I've never been big on budgets: They're tedious, time-consuming and downright daunting. Even experts say budgeting might not be the best money-saving strategy.
At the same time, I want to be smart with my money. I want to make sure I'm spending within my means and saving enough for short- and long-term goals.
After five years in the working world, I've gotten to the point where, generally, I'm doing these things: I never spend more than I earn, and between my retirement funds, high-yield savings account and other investments, I save about 30% of my income.
The way I got here, though, has nothing to do with budgeting.
My money-management strategy is two-fold, but simple:
This is something I've been doing ever since I started earning a salary and, therefore, consistent paychecks. No matter how much you make, it's easier to save if you do it automatically.
Part of my savings strategy involves contributing to my employer's 401(k) plan. I simply elected a contribution rate I felt I could afford — when I first started working, that meant contributing enough to get the full company match — and that amount was taken straight from my paycheck and sent to my retirement account.
I also set up "auto-increase," a feature that allows you to choose the percentage you want to increase your contributions by and how frequently. At the beginning of every year, my 401(k) contributions automatically increase by 1%, which seems small, but adds up over time.
In addition to investing in a 401(k) plan, I put money into a Roth IRA, another tax-advantaged retirement savings account.
My old system for adding to my Roth was inconsistent and inefficient: I simply contributed whatever money I had left over at the end of each month. To keep from brushing aside these contributions, I set up a recurring transfer from my checking account to my Roth. Now, the first day of every month, a set amount is automatically sent to my account.
I set up similar recurring transfers to my high-yield savings account, which I use to save for big, future purchases, such as a home, car and vacations, and to my investment accounts with robo-advisor Wealthfront and investing apps Acorns and Stash.
By automating my savings, I never even see that money, so I don't have the chance to spend it. I just learn to live without it. The best part, though, is that it allows for guilt-free spending. Since I'm already saving for my short-term goals and retirement, it doesn't really matter how I spend whatever money is left over after I cover fixed costs like rent and utilities.
I record every purchase I make, from a cup of coffee to a plane ticket, in a spreadsheet on my computer. It's a habit I established when I first moved to New York City and was trying to juggle egregious rent prices and daily expenses on an intern's salary.
Today, it's less necessary for me to know where every penny is going, but the habit stuck — and it's a way for me to ensure that I'm spending less than I'm bringing in. Plus, it holds me accountable: Knowing that I'm going to open my spreadsheet in the morning and log the previous day's purchases makes me pause before buying anything. Is it worth it? Will it really add value to my life?
Again, I don't think tracking every single purchase is completely necessary — and some experts even advise against doing so — but it's a habit that suits me. What's never worked for me is budgeting — allocating a certain amount of money to spend on specific categories each month.
At the end of the day, when it comes to managing your money, there's no one-size-fits-all. This two-part system isn't perfect, but works for me and my current situation. What works for you?
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