It’s New Year, and the internet is awash with ways to transform your life. The idea of transformation is certainly seductive, but unrealistic. By trying to change everything at once, we’re essentially committing an act of self-sabotage. After all, there’s no way we can lose weight, pay off our credit cards, and find a partner. When we try and fail, it merely confirms the negative voice that tells us we lack the necessary discipline. Listen to the rational voice, however, and you’ll discover that you’re absolutely capable of achieving your goal, you just need to make it easier for yourself. The answer is to think small.
In this post, I’ll offer some ideas on how you can apply this approach to saving money on regular expenses.
First, decide what you’re going to change. And remember to think small. It might be skipping a coffee on the way to work, switching to unbranded groceries, or swapping your monthly cinema trip for a Netflix subscription. This could represent a modest amount of money for some people, but once you can consistently save £50 each month, it’s much easier to stretch to £200. You’ll have evidence of your ability to achieve this goal.
There’s lots of piffle in the press about how young people can buy a house or build a huge pension pot if they just stopped having fun. While it’s tempting to adopt a masochistic approach and drop the things we enjoy, do consider what role these activities play in your life.
In her book Loaded, Sarah Newcomb explains that if you cut something out, it’s important to devise a new strategy for meeting the underlying need. For example, that fancy coffee on your daily commute might be a way of taking a moment to relax with your thoughts. The fact that it keeps your hands occupied perhaps means you’re not tempted to fiddle with your phone.1 How can you achieve the same effect and save money? This could include buying an Americano instead of the one with squirty cream, experimenting with skipping coffee a couple of times a week, or taking your own in an insulated mug.
Ditching coffee won’t get you a house, but it will help you establish new habits.
Among the many reasons why it’s difficult to achieve lasting change is that it can feel relentless: “I can’t have a cup of coffee and a sticky bun ever again.” Our bunless future stretches into eternity and commitment quickly sags. Remember, though, all you need to focus on is today. You can’t control tomorrow or next week – who knows what’ll happen or how you’ll feel. Manage your actions now, that’s all you can do.
And you don’t have to do this forever. For daily habits, I recommend trying it for 5 days and then reviewing the situation. How do you feel? What progress have you made? Were there any situations that made it harder? If the experience was horrible, you don’t have to continue. There could be a different habit that’s easier to change.
What you change and how you do it is completely up to you. Ignore the ‘Six Easy Steps to Transform Your Life’ – your life isn’t like anyone else’s. Once you’ve addressed the small stuff, you’ll have the confidence to take on a bigger challenge.
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A little while ago, I managed to lose my FitBit. I’d worn it for around five years and had developed a habit of achieving at least 10,000 steps each day. My first instinct was to immediately buy another one. Then my rational brain joined in: “Well, Catherine, you’ve established the habit, so you don’t need another FitBit. Now you can get a proper watch that doesn’t annoy people. You’re an adult, you don’t need a thing on your wrist telling you what to do.” I felt liberated.
What happened? Very little. I barely moved over the next three days. My steps weren’t tracked, so there was no point in taking them. They didn’t count. I ordered another FitBit and was soon back to 10,000 steps. The lesson here was: what you measure, you manage. If we’re not tracking our actions, we have an unrealistic idea of what’s actually happening.
It’s exactly the same with our finances. Credit cards and one-click ordering make it too easy to ignore all those small transactions over the month – then suddenly we’re confronted with a hefty bill. To establish healthy financial habits, we need to track what’s happening every day. Here are a couple of suggestions to make it easier.
My budgeting tool of choice is both a web-based app and a statement of fact: You Need a Budget. It combines a friendly interface with four simple rules:
I’ve used YNAB for several years and it was a very welcome replacement for a complicated system of spreadsheets. Although it took me a few hours to set everything up, I now spend no more than two minutes each day on adding transactions and checking my budget. With the phone app, I can log my spending in a matter of seconds.
You can use YNAB free for 34 days, then it costs $6.99 per month. It’s accessible from a computer, tablet, or smartphone. There’s lots of support available, including webinars. Alternatively, you can buy the book You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham, the founder of YNAB, and use his philosophy to develop your own system.
A popular free alternative is Money Dashboard, which is getting a lot of coverage at the moment. It’s a free online financial management service that allows you to view all your accounts in one place. What’s more, you can easily analyse all those transactions to understand where your money is going. The snag is that you need to provide your banking ID and password. This information isn’t stored in Money Dashboard, it’s handled by Yodlee, an account aggregation service used by many financial institutions. Both Money Dashboard and Yodlee offer details on how your data is protected.
Given all the controversy about Facebook over the last year, it won’t surprise you to learn that Money Dashboard generates income by selling your anonymised data. While it’s free, you’re giving them something valuable in return; for many people, that’s a fair exchange. You can find out more on their FAQ page. They also earn revenue from recommending products to you, such as loans and insurance policies.
Whether you need to move more or spend less, using a tracking system will help you feel more in control. Those small positive daily actions build up to significant achievements that can be truly life-changing. As I discovered with my FitBit, once you stop paying attention it doesn’t take long to slip back into bad habits. Sometimes we really do need a gadget telling us what to do.
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