Where does your money go each month? Now, especially, with financial goals and priorities in flux, it’s important to know in granular detail.
We asked financial experts to weigh in on how to make the best of extra time in quarantine to tune up your finances. If you don’t even bother to open and look at your bank statement when it arrives each month, these tips are for you.
Take a financial inventory
Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, the author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life,” a book that’s part memoir and part personal finance how-to, advises her clients to make a list of everything they own, including money in bank accounts, a retirement portfolio and investments. The next step is to take an inventory of what you owe: credit card debt, auto loans and student loans. Calculating your net worth means subtracting debts from assets.
“Doing that holistic inventory of your financial life helps you identify where the most pressing needs are and what you need to be focusing on,” Ms. Rodriguez said. A credit card with a large balance and a high interest rate might take priority. Or maybe it’s time to create an emergency fund.
Douglas A. Boneparth, the president and founder of Bone Fide Wealth, a financial planning service, encourages people to look at the last year of statements through the online archive of credit card and bank account statements. “It’s very hard to make changes unless you actually know what you’re spending money on,” he said.
Mr. Boneparth categorizes expenses into buckets: housing, day care, entertainment and utilities, for example. Apps can help. Mint gives a visual snapshot of where your money goes, Pillar tracks expense data and Personal Capital provides a bigger picture of net worth by tracking spending, investments and your retirement fund.
Give every dollar a job
Berna Anat, a financial educator in San Francisco, is a fan of compartmentalizing and assigning each portion of your income to fulfill a certain role. “You have to give every dollar a job, every bank account a job, every credit card a job,” she said. Rather than sorting out a budget after money comes in, Ms. Anat recommends having separate accounts for bill money, fun money — “ordering out, anxiety Amazon purchases, things like that” — and for short and long term savings goals.
Ms. Anat said she has seven accounts. Six with Charles Schwab, which offers no-fee banking — for cash for investing each month, therapy, vacation, two joint accounts with her partner to pay household bills, a “landing strip” where all the money comes in and is reassigned — and a savings account for emergencies with Capital One.
Kumiko Love, an accredited financial counselor in Spokane, Wash. and the creator of the Live Rich Planner, a handwritten organizational tool that helps people create and stick with financial goals, recommends that people go back to cash. For each paycheck, after paying bills online, she goes to the A.T.M. and divides her money into seven envelopes, one for each area of spending in her life. She put the practice on hold for the month of April, but plans to go back to it for May.
“The more that we can put our eyes on our budget, the better,” Ms. Love said. In using cash, “what you have left to spend is sitting right in front of your face.”
Kiersten Saunders the co-founder of rich & Regular, a personal finance blog, in Atlanta found that her fitness apps are now redundant. “If I take a little more time and plan out a week’s worth of workouts, I can find fitness leaders on Instagram to piece together a plan rather than paying for something highly curated,” she said.
Other subscriptions can be downsized. Many libraries offer free video streaming services like Kanopy that could replace a service you pay for. You might make the decision to cut back to a lower tier of Hulu and watch ads.
Get on the phone and negotiate
No one loves a phone call with a lender, but calling just once can help you save. Ms. Saunders recommends calling credit card companies, insurance providers and lenders. “There’s been a lot of provisions with the CARES Act where you can defer a payment without having a negative impact on your credit report,” she said, “but the creditor has to agree to that.”
To frame the conversation, Ms. Love recommends being direct: “Come out and say hey: this is my situation. I’m having a hard time making payments. Is there any way you can lower my interest rate?” she said. “It just takes one phone call.”
Some apps can help. Cushion, for a few dollars a month, will scan your bank accounts, find fees, and negotiate them for you. You keep the refunds.
The most important thing to remember is that money management is a lifelong practice. “It’s not something we do once and we’re done,” Ms. Rodriguez said.