Thinking about setting some financial goals? Here are some tools that could make reaching them easier.
Hey, remember The American DreamTM?
Just work hard, go to college, graduate ... and next thing you know, you've got a nice job, spouse, car, and beautiful house.
Yeah ... not so much.
While that may never have been a real possibility for some Americans for a multitude of reasons — including systemic discrimination based on one's race, country of origin, or gender to achieve The Dream — one thing is absolutely true: It's harder than ever for millennials to get there. There are countless articles detailing their shrinking salaries, ballooning student debt, and a history of high unemployment rates. Not exactly the most encouraging set of financial circumstances.
OK, so a house with a white picket fence might not be in the cards any time soon. But that doesn't mean we're going to let our shrinking wages get in the way of carving out the kind of life we want to live.
And luckily, there are some great innovations in the world of personal finance. We're talking about tools that'll help us save and, you know, still pay the rent.
Here are some things to try that'll have you feeling like Scrooge McDuck in no time.
1. Did you really get the best deal online? This service automatically tracks — and requests — refunds for you if the price drops.
A penny saved is a penny earned and Paribus will help you earn a lot of pennies with no effort. This startup automatically tracks your online purchases and monitors any price changes. If they see that that cat toy you ordered from Amazon dropped in price or you forgot a coupon you could have used during checkout, it automatically requests a refund for you! Sit back and watch the extra pennies roll in.
2. Stuff your savings account — one debit card swipe at a time.
Qapital's approach is pretty straightforward: It tacks a little cash onto your everyday transactions — like that morning does of caffeine — and puts it away for you in an account. Picked up a 75-cent pack of gum? It'll round the transaction to a full dollar and put that sweet, sweet quarter away for a rainy day.
For folks who aren't fans of rounded up, there's Digit. After signing up, it looks at your spending patterns over a period of time to see how much it could put away without you noticing. This might be a more comfortable technique for people with inconsistent incomes, like freelancers or small-business owners.
3. Dip your toe into the investment pool.
I dunno about you, but the idea of investing makes my head hurt. I sometimes have to breathe into a paper bag when I make my 401k selections. I'm told it's a big decision, but I don't know what the best selection is. WHAT IF I CHOOSE THE WRONG COMPANIES FOR MY PORTFOLIO?!
Apps like Acorns make the process a lot less scary, and it's a huge hit. It takes your spare change when you want (daily, weekly, or monthly) and invests it into startup companies. Then you sit back and watch your investment account grow. The simple approach has been really attractive to young folk: So far, it's helped millennials save $25 million and counting.
4. Track your spending.
Have you ever gone to the ATM only to find your account overdrawn? And you seriously wonder "where in the world did all my money go?!" Services like Mint and Wave break it down for you by tracking your accounts and categorizing your purchases. If you're really in the mood for an automated killjoy, you can get email alerts when it notices you're spending more than usual — Thanks, Mint. I do know I spent more on clothes this month. Wait ... that's how much of my income? Now I know why they say "Ignorance is bliss" — or get texts to remind you when that bill due date is coming up.
5. Create some financial goals.
Now that you know where your money is going, it'll be easier to know what sort of goals you want to set. There are a lot of different guidelines out there for saving — from Dave Ramsey's envelope system which doesn't allow ATM visits and requires only spending the cash you have in a categorized envelope to the 50/20/30 rule that prioritizes knowing your fixed costs, figuring out goals, and setting aside some cash for flexible spending. Using that info from a spending tracker, you can figure out which system would work best for you.
Let's say that you hypothetically spend too much of your money on new clothes. You might find Ramsey's envelope system useful because once you spend the cash in your wardrobe budget, you have to wait until next month to indulge ... no matter how great a sale Nordstrom has right now.
6. Make a budget.
The thought of making a budget can be daunting because it probably seems so complicated. There are some old-school ways like filling out a Google spreadsheet (there are several great free templates available). Or if you live on the Internet like me, you can try an app called You Need a Budget. It offers a hard-to-ignore way to look at your finances and spending habits in one fell swoop. A spreadsheet would take longer because you have to look up everything and enter it yourself while YNAB is automated after analyzing your spending habits and bills.
You can also stick with the money tracker Mint, which offers to help you establish a goal based on your spending history (or hopeful future) and gives you regular email updates about whether you're overspending in some areas..
7. Up your financial literacy game.
Knowledge is power — especially when it comes to money. If you've been wanting to know what the heck an investment portfolio is or why should someone should open a checking and a savings account, check out sites like NerdWallet, LearnVest, or MyMoney.Gov. They all provide a space that answers frequently asked questions about different financial terms, offer best practices on borrowing money, and give tips on achieving financial goals like building a savings account. They can make even the least math-inclined person able to become an investor and saver.
8. Find a bank that doesn't make you want to pull your hair out.
I still have nightmares from my time as a college student when I was a member of Bank of America. I never understood why they kept charging me fees for being so poor. Didn't they understand that my low account balance meant that an extra $35 meant a lot to me?! I didn't know that using credit unions was even an option.
Sites like A Smarter Choice can help you find the bank that's just right for you. Just put in your location to find branches near you and look for the ones that you're eligible to join — some don't require more than proof that you live in your hometown.
9. Follow a personal finance blog to pick up tips that will work for you.
When I decided to be more money-conscious, I was so overwhelmed by all the information out there. I was too busy to read a finance book (or even pick the right one, to be honest), so I found that taking in a little bit at a time was more manageable and useful. Following personal finance blogs like Lifehacker's Two Cents are helpful because they can give you intel on the latest app or offer an easy-to-understand explanation of that financial term you keep hearing but never understood. Even if I'm not able to do anything more than just live paycheck to paycheck, I find the regular visits helpful at least to help me keep my money goals in mind.
I get it: This is a lot of information, but don't feel bad if you don't feel ready to take on all of these tasks. Getting your personal finances in order can be a long journey, so don't get discouraged.
The leading cause of bankruptcy isn't overspending or lack of planning, but health care debt. So it's important to keep things in perspective. These recommendations aren't foolproof measures.