by Robin Kemp

The new year is a great time to take a new look at your money. If you don’t handle your money, it’ll handle you. No matter how little or how much you make, you can take control of your financial situation–even if it seems hopeless. In just a short time, you can make new choices and develop new habits that will bring you closer to your financial goals.

This article isn’t about how to make investments. For that kind of advice, consult a certified financial planner, CPA, or other professional. This is about how to start where you are with what you have.

Starting from $0

Are you broke? Really broke? Here are some tips for building yourself a safety net even if you’re barely getting by.

  • Pay yourself first. Yes, the bills are coming. They will always come. Start buying your financial independence with a small, doable amount, even if it’s just $1.
  • Start with a small target amount for savings. When you hit it, set a new target. This is how you buy freedom.
  • Throw your change in a jar. When the jar is full, roll those coins to avoid paying fees at a Coinstar machine, then put that money in your savings account. (Coinstar says you can avoid fees by exchanging your coins for an eGift card. Otherwise, it’ll cost you an 11.9% processing fee. Do you want to give away 12 cents of every dollar in your coin jar?)
  • Save your $1 bills. When the box is full or when you hit your first target (say, $100), put that money in your savings account.
  • Set up automatic savings with an app like Albert, which calculates how much you can afford to take out of your bank account and sets it aside as savings. (You can turn it off anytime.) Automate your savings and watch it grow. If you need your money back, it takes two or three business days. You also may qualify for instant short-term loans.
  • Check yourself with the Cleo app. She’s a foul-mouthed financial planning bot who’ll quiz you on your spending habits. You also can build your credit with a prepaid Cleo VISA card that reports to the credit bureaus. Whatever you put on the card is your limit and you don’t pay interest. You do pay $14.99 per month for access to “spot me” salary advances, as opposed to getting caught in a payday loan trap.
  • Do you get federal benefits but not have a bank account? You can get a Direct Express prepaid Mastercard, which doesn’t require a credit check, charges no fees for most transactions, and allows one free ATM cash withdrawal each month.
  • Check out the “cash stuffingvideos on YouTube, which explain the envelope system of budgeting.

Stop drinking your retirement away

You can make coffee at home for pennies on the dollar. That means you save more than a few bucks on each Starbucks (or other coffee places, or other drive-thru windows). Keep your money in your pocket and don’t let the siren song of caffeine suck you dry!

  • Are you chasing stars for free drinks later? If you’re using your phone to reload your Starbucks card just to pay for coffee, you’re siphoning off your future with every cup. [Ed. note: It seemed like a good idea at the time, until I searched “Starbucks” in my checking account for 2021 and discovered the shameful amount I had transferred over the course of one year. As self-restitution, I decided that I must put that amount into my retirement savings before I can go back, and that I will not use the card reload any more.]
  • Set some limits. Choose to treat yourself once a week instead of daily or almost-daily. Pay with cash instead of reloading a store card.
  • Set up a coffee machine at your home or office. Buy a can of whipped cream or flavored syrup or chocolate sprinkles if that’s your thing. If you need it to go, use that travel mug you probably already have. And if you go the Keurig route, pop for a reusable K-cup to save money and the environment.
  • The same goes for “treats.” Got a Costco or Sams Club membership? (Get your gas there.) Buy a case of crunch rollers, biscotti, or whatever it is you want to nibble with your coffee. Or hit up Aldi or Lidl for a box of pre-portioned treats.
  • Tea is cheap and works hot or cold.
  • A small microwave and several cans of soup will save you a ton of money on eating out during the week. Grab a loaf of bread and a pound of deli meat for the price of one lunch out. Plus, you’ll avoid unnecessary COVID-19 exposure. If you must eat out, do it once a week instead of daily or almost-daily.
  • Miss going to lunch with people? Why not set up a Zoom lunch with one or more friends?

Stop pretending you’re rich

Who doesn’t like nice things? Who doesn’t deserve to be pampered? You know that perfect couple that acts out the perfect life in public but whose home life is a horror story? Stop doing that to your personal finances, which is to say stop doing that to yourself. Pamper your financial independence.

Granted, you have the choice to decide where you will splurge–that’s the whole point. But if all you do is splurge, especially to impress others, you’re actively choosing to have no luxuries down the road.

  • Stop paying others for things you can do yourself. Do you really need to drop all that money at the nail salon? Could you buy your own manicure set and nail polish and do your own for a fraction of the cost? Maybe you and a friend could do each other’s nails.
  • Why do you own an expensive car, which loses value from Day One, instead of a modest starter home, which increases in value over time? Even if the housing market drops, it’ll go back up again eventually. If you only had enough money to pay one bill, would you rather sleep in a house or a car? If you’re paying several hundred dollars a month for a car and $1,000 or more for rent, you’re not as free as you think. Even in this market, a mortgage payment on a decent starter house is less than rent. If you’re lucky enough to find a bank-owned house, especially if housing prices drop, your mortgage could be lower than most people’s car notes. Start saving for that downpayment now so you can be ready. Learn how to buy a house on pennyhoarder.com. Check Clayton County’s calendar or your local bank or credit union for home buying seminars that are offered from time to time. Get rid of the Mercedes and get a reliable used car like a Toyota. If your friends think that’s funny, get better (i.e., real) friends.
  • Your first house should not be your dream house. Be smart. Get a house you can afford. Fix it up how you like. Sell it or rent it out and move up when the time is right. Rinse and repeat.
  • What does a rich person look like? More often than not, they don’t look like someone posing for an album cover. Wealthy people tend not to flaunt their wealth–with good reason. Sure, it feels great to dress up. But a $40 dress shirt you press yourself beats a $400 dress shirt you have to dry clean. Having long-term financial security is the best look of all.
  • Ask yourself what money means to you. What are you afraid might happen if you don’t have as much money as you want? It could happen. What’s your plan?

You are probably paying too much for groceries

If you’re plunking down $200 for four bags of groceries, you might want to rethink how you shop for food. You don’t have to be a chef or spend hours in the kitchen to create better meals than most restaurants offer, and you won’t be paying for the restaurant’s questionable decor choices.

  • If you don’t already own one, get yourself an InstantPot, a pressure cooker, or a crockpot. These are all variations on a theme, which is to cook a family-sized quantity of tasty, inexpensive comfort food on your own schedule. The InstantPot and pressure cooker speed up cooking. The crockpot does the cooking for you while you do other things, like go to work. You don’t have to eat beans unless you want to, but they offer the best balance of food value and economic value. Check out the $3 dinners (using $10 worth of groceries for a family of 5!) on See Mindy Mom’s YouTube Channel for an example of how you can eat healthy meals using very little money at Aldi, Walmart, Dollar Tree, etc. How long should you cook something in a pressure cooker? Check out allrecipes.com, fastcooking.ca, or your manufacturer’s website.
  • Look for manager’s specials at Kroger or other stores. Just because the date has passed on a cup of yogurt doesn’t mean the yogurt is bad. These are sell-by, not eat-by, dates. Use good judgement with meat on sale.
  • A bottle of cheap sherry does wonders for soups, stews, and sauces. Pour a shot or two in. The alcohol cooks out and the flavor stays behind.
  • Carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, celery. You don’t always need a whole 5-pound bag if you’re cooking for one or two people. Don’t buy more than you’ll actually use, but buy reasonable quantities of these staples weekly. Grab a bag of generic frozen peas or broccoli or whatever else you like as backup or for variety.
  • Buy a few cartons, cans, or pouches of broth. Get some chicken, some beef, and some vegetable flavors. You can get low or no salt. One or two of these in a pot with the veggies and a piece of completely optional meat and you’ve got several servings for yourself and/or your family.
  • Reusable plastic containers with lids, Tupperware, Ziploc bags, or a Food Saver system will save you tons of money. On Sundays, consider cooking enough servings for the coming week to save time and money. You also can control portion sizes, which means you can control your weight and health.
  • If you can afford an air fryer, get one. Stop eating grease. And stop driving through McDonalds for the fries. Make your own at home in the air fryer and live longer.
  • Stop drinking Coke and other soft drinks. Drink water you filter yourself.
  • Got an oven? Make your own bread. It’s easy.

Up in smoke

Smoking and vaping damage your health and drain your wealth. Add up the per-pack or per-cartridge cost for one week, then multiply by 52. That’s how much money you’d have by this time next year if you quit. A pack of cigarettes is $8 today. In 1982, it was $1. At a pack a day over 40 years, just at one dollar per pack… that would have been nice to have spent on other things.

You need stuff

Everybody needs stuff. The trick is knowing what stuff you actually need versus the stuff you want. The other trick is not paying retail for your stuff unless there’s no alternative.

  • Check out Goodwill and Value Village for classic clothes made of quality materials. Sometimes, you’ll get a new item in your size that didn’t fit or thrill someone else.
  • Craigslist has lots of stuff, but use with caution. Meet at the police station. A no-show is a clue.
  • Always shop the closeout sale, the unclaimed freight, the scratch-and-dent, the discount warehouse, the antique store, the junk store when you’re looking for a certain item. You’d be surprised what people don’t want. Who cares if there’s a scratch on that refrigerator if it’s $200 cheaper? Seriously. That’s what magnets are for. Put that $200 in your retirement savings!
  • You have stuff. Other people have stuff. If it amuses you, try bartering. You can trade stuff you don’t want for other stuff you want, or work your way up by trading through a series of items and eventually trading for the actual thing you want.
  • Ask around. Sometimes a friend or relative has just the stuff you’re looking for and will either give it to you or sell it for that special friends-and-family price.

Handle your money so it doesn’t handle you

This works for anyone but is especially helpful if you don’t make a lot of money. YouTube has quite a few helpful channels where you can pick up tips on “sinking funds.” A sinking fund is just another term for “budget item.” Say you need a car or want to save for a vacation. Figure out what it costs. Then, divide by 12 (if you get paid each month) or 52 (if you get paid each week). That amount is what you need to save out of each check for that item. If it costs too much to buy in a year, you might consider a used or less-expensive version.

Say you make $3,000 per month after taxes. That’s $36,000 per year. You shouldn’t spend more than one-third on rent, but it’s hard to find a $1,000 per month apartment in Clayton County. Try the 70-20-10 rule instead: put 70% of your check to rent, utilities, and daily expenses like bus fare. Put 20% in savings. Put the other 10% towards paying down your debt. Here’s how that looks:

  • $2,100 for rent, utilities, and daily necessities (not eating out, etc.)
  • $600 straight into your savings account (do it as an autodebit or direct deposit–don’t touch it!)
  • $300 to pay off your debt (credit cards, student loan, etc.–don’t run up your cards!)

By year’s end, you’ll have $7,200 in savings, which is almost enough for three month’s living expenses in case of an emergency.

Boost your credit score for better rates on the big stuff

In 2020, Georgia residents had an average credit score of 689 and carried an average credit card balance of $6,689. But the per capita income (between 2015 and 2019) averaged $31,067, according to the U.S. Census Bureau . That means Georgians lost 21.5% of every paycheck to paying off credit card debt. That’s like taking a 21.5% pay cut, which means Georgians only had $24,378 per capita income on average!

We didn’t find credit score information for Clayton County specifically. However, the average per capita income here is $20,970–only 67.4% of the statewide average. If you’re carrying the statewide average credit card balance of $6,689 on Clayton County income, that’s 31.8% of your check. Add that subprime credit card interest and you’re looking at financial disaster.

Some financial gurus like Dave Ramsey advocate for cash-only personal finance–including big purchases like homes and cars. Your mileage may vary. Chances are you might find yourself in need of a vehicle and chances are you don’t have $20,000 cash on hand. You can choose to go all-cash, or you can choose to manage your credit score. It’s up to you.

Is your credit less than perfect? Are you hoping to buy a car or a house in the next year or two? Another place people throw away money is on their credit score. Yes, the banks game you. They understand human nature. They know you want to buy stuff when you don’t have money to pay for it. They know people forget to make a payment sometimes. And they know you’ll eventually want to buy something really big over an extended period of time by using their money (a loan). That’s when they’ll make you pay.

Why not turn the tables on them?

  • Start by downloading the Credit Karma app, which monitors your credit score for you. If you don’t like what you see, you can take steps to improve your score, and Credit Karma will offer you suggestions depending on your situation (for example, it might tell you that you can get a little bump if you make an extra payment on a certain account). Over time, you’ll see how your credit habits affect your score and you can take steps to improve.
  • Timing is everything. You probably know that a single missed payment will sink your score for months. Eliminate the possibility of messing up by setting up automatic payments for all your credit accounts. If your rent or mortgage is due on the first of the month, set it up to pay a weekday or two before then if possible. If your Target card is always due on the 21st, set it up to pay the minimum monthly payment on the closest weekday before then. You get the idea. Then, make a second payment a day or two after the due date to pay down the outstanding balance (In full if possible for maximum effect). Otherwise, if you always pay your balance down to $0 by the due date, your credit report will show a $0 balance and it will look like you never use your card at all.
  • Take out a small loan strictly for the purpose of improving your credit. Borrow $1000, put it in your bank account, make a few payments, then pay it off early. Beware: if you spend that money instead, you’ll need to be able to make that monthly payment until you can pay it off!
  • Consider taking out a secured credit card with a small limit, then autodebiting a single monthly charge worth about 10% of the credit limit. Only use that card for that purpose! After a few months, the credit card company will likely offer you an unsecured card, possibly with a higher limit.
  • Know that your credit limit is a lie. Only use about 10% of that limit. For a $300 card, that means $30. If your credit is not great, you’re looking at paying 26% to 36% or more just for the privilege of carrying a balance on that card. Focus on your goal. Your goal is to get your score up high enough to get a “grownup” credit card with a low APR. Your goal is not to buy pizza on that card and pay interest on a pizza that you ate one time.
  • Try a credit union instead of a bank. The difference is that a credit union is owned by the people who bank there. You pay a share–usually $1 in a savings account–for membership privileges, which include generally lower interest rates on things like mortgages and car notes, lower fees, and better chances of getting a loan. Locally, you can check out Delta Community Credit Union, iTHINK Financial, Georgia’s Own Credit Union, Family First Credit Union, or ask your employer’s HR office, union local, or alumni or professional association whether they offer credit union membership.

Time is money

If you’re in your teens or 20s, and you want to live that life, the way to do it is to start throwing as much money as you can into savings, then investing that savings in a balanced fund like an IRA, Roth IRA, or 401(k) plan. You’ll change jobs over your lifetime and may need to roll over that money. Do not touch it for any reason. It’s better to drive Lyft and keep your retirement savings off limits than it is to take a distribution, pay taxes on it, and see your heard-earned savings disappear in a month or two. What’s worse, you also lose all the profits and compounded interest on that money over 30 or more years. Just. Don’t. Once it’s gone, you can’t truly “catch it up.”

If you’re older, and maybe already made that mistake, you’re probably terrified about retirement. You can still get there, but you probably won’t get there in style. Definitely don’t rely on Social Security alone (or at all) if you plan on retiring more than 10 years from now, as benefits are likely to be cut by an estimated 26%. Depending on how long you live, what you have saved up, your health, and how much Social Security you’re likely to get at retirement, you’ll need to make up the difference. If you’re planning on retiring soon, now is the time to pick up that side gig, cut the cable, unsubscribe, downsize, and get real with yourself.

Many retirees (and people of all ages who want to save money) are choosing tiny homes as viable living alternatives. Check out “Exploring Alternatives” on YouTube to see how people are finding creative ways to live in more sustainable homes. This includes people who are living in vans and converted school buses. Another option is living in an RV. (Watch the movie “Nomadland” if you haven’t yet.) You also could consider splitting expenses with a roommate or relative. While you may not want to do any of those things, watching how people are surviving on next to nothing also can provide serious motivation for getting your finances in order.

Be of good cheer

Personal finances are all tangled up with emotionsfear, desire, shame. Stop beating yourself up about your finances. Stop living in fear.

Money doesn’t care how you feel. Money is a tool. It’s a thing we use to trade our time for other things.

Treat every little penny you put in that jar as a small victory. Each time you put that spare $1 aside, you are investing in yourself. You are saying, “I care about myself and my life, and I’m taking this step to get to where I want to be.”

Resources

The Clayton County Library System offers a wealth of financial literacy resources–for free. Check out the “Healthy, Wealthy, Wise” page at https://claytonpl.org/learning-research/financial-literacy/healthy-wealthy-wise/.

Clueless about money? Visit https://www.360financialliteracy.org/, a service of the nation’s certified public accountants, for helpful tools and professional advice.

Is that food still good? Check out EatByDate.com to look it up!

Check out Dave Ramsey’s free personal finance tools.

Explore Suze Orman’s no-nonsense financial advice.

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