Friday, December 10, 2010

One simple change can make life, money management easier

In a house with four children, I can easily become besieged by laundry. It mounts quickly, but takes hours to tackle all the tiny socks and spaghetti-stained t-shirts. On any given day, there is a load of laundry sitting somewhere, waiting to be stain-treated, washed, dried, folded, or put away.

Laundry isn’t complicated (unless you end up drying a piece of wayward gum, which has been known to happen at my house), but it is a process that can be overwhelming. That’s why I decided to remove the hampers from my children’s rooms and set up a canvas cart with three separate bins.My children now drop off their dirty clothes in a centralized location, where it immediately gets sorted by color. When one bin gets full, I can do laundry without having to walk all over the house dumping out hampers and sorting clothing.

My experience with the laundry cart reminds me how valuable one small change can be. Though I’ll never be free of laundry, I have found a way to streamline the task. In the same way, you will always have to deal with money, no matter how much or little you have. Too often, people get overwhelmed by the idea of getting their finances under control. When they don’t know what to do first, they often end up doing nothing.

You can learn to manage your money effectively by making one small change at a time. Start by asking yourself, “What isn’t working well?” For example, do you have a habit of paying bills late and ending up with late fees? Do you scramble when the holidays approach, then overspend on your gift purchases? Do you eat out more often than you would like?

Once you identify one area you would like to improve, then you can consider a simple solution. Suppose you want to stop paying your bills late. Start by putting your bills in one place and setting aside one or two specific days every month to pay them. If necessary, set up e-mail reminders or ask a trusted friend to keep you accountable.

If you want to build an emergency fund, set a relatively small goal--$500 to $1,000—and sign up for an automatic payroll deduction. You’ll never miss what you don’t see, and you’ll be encouraged when your savings balance grows each month.

If you want to spend less eating out, pack your lunch the night before. You can also stock your desk or work area with hearty, non-perishable foods such as trail mix, dehydrated soup mixes, granola bars, juice boxes, beef jerky or almonds. In a pinch, you can eat what you have on hand, and you won’t be tempted to dash out and buy something instead.

Planning ahead can help you rely less on convenience foods, too. You could cook and freeze several meals for later. My husband’s thrifty 89-year-old grandmother does this, creating complete, individual meals for herself. Even learning how to cook one or two new dishes can help you to spend less on expensive, ready-made food.

Advance planning also can help you avoid the last-minute holiday crush. If you can’t avoid it this year, start fresh in January. Make a gift list at the beginning of the year. Then, commit to making or buying just one gift a month; come next December, you—and your budget—won’t be stressed.

Ultimately, you’re in the best position to decide what solutions will work for you. Starting small will let you build on your success, allowing you to get your finances under control one simple change at a time.

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