Have you ever wanted — really wanted — to change your financial situation but, when you tried, you felt like you were slogging through wet cement or trying to turn a huge ship around? You got exhausted and stopped, right?
Change is like that.
You can change — and you can also make it easier for yourself. But first, are you clear about why you want to change?
Clarify your reasons
I assume you have already spent some quiet time contemplating why you want to improve your financial situation.
Why do I say that?
Because if improving your financial situation were easy, you would have done it already. But you haven't, and I am guessing you haven't because your current lifestyle and habits are making it tougher than it should be. (Even though it's still not easy to change any way you slice it.)
There's no shame if you haven't been successful yet, by the way. Who is completely successful right out of the box when it comes to finances? It takes practice. It requires persistence and a willingness to educate yourself and even experiment sometimes.
Still, there's a reason you want to improve your finances — a goal of some sort. If you can make your goal crystal clear, it helps to keep you focused and, well, motivated. The “why” is your fuel.
What do you want to change?
After you decide why you want to change, consider what you want to change. You're focusing on your financial situation, but get laser-like and concentrate on what you want to accomplish first.
- Do you want to increase your savings account balance?
- Do you want to cut your spending?
- Are you trying to simplify your life?
- Have you decided to increase your income?
As I look at this list, I want to do all these things. But what do I want to do first? Pick one (or another option entirely). Now, how are you going to change?
Your budget — an easy way to identify problem areas
Problem areas usually start to surface when you change what you're doing. And when it comes to finances, an easy way to discover a problem area is to start reviewing your budget.
Your problem area(s) will be different, but how will you know there's a problem in the first place? Well, it's important to measure your progress. But another way to know is if it meets this criteria: It's getting in the way of what you want to change.
- Are you spending a huge amount in rent because you want to?
- Are you traveling to expensive places because you want to?
- Are you eating out often at restaurants because you want to?
Is the reason you're spending money based on your own perceptions and the perceptions of others? In other words, look at what you are spending money on because you want to and what you are spending on because you think you have to.
Parts of your budget can also be greedy — consuming more of your money that it should. A standard to measure your own spending against is the Balanced Money Formula.
Change habits/lifestyle to decrease spending
If any of your budgeting categories appear bloated after comparing it to the Balanced Money Formula (or something else like your own budget method), tackle that bloat first. Cut back the portion sizes. This is easier said than done, but…
Even if your budget is in check, you can still find ways to improve your lifestyle.
To make this lifestyle change easiest, focus first on the areas where you spend the most. For me, that's our housing.
So I would ask myself these questions:
- Why are we living in our current home?
- Does our home choice coincide with our current lifestyle?
- Could we live more cheaply elsewhere?
- What about renting instead of owning?
Most likely, housing is probably your largest expense too. Making changes to where you live is a big deal, but sometimes this choice can catapult you into the next stage of personal finance.
What do I mean?
Finding the inspiration to change
If you read the recent article on Andrew and Amanda Argue, you learned that they lived in expensive downtown Miami before moving to less-expensive Orlando. Now they gallivant around the globe, most recently residing in Costa Rica, a place with a reasonable cost of living. And their monthly expenses? Around $2-2,500/month.
If you do move to a less expensive house or area, you may find that move indirectly affects other parts of your budget.
Here is a small example from my own life.
- My first job out of college paid well for a recent graduate. After about three years, though, I got burned out from the schedule and took a different job that paid $5 less per hour. Everyone at this job earned less than my previous co-workers, and it showed. All of us ate out less, went on fewer vacations, wore less expensive clothing, among other things. I also couldn't save as much money, but I think the concept is still worth thinking about.
- The Argues noted similar experiences when they moved away from downtown Miami and the expensive cars driven by their coworkers.
You may decide not to change your housing. That's fine, of course. But once you've decided what to change, you need to figure out how to change it.
Remember that wet cement I talked about earlier? You're just about to step in it…
Make changes easier to implement
We need to make this as easy as possible.
To make changes easier to implement, eliminate choices in other areas of your life. You have already decided where to focus your time and energy, right? By doing so, now you know where NOT to focus your time and energy.
Here are some examples of making life easier (assuming these areas are what you're NOT concentrating on):
- If you don't enjoy taking minutes each morning to decide what to year, create a personal uniform, by wearing the same type of clothing every day. Or, wear the same five outfits each week.
- Although we all have to eat, here are a few ideas for how to spend less time in the kitchen. Create a master shopping list. Meal plan the same meals every week, or if you want more variety, $5 Meal Plan can help. Amanda Argue spent anywhere from eight to 10 hours cooking on Sundays each week to make it easier to pack her lunch and eat at home. This prep time doesn't always have to take so many hours, but it could include cutting up vegetables, prepping lettuce, making green smoothie packets, making freezer meals, cooking once/eat twice by doubling the recipe and freezing the second, or making those salads-in-a-jar that I keep seeing on Pinterest and haven't made yet.
- Note when you are short on time. Then, when you have extra time, prepare for those times when you have less margin in your life. For instance, maybe your very-busy times are certain times of the year (or certain times of the week or month). Our CPA and his wife work together in his office. Obviously, tax time is a very busy time for them. She compensates by putting meals in the freezer at the end of the year, so they have quick, healthy meals when they're working much longer hours when January comes around and they're in the thick of tax season.
- Similarly, note when you are tired. If you're worn out on your commute home after a long day at work, you're vulnerable. That is NOT the time to decide what to eat when you get home. It's too easy to turn into a drive-thru and get some fast food. As Amanda Argue admits, “We ate at restaurants we didn't even like!” For me, gift-buying — if it's to be a thoughtful gift, anyway — must take place when I am feeling energetic. Otherwise, everyone gets cash or gift cards. Simply put, I spend more money for a gift that usually misses the mark.
- If you're tired of turning down invites from friends because you need to rein in spending for entertainment, why not be the one to initiate the social plans? (Naturally, you'll choose a less expensive activity, right?)
If you want to make significant progress at turning your financial life around, it can really help to find strategies that make these changes easier. These ideas include reminding yourself why you want to change, evaluating your budget to identify where your budget's problem areas lie, deciding which parts of your lifestyle to change, and then — of course! — making those changes easier to implement.
With some focus, mindful spending, and hard work, you can make progress toward your goals.
Do you find it difficult to change your financial situation? Have you changed your lifestyle to make improving your financial situation easier? Tell us what helped you reach your goals in the comments!
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).