At the start of 2017, my boyfriend and I decided we’d try approaching resolutions differently by tackling a new goal every month.

Our reasoning: Selecting one resolution at a time would allow us to focus our efforts. Nine months in, I’d say it’s been a success so far.

Our month-long resolutions have included abstaining from alcohol, improving our sleep schedules, packing homemade lunches during the week , talking to one stranger every day, completing one creative project, exploring mindfulness (for me, this meant limiting social media use), and giving up one thing in order to reevalute our relationship with it (I gave up television).

We start each month by setting goals and determining success. In August, we both chose to focus on an individual goal we’ve been putting off.

That’s where my finances come in.

• • •

Goals for the month

1. Take a hard and realistic look at my budget. Be thorough.

Factor in incidental expenses (gifts for friends, impulse-buys, etc.), saving for upcoming trips and spending on groceries and dining out. I also wanted to explore ways to cut down on some extraneous expenses and put more into my savings and 401(k).

2. Find a financial advisor

I wanted a professional opinion on how I am approaching my student loans. I have multiple loans with various interest rates which can get complicated. I’ve been uncertain about whether or not I should consolidate my various loans. Plus, it’s hard to know what to prioritize when you are trying to save for retirement and life events while paying down loans.

3. Learn about and take advantage of perks offered by my employer, credit cards, loans and apps

4. Be more aware about where my money is going and more confident in my financial decisions

This will eliminate money-related stress and anxiety.

• • •

My current financial situation

I have a loose budget in a Google spreadsheet that I update occasionally, which gives me an okay idea about where my money is going. It’s common for me to resort to using my credit card, accidentally overdraft or dip into my savings.

I feel good about a few things: I save a bit of every paycheck, contribute to my 401(k), pay more than the minimum on my student loans and am able to go on a couple of trips a year.

I decided to focus on three major areas of my finances: my student loans, my lifestyle expenses and saving for retirement.

This is how I approached each area:

I have a significant amount of student debt. I put myself through undergrad entirely with loans (private and government). I have paid off 30 percent of my loans since graduating college six years ago. I have about five years of payments remaining.

My student debt is made up of eight loans at various interest rates and balances. I am paying them off using the pyramid method. This is a common method for getting out of debt. I wrote all of my loans out including the amounts, interest rates and minimum monthly payments. I organized the loans by highest interest rate to lowest. I pay the minimum payment on all the loans except for the one with the highest balance and interest rate. I concentrate all of my efforts there in at least paying double the monthly payment. Any extra money I have goes toward this loan.

I have several loans at a high interest rate of 6.8 percent. I received a modest sum of money after my grandfather passed away and used it to pay off one of these.

Conveniently, my employer happened to invite an insurance company to put on a financial wellness series geared toward student loans. After the workshop, we were offered a one-on-one meeting with a financial planner. I met with the financial planner twice and he has helped answer questions about student loans, budgeting and my 401(k). I’m grateful to have access to this through work because that saved me money. I encourage anyone to seek out free resources for financial planning whether through your local library, community center or company.

Tips

  • By putting my government loans on auto-debit, I was able to decrease my interest rate by .25 percent. Any bit helps.
  • Sallie Mae offers a program called UPromise. You can earn cash back toward paying off your loans if you make purchases through their partners. These include restaurants, online retailers and more. Look into programs similar to this one offered by your lender.

Although I have an adjustable budget in a spreadsheet, I don’t update it as often as I should. I went through my budget line-by-line and updated it based on my most recent pay stub. I added more specific categories for discretionary expenses, like gifts and monthly subscriptions.

I realized there were a few things I could do to save more money. I took advantage of an opportunity to move to a smaller room in my group house and lowered my rent by 25 percent. I pay small monthly fees for web services like Dropbox, iCloud and Google Drive. I’m figuring out how to store everything in one place so I can cut a few of these out.

I have a few remaining expenses that are temporary and will eventually free up more money, like outstanding hospital bills from earlier this year and twice-monthly therapy sessions. I also took this chance to look at where I would put this money once it’s freed up.

Tips

  • Express each of your budget items as a percentage. I was able to visualize where my money was going when I saw that 13 percent of my paycheck goes to rent or that I spend about 10 percent on groceries and dining out.
  • Determine a weekly budget for “extra spending” and take it out in cash. Use only that amount. Once I run out of cash, I am done for the week.
  • My friend told me about “no dollar days,” where you don’t spend any money for as many days as possible. I average about two during the week and find it easier to do during the work week.

Apps

  • You Need a Budget: I just signed up for this budgeting app. I’ve heard great reviews about it from friends and I think once I get the hang of it I will have a better understanding of my budget. You assign “jobs” to your dollars and can adjust your budget in real time depending on how you are spending your money.
  • Digit: I’ve been using Digit for about three years and use it exclusively to save for vacations. This app analyzes your spending habits after you connect it to your bank account. It knows when you can afford to save a few dollars and moves them into a Digit savings account. New features have just been added, like the ability to include several savings goals. It’s $2.99 per month but for the amount it saves me, it’s worth it.
  • Acorns: This savings app rounds all of your purchases up to the nearest dollar, setting aside the difference in cents as a micro-investment. You can set how aggressively you want to invest. I’ve recently started using Acorns and like it so far because I don’t know that much about investing.

After completely overhauling my budget, I was able to free up more money to put into my 401(k). Previously, I was contributing 7 percent of my gross income and just increased it to 10 percent. I think it’s a no-brainer to contribute the maximum that your company matches. It’s free money. I decided to take the steps to roll over an account with a previous employer into my current 401k.

One stretch goal I have is to build up some savings for emergencies. If I were to lose my job or get sick, I wouldn’t have any buffer. I figured out how much I could put toward an emergency fund per month. My hope is that by creating a budget that is more realistic, I won’t need to dip into savings anymore.

Tips:

  • Set up your 401(k) as soon as you start a job that offers it. I waited for over a year after starting my current job because it was intimidating. Ask questions.
  • I set my 401(k) to automatically increase 2 percent every year. That puts me on track for putting a bit more in every year. I did that last year and forgot about it. I was surprised to learn that I was putting 7 percent in instead of the 5 percent I thought. You can always adjust this later.

August is over but I still have a long way to go. I’m glad I took 30 days to really focus on money and answer some questions I’ve been having for awhile. Even though it was tedious at times, going through this exercise made me feel confident about where my money is going and in my financial future.

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