First of all, my spending is already thrown off a bit from my analysis of what I spent in 2015! That’s what happens when you do your yearly wrapup a month early 🙂 It’s not terrible or anything, I just ended up paying for a domain and hosting renewal for the next two years, instead of renewing my passport like I planned to do this month. I’ll send in the passport renewal in January instead, no big.
In this post, I’m going to break down my analysis of what worked well for me this year, in three parts: motivation strategies, specific practices, and tools. Note that this isn’t a list of things that went right for me (a list which would include keeping my job and health) but rather a list of much smaller things that nevertheless made a noticeable difference in my ability to have a successful financial year.
I feel like this PF thing is still an uphill haul for me because my income is low enough and my age is…old enough…that hitting big targets takes real work. I have to pass up tempting present options like buying things and taking trips, in favor of filling up long-neglected accounts. It’s more exciting and less dutiful than it used to be, just because having my ducks in a row stresses me out less. It’s been making it possible for me to make career and other decisions based not on fear, but on what I actually want. But nevertheless, I still need all the secondary motivation I can get.
First, back in December 2014, I made probably the best decision I made for 2015, and signed up for the Moneystepper Savings Challenge. That link comes with reservations: it was free during 2015, I wouldn’t have signed up for it if it had cost money then, and I’m definitely not suggesting that you do now that there is a fee attached. But I do want to give Moneystepper credit both for the tracking spreadsheet I used all year, which calculated my cumulative savings and net worth increases, and for the whole idea of saving 50% of my income at all. I had seen PF bloggers tracking their savings percentages, and I was already on board with tracking my net worth, but I was taken with the idea of challenging myself (I wasn’t sure I could manage 50%) and with the idea of doing it along with a bunch of other PF bloggers I knew. The second part didn’t materialize because the people I knew who said they’d do it mostly didn’t, but the first part definitely did: I was doing this challenge, and I had a lot of mental incentives to make my results look good. I doubt that if I hadn’t set that goal at the beginning of the year, I would have ended up with the savings rate I did, which is actually a little above 50% of net income. I won’t be submitting my results to the Moneystepper page in 2016, but I will probably keep a focus on savings percentage as it was really helpful in restraining my random spending since this was my first debt-free year.
Second, I used a variety of visual motivations this year. That included the net worth tracking charts in both Mint and Personal Capital, as well as the goal-setting feature both in Mint and in my Capital One 360 account (affiliate link). I like those goal-setting features because they automatically calculate how far you’ve progressed towards the goal and show you a partially filled thermometer. I used them for retirement contributions and also partway through the year started new ones for my down payment fund. Speaking of which, for the down payment fund, I also set up a physical visual motivator in my bedroom. My final goal for this is $20,000, enough for a 20% down payment on a $100,000 house. I counted out 200 pennies, with each penny representing $100, and put them all in a little glass jar; as I add each $100 to the fund, I transfer over a penny. Here are the jars at the beginning of this fund, and now:
They sit within sight of my bed, so I can check on them all the time, and I’ve enjoyed moving the pennies over when I make deposits — maybe a little too much 🙂
My third motivation strategy was simple: this blog! Thanks, guys 🙂 It really makes a difference when I see your comments, especially on my monthly updates; I want those to look good, so I try just a little harder.
First, I’ve talked about this several times including just last week, but I focused on keeping my housing and food and transportation costs low as a means of growing my net worth. These are where I get my big wins, the places where I could plan low spending and have a shot at that 50% savings rate. I really feel blessed with my current housemate situation, in particular. It’s super cheap, the location is great for me, plus I like her and enjoy having occasional conversations, and I love her dog. Seriously, it’s embarrassing how much I’m into him. It’s probably the best housing situation I’ve had since getting out of college, taking all factors into account. So hopefully it’ll continue for a big chunk of 2016, though it may change in the summer due to job changes/potential moves for one or both of us.
Second, I used cash for my groceries and small discretionary expenses. This was really important to my success, I think. There were several bad habits I needed to overcome. I had a tendency to put random things (fancy cheese! fancy cookies!) in my grocery store cart and not even really notice how much I was spending. Also, I like to write/work/grade in coffee shops, and in past years I know I spent a ton on that; I’m actually really glad I don’t know how much. I’d have to guess that it added up to several thousand dollars over the course of my dissertation writing and my first year of teaching. Coffee or even a latte; a cookie or croissant; and sometimes also a meal or even two, like if I showed up first thing in the morning to grade, bought coffee and breakfast, worked for a few hours, then bought lunch and kept going. Yeah, that really had to be brought under control. So I decided on taking out $300 in cash a month, and using that for discretionary spending including groceries. It worked out great. $300 was enough that in most months I didn’t feel deprived; it was enough for groceries (not including $25/lb cheese) and also for covering small things like coffee or a quick meal out if necessary, just not several times a week. I got to spend when it was important to me, and I could see how that would affect my grocery budget on the weekend. Definitely doing this again, though with one adjustment I’ll talk about in my next post.
Third, I used target savings accounts. Like I said, I have these at Capital One 360, where I’ve been a happy customer through two bank-name changes and a dramatic plunge in interest rates (I seem to recall them offering 3.x% on basic savings and 5.x% on CDs, back in the day.) However, I used to have just one savings account with them, and right now I have four: emergency fund, down payment fund, Roth IRA fund, and travel fund. In the future I might like to expand that even more: car savings, health savings, general savings? I don’t know. Anyway, there’s something about the target accounts that gives me peace of mind. I feel like I’m not going to randomly spend the money in the emergency fund on meals out, or the travel fund on a down payment, or whatever. Not to say that I couldn’t use all the case on something, but I’m less likely to. When I just had one savings account it felt aimless, like I might as well spend it. Now it feels, well, targeted. It’s helped me keep my spending impulses in check for sure.
In particular I want to mention my travel fund. I’ve set aside $250 most months, and $200 in the others, just to spend on travel. There have been ups and downs with it through the year, but overall I’m very pleased with it. It worked more or less just like a budget is supposed to: I kept limits on my spending through choosing an amount I thought would work, but it also meant that I didn’t feel guilty about using it when I wanted to. It made a variety of trips I would have taken anyway this year (work or family or friends) much less stressful and more enjoyable.
There are really only two I want to mention here; I also used some tools that didn’t work very well for me, but obviously those will be saved for the next post 🙂
First of all, I am a YNAB fan. (Referral/discount link.) As I said in a comment last week, it’s clearly not strictly necessary, but I am very, very pleased with it. I love the feature that syncs with my phone, and it’s so pretty and easy to use that it becomes actively enjoyable to enter my expenses. I haven’t used the reports features a tremendous amount, but I did use them to do my spending breakdown last week and they were great. I have a few notes on how to improve my use of the software in 2016, but that’s my problem, not theirs, and overall this was one of the better investments I made in the last couple of years.
Second, I cannot believe how long it took me to join Ebates. (Affiliate link, for the 1% of people on the planet who are not already members.) I think I was thinking, well, they probably just want to steal my data. That may well be so, but they are also giving me real money, for stuff I was seriously already going to buy anyway. As with any cash back deal, the savings is not worth buying extra stuff, obviously. But it is pretty great to get 4% back on my contact lenses through 1800contacts, for example, since I clearly was going to buy them anyway. An astonishing variety of sites, from drugstore.com to car rental places, are signed up with them, and I now start most of my shopping queries there and compare the % back offers on different sites. Is this enough of a rave? Sorry if it seems over the top, I really am that enthusiastic. It’s hard not to be when I’ve made $50 in five months for literally doing nothing different than I would have been already (comparison shopping online.)
OK, that’s enough for one day! 1749 words on things that worked well for me seems sufficient.