How to Get Your Money Under Control When You’re Absolutely Terrible With It

Irina Bilka counts tips and factors bills, Tampa Fla, on November 3th, 2017.
Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder
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I have a confession you don’t often hear from a personal-finance writer: I’m terrible with money.

Or, at least, I was.

I’ve gotten a lot better since knowing a thing or two about money literally became my job, but I used to be terrible all around — making money, saving money, knowing what in the world I was spending money on or where my next paycheck was coming from.

Now I know I could have been doing a lot of simple little things over the years to keep my finances in better shape — even when I was dead broke.

If you’ve been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time with money, too, here are a few things I’ve discovered that could help you get your spending, earning and debt under control.

Bonus: None of these will take a lot of time or effort. I know exactly how little you want to think about money if you can help it.

1. Figure out Where You Owe Money

One of the worst effects of not paying attention to your finances is burying yourself under a giant mountain of debt.

From student loans to credit cards to pre-Obamacare medical costs, I covered my ears and eyes and let debt slowly grow around me.

Thanks to caller ID, I stopped answering the phone — if I don’t hear the debt collectors, are they really there?

All this la-la-la-ing of my debt situation was a huge problem when I finally wanted to fix it. I had no idea who held my debts. Now that I was ready to send a check, I had no idea where to send it.

Credit Sesame was a lifesaver.

The app gives you a free credit report card — including a credit score — and provides you with recommendations and financial education resources.

The bad news: I found out my credit score was a meager 528. Yikes.

The good news: Credit Sesame showed me a quick view of my total debt, plus all the factors contributing to my low score: credit usage, credit age, inquiries, account mix and payment history. And it listed the creditors and collection agencies that wanted my money.

Plus, Credit Sesame offered concrete steps, based on my situation, to help me work on my credit score.

You can sign up and download the app here.

2. Start Paying Someone — Anyone — Back

OK, the hard part. You have to start actually paying off those debts. But when the list is long, you might not know where to begin.

Keep one thing in mind: When it comes to paying off debt, the most important thing is that you begin. Anywhere.

When you sit on unpaid debt, it likely accrues interest and fees. The longer you wait to repay, the more you’ll pay in the long run.

To decide which debtor to make your first check out to, consider these two popular schools of thought:

  • The debt snowball method, which Dave Ramsey pioneered, suggests you pay off one credit card (or loan) at a time, starting with the lowest balance. Checking it off your list will satisfy your need for instant gratification.
  • The debt avalanche method, a response from personal finance experts, suggests you pay the debt with the highest interest first, regardless of balance. That’ll help you avoid accruing tons of interest and save you money in the long run.

The snowball method is sort of made for folks like you and me.

We don’t get too excited about making the most perfect financial decisions, but achieving a few simple goals is enough to motivate us to keep working.

3. Figure Out Where All Your Money Is Going

To keep tabs on my spending habits, I use Trim, a Facebook messenger or text bot that helps you hold yourself accountable. It’s like a personal financial assistant that lives in your phone.

It lets me see where my money is going (or being wasted) by showing me recent transactions anytime I ask. It’ll also show me how much I’ve spent on Amazon recently, so I can see whether my impulsive ebook purchases are getting out of control.

The best part about Trim by far is it’ll help you negotiate bills with companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter and other major providers. And it helps you cancel recurring expenses you no longer need (like magazines, gym fees, etc.).

Because it’s a bot and doesn’t have a ton of important stuff to do all day like you do, Trim will keep negotiating until it succeeds at saving you money. It’s free to use and just keeps 25% of whatever it saves you.

To get this little bot in your life, sign up with Facebook or your email address.

4. Create a Super-Simple Budget (No Spreadsheet Required)

By this point, you won’t be surprised to learn I hate budgeting.

My tastes and plans change quickly, so I can never predict exactly how much I’ll spend on, say, groceries, clothes or gas in a month. In March, I might be super into kale salads, but by June I’ll probably be back to my mostly-macaroni-and-cheese diet.

But one of our writers discovered a budget I can get behind. It’s from an unexpected source: a 2006 book by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi.

The budget follows the 50/20/30 rule:

  • 50% of your monthly income is the max for essentials: housing, food, utilities and minimum credit card payments.
  • 20% goes toward financial goals: retirement and other investments, debt repayment, and saving for emergencies and that yacht you’ve had your eye on.
  • 30% goes to personal spending — i.e. having a life. Dining out, drinks with the gals, vacations and Netflix should cost no more than a third of your budget.

The simple spending caps make it easy for me to keep my spending in some sort of order without obsessing over spreadsheets and pie charts. (Ooo! I should grab a pie on my next grocery run…)

5. Start Investing Just a Teeny Bit of Money

Investing might seem intimidating, but why not try out the micro version?

Stash makes it easy to start investing — and snag a $5 sign-up bonus. You don’t have to have an MBA or even make it all the way through “The Big Short” to understand how to invest with this app.

You just link your bank account, and Stash does the rest by pulling a set amount and investing it in the stock market based on your interests.

To get the $5 bonus:

  1. Download the Stash app.
  2. Link your bank account, and decide how much you want to automatically invest each week.
  3. It probably won’t save you enough to retire on, but it’s a great way to become familiar with investing.

6. Turn All Your Confusing Debts Into One Simpler Debt

One big obstacle to repaying debt on time? So many monthly payments to manage.

Consolidating your debt could simplify the whole process and substantially lower your monthly payments.

A lot of us are being crushed by credit card interest rates north of 20%. If you’re in that boat, consolidation and refinancing might be worth a look.

A good resource is Fiona, a search engine for financial services, which can help match you with the right personal loan to meet your needs.

Fiona searches the top online lenders to match you with a personalized loan offer in less than 60 seconds. If your credit score is at least 620, its platform can help you borrow up to $100,000 (no collateral needed) with fixed rates starting at 4.99% and terms from 24 to 84 months.

7. Tackle Your Student Loan Debt (Yeah, We Have to Address This)

Student loan debt is a unique beast.

It entangles you in this strange affair with your alma mater, the government, some private company you’re barely aware of, banks and sometimes debt collectors. Not a fun party.

To make things a little simpler, one of my first steps after college was to update my federal loan repayment plan (because a financial-aid advisor kept calling me, and this is what she advised when I finally answered).

I couldn’t afford the standard monthly payments, so I applied for a direct-consolidation loan, which combined my multiple loans into one with an average weighted interest rate and longer repayment period.

Then I applied for an income-driven repayment plan to cap my monthly payments based on my income.

If you have private loans or don’t like the repayment terms you get with a direct-consolidation loan, consider student loan refinancing. It works a lot like direct-consolidation loans, except you do it through a private lender instead of the federal government.

Through a marketplace like Credible, you can refinance federal and private student loans.

Credible connects you with a lender to replace your multiple loans with a single loan, potentially with a lower interest rate and/or lower monthly payment, which could help you save money now and long-term.

It might seem like a small difference, but a lower interest rate can mean a lot of savings over time. It’s helping grad Ashley Williams save more than $18,000 in interest over the life of her loan!

Enter your info at Credible to find out what your new interest rate could be.

8. Remember That 401(k) You Started That One Time

Got a 401(k)? You’re on the right track. Just don’t neglect it.

Yeah, I know. That’s exactly what you’d prefer to do, because it’s boring and complicated.

But you need to make sure your account is doing what you need it to. I know tapping into that account and deciphering the information — or lack thereof — can be hard.

There’s a robo-advisor for that. Blooom, an SEC-registered investment advisory firm, will optimize and monitor your 401(k) for you.

A few of us Penny Hoarders use the service. It gives you an initial 401(k) checkup for free, and you’ll get to know your account a little more intimately. Find out if you’re paying too many hidden fees, have the appropriate amount invested in stocks versus bonds, that kind of fun stuff.

After that, the tool is $10 a month to continue to monitor your retirement account. Let Blooom know your target retirement age, and its advisors can help you get there by investing more and less aggressively.

9. Sell All the Stuff You Never Needed in the First Place

Lucky for me, throughout my 20s, when I was the worst at managing money, I didn’t have much of it.

That means I didn’t do much impulse shopping or binging — because I just didn’t have the cash. Make no mistake: If I’d had a stable income, my closets would be stuffed with tiny hand-crafted pillows from indie arts fairs.

If you’re blessed with disposable income and lack of impulse control, you’ve probably got a few regrettable decisions stashed in your closets, garage and dresser drawers.

Decluttr will buy all your old CDs, DVDs and Blurays, as well as video games, game consoles, smartphones and tablets. Scan your items with your phone and Decluttr emails you a shipping label. Throw it in a box, send it off and your money shows up in your account in a few days. (Plus enter code FREE5 for an extra $5 at checkout.)

You can sell virtually anything else on letgo. This intuitive app lets you snap a photo and list your item in less than 30 seconds. It removes the hassle of selling things online, and it’s 100% free to use.

10. Stop Deleting Your Emails

It turns out deleting your emails could be costing you serious money. Intrigued?

One of our secret weapons is called Capital One Shopping Price Protection — a tool that gets you money back for your online purchases. It’s free to sign up, and once you do, it will scan your email archives for any receipts. If it discovers you’ve purchased something from one of its monitored retailers, it will track the item’s price and help you get a refund anytime there’s a price drop.

Plus, if your guaranteed shipment shows up late, Capital One Shopping Price Protection will help you get money back for what you paid for shipping.

Capital One Shopping Price Protection compensates us when you sign up using the links we provide.

11. Open a Bank Account That Understands You

What’s your bank account done for you lately? If you’re not working with a lot of funds, you might not think much about it. Who cares about an APY if you never have any money in there?

But you should care about other factors, including:

  • Minimum required balance
  • Minimum required monthly deposit
  • Monthly fees
  • ATM fees
  • Overdraft policy

Considering these factors when you choose your bank account could save you a lot of money.

For example, “Overdraft protection” sounds like a helpful feature, but it can actually be dangerous. You might be embarrassed when the cashier rejects your card in the grocery check-out line. But at least you won’t spend beyond your means and incur ridiculous fees.

If you never thought of it that way, don’t worry. Neither had I. Here are some more surprising tips to help you choose a bank account when you’re broke.

Dana Sitar ([email protected]) is a senior writer/newsletter editor at The Penny Hoarder. Say hi and tell her a good joke on Twitter @danasitar.