zen habits : breathe

20 Money Hacks: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Finances

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” - Woody Allen

We had the Parent Hacks earlier this week, and I was thinking it would be fun to do the same with finances — ways to trick yourself, to get around obstacles, to boost your accounts, without it hurting.

Improving your finances improves your happiness, in general, so I thought it would be important to share stuff that’s worked for me.

I’m in the best financial shape in my life, despite quitting my job and my wife recently quitting hers too. A lot of that is thanks to you guys, the readers, but it’s also thanks to frugality, to eliminating debt, to saving as much as I can. To these hacks.

Here’s what works for me — please avoid flaming me, as I’m not saying they’ll work for everybody. Share your tips and tricks in the comments!

  1. Use cash. Instead of charging things to credit cards or debit cards, use cash for non-bill spending such as eating out, gas, groceries. Spending cash makes the spending more real, and there’s an added advantage of knowing when you’re out of cash, instead of spending more than you
  2. Small weekly savings transfers. I got this idea from my friend Trent at The Simple Dollar, who automatically deducts $20 a week from his check to savings. I decided that I could live with $40/week without really feeling it — it’s a relatively small transfer that I barely notice, and I save about $2,000 a year on top of my larger bi-weekly savings transfers.
  3. Stay home. Going out makes you more likely to spend unnecessarily. You eat at restaurants, go to the mall, stop at the gas station for snacks. It’s hard to avoid spending when you’re on the road. Instead, stay home, and find free entertainment. It’s also a great way to bond with your family.
  4. Don’t get catalogs. Or emailed announcements from companies trying to sell you stuff. Their announcements of sales or cool new products make it very tempting to buy something you don’t need. Instead, stop the catalogs and emails from ever getting to you in the first place, and you’ll spend less.
  5. Keep a 30-day list. If you have an impulse to buy something you don’t absolutely need, put it on a 30-day list. You can’t buy anything but necessities — everything else goes on the list, with the date that it’s added to the list. When the 30 days are up, you can buy it — but most likely, the strong urge to buy it will be gone, and you can evaluate it more calmly.
  6. Cook at home. I know, it seems more difficult than eating out. But it doesn’t have to be hard. Throw together a quick stir-fry with frozen veggies and either boneless chicken or (my favorite) tofu with soy sauce or tamari. Make home-made pizza with a ready-made crust, some sauce, cheese and veggies. Put some spices on something and throw it in the oven while you cook some brown rice. Not only is this much cheaper than eating out, but it’s healthier.
  7. Exercise. Staying healthy is the best way to avoid costly medical bills later.
  8. Use the envelope system. It’s the same idea as using cash for spending, but in addition you use envelopes to split your spending cash into categories. My non-bills categories are groceries, gas and miscellaneous spending. Three envelopes, and when they’re empty, I’ve spent my allotment.
  9. Talk with your SO weekly. It’s important that you and your significant other be on the same page. You should have the same financial goals, and from there you should agree on a general spending plan and a policy for impulse buying that won’t have either of you wanting to choke the other. Make sure you both know what bills have been paid, what your balances are, etc. A weekly meeting of just 20 minutes accomplishes that. Communication is key.
  10. The spreadsheet tracker hack. There are expensive programs like MS Money, Quicken, and the like that will do amazing things with your financial information. There are even free ones, on your desktop or online, that can do all kinds of things. Trouble is, I don’t need all that. All I want is a way to track my money easily, with no other bells and whistles, and a way to access that online so that I can view it from anywhere. The best way I found to do that is through Google Docs and Spreadsheets. I created a simple spreadsheet to track my bank accounts, that does everything I used to do with MS Money. It has the date of each transaction, the title and amount, a little field for memos, and a running balance. What more do I need? Keep it simple. Update: View a sample I put online here.
  11. Pay savings and debt first. When you sit down to pay your bills (I do them all online), make the first bills you pay be your savings transfer and your debt payments. If not, if you pay them last … you’ll often end up shortchanging them. But if you pay them first, you’ll make sure you still pay your rent or mortgage, utilities, groceries and gas … so you’ll just cut back on other spending.
  12. Exercise at home. Some of you will disagree with me on this, which is OK — everyone should do what works for them. But I’ve saved a lot of money that I used to spend on gyms by just running at the local track or on the roads in my neighborhood, and buying some simple weights and a chin-up bar. I do a lot of body-weight exercises (pushups, Hindu squats, lunges, pullups, dips, etc.) and I don’t need a gym for those things.
  13. Cut out cable TV. I’m not saying I don’t watch TV — I watch DVDs, so that I’m sure that what I’m watching is something great, rather than the useless stuff you find on TV most of the time. And there’s a lot of it online for free if you look. Not a huge savings, but it adds up.
  14. Declutter. By getting rid of all the excess stuff in your home, you not only make your life much simpler and more peaceful, but you make it harder to buy stuff that will just clutter things up again. Once you’ve simplified your home, you won’t want to go back.
  15. Lend and borrow. Give books and clothes and toys you don’t need anymore to your friends and family. If you need something, send out an email asking if anyone has it. Chances are, they’ll give it to you for free if they don’t use it anymore.
  16. Barter. It’s a lost art, but lots of people will take your services or goods instead of money, especially if you’re friends or at least know each other. Get into the habit of offering to barter, and you’ll find yourself saving a lot of money. My website design was done through the barter system, so I saved well over $1,000 there, for example.
  17. Use online savings. I use Emigrant Direct, but ING Direct is also popular, as are a bunch of other online banks. Not only do you earn like twice the interest of a normal bank savings account, but if you don’t get the ATM account it’s not as easy to withdraw money … making it less likely that you’ll get money out on an impulse.
  18. Try frugal gift-giving. Giving people gifts is one of the most wonderful traditions, as it shows generosity and caring. Until it becomes commercialized. Then it’s just really really expensive. Instead, try giving the gift of spending time with someone. Try giving them something you baked or made yourself. Try giving them services they’d appreciate. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to be generous.
  19. Teach your kids about advertising, saving, earning, and gift-giving. If you have kids, educating them about money will save you a lot of money in the long run. If they know about how advertising influences them in tricky ways, they’ll be less likely to demand (OK, beg and plead for) the latest fad toys. If they know about saving and earning money, they’ll respect the money that you earn, and that you are trying to save. If they know that gift-giving doesn’t have to be about spending a lot of money (see above), they won’t necessarily want expensive stuff.
  20. Find happiness in life, not spending. Many times people buy stuff because they think (subconsciously perhaps) that it will bring them happiness. They just HAVE to have the latest gadget or shoes or cars. It’s so fun! And yet, you buy that stuff, and you’re only happy for a day or two at most. Then you just need to buy more. It’s a never-ending cycle. Instead, learn to love life. Find joy in nature! In the people around you! In doing something you love! In exercise and meditation! There’s so much in life to make us happy, there’s no need to find it in spending.

“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” - Pablo Picasso

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