When you’re worried about your debts and you’re trying to decide on the best way to solve your financial problems, many people start to wonder if they missed something as they went through school. As adults we’re expected to know how to manage our money properly. However, either a lot of people skipped that class, or maybe it was never offered. The good news is that you don’t need a degree from an ivy-league university to help you solve financial problems. Here are 9 steps and 8 self-study assignments, some catch-up homework if you will, from the school of common cents that you can challenge yourself with if you want to solve your money and debt problems:
1. Live on Cash for 2 Weeks
When is the last time you only used cash to pay for your purchases? Debit and credit cards help many people develop bad money habits and the fine line between what they can afford to pay for and what they can afford payments on blurs. With cash, it’s very easy to tell if you can afford to pay for something or not.
Your first assignment is to put all of your cards away for at least 2 weeks. When you need to buy something, you’re only allowed to use cash. After 2 weeks, if you’ve managed to do it, give yourself a passing grade.
2. Increase Your Spending Awareness
Consider what you learned about your spending habits by only using cash. Was it easier or harder to part with cash than plastic? Did you only buy things you needed, or was there also enough money to buy something that you wanted? How much did you have left at the end?
Some studies have found that people spend as much as 15% more per purchase when they use plastic instead of cash. Spending more on every purchase adds up over the years, and if you want debt solutions that last for life, be aware of how you spend your money.
3. Find Out Where Your Money Goes - Track Your Spending for 2 Weeks
Where does it all go? Every pay day there’s money in our bank account, but it never seems to last long enough.
Your second assignment is to track your spending for at least 2 weeks. In a little notebook, or by using an app, software or our Expense Tracker, make a note of where you’re spending your money. You might want to track what you spend on certain types of expenses, e.g. coffee or drinks out, or maybe tracking what you spend in certain stores is easier. Either way, to pass this assignment, you need to have at least 2 weeks’ worth of spending information jotted down.
4. Create a Spending Plan or a Budget to Solve and Prevent Financial Problems
Creating a monthly plan for your spending is one of the smartest things you can do for your finances, yet it’s the most overlooked solution to most people’s financial problems. Having a spending plan or a budget (the technical name for a monthly spending plan) makes life so much easier because you’ve given yourself a guide to decide how you want to spend your money.
Ironically, it’s also one of the things that you’ll likely never learn in a class at Cambridge or Harvard. Not to pick on these universities though; most schools don’t teach students how to create a budget. So to help with this lack of training, your third assignment is to outline your budget.
If you’ve never created a household budget that works, here is a personal budget workbook to get you started or you can try out this interactive budgeting resource that guides you through the whole process. A budget based on real numbers sets you up for success, so use what you learned when you tracked your spending.
If there’s an expense you want to cut out of your budget, start by reducing it by half. This will tell you if you can stick it out for the long term. If you can make having a budget part of your life, you’ll know that you’ve passed this assignment successfully!
5. Find a Replacement for One Large Expense in Your Monthly Budget
Cutting out an expense or changing a habit is easier if you replace it with something else. For instance, if you want to quit buying expensive coffee on your way to work, plan how you can replace this habit with a new one. You might buy yourself a new travel cup and purchase some coffee that you enjoy drinking (and can make at home!). Then change your routine so that you’re not tempted to stop for coffee anyways, e.g. travel a different route to work.
Your fourth assignment is to find one expense that’s taking a real bite out of your budget and find replacement solutions. Cutting back on coffee is just one example. What about your entertainment costs, quitting smoking or scaling back what you spend on hobbies and recreational activities? You’ll know that you’ve passed this assignment when all of your bills are paid up to date and you’ve got a little extra left in your bank account.
6. Identify Expenses You Can Reduce
Over the next month, identify areas of your budget that need some special attention. Look for ways to decrease your spending with your utilities. Do your laundry with cold water instead of hot; turn the heat down and the lights off when you’re not home. If you have a home phone as well as a cell phone, decide if you need both. Routines can be hard habits to break.
Also identify products or services you no longer need but which you’re still paying for. Many people simply let their bundled services renew from month to month, even when their needs have changed. This might be because they’re too busy to look at their bills carefully, but taking the time to go through your bills line by line and calling the companies to make changes to service plans, or cancel services altogether, can find a lot of hidden cash.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, your fifth assignment is to identify what expenses you can reduce and then create the plan to follow through with your changes. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of our most popular money saving tips. You’ll know you’ve passed this assignment when your bills get a little smaller.
7. Create a Plan to Pay Off Your Debt
Everybody has some, so is it really that big a deal? Yes, it can be. If you have debt that has slowly accumulated over a number of years, you need realistic debt solutions that work for your life style, not quick fixes that you can’t live with for the long term. At some point interest rates will start going up and eventually your income will likely decrease when you retire. When either of these things happens, if you have relied on credit to make ends meet, you will find yourself facing some tough choices.
Dealing with debt sooner than later leaves you with more options. That said, many people delay getting debt help because they’re either embarrassed or don’t know where to turn. Here are some of our very best tips to help you deal with your debt. Use these tips to help complete assignment six – create a plan to pay your debts off, but also maintain a reasonable standard of living. You will only be able to pass this assignment if your plan is realistic and you draw on what you learned in the other five assignments.
8. Get Help with Your Debts & Your Budget – How to Find Financial Help that Will Work for You
If you need help dealing with your debts and finances, don’t be afraid to ask.
Assignment seven is optional but will earn you a bonus if you choose to complete it. Seek out professional, objective advice from a reputable non-profit credit counselling organization for a second look at your budget and your plan to deal with your debts. You’ll know you’ve passed this assignment when you come away with additional insight about what you can do to deal with your debts more effectively and implement your budget realistically. Any good solution takes time to follow through with – your debt didn’t happen over night; it will likely take as much time as getting a degree from an ivy league university to pay it off.
9. Educate Yourself
Last but not least, one of the best things any high level university could instill in its students is the desire to learn more. Any degree of learning from our mistakes is worthwhile, especially when we’re educating ourselves about how to manage our money and debt better.
Your final assignment is to keep learning. Take on more challenges or homework from the school of common cents. Life skills that further develop your new money habits will keep you on track with your budget, help you avoid financial problems, and help you plan for your future successfully. And that’s a graduation worth celebrating!