Most of us are guilty of putting conditions on our life goals, believing we can only be the people we want to be once we have certain things in place. On the surface, it’s logical thinking—after all, you can’t make a BLT if you don’t have any bacon. The problem is you can’t follow a recipe to get the life you want, so more often than not, this type of linear thinking holds you back. It causes you to miss opportunities to improve not only your future, but your present. Are you waiting for a financial or career milestone to signal the beginning of the life you really want? Stop!
You can take steps now to make your life awesome, while still working toward those goals. All it takes is a little planning and a little prioritizing to live well, starting now.
Build an Emergency Fund
Saving money may not sound like a strategy to make your life awesome right now. It’s true you can’t use this money, but by having cash set aside for emergencies, you can actually free yourself to spend on more fun things without fear or guilt, knowing you have an emergency fund to fall back on should things go wrong. Instead of feeling guilty about taking that next vacation or buying the new iPhone, if those are things you really want and value, you can spend and rest easy knowing you’ve got a plan (and cash) for a rainy day.
The key to building an emergency fund is to treat your savings as a priority by including it in your monthly budget. Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your emergency savings account. After a few transfers, you will hardly miss the money coming out of your checking each month. The magic number for an emergency fund depends on your comfort level, but a good goal is to have three to six months’ worth of expenses in liquid assets so you can quickly and easily access your cash when you need it without fees or penalties.
Create a Spending Plan
We can’t talk about making your life awesome without creating a plan to get there. That’s where spending plans come in. (Doesn’t that sound better than budget? Often, “budget” is confused with “restrictive.”) A spending plan lets you be intentional about how you spend. You get to determine where you want your money to go. A spending plan makes you more aware that you are, in fact, in control of your money. You have a lot of options and tools when it comes to setting up a spending plan. The key is to find one that works well for your situation, but to get you started, here’s what you need:
- Know your monthly net income. That’s the number that hits your checking account after you pay taxes and account for other withholdings like insurance and your 401(k) contributions.
- Pay yourself first. Create savings goals and set up automatic contributions from your checking account to your savings and investment accounts. (For related reading, see: 5 Ways to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck.)
- Take care of your financial responsibilities: rent, loans, bills, keeping your car on the road, and so on.
- Once you’ve paid yourself and fulfilled your responsibilities, you get to have some fun! To make the most of this part of your spending plan, keep going.
Spend on What Matters to You
Money can’t buy you happiness. But it can buy the elements of a satisfying lifestyle if you spend it well. People tend to get more value out of doing things or investing in relationships than spending money to get more stuff, but only you can determine what will give you the most bang for your buck. Once you’ve got your emergency fund established, you can focus on your fun money. (For related reading, see: Ways Money Can Buy a Little Happiness.)
Define your idea of fun. Whether it’s one big trip a year or weekly dinner with friends, define your goal and calculate how much it will cost each month. Identify if there are any cuts you’ll need to make to reach that goal.
Analyze your spending. If it isn’t bringing you joy, ask yourself if you really need it. If the answer is yes, is there a cheaper alternative available? If the answer is no, dump it and use that cash to fund your fun. Case in point: cable versus streaming.
Keep your eye on the prize. Just like your emergency fund, make your fun fund a priority and automate your contributions. If you’re tempted to touch it for other expenses, ask yourself if the purchase you’re about to make will bring you as much happiness as your fun goal.
Consider a Change of Scenery
If you’re still coming up short on cash for either of the above, ask yourself if your living situation is helping or hurting your goals. Simply changing your locale can result in extra cash in your pocket, either through reduced living costs or greater career opportunities. If you’re able to move, consider these factors in determining your cash-saving potential:
- Cost of living: How much does a different area typically cost to live in compared to where you live now?
- Taxes: If you’re moving to a new state or municipality, will that mean more cash in your paycheck thanks to lower taxes?
- Rent: If you’re moving from one rental property to another, can you find a new place that costs less to help you free up cash? That might mean downsizing, finding a roommate, living with family or simply choosing more modest options over premium ones. (For related reading, see: Buy or Keep Renting: What's the Best Choice?)
- Growth: Would moving to a new area increase your odds of growing your career or exploring new opportunities?
If you’re getting ready to make a move, don’t forget to ask yourself how much you truly want to spend on housing, and plan accordingly.
Time Is on Your Side
One of the biggest advantages you have when it comes to accumulating and growing wealth is time. The longer you give your investments to grow and compound, the greater the chances you have for exponential growth, thanks to the magic of compounding interest. The tricky part is knowing how to balance your long-term and short-term needs and goals. These strategies can help you get started, but it’s still an extremely complicated, and personal, question.
(For more from this author, see: 5 Money Decisions You Might Regret Later in Life.)
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