Lost the Powerball? Now it's time to really focus on finances

Hundreds of people wait in line to purchase tickets for the Powerball lottery at the CA lotto store in San Bernardino County, California, on the California-Nevada state line January 9, 2016.
Gene Blevins | Reuters
Hundreds of people wait in line to purchase tickets for the Powerball lottery at the CA lotto store in San Bernardino County, California, on the California-Nevada state line January 9, 2016.

So you weren't one of the lucky three winners in California, Florida or Tennessee who will share in the $1.5 billion Powerball.

Millions of Americans are recovering from their billion-dollar hangovers this morning and heading back to work, scrapping their dreams of exotic travel and expensive cars.

So now what?

The only way to real financial freedom is to set realistic money goals, invest properly, save money and watch your spending, financial experts say.

"A lot of individuals who are not saving for their retirement are standing in line to buy a Powerball ticket," said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and associate professor at Creighton University in Nebraska. "It's a lot more seductive than instituting a savings plan."

So what's your average American who's more than $70,000 in debt and has less than $1,000 in emergency savings to do? Several financial planning experts laid out a number of concrete steps you can actually bet on.

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"We make time to go to work, to go to the gym, visit friends and family, but when was the the last time you made a date for yourself — a financial date — to take stock of where you are?" said certified financial planner Rianka Dorsainvil, the founder and president of Your Greatest Contribution.

Take two hours after a busy workday, Dorsainvil recommends, to check your account balances, your credit card debt, how much you're paying in interest on your auto loan and how much you're spending each month, among other things.

There are also a number of free smartphone apps and websites that can help you do this.

Once you know how much money you have, the debt you're in and what's in your savings account, the next step is to make concrete goals, she said. Saving for an emergency fund (for a dire situation like a medical emergency), starting to save up for retirement and paying off high-interest debt should be your top priorities, experts said.

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For example, if you want to save $1,500 toward an emergency fund, saving anywhere from $50 a month to larger chunks, like $150 a month, is a good plan. Or your goals could be even smaller, like saving the two dollars it costs you to buy a Powerball ticket.

"If you're the kind of person who buys a couple of lottery tickets a day, that could easily add up to $100 month, and that's an extra $100 a month that could go toward your financial priorities, whether that's paying off debt, building up savings or saving for retirement," said Sophia Bera, CFP and founder of Gen Y Planning.

A new year, a new you!
A new year, a new you!   

While the Powerball promises instant wealth, financial advisors said that the best plan in personal finance is to focus on long-term financial strategy.

"Anyone can become rich in America; it takes a little bit of money over a long period of time," said Ric Edelman, chairman and CEO of Edelman Financial Services. "Most people demand instant gratification. Many don't understand that this is how money works."

In thinking long term, the good news is that you don't have to give up on your dreams. In fact, it could actually pay to keep dreaming. Visualizing what it is that you want — whether it's to send your child to college, save up for a car or retire comfortably — is one of the best ways to stick to your goals, Klontz said.

"Creating a spending plan and envisioning what you want down the line actually stimulates the same part of the brain that the lottery does," Klontz explained. "It's emotion; it's that vision. That's what motivates people, not lectures."

Maximizing your savings

People should also seek ways to maximize their savings. According to Louis Barajas, CFP and founder and CEO of Wealth Management LAB, people should look into banks that offer higher interest rates on savings accounts, specifically reputable online banks.

Websites, like magnifymymoney.com or bankrate.com, can give you an idea of which banks or funds to look into, he added.

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Additionally, individuals need to not only cut down on their spending but continue to find earning potential, said Barajas.

He encourages his clients to meet their boss and ask them if and how they could earn more money. For instance, he said, "I tell a client to say this: 'I would love to know what it would take for me to earn more here. Do I need to take a class? Take on more work or learn a new skill?"

People shouldn't be afraid to ask their employees if they can help them develop a strategy to earn more, Barajas said.