Break the Cycle and Build a Better Financial Future
By Eric Tyson
Remember 2015 as the year you finally took control of your financial future. Americans carry too much consumer debt. If you have credit card debt or auto loans, take some solace in the fact that you’re far from alone and that many others have overcome these hurdles.
Consumer debt is not okay. It can damage your personal relationships and mental well-being, not to mention the stability of your financial future. Here are eight tips that will help you improve your financial health in 2015:
1. Partake in a little self-reflection. A misaligned mindset toward spending and shopping—compulsive or otherwise—can severely affect your financial and personal well-being. If you think you might have a problem with shopping or spending, there are several questions you should ask yourself: Do I feel guilty about shopping? Is my shopping causing financial trouble? Is my shopping, spending, and accumulated debt leading to feelings of helplessness, anger, confusion, fear, or depression? Do the act of shopping and the accompanying interactions with salespeople give me a feeling of worth, importance, and control?
Compulsive spending is a serious problem, and if you think you have a problem, you should find help immediately. You won’t be able to get rid of your debt until you can figure out what makes you compulsively spend.
2. Make a plan and stick to it. The reason so many New Year’s resolutions fail is that we simply state the thing we want to improve and then never create a plan for helping us get from point A to point B. Most people don’t like to plan unless we’re talking about something really fun, like a vacation. But actually, planning for your financial future is a little like planning a vacation. You’re organizing your money and time so that you get to do all the great things you want when you get there. Look at it that way, and you might actually enjoy the process.
3. Get rid of your four-wheeled debt. Too many people define necessities by what those around them have. If you take out an auto loan to buy a car that you really can’t afford and you take a similar approach with other consumer items you don’t truly need, you’re going to have great difficulty saving money and accomplishing your goals. Moreover, you’ll probably feel stressed all the time—which is a poor trade-off for the (short-lived) “new car smell.”
There are plenty of perfectly good cars out there that are within your budget and that you can actually pay for with cash. Trading in your wallet-busting option for one of those will also instantly help you free up money that you can use to pay off your other debts or invest in your future.
4. Start making your purchases based on need, not emotion. It can be easy to give in to all of those advertisements telling us how much we “need” that new car, expensive gym membership, or trendy outfit. Marketers play on insecurities, fears, and guilt and suggest that you can feel better about yourself by buying their products. You won’t be able to overcome spending and consumer debt until you recognize these pressures and how they corrupt your buying decisions.
The goal of consumer product companies and their marketing staffs is to persuade and cajole you into buying what they’re selling. Remember that the next time the thought goes through your mind that you want to buy something that isn’t a necessity. It’s here, at the point of temptation, when planning out what you can and can’t spend comes in very handy. If a product is too expensive for your budget, then you don’t need it, no matter how much you might want it.
5. Research before you enter the stores. Prior to going shopping for necessities that aren’t everyday purchases—do some research, first. (Consumer Reports is a good source.) Your research will help you identify brands, models, and so on that are good values. You don’t want to make an expensive mistake.
When you’ve checked in with your budget to ensure you can afford it, check various retailers and compare prices. When you set out to make a purchase, stick to your list. Don’t be tempted by all of the other products in a store and don’t spend a lot of time wandering around looking at everything. Get in, get what you need, and get out. That’s the best way to ensure you won’t pick up little things here and there that will throw your finances out of whack.
6. Watch your food budget. Dine out less and keep stock of the groceries you already have. Learn to cook if you don’t know how. Try to keep a healthy inventory of groceries at home. This will minimize trips to the store and the need to impulsively dine out because your cupboard is bare. Try to do most of your shopping through discount warehouse-type stores, which offer low prices for buying in bulk, or grocery stores that offer bulk purchases. Saving on the amount you spend on food will help you put more money toward paying off your debt and eventually setting money aside for investments.
7. Become more energy efficient. Check out opportunities to make your home more energy efficient. Adding insulation and weather-stripping, installing water-saving devices, and reducing use of electrical appliances can pay for themselves in short order. Many utility companies will even do a free energy review or audit of your home and suggest money-saving ideas.
8. Watch what you are paying for insurance. Many people overspend on insurance by carrying coverage that’s unnecessary or that covers small potential losses. Coverage of small losses, such as $100 or $200, is not useful for most people since such a loss wouldn’t be a financial catastrophe.
Take high deductibles on your insurance policies—as much as you can afford in the event of a loss. Also, be sure to shop around. Rates vary tremendously among insurers. Of course, an insurer’s quality of service and financial stability are important as well. Ask insurers and agents selling policies to provide financial ratings for the company’s policies you’re considering.
It won’t be easy getting out of debt, and it’s certainly not something you will be able to achieve overnight. Like losing weight, it’s something that takes constant dedication but has a great payoff in the end. Whenever you lose focus or feel like giving in, just think about the wonderful benefits of financial well-being. Once you’re out of debt, the money you are able to invest will mushroom into substantial savings that will allow you to get so much more for your money. HBM
Eric Tyson, MBA, is one of the nation’s best-selling personal finance book authors and has penned five national bestsellers (he is also the only author to have four of his books simultaneously on BusinessWeek’s business book bestseller list). His Personal Finance For Dummies (Wiley) won the Benjamin Franklin Award for the Best Business Book of the Year. He is also the author of Investing For Dummies and coauthor of Home Buying For Dummies and Real Estate Investing For Dummies, among other titles. Eric is a former columnist and award-winning journalist for the San Francisco Examiner. He was also a featured speaker at a White House conference on retirement planning. A dynamic and provocative speaker, he has spoken at many corporations and nonprofits. His educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in economics from Yale and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Visit www.erictyson.com.