Correlation is not causation, but I find it interesting to note that my life has been falling apart at almost exactly the same rate that the number in my bank account has been deteriorating. Money is a part of life, but managing it is a skill which comes naturally to some people and is like learning a foreign language to others. I fall into the latter category by a country mile, yet that fact has led me to have to actively seek out people and information to help me cultivate my skills. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned more about money than I have in the entire 26 years preceding that. Given the fact that money issues cause us incredible angst, I figured it might be worth sharing some of the quick tips I’ve picked up which have helped me get through.
My current money woes relate to the fact that I cut back to part time work so I’m in the midst of adjusting to a severely decreased income. Despite that, the fact that I’m keeping my head above water without sinking into debt is a new and fascinating experience for me. The fact that the only debt I have is a mortgage is also a statistical anomaly when we consider my adult working life post-moving out of home. The point I’m making here is that even if you’re okay financially at the moment, prevention is way better than cure and sometimes knowing how to handle money better can become a real benefit when you genuinely fall on financial hardship that’s outside of your control. With that in mind, check out my four simple tips to help you manage your money a little bit more like those “adult” people I keep hearing about.
Get a mentor
What do you usually do when you don’t know how to do something? If your immediate thought was “Google it”, then you’re thinking along the same lines as me. The problem is that when you’re talking to Google or YouTube, you’re not necessarily getting information tailored to your understanding or situation. This is where finding someone you actually know who has knowledge about money can be really handy. For me, that’s been two different people: my dad and my friend James. My dad is a handy resource because he knows quite a lot about investments. My friend James, however, worked in finance and came with the benefit of being someone I didn’t owe money to and who hadn’t been desperately trying to teach me not to be stupid with money from an early age (sorry dad), so I felt less guilty about being totally honest about how far in debt I was and how much I sucked in spite of objectively knowing better and being a generally intelligent person (supposedly). James was able to help me in a number of practical ways as well as just making the idea of sitting down to sort out my finances sound like more of an interesting catch up with a friend rather than an onerous, boring and painful endeavour.
You may not be lucky enough to have someone whose actual job or experience is in finance. In that case, find someone you know who has savings, sticks to some semblance of a budget, isn’t in debt and seems to be doing well. Ask them if they’d be willing to share some tips and ideas. It’s that simple. In saying that, there are a lot of people out there who like to think they’re financial geniuses when they’re not, so once you’ve talked out some basics, always do your own research as well.
If you really don’t know anyone, then a good place to start is by reading a finance book tailored to beginners. Scott Pape’s “The Barefoot Investor” has some practical advice that is relevant to Australians and really helpful for getting started. I don’t agree with all of his advice, but it should be required reading for anyone starting out.
Track your spending
One of the most painful, but most useful, things that James made me do was sit down with my bank statement from the last month and categorise and add up everything I’d spent in that time. It was not a pretty picture. To my relief, I happened to have gone a bit easier on the makeup obsession that month, but the total column for takeaways left a lot to be desired. Even if you think you know where your money’s going, if you’re not actually looking at it all spelled out painfully clearly (preferably in the form of a graph with colours that feel like they’re going to burn out your retinas if you try to ignore them), you quite possibly don’t. We always hear about how blah blah could be bought for less than a cup of coffee a day and scoff at the miniscule total, but until we physically see the sum total of that coffee coming out of our bank account in real time, we don’t realise just how expensive that actually adds up to be. It’s kinda like on those weight loss shows when they show you how much extra fat you’re carrying by visually representing all those kilos with sticks of butter (ironic, given how much I was spending on food). Sometimes we need that colour-coded visual representation to make us go “oooooh boy, okay that’s not good”.
After this rude awakening, I tracked my spending on a spreadsheet religiously for a while until I’d gotten a really clear picture about where I was spending and what I wanted/needed to cut back on. Nowadays, I’m not that strict, but I still keep an eye on things using an app called Pocketbook. It’s not quite as stark and blunt as the spreadsheet, but it gives me a slightly less precise overview without the effort. I check that regularly, and if ever I find myself really sinking back into financial woe, I force myself back to the spreadsheet for a while to see what’s really up.
Before I did this, I honestly thought I had a really good idea where my money was going. It was a rude awakening to realise that I often really didn’t. But perhaps even more importantly, tracking my spending allowed me to figure out the true cost of my fixed expenses. Generally I’d always used rough ballpark figures for my bills, groceries, fuel etc., but by actually tracking my income and expenditure in minute detail, I was able to draw up much more accurate and realistic budgets. This applies to non-fixed expenses as well as the fixed stuff. There was no point telling myself I’d only allow myself to spend $10 on eating out with friends if my current average was $200. Trying to go from zero to hero (which… in this scenario actually would be zero) is probably not going to work and will probably only kill your confidence when you fail. Know where you’re at now and set realistic and achievable goals.
Drive the cheapest car your ego can afford
This one comes from my dad, and it’s a piece of advice I know many may not agree with. I get that cars are a hobby to some people and if that’s your thing then fair enough and that’s a different story, but it really bothers me how many people buy into the marketing scam of seeing being able to buy a new car as a status symbol. Unless you’re leasing or doing something for business reasons, you should be buying the cheapest car your ego can afford and that almost always means second hand. Now that doesn’t mean you should go out and buy a bomb and keep repairing it (unless of course you have the skills to do so – you lucky bastard), but it does mean you should find the most reliable and cheap to run and repair car that suits your needs that you can. I get it, I really do. New cars are shiny and pretty and come with fancy technology that is painfully tempting. But unless your car is un-driveable, unrepairable or unsuitable for your situation, don’t fall into the trap of upgrading just because there’s a shinier model. And if you must upgrade, don’t buy something brand spanking new. I can hear my car salesmen friends hounding me down from a distance here, but seriously, a car that’s just a year or two old will have almost all the same comforts and be a crapload cheaper because cars deteriorate in value the second you put your arse in the seat. In a similar vein, if possible (and I do understand that sometimes it isn’t possible), avoid taking loans out to buy cars. You’re paying interest on something that goes down in value the second you take possession of it – that’s not a wise financial move. It’s one thing to have a mortgage on a property that increases in value, but it’s another to essentially be throwing money into a black hole. This is where your ego comes in. If you must borrow, borrow as little as possible. Go for the most modest car you can.
And note that I do say that it still needs to suit your circumstances. If you need a 4×4 because you spend your holidays camping, then that suits your needs. Need a Ute to transport tools, same applies. Bigger family car because you had two extra kids and there’s no longer enough seats in your sedan, go nuts. You get the idea. But be realistic about what you actually need. Much as I try, I just can’t actually convince myself that I need that bright red Toyota Hilux with all the obnoxious bells and whistles to go with it… but lordy I wish I could.
Unless you have better impulse control than me, no credit cards
Now look, if you’re one of those people who can genuinely work the system to pay off your balance before you’re charged interest and somehow gain an advantage from doing so, then all power to you. Why are you even reading this right now? Clearly you’re a way better adult than I am. But if you’re not, then don’t even go there. Credit cards are like crack to people like me who use shopping as a coping mechanism. I stress eat and I stress shop and both of those things are addictive and bad for your health, mental and otherwise. It is so unbelievably easy to build up a hefty credit card debt just one small purchase at a time. It is so easy to get in over your head so fast. Interest free periods are an illusion and a trap unless you’re disciplined, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’m just not. I will forever treat credit cards as a way to achieve instant gratification, forgetting the pain akin to pulling teeth that goes into trying to pay them off before the huge wallop of interest hits. If you’ve fallen down that hole, do a balance transfer to a card offering a long interest free period, cut the new card they send you into tiny little pieces, and work out a budget to pay it off before the heinously high new interest rate hits. The stats and information about credit card debt among Australians is pretty frightening so if it’s something you can avoid, just avoid it.
I’m not pretending I’m an expert. I’m sure as hell not, as any of my friends who have had to listen to my constant litany of “damnit why did I buy that?” and “sorry I can’t afford to come out” will tell you. And I’m also not pretending these four tips are the only ways to manage money. They’re not and there’s plenty more you can do, but these are a start. I may currently be finding money a cause for a stress headache, but to put it in perspective: I’m debt free, I own my own place, I have savings. This may not seem like much, but for someone who was in a pile of credit card debt just a few years ago, we’ve come a long way baby, and so can you.