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In August of 2016, Mystery Money Man
burst onto the scene, er…entered unceremoniously through a dimly lit side door into the personal finance blogosphere. So far, it’s been an incredible experience! I’ve enjoyed some early success with my blog, with a monthly readership in excess of 7000 readers and growing, while the MMM platform is beginning to generate a small amount of income, which is very encouraging. I’ve also learned more than I EVER thought was possible in such a short period of time. More than anything, I’m grateful for the connections made with so many amazing people; from Mystery Money Man readers, to fellow personal finance bloggers. It is indeed a tightly knit community with some pretty special folks.
When I started writing blog posts, I purposed not to put too much thought into how everything would fit together. I simply wished to articulate thoughts I felt had some relevance, in the best way I could. Along the way, some of my philosophies have become more concrete, while others have come into question, or I’ve torn down altogether. It’s a beautiful mess, and I look forward to sifting through it all in the coming year. 🙂
With this in mind, and the New Year around the corner, I’ve decided to compile my list of “30 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR FINANCES 2017!” While it wasn’t my goal at the outset, this article has become a “piecing together” of several of the concepts I’ve written about over the past 4 months,and others that I’ve picked up along the way. Enjoy!
FINE-TUNE YOUR PHILOSOPHY
1. Understand your financial values.
When it comes to money, many people get caught moving in circles because they don’t know what it is they want. Before you can improve your financial situation, take time to answer the big questions: What do I want out of life? What are the things that are most important to me? Family time? Travel? Freedom from the 9-5? More time to spend on creative/artistic ventures?Understanding what drives you will enable you to stay motivated and focused on your financial goals.
2. Set challenging goals for yourself.
Once you have a firm grasp of the big picture, it’s important to set specific goals for the year ahead. Tailor your goals to the values you’ve set, but make sure they include at least some, if not all of the following: creating/maintaining an emergency fund, debt reduction, retirement planning, increased income, decreased spending, addressing insurance needs, etc. All of these will be covered in more detail below.
3. Develop key activities and execute.
You can set all the goals you want, but if you don’t develop and carry out the right activities, you’ll never reach them. Remember, it’s all in the execution.
Consider a high level athlete. They can set their sights on becoming the absolute best in their sport, an MVP award (not sure anyone does that) or an Olympic medal, but it’s the hours of practice away from the spotlight, the monotonous, repetitive activities that they must execute on day in and day out, that will ultimately determine their success. It’s no different with your finances. Whether it’s sticking to your budget, automating your savings, or working the side hustle, stay focused on the daily and weekly execution.
TRANSFORM YOUR LIFESTYLE
4. Make giving a priority.
You experience countless benefits by making giving a regular part of your life. My wife and I donate our money and time to numerous causes and for different reasons, and we’ve always felt as though we’re the ones who gain the most from it. Personally, it helps to keep my priorities in check, and realize that I’m here to serve people, not dollars. Money is a tool that we can use enrich our lives and the lives of others, but it shouldn’t be something that we become obsessive about. When it all comes down to it, relationships are the only thing that matter in this world. Giving of yourself and your resources will equip you to manage money in a healthy way.
5. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Society that tells us that this is the normal way to live, that it’s the life that you should pursue. That may be true, if what you want is debt up to your eyeballs, little to no cashflow, and to feel pressed under the thumb of a soulless corporation until you’re sixty five, with your best years behind you. If that’s normal, I want nothing of it, and neither should you.
6. Embrace inconvenience.
Let’s face it, our society wants to have it all. In fact, many North Americans live more comfortably than kings and queens did only a couple of generations ago. This is the age where RV’s resemble designer homes, recent college grad’s rack up frequent flyer points, and our pets have access to better health care than half the world’s population.
Our vehicles talk to us and guide our every turn. Their doors lift and slide, with no effort on our part. Pretty soon they’ll drive themselves, heck, they may even fly themselves. God forbid we should lift a finger. Make no mistake, the technology is beyond impressive. The problem is that the price of convenience is outrageous.
By choosing to embrace some inconvenience in 2017, you’ll save a lot of money!
If you live nearby, walk or bike to work. If not, consider starting a carpool or taking public transit. Perhaps you can get real serious and ditch the second vehicle to save some real dough! Do you have a nice sized yard? Save money on groceries by growing a vegetable garden. Even if you weren’t born with a tool belt around your waist, Youtube tutorials as well as having a couple of mechanically minded friends can set you on the path to becoming a DIY ninja! Well…maybe not a ninja, but you get the point. 🙂
Lastly, run most of your purchasing decisions through the “can I buy this used?” filter. Plan your purchases in advance and peruse Craigslist or Kijiji to find items gently used at a fraction of the retail price.
These small lifestyle changes may crimp your convenience, as they require more time and effort, but you’ll save loads of $$$ and be better off for it.
7. Cut out an expensive hobby.
Are you going into debt to fulfill your pastime? Are your hobbies taking financial priority over debt repayment or achieving your savings goals? If so, you should consider dropping it, or finding a more cost effective way of participating.
If you are going to go all in on an expensive hobby, make sure you pay for it with cash. Do not go into debt for your pastime. Here’s another thought. You can always turn your hobby into a side hustle, to help cover the related expenses. After all, making cash doing something you love can be a pretty sweet gig!
8. Spend time with like-minded friends.
You’re trying to live a frugal life, but you’ve got friends who are constantly inviting you to join them for fun, yet very expensive activities. This is pretty common. Either you’re hanging with some pretty wealthy peeps, or they’re simply not as concerned with keeping their money as you are. They have different priorities.
This year, focus on friends who share your values, and your budget. You know, the ones who are up for a board game night or a coffee date, rather than a warm vacation down south or weekend shopping excursions out of of town! Either way, remember that it’s ok to decline invitations that will require you to spend $$$!
9. Make sure you are properly insured.
Most people are underinsured, yet having proper coverage is a pillar of any sound financial plan. It’s sad. We don’t think twice about shelling out $500/month for a couple of smartphones, cable, internet, and a Netflix subscription, yet we shudder at the thought of spending a fraction of that amount on insurance, to protect our family should the unexpected occur. Between the two of us, my wife and I have $900K of life insurance alone, and it costs us around $100/month. If you ask me, that’s pretty reasonable, and money very well spent.
Remember, bad things don’t always happen to ‘someone else’. If you’re not 100% sure you are adequately insured, see a professional for an assessment, and make sure your family is protected!
10. Develop a sharing mentality.
In our age of convenience, everyone seems to want their own of ‘everything’; electronic devices, vehicles, bedrooms, bathrooms, tools, you name it. It’s creates a lot of waste, and increases people’s cost of living dramatically.
Finding ways to share resources within your household, circle of friends and your community can save you some serious cash. Do you really need a smartphone, TV, and vehicle for every person who lives under the same roof?
There’s actually a movement known as the “sharing economy”, which has leveraged technology to enable people to not only share resources, but make money from them.
Think Uber or AirBnB, for example. You can make money using your vehicle, or by renting an extra room in your home. While there’s a financial transaction taking place, it’s still a sharing of resources, with money being saved on both sides.
11. Get outside more.
No doubt you’ve heard this one before, in fact, you’ve probably muttered it to yourself more than once. But it makes sense. By shifting away from activities and environments that are designed for you to part with your money, ie. movie theatres, restaurants, shopping malls, and replacing them with healthy, free, live-giving outdoor activities, the better off you’ll be. So take your kids to the park, go for bike rides, hiking, or just throw the ball in the backyard. The benefits are immeasurable, and they won’t cost you a penny.
12. Discover the pleasure of delayed gratification.
When a luxury becomes a regular activity, it’s no longer a luxury. Further to my last point about getting outdoors, I’m not suggesting that you should never go to a nice restaurant or take in a movie, but you should reserve those activities for special occasions, something to be enjoyed every once in a while.
In short, when you force yourself to wait for something special, the more you will savor it. I know, haha, sounds like a line out of a teenage abstinence ad campaign. Seriously though, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to embrace delayed gratification. Make spending money on luxuries an occasional event, not something you do every week.
MONEY SAVING IDEAS
13. Track your spending.
This seems like a no-brainer, but many people don’t take the time to look back at their spending over previous months. Even though we stick to a pretty tight budget, I look back on my banking transactions on a regular basis, to monitor discretionary spending. It’s as easy as pulling up 30-90 days of account history via your online banking, and filtering by ‘transaction description’. You’ll quickly see how many times you actually went to Starbucks in the previous few months. If you consider yourself to be a free spender, this can be a downright scary activity, but an important one. Not for the faint of heart! 🙂
14. Travel hack a vacation.
Travel can very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, our family of five completed a 16-day, 4000 mile road trip this past July, at a total cost of $650! If you have children, driving to your destination can be a more affordable option than flying, but you need to plan ahead. Personally, I prefer road trips for the adventure component, and the memories that are created. One of my top money-saving tricks is booking my hotels through Booking.com Aside from the hilarious TV ads, they make finding incredible hotel deals a breeze, including sending customized alerts right to your inbox. Within a couple of minutes, you can have your hotel stays reserved, without any payment up front.
You can access Booking.com via my link here, if you’d like to check it out.
I cover the cost of hotels with my credit card’s travel reward points, but I get reimbursed after the fact. In most situations, the money I save through booking.com outweighs the benefits of booking directly through my credit card travel provider, and earning bonus reward points.
15. Eat Out Less Often
I know, I know, this is on every money saving list out there, but for good reason. For the price of a couple nice restaurant meals, you could buy a weeks worth of groceries. So if you’re eating out regularly, one or more times per week, this will really add up. If you’re serious about improving your finances in 2017, make sure to pay attention your dining habits.
16. Ditch the second vehicle.
One of the greatest drains on a family’s budget is transportation expenses.
The cost is multiplied with every additional vehicle you own. Referring back to item #5 on our list, it will certainly crimp your convenience, but if you’re looking for a killer way to transform your finances in the coming year, you may want to consider going down to one car. This benefit is compounded if the vehicle is being financed.
In the interest of full disclosure, we currently own two vehicles. I will say though, Mrs. Mystery Money and I made do with one small, fuel efficient car for the first nine years of our marriage, even with three 3 children, and will likely go back to one vehicle when the time is right. There’s just too much money to be saved not to.
17. Include a spending freeze in your budget.
Implementing a spending freeze can be a great way to supercharge your budget, and accomplish your savings goals in the coming year. Consider it like a budgeting bootcamp of sorts. I often implement a 5 day period of no spending between pay checks. If that’s a piece of cake for you, here’s a great article on how to prepare for a month long spending freeze, from Centsibly Rich.
18. Refuse to finance…anything.
Make a pact with yourself or your spouse/partner, that no matter what, you won’t finance any purchase for the next 12 months. No matter how much you think you want or need an item, be it a new car, furniture or a big screen TV, refuse to finance! Retailers make it so easy to buy now, pay later, which is a surefire way to get off track with the goals you set for the year. Money that was earmarked for debt reduction or savings, now has to be shifted to paying off an impulse purchase prior to the interest-free period expiring.
19. Plant a garden.
I love the efficiency of gaining multiple benefits from an activity. Do you have a decent sized yard? Planting a garden in the spring can help you save big time on your grocery bill throughout the year. It also forces you to spend time outside, requires some manual labor, and promotes healthy eating. Also, if you have fruit trees, be sure to harvest them to realize their full money saving potential.
20. Accelerate your debt repayment.
If you implement even a few of these money saving tips, you’re going to have more cashflow in the coming year. The question is, what’s the best use of the extra funds laying around? If you have debt, make sure a portion of it is directed towards paying it off more quickly. What percentage you direct towards debt reduction vs. savings depends on your situation, but it’s never a bad idea. Just as with your investments, even small amounts, such as $25-50 month will make a big difference over time.
21. Purchasing a home? Less is more.
If you’re buying a house in the coming year, know that your decision will have a significant impact on your long term financial situation, either positively or negatively. Be very careful not to buy more house than you can afford. Over and above the additional operating costs, you really need to think about your long term plans. For example, do you foresee a situation where you or your spouse/partner may want to go back to school, or leave work to stay at home while raising kids? If the bank is using your two full-time incomes to qualify the mortgage, you may not have that flexibility to make those lifestyle changes. On the flip side, buying less house than you can afford can set you up for a lifetime of budget flexibility, so you can enjoy the things that really matter in life.
22. Shop Online.
Not only can you find lower prices shopping online, but you can save a lot of time and money by not having to travel back and forth to a traditional retail store when you need to make a purchase. I’ve never enjoyed shopping, but it becomes more tolerable when I can do it from the comfort of my living room. Another benefit is the amount of research you can do prior to buying a product. Within a few clicks, you can scroll through a myriad of specs and reviews on the product you’re looking for. Be careful not to spend money on shipping however, as that will negate your discounted price. Also, if you’re someone who loves to shop, a word of caution. It can become very addicting. Perhaps it’s almost too easy!
INCOME BOOSTING IDEAS
23. Start a side hustle.
I could break this one item out into 50 different ways to make more money, but I’ll summarize. Often, when people are looking for ways to improve their finances, they focus solely on expense reduction, or increased savings. Many don’t realize the additional money making opportunities that are lying right under their nose. Trust me, I speak from experience on this one. Depending on how much time you want to invest, or where you live, there are plenty of ways to make extra cash, which you can use to pay down debt, save more money, or just fund extra curricular activities. If you haven’t given this much thought, simply do a Google search for ‘side hustle ideas’, and you’ll get an endless list of possibilities. The sky’s the limit!
24. De-clutter and selling your old stuff.
Here’s an example of a great side hustle idea. Most of us have acquired a lot of stuff over the years, perfectly good items that we no longer have a use for. Take time to organize your things, and put it up for sale on Craigslist or Kijiji. I just found out the other day that the two vintage-1985 Nintendo consoles sitting in my closet are worth over $100 each on eBay. It’s amazing how much people will pay for old stuff.
25. Maximize your employee benefits at work.
This isn’t something many people consider, which is why I’ve included it here. You may be leaving a lot of money on the table at your job, because you’re not taking advantage of all of the benefits you are eligible for. Does your company have an employee savings program, where your employer matches your contributions to a certain dollar amount? If so, this is a benefit you should be maximizing, because it’s free money!
Many companies offer very attractive benefits, some of which are optional, so if you’re not taking advantage of these, you really should be! Other examples include performance bonuses, health spending accounts, wellness programs, mileage and clothing allowances.
INVESTING YOUR MONEY
26. Build and maintain an emergency savings fund.
This should be your top savings priority. Get an emergency fund built, and then move on to other savings goals. You can start by setting aside as little as one or two thousand dollars. Enough to be able to cover unexpected expenses, instead of having to resort to high interest credit cards, or being caught in a desperate financial situation.
This money should be kept in a savings account, or cashable term deposit. Safety and liquidity is your primary concern, rather than rate of return.
27. Automate your savings.
Let’s face it, saving money requires a lot of discipline. For this reason, I highly recommend automating all contributions to your investment accounts. Train yourself to make small contributions more often, by having the money leave your account as soon as your bi-weekly pay goes in. Not only does it promote a savings mindset, it enables you to take advantage of dollar cost averaging, a powerful investment strategy which will ensure you purchase investment units/shares at a lower average price over the long term, enhancing your investment returns, while lowering your risk. Also, the best time to start is now! Don’t worry about not having a lot of cashflow to begin, even a $25 monthly contribution will set you on a path to success!
Investments are divided into three primary asset classes; safety, income and growth. It’s very important to ensure you are invested properly across the various asset classes. In fact, over time, having the proper asset allocation will have a more positive impact on your eventual return than your ability to pick the right security or fund.
Your ideal asset mix is comprised of any number of these 3 categories, with varying weightings, dependent on factors such as your investment objective, time frame and tolerance for risk. Not only will these weightings need to shift over time, the natural fluctuations in your investment holdings can alter your actual asset allocation. So, for your long term investments, review your investments at least once per year with a professional advisor, and complete any necessary rebalancing.
29. Reduce your investment costs.
Your investment returns can be diluted by the fees, commissions and/or trailers paid to different parties involved in managing your portfolio. I’m not going to make any investment recommendations for you, other than to recommend that you research and understand the true cost of the investments you hold or are purchasing. There are very cost-effective options out there that will make it easier to maximize your returns over the long term. Make sure you seek the advice of a professional prior to making any investment decisions.
30. Stop trying to time the market.
If the world’s leading economists, central bankers and investment professionals can’t tell you with any certainty what will happen with the markets, neither can you, so don’t try. Take a long term approach with your portfolio. Stick to the fundamentals of asset allocation, dollar cost averaging, regular rebalancing, and keeping costs down. That’s what will determine your success over the long term. If you want to walk the day-trading tightrope, set aside some mad money exclusively for that purpose, and go nuts.