Stick with it.
If you like apps, I like fun sites like Payoff or Ready For Zero. If you don't want something electronic, try Dave Ramsey's debt snowball. If the idea of the debt snowball's sub-optimal interest pay down drives you crazy, pay the top interest rate first.
I love fights about “which one is best.” Working with over 150 families, I'll tell you which is best: the one that you're going to actually use.
System: Find a tool to pay down debt, and use it religiously.
What is best for my budget?
Spreadsheets are great for a nerd like me, but my spouse, Cheryl, falls asleep. We use Mint to budget because it's easy to use at our weekly meeting and alerts us to problems we might have missed along the way.
The weekly meeting might be one of my favorites. By holding a set weekly agenda, we're able to stay on top of our financial picture together. In most couples I counseled who struggled, one partner generally had a finger on their financial pulse while the other was in a fantasy land. By holding weekly budget meetings, you'll clear up your budget problem in a hurry, even if you don't track expenses.
Systems: Weekly budget meeting. Mint. Spreadsheet. Notepad.
How about getting money saved?
If you have direct deposit, use it to funnel money into your savings account instead of your checking account. Transfer money into your checking account to spend. Most people suffer from “I can't save” syndrome because they want extra money in their checking account “just in case.” I've found that you can use psychology to your advantage here. By directly saving money and then transferring it to spend, you're more likely to leave your cash alone.
What about setting up and monitoring investments?
You aren't alone if you're a poor investor. Many people admitted to me that they struggled with this. Worse, they were often intimidated by advisory terminology and CNBC jargon.
It's OK to admit that you're not going to be Warren Buffett with your investments. It's OK to say, “I'm not going to be great at this,” but at least use tools to become competent. Luckily for you, this thing called the Internet exists, and by using it, you can find some well-proven tools to help. Morningstar is a wonderful resource to quickly browse through 401(k) options and avoid pitfalls. Jemstep charges starting investors zippo to correctly diversify your investments (they do charge for larger accounts, though), and companies like Betterment will do it all for you in a proven, safe manner. There's no excuse to stink at investing, even if you want nothing to do with it and don't want to find the perfect financial adviser.
How do I make it work better?
Many people brought boxes full of paper into my office. Worse, some would show me as many as 40 different screenshots of their many online investment houses.
When you take a trip, do you drive one car or four? How easy is it to follow investments when you have to pull up five different screens to see what you own? Find a centralized place to review all of your investments together. Cut the time it takes to review your portfolio. Fewer windshields mean more time concentrating on your destination and less flipping between screens.
By setting up great systems you can laugh off your lack of discipline. Alerts, apps and meetings can rule the day. The only discipline you need? That would be the discipline to follow your system, and if you can't do that, well, maybe you are destined for failure.