As I watch my little orange kitten separate a stack of boxes with his paws and attempt to shred every one with his little tiger teeth it occurs to me that everyone’s gotta have a goal. Otherwise, what are we living for amirite?
Well, this year is the year of physical health and in order to properly track my achievements I gotta start with a goal. Four of them to be exact. In no particular order are 4 attainable, measurable goals I’m setting for myself this year.
Run A Race Again
I miss running. I stopped after my surgery and inexplicable knee injury. It’s far past time to get back into it again, and I’m already way ahead of you so don’t worry. I just banged out Week 1 of Couch-to-5K and am looking forward to dominating Week 2. Turns out walking 3+ miles per day helps build your endurance, which reminds me of my next goal…
Commute on Foot at Least 4 Times Each Week
I live just over a mile from work. Last summer we spent so many days in the 90’s that it was a little too easy to jump on the bus in the morning and skip the exercise in favor of air conditioning. This year I’m laying down a very public commitment to walk at least 4 days a week rain or shine or debilitating heat and humidity. I kind of hate myself already. But this may just be the impetus and motivation I need to hit the gym in the morning before work. Cuz imma need a shower after this commute most likely.
Dedicated Workout (beyond walking) at Least 4 Times Each Week
What I’ve found over the past 2 years in DC is that walking everywhere is not the sure-fire recipe for weight loss now that I’m in my 30’s as it was in my early twenties. Metabolism is a bitch. So I’m going to plan for an actual workout 4 days per week, whether that’s a run, weight lifting, yoga, kayaking, hiking, softball, or some other scheduled physical activity. I’m not looking to Crossfit, I’m just looking to be a little more consistent in regular exercise.
Finish that Damn Canister of Protein Powder Already
I bought a canister of protein powder awhile ago and barely consumed any of it because it just seemed like smoothies were too difficult, the blender was so noisy, then I got a kitten and didn’t want to scare him with the noise, and the ice cubes were too big to fully blend, and on and on. If I’m going to increase the exercise I need to fuel the body and protein powder is the easiest way to get a punch of muscle building superhero strength. Plus, I needed one more goal to round out this post and this seemed like a funny one to add.
I’m going to be blunt. Not because I particularly like sharing every detail of my life (despite the evidence of this blog suggesting otherwise), but because I hope the steps I took to gain financial health may help others who are struggling. It’s not easy to admit that I didn’t always have my shit together and that I’ve made some mistakes. I wasn’t one of those people who was born knowing about amortized assets. And don’t be fooled into thinking I had this all figured out from the start once I decided to turn a new leaf. It took a lot of trial and error to get to this level of comfort and it’s still a struggle sometimes…I still make mistakes. But I hope that if you’re someone who struggles with managing money that even doing one of these steps will help you begin to feel less stressed. So here goes, in no particular order, 7 Steps to Financial Health:
- Get a New Job
- Automate Your Budget
- Get Free Money
- Your First $500, $1,000, & 3-Month Emergency Fund
- Pay Off Debt
- Get a Second Job
- Diversify Your Funds
These posts are an archive from March 2017, and I hope they give you a few ideas to help you reach your financial goals. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a Wall Street tycoon. I didn’t retire at 30 with 3 million dollars in the bank. I’m just a normal person doing the best I can with a few extra tricks up my sleeve.
And speaking of tricks, I came across a new Free Money app that may also be of benefit to you. Do you like to work out? Are you a runner training for your next big race? Do you track your health in a fitness app? Then Achievemint might be a good fit to help you easily earn a little extra beer money by doing what you already do. Sign up for a free Achievement account, link your fitness tracker and social media apps, and the rest is done for you. You’ll automatically earn points for the health goals you’re reaching. Sign up using my referral link and we each get 250 free points!
In previous posts we talked about budgeting and how we can save, pay down debt, and contribute money into a retirement account all at the same time. To recap: pay yourself first (i.e. automatic deductions into retirement at least up to company match), then take care of high interest debt first and as quickly as you can while saving a little something. Re-calibrate these percentages as you pay off debt and have more to put into savings.
The next step, once you start saving your first $500, $1,000, and 3-month rainy day fund is to consider diversifying your assets.
If you already have a 401K consider opening a Roth IRA account for a second revenue stream when you’re older. If/when you leave your current organization you can roll your 401K into a Traditional IRA. The difference between the two is that, with a Traditional IRA, the money will be taxed when it’s taken out in retirement. With the Roth IRA the money is taxed now. Depending upon your tax bracket now and your projected tax bracket once you retire, it may be in your interest to tax the money you’re saving for retirement now. The idea is that you may not be in a top income tax bracket now, so there’s a benefit to paying at that lower percentage. Either way, it’s always good to diversify your assets.
Now, there are a lot of unknowns here – how your money will grow, what income tax bracket you’ll be in when you retire, what inflation will look like, etc. And this is my disclaimer that I’m not a certified financial planner and any investment you make comes with risk and zero guarantee that you’ll make any money. But in my humble opinion it’s good to not have all of your eggs in one basket. This may not be something you can do right away, but it’s worth considering if you have extra money in your budget. My bank, for example, requires at least $500 to start an investment account. I used an old Traditional IRA I had from a previous job’s 401K rollover. I simply converted it into a Roth IRA and, like my initial savings account, I just transfer a small amount into it every month until I have more in my budget.
Turns out you don’t need to be a bajillionaire to invest some cash. I’ve mentioned this before in another post, but the only thing you need in order to make your money make more money is an app called Acorns. Acorns takes every transaction you make with a registered card/account and rounds it up. It takes those extra pennies and invests it into their fund. I started last June and have received, over that time, a 5.18% return. Not too shabby. That app also allows you to divest any time. It’s an easy, mindless way to save an extra thousand a year, and if you use my referral link to sign up we both get some free cash.
If you’re just starting to save, then building up your emergency fund should be your first priority. However, if you already have a solid emergency savings consider diversifying your automatic deductions into multiple savings accounts. Keep building your emergency to equal 6-months of expenses, then consider the big ticket items you’ve always wanted to afford – a new car, a family vacation, a new house, etc. Chip away at that goal by opening a second savings account and diverting some of your budget there. Just like your first savings account it will start slow, but build up bigger when you’re not paying attention.
In the last post I talked about setting up your budget so that you can save for retirement, build an emergency savings plan, and pay off debt all at the same time. What I didn’t mention is that when I have a plan I am a very impatient person. And even with my budget designed to do all three magical things at once I wasn’t paying off my debt as quickly as I would like, which led me to…getting a second job.
The real reason I’ve been able to save so much money by not going out as much is because I don’t have as much time to go out since getting a second job. To be honest, I was just getting sick of chipping away at my debt and I wanted to get it over and paid off as quickly as possible. I considered several options until I got a kitten, and then I wanted to find something where I wouldn’t have to be out of the house 12 hours a day. Luckily, it was just around this time last fall that I started following The Penny Hoarder on Facebook and learned about opportunities with Appen Global and Leapforce. Both of the opportunities are very similar, but I ended up going with Appen because they contacted me right away and the on-boarding process only took a few weeks. For comparison, I only heard back from Leapforce about a month ago and their compensation was 25 cents less per hour than Appen is paying me.
So what’s the job? My official job title is “Social Media Evaluator,” and while consultants sign an NDA when they start – so I can’t reveal too much – I’ll share what’s in the job description.
Basically, my task is to help “improve the relevancy of the newsfeed for a leading global social media client.” It’s pretty easy and somewhat mindless once you get the hang of it. You can be contracted for 1, 3, or 4 hours a day for 5 days a week. Appen provides a training program (unpaid) and will test you on your ability to follow the guidelines before you begin work. If you can consistently meet their standards, keep pace, and fulfill your contracted hours you’re good to go. This onboarding process took me a few hours over one week, so don’t worry too much about that part not being paid.
The only caveat to this opportunity is that you’re technically an independent contractor, not an employee. So while the pay is quite good, you must remember to sock away some of it each month for taxes. I didn’t last fall since I was only being paid the last 2 months of the year, but even that small amount affected my 2016 tax returns. My refund was quite a bit less because of this extra work. On the other hand, if you’re doing your taxes and withholdings correctly you don’t want to see a huge refund every year anyway since it means you’re just giving the government an interest-free loan. That money could be put to better use in your own investments over those same 12 months.
Stepping off the tax soap box now. If you’d like to know more about the Appen or Leapforce opportunities, I’ve linked them above. My plan is to take the next two years and pay off all of my debt solely with this income.
One thing I struggled with when I set up my budget is deciding how much money I put towards debt and how much I put towards emergency savings and retirement. As I said before, I automatically set up my retirement deductions based off my company match. That money leaves my paycheck before I see it, so it’s easy to make a budget without it.
The next thing I did was start a savings account. Knowing I had more debt to pay off I started small each month just saving $50 per paycheck ($100 per month). If I needed to raid it to make ends meet at the end of the month I did (a few times at least), but I kept the automatic transfer so that, eventually, my savings would automatically grow.
Next I tackled my debt. I was able to consolidate my student loans a few years ago when I wasn’t making as much money. My income-based repayment plan, therefore, is not a huge amount each month and my interest rate is low enough that it won’t hurt to keep paying the minimum until I get the higher interest debt paid off. Check and see if your loans can be consolidated if they haven’t been already. And remember, if you set up auto-payments each month your lender may lower the interest rate a bit.
High interest debt, on the other hand, should be tackled as quickly as possible. After your monthly expenses, small savings plan, and any other essentials (e.g. food) put as much of your discretionary income as possible toward getting a zero balance on your credit card. Cutting cable and not going out to eat as much helped me shave quite a bit of cash from my spending (seriously, happy hour is a budget killer). I now put that toward my debt and find I can take a pretty good chunk off the principal each month.
So when you’re setting up your budget and asking if you should be saving for retirement, saving for emergencies, or paying off debt, the answer is, “Yes.” Do all three but change the percentage of your budget you spend on each as you first eliminate high interest debt.
This one is short and sweet, because I covered a bit of it before. Today we’re going to talk about savings and budgeting.
Step 4: Your First $500, $1,000, 3-Month Fund
When you’re making your budget and building in a savings plan it can be daunting to think about starting small and getting to a 3- or 6-month emergency fund. Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Studies show that only 28% of Americans have saved a 6-month emergency fund. If that’s not depressing enough, that same study says 66 million Americans report having no savings at all.
We’re always told that it’s smart to have an emergency fund in case anything happens, but when you’re looking at your paycheck versus expenses it’s easy to put it off in favor of other spend.
The key is to start small.
Sock away $10, $25, $50 a paycheck…whatever you can afford. Reevaluate how much you’re putting away every six months. If your bank offers it, use a service that rounds your purchases up and puts the difference into your account (this would counteract the use of the Acorns app to round up into an investment account).
Work towards saving your first $500…then your first $1,000…then a 1-month emergency fund, and so on. Work your way up to a 3-month fund that would cover your essentials. It may take many months, but you’ll love watching that number grow. This little guy wants to be fed.
If it helps to have an example, you can use my experience. I started my new job by automatically deducting $50 every paycheck into my savings account. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but there were still a few times I had to raid my savings to fix a cash flow problem at the end of the month.
Overall I was saving $100 per month.
Each year I’ve received a cost-of-living increase and raised that automatic deduction by $25 per month. Again, not a lot, but enough to notice the number in my savings account getting higher every time. I even have a chart on my online banking dashboard that tells me what my expected savings will be over time. It’s become a personal challenge to see or beat that number.
I was always taught that money doesn’t grow on trees, and while that’s mostly true it’s also a fact that technology and online shopping can be your best friend in getting you some free money for doing the things you already do.
The apps and sites I mention below are ones I currently use and recommend. There are others (e.g. Wikibuy) that I haven’t used extensively and so I’m not going to give you a full write-up. These sites won’t make you a millionaire, but they will keep you in Starbucks…or beer…or whatever your vice may be. And, hey, it’s just nice to earn a little cash back from the purchases you already make.
Step 3: Get Free Money
- Ebates – if you use Chrome as your web browser I recommend signing up for Ebates and installing the Chrome extension. Every time you shop online you can activate a cash back deal on your purchase. Every 3 months they will send you a “Big Fat Check” for that amount. I just installed the extension 4 days ago and already have $14 cash back. I’m not sure what that says about my shopping habits, but I buy most of my essentials on Amazon (free shipping to my door with Prime!) and get 3% cash back on my Amazon credit card AND cash back from Ebates as well. If you sign up using my referral link we both get a cash bonus.
- Honey – another Chrome extension I use is Honey. It works similar to Ebates with a cash back bonus for every purchase, but there’s an additional coupon code search function. Whenever you shop online Honey will search for known coupon codes and try to apply them to your purchase. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve gotten discounts on a ton of stuff I was going to buy anyway. The Honey Gold (cash bonus) you earn can be redeemed for gift cards to the store of your choice.
- Cashback Credit Cards – as I mentioned earlier I have an Amazon credit card, which gives me 3% cash back on all Amazon purchases and 1% everywhere else. I mostly use it to buy stuff on Amazon and then immediately pay it off with my debit card. I also use a cash back credit card from my bank. I get 1-2% cash back on all purchases, which isn’t a ton, but it adds up. I tend to use this one for travel (booking with Expedia to rack up rewards points and then miles on airlines). Right now my bank is giving me 10% cash back on everything for 6 months because they switched from Mastercard to Visa. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m not asking any questions. For the next six months anyway, I’ll be paying everything with this card and using my debit to pay it off right away.
- Follow /r/beermoney on Reddit for more ideas – if you’re on Reddit a great subreddit to follow is /r/beermoney. They have a lot of tips and tricks to save or earn a few extra bucks each month. One of them is an easy, no cost solution if you have an unlimited data plan on your phone (or even if you don’t, and if you don’t sign up for TMobile, they’re amazing). Mobile Performance Meter is an app owned by one of the largest market research companies in the U.S. The app tracks your data usage – and only your data usage. They do not collect personal information or interfere with your phone in any other way (read their TOC and FAQs for more info). People average about 10-20 points per day with options for bonuses by taking surveys or making referrals. They’ll send you a gift card to the store of your choice when you rack up enough points (starting at 500).
None of these methods are going to make you independently wealthy, but they are easy ways to make a few extra bucks without having to change your behavior. If you’ve come across any other opportunities please let me know in the comments!
I don’t know about you, but a lot of my money management issues stem from trusting myself a little too much (haha). If I see the funds in my bank account I think that’s actually how much money I have, yet tend to forget about which bills are coming due and when before the next payday. And forget about saving. If it doesn’t happen automatically I take no joy in shifting leftover funds into a savings account. So my solution is to get the bill paying and saving out of the way each payday before I even look at my checking account, which is my Step 2 in building financial health.
Step 2: Automate Your Budget
Now, one thing I want you to note is that the steps below can be done when you’re comfortable with your budget and your cash flow. If you need to build a cushion into your checking account before setting up automatic payments (like I did), then do so, but I strongly urge you to take these steps as soon as financially possible…they’ll save you headaches and maybe even some money.
- Save for Retirement At Least Up to Company Match – the first thing you can do to easily save more money is deduct a percentage of your paycheck to your company’s retirement fund up to the amount that your company matches. That match is free money. For example, my organization matches up to 5%. So when I deduct 5% of my gross pay into our 403(b) I get 5% more money from my company for free, basically. And my org is extra special because I’m 100% vested right away – sometimes the company requires that you stay on the job at least 2-5 years in order to get that full 5% or they take it back when you quit. It’s worth reading the fine print. And it’s worth automatically deducting this amount every month and beginning your budget there.
- Auto-Deduct Into Savings Account – this is a step you may want to hold off on until you make sure your budget works every month, but the age old question of “Should I save or should I pay off debt?” is answered best with, “Yes.” Start a savings account as soon as possible and shift even a small amount each paycheck. I started with $50 and then increase it by $25 every year when I get a cost-of-living increase. When I first started and had to get my feet under me I had to raid my savings a few times, but now that I have a cushion built up in my cash flow it’s incredibly satisfying to see this number tic up every two weeks. Seriously, the person who figures out how to gamify personal finance will be the next Silicon Valley tech millionaire.
- Auto-Pay Debt – if, like me, you have some outstanding debt (student loans, credit card, etc) try to pay as much as you can each month beyond the minimum payments. Anything beyond the minimum will save you in interest. This is another great place to set up auto-payments so you don’t have to worry about making a late payment, racking up fees, or taking hits to your credit score. Sometimes you can even get a break on your interest rate if you set up Auto-Pay. For example, my student loan lender knocked off half a percent.
- Auto-Pay Bills – another great place to set up auto-payments is on all of your bills (rent/mortgage, utilities, etc). Online payment services for these accounts usually charge a transaction fee for using a credit card but will remove the fee if you do a bank transfer. If you pay by check you’re paying for postage every time. As my grandma always said, “Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” The other important tip I have for you in this regard is to set up a second checking account for bill payments and, every paycheck, auto-deduct your budgeted amount into this account. Pay your bills from here and your other checking account turns into spending money. Right now, for example, I take my rent and utility costs for the month, halve it (because I get paid twice monthly), and have that amount get redirected to my Bills checking account every payday. Makes knowing what I can spend on food and sundries much easier to visualize.
- Auto-Save/Invest – so I shared some tips about auto-payments and auto-saving, but one other trick I’d like to share is auto-investing. You’re not a hedge fund manager. I get it. None of us are billionaires. But we can take advantage of stock market investing at a small scale using the Acorns app. When you download the app and connect a card and/or bank account, Acorns simply rounds up every purchase to the nearest dollar and invests it for you. You never even miss it. Some banks will do this for you and automatically round up into your savings account, but I find it’s a lot of fun to have a small investment account and see that graph steadily increasing every month. For the time I’ve been using it, my account and the investment fund have seen a 5.46% return. I’ve been using Acorns for about 7 months now and have $400+ in my account. And the great thing about the account is that I can divest and transfer the money into my bank account any time I need it. Right now I’m having too much fun watching it grow, but it could be a good rainy day fund as it’s pretty easy to liquidate (the transaction takes 4-5 days). Acorns also partners with a few sites where you can spend money and a percentage of what you spend goes into your Acorns investing account. For example, if you book an AirBNB, a percentage of the total booking cost is invested, and if you sign up for Hulu a percentage of your subscription fee gets invested, etc. The beauty of affiliate marketing.
This month I’m focusing the majority of posts on my improvement plan from Year 2 in DC: Financial Health. Each post I’ll outline one step I took to make my life a little easier when it comes to money management. I haven’t always made good choices in the past and I’m not 100% fixed yet, but these steps have helped me get better and improve my credit score by 176 points in less than 2 years.
Step 1: Get a New Job
In my experience completing step one was the catalyst that made all of the rest possible. I know that not everyone can uproot their lives and move across the country in search of a better paying job. But there are solutions you can explore in your own backyard, so to speak.
- Ask for a Raise – if you’ve been working in the same place for several years, maybe it’s time to ask for a raise. Are you one of the more dependable employees? Have your performance reviews been good over several years? Are there other responsibilities you can take on to justify an increase in pay? If even one of the questions results in a “yes,” then meet with your boss and make your case. Emphasis on that last part; if you’re going to ask for more money you have to prove your worth. Sometimes the boss’s hands are tied. That’s where the next option comes in.
- Create a Professional Development Plan – so maybe you can’t get a raise for doing the job you’re currently doing. I get that. Some industries are conservative and highly regulated, but there may be an option to work with your boss to develop a plan for professional development. Let him or her know that you’re interested in more responsibility and/or other opportunities within the organization. Share your ambition. A good organization wants to keep good workers. They may surprise you. Your boss may say, “I’m sorry a raise isn’t in the budget…” but maybe there’s an opportunity for advancement or a lateral move that will earn you higher pay. I worked for minimum wage at a deli a few years ago, and this is what happened to my colleague. The owner wants to keep good, dependable workers, and my colleague took on additional front-of-house responsibilities to earn the raise. It was a win/win for the owner and the employee.
- Negotiate Better Work/Life Balance – okay, so maybe there simply isn’t money in the budget for a raise and your organization is efficient and flat so there also isn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement. Now what? Well, maybe making the case for more money isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate for other types of compensation. If your boss is sympathetic but can’t make something monetary happen, make the case for other benefits to increase your work/life balance. Perhaps an additional vacation day or two, or maybe a company match on your retirement contribution. What about comp time for days you work long hours? Or a flexible working schedule so that you can telework (if possible)? If your work cannot be done remotely, what about negotiating a daily schedule that works better for your family (arriving earlier or later, for example)? There are other ways employers can show good employees that they are valued – explore some options, even if additional monetary compensation may not be a possibility.
Now, some of you may be reading this and thinking that none of these options are possible at your current job. That’s okay. Maybe then it’s a matter of doing a cost/benefit analysis – is your current job paying you enough and providing the benefits you need? Are you content to stay there? Or do you want to find something else? Or do you want to go back to school to learn a new marketable skill and move into a different industry?
The decision is up to you and the opportunities available to you right now. The main point is to not leave money on the table and know what you’re worth.
As you’ve probably noticed there’s a new look and feel to this site. I’ve already come clean with my newsletter subscribers, but if you’re relatively new here then know that I’ve developed a slightly new strategy and focus for The Digital Storyteller in the recent months.
What’s Different, What’s the Same
You’ll still find the usual digital storytelling training and resources you’ve come to expect, but I’m refocusing the content to be a little less Digital Storytelling 101 and more strategic and thematic-level learning. I’m hoping this will make the posts more adaptable to your level of need. There are plenty of sites that will tell you how to start a Facebook ad campaign, but I really want to focus on why we’re doing this.
How to Use the Site
In addition, I’ve decided to become a little more open and take the personal content I have segmented across the web and centralize it all here. That’s where the new categories come from. You can still search for your favorite topics using the tags feature, but I really want all content on my site to fit within one of the five categories listed in the main menu. Whatever I write will be designed to help you Improve, help you Learn something new, Inspire your creativity, or Believe that there’s a purpose to all of this. These categories cover both professional and personal content.
If you need more clarification, you can find it on my About page.
Some of you sharp-eyed readers may have noticed I said “five” categories yet only list four. The fifth category of posts will be announced this summer and are an exciting part of some creative goals I’ve set for myself this year.
So stay tuned and I look forward to sharing more with you very soon!