Quick money wins to help you feel more in control of your finances

I cringe when I remember learning to drive. At fifteen-years-old, I was impatient, full of nervous energy, and so short that I could barely reach the steering wheel. (Which is still kind of a problem, but I digress.)

My parents were backseat driving, of course, instructing me on how to drive the rural, dirt road just outside our neighborhood. “Let off the brake,” they said, and the car began to coast, slowly. Cool, I can handle this, I thought. “Hit the gas,” they said. Chaos ensued.

I swerved into the other lane, and when I yanked the steering wheel to straighten out, the car jerked in the other direction and I almost hit a fence post. My parents shouted. I screamed. All of us were terrified. I felt completely frazzled and out of control. It was like the car had a mind of its own.

For many of us, managing money feels something like this. We try to make a budget and set some limits for our spending, but our financial situation always seems to have a mind of its own: your bank account overdrafts, you get a pay cut at work, your vet bill is considerably higher than you expected.

But just as when you were learning to drive, developing a sense that you're in control can make a huge difference. When I finally felt like I was the one controlling the vehicle, driving became second nature.

Research, like this 2014 study, shows that simply feeling powerful inspires people to make better financial decisions. They develop financial confidence. For this reason, I’m a fan of quick money wins — small achievements that may not make a huge difference on paper, but which do wonders for how you feel about your financial situation. These quick wins won’t make you a millionaire overnight, but they can empower you, and that’s everything.

Quick wins give you financial confidence, and that helps you make better money decisions in the long run. (As the study put it, “feeling powerful increases saving.”)

In other words, change your attitude about money and you can change your behavior with it, which can lead to actually being in control of it. Try your hand at a few of my favorite money wins.

Cut Back on Just One Thing This Month

We all have our spending vice(s). For me, it’s clothing. (Which is an interesting vice because I spend so much money on clothes yet never seem to have anything to wear.) There are a handful of reasons for this spending problem, and last month I decided to face those reasons and challenge myself to spend nothing on clothes for the entire month.

For you, this might not be much of a challenge. But I felt pretty accomplished when I compared my spending that month to the previous month. It was empowering to see the result of my actions: There was more money in my bank account, but more importantly, I changed one simple bad habit.

If you’re prone to overspending and you know you need to cut back in a lot of areas — restaurants, entertainment, bars, etc — it’s tough to do it all at once. Instead, pick one thing to focus on each month. For one month, commit to spending $100 less on your weak spot (or whatever amount works for your budget and spending). It’s a relatively easy goal, and in achieving it, you'll most certainly develop more financial confidence.

Haggle Your Cable, Phone, or Internet Bill

You could be one phone call away from a cheaper cell phone, internet, or cable bill. Especially if your provider offers a cheaper introductory rate online — or if they’ve hiked up your prices lately — it’s worth calling to ask for a better rate.

Don’t be afraid to tell them you’re thinking of canceling your service or switching providers. They’ll transfer you to their “cancellation department”, which is really just another customer service rep who will haggle with you. Sure, you might only talk them down $10 or so, but over the course of a year, that can add up!

Many people also overpay for cell phone service because they don’t bother checking to see what else is out there. Use a site like WhistleOut.com to compare phone plans at different carriers, depending on how much data and how many minutes you use.

Or, try calling your current carrier. I used to call my provider regularly and ask if they could save me money. More often than not, they'd give me a deal or suggest a cheaper plan. The old “it can’t hurt to ask” adage applies here, but even better, if you successfully haggle your bill, you feel pretty accomplished. That feeling is even more valuable than the money you’ll save.

Call to Ask for a Lower Credit Card Rate

It’s not just your internet bill that you can haggle on. Did you know that you can negotiate your credit card interest rate, too?

If you carry a balance on your card (or foresee that happening), call your card issuer to ask if they can reduce your interest rate. A poll from CreditCards.com found that 78% of people who called their card issuer to ask for a lower rate were successful. Interestingly, though, only one in five people they surveyed even tried to ask in the first place. So…ask!

No, there’s no guarantee your credit card company will reduce your rate, but if you pay your bill on time, there’s a good chance they’ll do you a solid. Practically speaking, you can save quite a bit of money on interest over time, depending on how much of a balance you carry on that card. Emotionally speaking, it just feels good to get a break from your credit card company.

Cancel a Subscription Service You’re Not Using

In my book, I discuss the habit of conducting a regular budget audit. Every few months, I'll analyze every line item in my budget to see if there’s any fat to trim. Almost always, there is, and it’s usually a recurring monthly expense for something I no longer use, need, or want. It might be a magazine subscription I can’t keep up with, a streaming service I don’t get much value out of, or a gym membership.

Most of us can benefit from an extra $20 to $100 a month, so take a look at your own budget to see if there are any recurring monthly expenses you can trim. If you’re spending on something you don’t use each month, it’s time to cut ties. Free up that cash and put it back in your pocket. Or, better yet, stick the cash in a savings account. Seeing a regular deposit into your savings account, even if it’s a mere $20 a month, feels empowering. You’re doing something good for yourself.

Negotiate a Raise

It’s a gutsier move, but there are few things that feel better than asking an employer or client for a pay increase and getting what you want. If you haven’t negotiated in a while and you know it’s time to ask for more money, make a plan to do so. Ask your boss or employer for a meeting, then prepare for that meeting by quantifying the value you bring to the table.

Negotiating you salary is scary. And the downside of this is, if you get rejected, that rejection has the potential to make you feel pretty awful. (Or, if you’re like me, you might feel brave and empowered just for asking, regardless of the answer!) But if you get what you want, that’s not a small win, it’s a pretty big one!

Pro tip: It’s easy to start spending more money when you get a raise. It’s called lifestyle inflation. So if you do get a raise or a bonus at work, don’t tell your budget! Save the additional earnings instead. Set up an automatic transfer into your savings account on payday (or increase your current saving rate). This will help you keep lifestyle inflation in check.

Sign Up for Your 401(k) at Work

If your employer offers a 401(k), and especially if they match that 401(k), it’s worth signing up so you can finally start saving for retirement.

All you have to do is ask your boss or HR department for some paperwork, then fill it out and decide how much you want to save with every paycheck. Your employer should be able to walk you through the process, and you’ll get a menu of investments to choose from, usually based on your age or when you want to retire.

If your employer offers to match your savings, save as much as you can to get that match, because it’s almost like free money. Signing up for a 401(k) is a small step toward investing, but getting started with investing is a big financial win. (Need help getting started with investing? Here's J.D.'s beginner's guide on how to invest.)

Reward Yourself for Better Habits

Finally, one of my favorite ways to feel financially empowered is to reward myself for better habits.

In other words, I challenge myself to a new habit, like checking my Twitter feed less often, then I reward myself with savings every time I’m successful. I’ll make a goal to limit Twitter to 15 minutes a day, for example, and if I stick to my goal, I put $5 in my savings account.

Maybe your habit is going to the gym. Transfer $5 to your savings account every time you go. (Apps like Tip Yourself or Qapital can help with this). Maybe your goal is to drink less. For every cocktail you turn down, transfer $10 to your savings account. That's money you would have spent anyhow, but now you're routing it toward something positive instead of something negative. Your aim is to link your money situation to the accomplishment you feel from adopting a good habit.

A lot of people feel like they don't have control over their money situation. That’s probably because, in so many ways, we don’t have control. There’s only so much you can do about the economy, the salary your employer offers, and so many other financial factors. However, as the experts like to tell you, it’s better to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Be proactive.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but these quick wins might help you develop at least a little more financial confidence.

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