Right after I graduated from dental school, I knew I wanted to get our finances in order. We were six months away from swearing eternity to each other, and I wanted to be clear about what our current financial status was and where we want to go from there. They say that finances are one of the biggest stressors in a relationship, and I knew I wanted to nip that one in the bud and move on to living happy eternal lives.
There were a few key steps that, on paper, seem super elementary, but I guarantee that the majority of the people do not have these five steps down. I am not saying these are the first five steps everyone should take, but they were the first that we took and it worked out really well for us! If you are looking to get your finances in order but aren’t sure where to start, hopefully one (or all!) of these will give you the boost you were looking for.
- Build up an emergency fund, and then never touching that money unless it’s a TRUE emergency. For my entire life, I knew in the back of my mind that I needed an emergency fund, but never have I had one. I assumed that there will be some money left in the bank in the case of a true emergency that I could rely on until the emergency is solved. Off course, I was underestimating the cost of my potential emergency. I assumed an emergency constitutes of a flat tire, or the need to buy something right away (this was before I became anti-consumption and was practically throwing my money out the window). In light of the recent fires in Ventura County, it is safe to say that a TRUE emergency can constitute of a fire affecting your city, so that your home burns down, along with the office that you work at, thus putting you out of a home, without belongings, and without a job. Recovery from such an emergency could take multiple months. Or an accident that could leave you with hospital bills and a disability that prevents you from going back to work. When put in that light, I never thought a true emergency could happen to me. Well, it can happen to me. Most certainly, it can happen to anybody. So one of the first things we did was build up our emergency fund. Our emergency fund is enough to last us through three months’ worth of living expenses. It sounds easy to do, but in order to find the correct number, you actually have to track your monthly living expenses. There is a tendency to underestimate the correct figure. Saying yes to dining out with friends and purchasing random items during a Target run can quickly increase that number significantly. So we started to track our finances (See item #2 below). Once we got our number, we saved up enough and then did not touch that money. It still sits in our bank accounts today, which is a great thing because that means we have been emergency free for the past year and a half! I’m not talking, “I am out of money in my bank account, let me just borrow from my emergency money.” Ideally, you don’t ever want to get to the point where you run out of money in your bank account, but we will get to that later.
- Track your money by budgeting. We started to track our finances with the budgeting tool called YNAB. You can use any budgeting tool alternative, such as Mint.com, or your own homemade spreadsheet. We decided to go with YNAB only because it was what our financial planner set up for us. I fell in love with budgeting! I was always interested in numbers, organizing, and planning, so this was just my cup of tea, luckily for Mike. The tool tracks money going in and money going out. By linking your bank accounts, the tracking is almost immediate. The only part you have to do is categorize your spending and income, so that you can see how much you spend on things such as rent, groceries, gas, dining out, and any other category you can think of. You can be as specific or as vague as you want. I prefer to be vague so that it makes the process a little bit easier. I was amazed at how much money we were hemorrhaging through, and that’s quite a realization since, compared to a majority of our friends, we were pretty frugal. This was the part of the process that pushed me towards minimalism and anti-consumerism. Thinking about my past habits with spending money is almost nauseating. To multiple that by the number of Americans who do the same or worse makes me want to cry and beg Mother Earth for forgiveness. To this day, we continue tracking our spending. It’s taken the guesswork out of finances, and we no longer have to think about whether we have money or not for a certain something. We always have the money, because it is already allocated for. We follow the simple envelope system, which long ago would consist of one taking their income and placing them into different envelopes based on spending categories. There would be an envelope for utilities and for auto-registration, etc. In order to pay for something, one would take the money out of the appropriate envelope. If a person tries to overspend on dining out, they can’t, because there are no physical dollar bills left in the dining out envelope. It would require for them to physically take money out of a different envelope to cover their spending, or force them not to dine out for that day. That’s the simplified version of the envelope system and it’s the categorization system that YNAB uses. Because of this, once we get our paychecks, every single dollar bill is allocated for a future expense. So that when the expense comes, the money is already there. What about in the cases of unexpected expenses? Well, that would be called an emergency, and that’s also already saved and built up from step 1. And no, there is no such thing as a shopping emergency. There is no such thing as an unexpected expense unless some drastic unforeseen natural disaster strikes in your neighborhood. The whole point of the budgeting process is to teach us that there is not one thing that we absolutely need, and those that we want, we have the time to plan ahead for and save up.
- Put everything on Auto Pay. Life gets hectic and busy, and sometimes we miss a payment and get charged a late fee. Ugh, those late fees kill me. It’s another way of throwing money straight down the drain. Stop that right now and put your worries to rest. Take the minimum payment for every credit card, utility bill and loan and place it on auto pay at a particular time of the month, every month. Just make sure it draws after your paycheck is deposited in your account, at a time when you know the money will be present in the bank account. The last thing you want is an overdraft fee.
- Start paying off your debts one by one. Since I opened my first credit card at age sixteen, I have never been debt free. The first thing I wanted to do was start our debt snowball. Credit card interest rates are insanely high, and it was crazy to think that I was throwing away so much of my money at the same time that I was spending money I did not have. So we tackled our credit cards one by one until we brought them down to zero. After we cleared all our credit cards, we kept them clear every month by paying off the total. By doing this, we were also reaffirming that we were spending well below our means. After all our credit card debt was paid off, we only had two debts left. My student loan, and Mike’s car loan. We decided to tackle the student loan first. The reason was because it had a much higher interest rate than the car loan, as well as a higher amount. The amount of money we would be gaining in interest by letting my student loan sit is way more than the amount of interest we would gain by letting the car loan sit a little longer. Don’t get us wrong, we are still paying down the car loan at the same time, at a speed fast enough so that it will be gone in three years. But we are funneling all our extra money towards paying down the student loans instead. Once you start paying things off, it becomes more addicting than spending your money. I get such a thrilling, spine-tingling joy when I pay off debt. The debt snowball is well on its way, and my goal is to make this snowball the biggest and fastest snowball possible!
- Hire a financial planner. It’s the last on the list, but it was actually the first thing we did. It was how we began this journey. So why is it listed as number 5? I hesitate to put this on here because some people believe that hiring a financial planner is not a worthy way to spend money. Some may argue that paying for such a service could cause you to lose out on money that would be better served invested or paying down debt. I am not completely disagreeing by the way. If you are really good at this type of stuff and can do an equally great job on your own, I would back up your decision not to hire a financial planner. I would agree that your money is way better spent towards investing or achieving your dreams. So it isn’t for some people, which is why I hesitate to put it as number one, for fear that somebody will just shut down this post’s tab and move on with their lives. For us, this was the right choice, and I think it IS worth the money. One hundred percent! First off, notice that I did not write financial investor. That is a different type of service, one that focuses solely on investing money. A financial planner, when you’ve got the right one, does more than investment management, although that is part of their job description as well. A good planner will start by helping you discover your goals, and then trying to get you to your goals by tackling your financial life. It isn’t about the money, but about the end result. Where you want to be, and how you can shape your finances to get you there. Ours is particularly good at analyzing what we truly want and asking us the right questions to re-evaluate every few months if our dreams are still our dreams. We create the vision, and he helps to give us the path to make that a reality. The planner will keep you accountable, and is useful as a resource to guide you towards new and innovative ways to approach your goals. People can say it’s a mistake, we don’t care. Let’s just say, it’s a mistake we have to make. And if we had to choose all over again, we would do it just the same because frankly, I wouldn’t even be here, writing about all of this, if we had chosen differently.
So those are our first five steps, and now you know that the list is not in a particular order. Happy budgeting!