Forget Economic Stimulus! 20 Ways to Improve Your Finances Today

The global economy runs on a binge and purge cycle, which makes it especially difficult to stay steady and mindful on a personal level. It can be hard to resist living beyond your means during boom times, and even harder to keep your head up during the busts. But no matter how stormy it gets out there, your best bet is always to remain diligent and conservative — otherwise you may ride the wave right into the gutter. Use the following tips as guidelines to keeping your head above water — fiscally, physically and emotionally — in these particularly unsteady times.

Part I: Start Strong

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — many of the bumps along the way can be avoided if you put your best foot forward at the outset.

1. Create a Budget You Can Stick To

Some of us are highly conscientious about our spending, while others are destructively care-free. When things are tight, it can feel like every expense is a shameful indulgence for the former. The spendy folks, meanwhile, have absolutely no filter and will dig themselves deeper into debt and think nothing of it until it’s too late. A budget helps both breeds.

For the anxiety stricken, a quick (or detailed) outline of your income and monthly expenses can be a reassuring guideline that lets you know that you’re are living within your means. On the other hand, some structured spending can help you be more aware of your fiscal habits and give you a valid excuse when others are pressuring you to be loose in the purse strings. Whatever your leanings, a budget can be a great equalizer.

2. Get Some Good Advice: Find a Financial Advisor

In uncertain times, some expert wisdom can do wonders for your confidence. Plus, some sturdy advice can help you overcome bruising setbacks and still reach your goals. You may be (understandably) leery about shelling out more cash after you’ve already taken a hit –- but a good financial advisor will pay for him or herself by introducing you to concepts you may have never heard of, such as debt consolidation loans.

3. Get a Better Interest Rate on Your Credit Cards

Or better yet, don’t carry a balance on your credit card and it won’t matter if your interest rate is in the triple digits. But for those who are in a position where you can’t pay off your entire credit card bill each month, a credit card with lower interest rate will help bridle in any runaway debt. You may be surprised at how much money you can save if you consolidate loans, do some comparison shopping or simply pick up the phone and talk to your lender.

4. Stash Money Smarter by Creating a CD Ladder

Speaking of interest rates, you can take advantage of upswings without locking up your money by creating a CD ladder. For example, instead of opening one CD with $10,000 that matures in three years, open up 10 CDs for $1,000 each that mature in one month, three months, six months, one year, etc.

For more details, check out Creating a CD Ladder for Your Emergency Fund or Other Savings to Earn a Better, Safe Return at The Simple Dollar.

Part II: Maintain

Once you have the cards stacked in your favor, you can keep them that way by adopting a couple prudent habits.

5. Pack a Lunch

Brown bagging it at the office will save you money, as well as provide reinforcements for your waistline in the ongoing battle against fattening fast food. You’ll be healthier and you’ll save around $1,000 a year.

6. Drink Water

A soft drink at a restaurant can add upwards of $3 to your tab. Not to mention that no calorie free drink quenches your thirst better than pure, natural H2O. Adding a decent water filter to your tap or a filter pitcher to your fridge will keep you more hydrated, healthier and a little bit wealthier.

7. Maintain Now, Rather than Shelling Out the Big Bucks for Service Later

That check engine light on your dash and that rattle in your muffler will cost a lot more tomorrow than it will today. Nip costly parts and labor charges in the bud while you have the cash, rather than waiting until your car breakdown and it becomes an emergency (and possibly needing to take out a loan).

8. Back Off on the Thermostat

Easing off the thermostat — even if it’s just one degree — can save you up to 10 percent or more off your utilities bill in the long run. You can also adjust your hot water thermostat a few notches without noticing the difference.

9. Be Smart with Coupons

Clipping coupons may feel like a productive venture, but be sure that you are only buying what you need. It doesn’t save you any money to cash in on a 10 for $10 deal if you only need one in the first place.

10. Ditch the Landline

Landlines are nearly a thing of the past. You can likely lose your corded phone and rely only on your cell without missing a beat. You may even avoid some pesky telemarketers, too.

11. Walk it Off

Hoofing it two blocks to the grocery store for that jug of milk will get you some exercise, ease off the environment and put off your next trip to the gas station for a bit longer. Try it — you might actually enjoy the fresh air.

Part III: Damage Control

Even with the best intentions and most fastidious diligence, you may slip occasionally. In that case, make sure you clean up your mistakes before they turn into disasters.

12. Don’t Risk Your Necessities: Be Careful with Secured Loans

Secured loans will fetch you better interest rates and more lenient repayment terms, but if you default, you have far more to lose than your reputation with the credit reporting agencies. Weigh out your options and the benefits vs. risks before putting your home, your car or your pension on the line.

13. Know Your Rights

When the debt collectors come knocking on the door, it’s easy to get scared or intimidated. Depending on how sharkish they are, they may even overstep their legal bounds in an attempt to get you to pony up. Before you give in, read up on your rights. This resource from PrivacyRights.org is a handy reference for U.S. citizens.

14. Negotiate Better Terms

Believe it or not, a credit card company would rather have you pay off 60% of your outstanding debt than risk you going bankrupt. They may be more receptive than you expect if you explain your situation and reach a compromise. Find out the proper steps to debt negotiation and give it a shot.

15. Consolidate Your Loans into One Easy Payment

Oftentimes, the interest rates, late fees and black eyes to your credit report are more burdensome than the actual principle on your loans. Consolidation can be a lifesaver in situations like these. A consolidation loan can simplify the repayment process and save you money that can be used to pay down the principle so you can break out of the cycle of debt.

16. Don’t Get Screwed on a Debt Consolidation Loan

With that being said, make sure that you don’t rush into a consolidation loan without ensuring that the lender is reputable and actually has your best interests in mind. Read the fine print and look for reviews of a loan consolidator before you commit.

17. Avoid Bankruptcy

When you are down and out, it can seem like things can’t get any worse — but they can. No matter how deeply in debt you get, it’s almost never a good thing to go into bankruptcy. A bankruptcy will stick around on your credit report for 10 years and can ruin your chances of getting a decent loan in the future.

18. Clean Up Bad Credit

Even if you’ve been saintly and punctual with your payments, you may still have some negative items on your credit report thanks to errors, identity theft or something that’s simply slipped your mind. Take time to dispute anything on your credit report that is inaccurate, outdated or doesn’t look quite right. But before you do that, you’ll need to…

19. Check Your Credit Report

You can get three free credit reports every year, so there’s absolutely no excuse not to keep an eye on what the credit reporting bureaus are saying about you. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com for your official (FTC approved) information on getting your credit report for free.

20. Use Your Head

Last but certainly not least, always use common sense when making financial decisions. There is no quick fix and there is no easy way out. If something seems too good to be true, give it extra scrutiny and get a second opinion. Follow these guidelines and your own sound logic and you’ll be able to weather these stormy financial times with significantly less stress.

About the Author

By , on Jul 15, 2009
Jonathan (MYC)
Jonathan is the owner of Master Your Card (to help you master your credit cards), and more recently, Debt Loans (an Aussie personal finance blog). Check out his blogs and put your credit card debt down for good.

Leave Your Comment (6 Comments)

  1. DDFD says:

    Great post! Just implementing a few of these ideas can make a worlfd of difference. The trick for most people is starting . . .

  2. Steve says:

    I personally like the tips on packing your lunch and drinking more water. Eating out really adds up over time, and I am guilty on both counts: eating out too much, and not drinking enough water. It’s interesting that the more healthy choices we make, the more we can save.

  3. Affacturage says:

    I learned a lot about economics through this blog. A well-written reminder to all about the impending issues that we are all going to have to deal with (or are already dealing with) in this country in the years to come.

  4. ctreit says:

    I like the order of the list even though my two favorites are the first and the very last item: “create a budget you can stick to” and use “your head”.

  5. jason says:

    A budget you can stick to! People need realistic budgets.

  6. Some persons are very carefree even in this time with how they handle their money. I enjoyed reading your pointers and would like to encourage your readers to practice making and maintaining a budget. Working within your budget helps one to achieve his/her goals. He/she will also see the areas that need to be work on.

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