Just like your water bill when the toilet keeps running, little money leaks can add up before you know it. If you feel that sometimes cash trickles through your fingers – or that you’re not putting away enough for a rainy day – this may be why. Try these quick, simple steps right now to block those financial holes and keep yourself from slipping underwater.
- PLUG IT IN
Download online statements from credit cards, such as American Express or Chase Visa, into a spreadsheet. In your online statement, find the option for "download activity" or "export information." You can download directly into a program like Quicken – or as a CSV (comma separated values) file that will load into most spreadsheet programs, such as Excel. Now you can get the big picture (for a month or a year) to understand what you’re spending by categories such as gas, restaurants, clothes or merchants. This kind of detailed money diary is the first step to building yourself a customized, workable budget: Knowing how you’re spending is the prelude to controlling how you’re spending.
- CUT IT OUT
If there’s something there that you’re buying but not using (much) – health-club membership (once in four months), beginner’s piano lessons (lost interest once you found middle C), your folding bicycle (the gears ate your suit pants), the newspaper version of the information you now read on your iPad (with coffee in bed) – then X it right out of your budget and your life. Cancel, redeem, sell – just get rid of it.
- SET IT UP
"Pay yourself first" is standard advice, meaning that you should save 10% to 15% of your salary, and it’s easiest if it comes off the top, before you ever see the money. Arrange an automatic payment to your 401(k), IRA or investment account, just as you might for other important recurring costs like your rent, car payment and health insurance. At the same time, see if you can set up the rewards plan on your credit card to feed directly into your savings account rather than your checking account.
- TRIM IT DOWN
See if you can manage some savings on your mobile phone plan now that (thank god!) your college roommate’s wedding is over at last, much as you love her. Messaging, video chatting and even calling can usually all be done over WiFi. More found money might come from using a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) system on your computer instead of a landline phone. You can sign up with Skype or Vonage, for instance. Also, while you’re looking at your digital life, do you need cable TV, Showtime and Netflix? Even if it’s only $9.99 a month, take the pennies you just pinched and redirect them to your savings account (preferably one that’s tax-advantaged).
- SUCK IT UP
Look over your spreadsheet again. Identify something that’s a luxury, not a necessity, or find an item that’s a money drain – maybe the two Powerball tickets you buy every week or the back-to-back nights of take-out instead of home-cooked dinners. Take a deep breath, stiffen your spine and otherwise gird yourself. Remember, no pain, no gain: Even if you’re not eager to, you can change this behavior and come out ahead.