Reducing debt and saving for retirement might seem like goals that will cramp your lifestyle, but you can do both with less pain if you use a little more planning. Just tracking your spending will show you areas where you can cut back without significant effort, and start a snowball effect that can improve your net worth by thousands each year.
Using a budget can open your eyes to many financial opportunities.
Create a static budget that lists your spending goals for the year. List your income at the top, including all sources of cash flow, including earnings from work, interest and any gifts from the folks. Don’t include capital gains if you plan to reinvest those — you just want to see what money you’ve got to pay bills and start trimming debt.
List your expenses using last year’s bank and credit card statements to guide you. Avoid double-counting expenses related to credit card payments in your budget document. If you put $200 worth of clothing on a card in January, don’t record the $200 card payment in February as an expense if you’ve already recorded it in January.
Run your numbers and determine how you’ll do each month. If you are spending more than you make, review your expenses and see where you can trim. Reduce discretionary spending, such as an eating out, entertainment and clothing.
Cut utilities expenses by investing in an automatic thermostat, low-flow toilets and shower heads, lowering the temperature on your water heater or replacing it and using less water in the kitchen. Look for rebates on low-flow toilets and water heaters from your municipality and utility company. It’s not difficult to save more than a thousand dollars each year decreasing energy and water use.
Temporarily defer contributions to a children’s college fund, vacation savings or other discretionary item for which you’re setting aside money to use that money to reduce your debt and interest payments.
Calculate the interest savings of using any savings you currently have on debt reduction and decide if it’s worth it to you. Hold a yard sale, selling any clothes, sports or exercise equipment, CDs, furniture or kitchen items you don’t use.
Review your credit card statements. Rank your cards in order of interest and monthly payments. Reduce balances on cards with higher rates first if your goal is to pay less interest over the long-term. Reduce balances on cards with the highest monthly payments if your goal is to reduce your monthly cash outgo each month.
Review the area on your statements that show the difference in payoff time between paying the minimum balance and the three-year minimum monthly payment amount to set the latter as your monthly payment target. Contact your student loan officer to discuss accelerating your payments and the effect that will have on interest and payments.
Contact your mortgage company if you own a home to discuss if you are eligible for a government refinancing program such as the HARP or HAMP loan modification deals. These can reduce your interest rate and monthly payments significantly with little or no money at refinancing and without hurting your credit.
Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to review your credit and make sure there are no incorrect derogatory items on any of your three reports. Shop credit card deals, looking for new cards that offer a balance transfer with interest-free introductory rates. Transferring $5,000 from a card at 20 percent interest to an interest-free card for one year will save you $1,000 in interest.
Use a retirement calculator to determine how much money you’ll need to put aside each month to meet your retirement goals. Enter the data requested, such as your age, current retirement savings and desired annual income during your retirement.
Participate in your company’s 401(k) plan even if it doesn’t offer a match to start retirement savings while reducing your payroll taxes. Look into a flexible spending or health savings account to further reduce your taxes.
Add formulas to your budget spreadsheet to create a flexible budget that adjusts your spending based on your income. Add savings lines to your budget document for debt reduction and retirement savings.
Designate a percentage of your monthly net income for each. Project your annual totals in each of those columns to see if you’ll make a dent in your debt and add enough to your retirement.