With 2020 barely behind us, taking a clear-eyed look at our finances in the new year can be easier said than done. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are planning to set a financial resolution this year, according to a survey from Fidelity. The three biggest ones - saving more, spending less, and paying down debt - sound simple enough, but you’ll need a plan to help you get there. Setting yourself up for financial success doesn’t need to be a chore. Here are seven manageable ways to help you stick to your financial goals in 2021.
1. Track every single dollar you spend.
Before you can create a budget, set a goal, or make a plan, you need to know where your money is going. “Because we’ve been so accustomed to swiping, we don’t realize all the places we spend,” Stephanie Ruhle, NBC News Senior Business Correspondent, says. “By tracking, you see the most important things you can’t live without and things you might be [buying] on a regular basis that you don’t need.”
Once you have a grip on your spending, you can better decide what things really matter and what things you can skip.
2. Do your best to make up for lost income.
With millions of Americans still out of work and others dealing with reduced income, try to look for creative ways to make up the difference, according to Bola Sokunbi, author, founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance. “A lot of people are cutting back on spending right now, so can you sell the old baby carriage in your garage, or try starting a side hustle?” Sokunbi says. “There’s no shame in working below your skill set in order to meet your goals.”
3. Put your goals on paper.
Think about your short, medium and long-term financial goals and write them down. You don’t need to have a perfect plan to meet every single one right away but knowing what you want to do with your money will help you manage it along the way.
Even if you have many goals, Sokunbi suggests prioritizing three to five at a time to keep it manageable and avoid feeling discouraged. “If you want to save $10,000 this year, you know Dec 31 is your timeline, you know that you need to save some $800 per month, then break it up by how often you get paid,” Sokunbi advises.
4. Build up your emergency fund.
Once you’re tracking your spending and able to cover the necessities, start building up your emergency fund. You want to aim for three to six months of bare essentials living expenses, available in cash, in case of a true emergency, like losing your job or a major medical bill. Take those monthly necessities and multiply by six. That’s the target to aim for. Don’t be scared off by a big number - start small and work your way up.
“Because we don’t know what the year ahead will bring, if you know you have a financial cushion it’ll help you make better decisions today,” Ruhle says. “If you haven’t got a safety net, you’re much more likely to make a bad decision about a job, a bill, anything related to your financial security.”
5. Make a plan to pay down your debt.
If you’re dealing with debt, don’t beat yourself up, make a plan to pay it off. Paying off high interest debt first may save you the most money in the long run. But if you have lots of debts, or if you’re spooked by a big price tag, knock those debts out smallest to biggest.
“You need to pick your most important debt, start with your highest interest debt or your smallest balance to get a quick win. We thrive on that quick win and we’re motivated to pay off more,” Sokunbi says. If you have lower interest debt, like student loans, keep making at least your minimum payments while you funnel extra money to your higher interest bills.
6. Pay yourself first – and do it automatically.
Remember those financial goals you wrote down? Once your emergency fund is stocked and you have a plan to pay off your debts, you can start working toward them. A fool-proof way to do it? Automate your savings.
“Sometimes you are the reason why you don’t save,” Sokunbi says. “You have to make sure you are aligning yourself to succeed by putting [your money] into different bank accounts, not getting a debit card for those accounts, and checking in on it to make sure it's working.”
Every time you get a paycheck, set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account (if you use a high-yield savings in a different bank, even better). Even if it’s only five bucks per check, that money will start to grow.
7. Give yourself some grace – and don’t give up.
Money is personal and emotional - so cut yourself a break when things get hard.
“Take a deep breath, understand that if you’re committed to putting in the work, this is temporary,” Sokunbi says. “You can succeed, you want to give yourself grace and patience, and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Sometimes that’s where the help you need is.”
“Until we get through this [pandemic], you shouldn’t be giving yourself a hard time,” Ruhle says. “This is our new normal, we can’t be paralyzed by it, let’s make the best of it. Don’t blame yourself, don’t feel sorry for yourself, just go for it.”