Financial planning is a complex topic with numerous moving parts, and many aspects of it are best tackled with a professional by your side. However, there are also many simple but powerful things you can do yourself to improve your financial situation quite dramatically over time.
Our biggest enemy when it comes to building wealth is often ourselves. Every day, we are faced with decisions on whether to spend or save: Go out to the hot new expensive restaurant or stay in? Buy something when our favorite store emails us a 30 percent off coupon, or transfer some money to savings instead of leaving it in our checking account? While these seem like minor actions, these small choices accumulate and create our financial situation.
Thanks to the internet, it's easy to spend money these days. Retailers offer us endless ways to automate our purchasing. They show us products we've looked at, and they offer one-click purchasing and send emails reminding us that we've left something behind in a cart.
Fortunately, we can turn the tables. We can use that same powerful tool — automation — to help ourselves. Here are some ways to use automation to improve your financial situation.
1. Automate savings. You can use automation to help you with what really is the most important part of planning for your future: consistently saving and investing. Putting money aside regularly, on a consistent schedule, is a requirement to building wealth.
While it seems simple, doing it is much more difficult than talking about it. There always seems to be a reason to start next month instead of this month. Or you just forget to put money away after paying bills. Or maybe you think that it's not a good time to invest, so you hold off on putting any money into savings at all. Whatever the reason, by not following through, you are shortchanging yourself.
This is where automation can be your financial saving grace. Find an amount you can commit to and have automatically deducted from your checking account or directly from your paycheck. You won't have to do it yourself, and it would require more action to reverse this automatic withdrawal than to just let it continue every week or month. Because it will be easier to just let it continue, you're likely to keep these contributions going.
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Don't stop at just your retirement account. Most banks allow you to set up automatic transactions, so you can use this feature to save in your taxable accounts or for college or another purpose.
2. Automate investing. Saving is important, but investing is critical to building wealth. Author Robert G. Allen said, "How many millionaires do you know who have become wealthy by investing in savings accounts? I rest my case."
When investing, we're frequently tempted to time the market. You may think the market is too high, and decide to wait to buy anything, but find yourself waiting too long and missing out on further gains. Or if stocks fall into a longer bear market, where prices keep falling, you may stop buying altogether.
Unfortunately, it's easy to fall victim to natural human biases and emotions that make investing challenging for everyone. In fact, one research firm, DALBAR, Inc., finds that average retirement investors lose out on a large portion of market gains from simple index funds due to emotional mistakes and biases in investing.
While some professional participants can get an advantage with studying market behavior, even most experts can't do more than match the market. Don't try to time the market. Instead, commit to investing the same amount consistently, month in and month out. This way you're automatically buying more when the market is low and buying less when the market is high.
Dollar-cost averaging is a simple strategy and a great way to build wealth without a lot of stress. While it's not perfect, it takes your biases and emotions out of the equation. You can usually automate that entire process in your retirement account.
3. Automate bill paying. Another aspect of building wealth is not incurring wasteful fees. Here you can use automated bill pay features for your credit cards and other payments, or use the bank's bill pay feature to make sure your mortgage, credit card or other payments are never late.
You'll also free up your own time each month, since paying your bills will be automated.
4. Remove automation from spending. When improving our finances, a key is to buy what we need and not what we simply want. After all, most of us already have far too many shirts, jackets and shoes in our closet that we rarely wear but that we really wanted when we bought them. With online shopping it can be especially difficult to avoid impulse purchases.
Here again, automation can help us. We just need to do the opposite of what all the retailers want us to do:
These are all very simple strategies, but they can have dramatic results over time. The goal is to remove any obstacles from saving and investing each month and create obstacles to spending.
This approach is far easier than sheer willpower. Invest some hours in setting these up and you'll reap the rewards later, when you'll be saving and investing more, and spending less, while saving valuable time. That is a simple way to automate success.
Often, the hardest part about saving for your future is manually choosing to save your money. By utilizing automation in your finances, you overcome one of the most difficult obstacles to save for your future and also begin to more wisely use the money that you currently have.
(Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on Investopedia.com.)
— By John Odell, principal, Arroyo Investment Group