Ok. This post isn’t about travel necessarily, but I wanted to write about it anyway because, a) Traveling is a whole lot harder when your finances aren’t in order, and b) this blog is first and foremost dedicated to inspiring people to live life to the fullest. That’s hard to do when you are having trouble with money.
I’m going to get real with you for a moment. I’ve learned a lot about finance in my 33 years on this Earth. I might not be a certified financial adviser or anything like that, but I’ve learned through what I would like to call the trial and error method, and I think it’s important to impart some of the knowledge I’ve gained through life’s struggles on those of you who might be able to learn from my experiences.
I’ve written several posts in the past on the topics of budgeting and finance as in relation to traveling, but I wanted to talk about getting your general life finances in order for a bit. Yes, this is off topic from travel, but so many people I know tell me that they can’t travel because their finances aren’t in order. They are in debt and are struggling just to keep their heads above water. They are drowning in student loans that they can’t pay off. They have a lot of credit card debt. How could they think about traveling when they are just struggling to get by?
I get it. I do. I’ve been there, and I’ve come out the other side. Hopefully what I learned can help you, too. If you’re looking for information on which mutual fund will give you the best annual rate of return, you should probably go to a financial adviser, but if you’re looking for some real life tips from a real person who has been there, done that, I’m your girl. Here are some of the most important things to do when you want to get your finances back in order.
Pay off debt.
When I finished college, I had over $80,000 in student loans. Pair that with graduating just a few years before the 2008 recession, and my life was a recipe for disaster. There was a point in my life when my minimum student loan payments were over $1000 per month. MINIMUM. I also wasn’t able to find employment that paid me above $12 per hour because of the recession. That meant that after taxes were taken out of my paycheck, nearly all of my monthly salary went straight into my student loans and I had very little left to, you know, pay rent, buy food, that sort of thing. So believe me when I tell you…I’ve been there.
So…how the heck did I get them paid off?
Several things. I lived as cheaply as possible, and I did some jobs that, let’s be real here…I hated. At age 23 and recently married, my husband and I lived with roommates for a while. Newly married couples often have some grand vision of their own little home together, but for my husband and I, it was the two of us….and two other dudes. Charming, I know, but it saved us a lot of money. I was fortunate in that my husband didn’t have as many student loans as I did (his monthly minimum was only $200) and with him also working full time (also not making much at the time), we stretched our money and got by. We drove two horrible cars, we lived with roommates, we cooked a lot of noodles and rice, but we got by.
Eventually, things improved. I made a little more. He made a little more. I paid off one of my loans. We both started making a little more. I paid off another loan, and so on and so forth until they were all gone.
There’s a strategy to paying off debt that I used during what I like to call my student loan internment period, so I would like to share it with you if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with your debt and don’t know where to begin.
Pay off your loans/credit cards/etc. one at a time.
If you have multiple debts in the form of multiple loans or credit cards (or both), your life will become a lot easier a lot sooner if you pay them off one at a time. I had six separate student loans and the way I saw it, every time I paid a loan off, that monthly minimum would decrease, therefore making the money I was under pressure to come up with every single month just a little less of a burden with each paid off loan.
There are two ways you can approach this: You can either pay off the smallest loans first, or you can pay off the debts with the highest interest rates first. I recommend going off of interest rates, meaning if you have two loans you’re paying off but one has an interest rate of 12% and the other one has an interest rate of 4%, pay off that 12% loan first! You’re going to accrue a lot more interest (i.e. you’ll end up paying more money in the long run) on that higher interest rate loan the longer you leave it. That being said, if the 4% interest rate loan is only for $2000 with a monthly minimum of $100 and the 12% interest rate loan is for $15000 with a monthly minimum of $200, you might want to pay off the $2000 loan first since you can pay it off pretty quickly and you’ll be off the hook for that $100 per month forever as soon as you pay it off.
You’ll need to analyze your own situation and figure out your strategy, but keep these things in mind when you look over your debts. You’ll of course need to pay at least the minimum on all your debts as you go in order to ensure you don’t default on the debt, but I recommend paying as much as you possibly can into the one you’re currently focusing on above and beyond the minimum. Once you pay that loan off, you can take all the money you were paying into that loan and add it to the next loan you’re focusing on, and so on and so forth until all the debt is gone. This “waterfall” strategy is what I used to pay off my debts. It was slow going at first, but as I paid off each loan, I saw dramatic decreases in the balance every month.
This may be hard to do when you’re paying off debt, but your second priority to paying off debt should be building savings. To be financially secure, you need to be debt free, and you need to have some money socked away in case you need it. While you’re paying off debt, just put a little away. When I was paying off my student loans, sometimes I only saved $20 per month. Sometimes more when I could, but I always saved something and I didn’t touch it unless I truly needed it. Over time, the savings grew.
When I paid off the loans, savings became my new priority. I opened a 401(k). I opened a private ROTH IRA. I allocate money each pay period to three savings accounts, earmarked for travel, emergency fund, and house savings. I save as much money as I possibly can every month. 10% of my paycheck goes directly into my 401(k) plus some additional money from employer matching. Another $150 per month goes into my private ROTH IRA account. Each paycheck, I calculate what I’ll need for bills, food, and a small amount of walking around money. The rest goes directly into those three savings accounts. Over time, I have felt more and more at ease with my life because I know I have a backup in case something happens to me.
Do yourself a favor…don’t live life on a razor’s edge. Save money! Save as much as you can, even if it’s not very much. Even small amounts of money add up to something substantial over time. There may come a day when you need that money and you’ll be so thankful you took steps starting today to build up that savings when the day comes.
Budget, Budget, Budget.
It’s nice to talk about paying off debts and saving money, but the third thing you need to do is to budget. You want a positive cash flow in your life. This means that you’ll want more money coming in than you spend. Simple as that. Analyze your life and your spending and determine whether you have a positive or negative cash flow. If you’re spending more than you make, you need to make some changes! Even if you have a positive cash flow, chances are there are areas you could improve things.What do you spend money on? Could you reduce? Do you go out to eat all the time? Could you go out to eat less? Do you shop a lot? Could you shop less? You see where I’m going with this.
This can apply to other areas of life as well. If you’re truly struggling to pay off debt, you may need to take some more drastic measures to get yourself back on track. Consider getting a roommate or….GASP!….moving back in with mom and dad for a while to reduce your housing costs. Consider getting a second, part-time job or taking on freelance work in order to make more money. This only needs to be temporary until your debts are paid off.
Don’t spend money you don’t have.
That’s not to say, don’t use a credit card. It just means don’t spend what you don’t have. Sure, if your car breaks down and you can only get to work if you fix it and you don’t have the cash for repairs on hand, by all means use your credit card, but pay if off ASAP! If the issue, however, is that you got invited out for a friend’s birthday to some swanky restaurant and you just can’t afford it, you may want to make your excuses and invite your friend out for a hike or something the next day instead.
Don’t spend money you don’t have unless it’s absolutely necessary! Debt is to be avoided if possible, so don’t get into any unnecessary debts. If your life revolves around things that cost money, you may need to make some changes to how you spend your time. Instead of shopping, go to museums. Instead of eating out, host a pot luck dinner party, instead of a gym membership, go for a jog around the neighborhood. Instead of drinking at a bar, have a wine and cheese night at home. Life doesn’t have to be all sacrifices and work, work, work, but definitely come up with some creative things to replace the areas in your life where you over-spend.
That being said, make room for the indulgences that are most important to you. Again, my indulgence is travel and I sacrifice other things to make it happen. If there is something you simply can’t cut out of your life, don’t….but be responsible about it. Save up for big purchases like cars, electronics, and travel. If you don’t have enough money yet, wait until you do to make the purchase. Instant gratification is nice and all, but the dread that follows when you realize you have to actually pay for the thing with interest isn’t worth it.
I hope this article helps some of you out there who might be struggling with money. And for those of you who have it all together, I would love to hear your tips! All of that being said, getting my finances in order has opened doors to me. It has allowed me to make choices in my life that are in line with pursuing my dreams. It has allowed me the luxury of traveling more, of being more choosy about my career and how I spend my time. Since paying off my student loans, I can now spend all that student loan money on amazing international trips and saving toward goals like home ownership and a more prosperous retirement (full of travel, of course!). In short, my life dramatically improved when my finances got sorted out. I know it’s hard when you’re in it and you’re watching all that hard earned money go to loan payments every month. There were so many nights when I would cry and contemplate just giving up and letting the debt take over, but something inside me was strong enough to stay the course. The dream of someday being free kept me going through the hard times. That determination got me through days at the horrible call center job I had right after college that paid the bills but made me miserable. That dream kept me going and left me determined to continue to work on my graphic design portfolio and to constantly work and hustle to improve my professional situation over the years.
I had more than a few HARD years there, but in the end it was all worth it. I’m free of those student loans. I’m free to live the life I want to live and to make the choices I want to make. I’m free to travel and live life to the fullest, and I’m only 33. I still have a lot of years ahead of me!
I want that for you as well. I know it’s hard, but stay the course. Grit your teeth and do what you need to do because if you do, there will come a day when you’re actually free and it will feel so good. You can do it!