Person in hammock

Financial smarts: maximizing weekends

I’m all about getting the maximum juice from the financial lemon. I really believe you can get far more pleasure out of your dollars with a little forethought, and lead a much richer life with less money. But then again, I’m not the kind of person who would ever buy pre-boiled, peeled eggs. How is that even a thing? Except for elderly or disabled people who need things made as easy as possible, and that is most definitely not who they’re marketing to.

Recently,  Lifehacker’s Nick Douglas had an excellent article on maximizing your holiday weekend, and that’s really in my wheelhouse. I think much of it could apply to any weekend. Having been a horrible student of math in childhood, and dreading every Sunday night with its attendant un-done math homework, it’s been really hard to get over the rumination and fear at the end of the weekend. And even my daughter, who never even went to school, gets depressed on Sunday evenings. I guess we’ve all had enough terrible bosses to develop that dread of Monday morning. If nothing else, a lot of us feel that the days we so anticipated on Friday afternoon feel wasted by 8 pm Sunday.

I’d like to stress some of Lifehacker’s points, and add on a little of my own thinking.

  1. Do something to celebrate Friday night. Lifehacker regularly runs “three ingredient drinks” so if you need an idea to try something new, I can recommend the maraschino martini from last week. Friday night is the only night we have mixed drinks, so it’s special. Stop for a beer, invite friends over, go out to eat, whatever. I favor watching the expenses on this one, and not cultivating practices that result in a hangover Saturday morning or the rest of the plan falls apart.
  1. Get up on Saturday and Sunday by 8 am. Douglas makes the excellent point that this probably allows you to sleep later than in the rest of the week, but that you haven’t then slept so late that you feel the morning is wasted.
  1. I recommend you set aside half an hour to an hour before noon on Saturday to clean or repair something. This should be something doable—not requiring a run to Home Depot—so that you can feel pride that you’ve actually accomplished something. Sort a drawer, re-pot a plant, sweep the kitchen, vacuum the car. Bonus points if it’s something you’ve been putting off. Even if you get nothing else done, I promise you’ll feel better about yourself. In fact, keep a running list of achievements. If you note it in  your planner you can use it to reinforce yourself that you have indeed accomplished something.
  1. Make at least one effort to get out of yourself. Go out for coffee and be extra nice to the people surrounding you. Chat up the checker at the grocery store. Call your mom. Just do something to define yourself as a nice, social human being.
  1. This one is critical: plan something special for Sunday late afternoon/evening. You need something to look forward to, not dread. This has to be something you’re really looking forward to, not just watching the best PBS programs of the week. Go to a movie, schedule a mani/pedi (what we did last weekend), explore an inexpensive ethnic restaurant (again, bonus if you go with a group), go over to a friend’s or invite them over—and don’t sit around commiserating: remember board games?
  1. Spend some time with your pets. When was the last time you spent some focused time playing with your cat? Taken your dog on the walk she really wants? We’re always excited to get the kitten or puppy, but then they tend to become part of the furniture. Their joy can enhance your joy.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Do you have any ideas or activities that take away Sunday night dread? Do share!

Ten ways to improve your finances over a holiday weekend (or any weekend)

Teachers should assign How I wasted my summer vacation. It’s a topic that more accurately reflects what actually happens. Most of us look forward to a long weekend, and many of us resolve that we’re finally going to do some long put-off project, that will have tremendous benefits.

Me, my resolution is to power wash the house. Phew! luckily, it’s supposed to rain all weekend.

Projects that don’t get done are generally too big. So, I’m asking you to break it down into something that can be accomplished in less than an hour, and you’ll take a small but significant step forward in your financial life. DO NOT do all 10; plenty of other weekends are coming up.

  1. Find a financial software program you might actually use and install it. I’ve used Quicken for 20 years now, so I’m a little biased. Other people report they like Mint. Neither of these? Try searching Personal Financial Software and you’ll find quite a few. Don’t think to long—just make one work.For the future: Watch or read one quick start guide. Download one account into it.
  1. Find out how to access Morningstar online. Many articles and a lot of information is free. In order to (eventually) access deeper analysis, check out whether your library offers access to premium content through your library card. Read at least one personal finance article or watch a video.
  2. Pull out a statement from your 401k or IRA. Go to Morningstar and read what the analyst has to say about it (“premium” content).
  3. Read a blog. Don’t believe everything you read, but start somewhere. Don’t get lost, okay? I said one hour. I like:

Mr. Money Mustache

Chris Guillebeau: The Art of Nonconformity

Get Rich Slowly

I Will Teach You to Be Rich

Kiplinger

 

  1. Clean out a file. Notice I didn’t say file drawer, closet, or room. I recently cleaned out a file box (ouch!) of records from my dad that’s been sitting under my desk since 2010, when he died. I found nearly $200 in it, squirreled away among Medicare statements. You’ll be amazed at all the stuff you don’t need.
  2. Install a password manager on your computer. I use the free LastPass and it really improves cybersecurity. Change any of your passwords that are the name of your children, dog, or your birth date.
  3. Take 15 minutes to identify what good causes you really care about. Instead of giving 10 bucks to everyone who asks, choose half a dozen or less that you really care about and resolve to give to fewer, but more green. It saves them processing and fundraising. Like their Facebook page so you have some idea where your money is going.
  4. If you’re going shopping over the weekend, resolve not to buy anything major until next weekend, when you’ve had time to think about it. In the meantime, do a little online price comparison.
  5. You know all those travel points you don’t use? Check out Award Wallet, which (for free) will consolidate and update all your programs on one page. Then make a plan to use them—earn and burn!
  6. Learn about travel hacking. If you like to travel, you’ll earn more per hour spending a few hours learning how to do this than at most really good jobs. A real money saver, and really—not too hard. Here’s where I started, but there are many sites that can teach you.
Cup of latte

Maximum financial firepower

Is it better to cut your expenses or focus on earning more?

Yes.

We’re talking here about most of us, not billionaires. If you already have more money than you can possibly spend in your lifetime, you probably don’t need to worry about cutting expenses, although you still may want to pay attention because you’re a prime opportunity for the art of the rip-off.

But let’s say you’re in the want-to-be-wealthy stage. What does that even mean? I think there are a few stages of what might make you feel wealth:

Stage one: Making enough to pay all your bills

Especially depending on your age, this may be a very satisfying stage to reach. For many millennials, and many people older than that, knowing that you have enough coming in to cover everything—without credit cards—would make for a very secure, if not wealthy, feeling.

Achieving this, or exceeding it, will mean keeping a careful watch on expenses, and having a solid repayment plan for student loans. Too many of us have an agenda for what we’re going to do with any cash gift, or tax refund, or salary increase. Achieving wealth means being very careful not to pre-spend anticipated windfalls, especially since if they don’t materialize you’ve incurred debt, and that’s definitely not wealthy.

In the experience of my clients, I’ve seen that it’s generally easier to increase your salary by changing jobs rather than convincing your employer to give you a significant raise, so keep your antennae up and be aggressive about managing your career.

Stage two: Having money beyond immediate needs

The descent into serious debt could have been stopped, for many people, by having an emergency fund. It can be very, very difficult to accumulate this. It seems the emergencies always occur before the fund is built.

Lots of pundits I admire scoff at the “latte factor” but often big wins are based on the accumulation of lots of little wins—so I do think change jars in your kitchen, carrying homemade coffee in a thermos, walking or biking instead of driving, whatever, and saving the difference can help build up this second crucial step. (Even if you’re “beyond” this stage, you can always give it to charity. And less consumption is better for the planet.) Because you’re spending less, you have some surplus to stash that isn’t earmarked for specific spending—so now you’re wealthier.

Savings and increased earnings can now be directed to accomplishing goals (house down payment, travel to dream destination, new car) as well as essential long-term savings for retirement (whenever you aim to retire).

It’s been my observation that no matter how much people earn, they can always spend more. Once you have a solid emergency fund and enough earnings to cover your expenses, you have a little more breathing room for charging ahead or changing your career, or developing a side business, or focusing on making well-thought out investments.

Stage three: making money beyond your time commitment

This stage, which many people never reach, is when your money or business venture is making money for you, without your everyday effort. If you have invested wisely, or have some sort of business that makes money without your continuous participation, your wealth level is enhanced.

This is the level that permits retirement. Of course, people who control their expenses can reach it sooner or more securely. The security is enhanced if you have some sort of guaranteed income (pension, annuity), have fungible expenses, or enough of a portfolio that a huge dip in the market won’t affect you all that much.

The absolute numbers for wealth don’t matter as much as 1) your spending levels and 2) whether you’ve found a way to build a source of income or an investment portfolio. So, someone who’s technically a millionaire, has a paid for house, controlled expenses, and the maximum Social Security may have a yearly income of about $70,000. Is this wealthy or scraping by? Depends on your property taxes, your health care costs, what repairs are needed on the house…for some, it’s a fortune; for others, unthinkable.

Stage four: Never spend it in this lifetime

Well, we can all dream, right? This is a real test of your soul: what do you care about? What good can you do in the world? Have you thought about who really deserves and will benefit by what you leave behind? Unless you’re the kind of person who views this wealth, and the ever-increasing hoarding of it as some sort of superiority marker, you’ll have to do something with it eventually (and please don’t decide to run for president). Think carefully not only about what your legacy will be, but how you pass it on. I’ve seen people whose spouses only married them for the money, who were busy spending the spouse’s money, who were never again taken seriously in a career, who were easy marks for exploiters, who were hounded for donations, and (in the case of trusts) made mostly the bank managers and attorneys rich. Those on the outside may think it’s a nice problem to have, but as the temporary steward of wealth (and we’re all temporary), it requires seeking guidance and developing thoughtful planning.

And for those in stages 1-3, I hope you get here.