If you’re stressed about your finances, it’s probably for a good reason. A recent study by OnePoll and Questis found that 60% of Americans have woken up in the middle of the night thinking about their finances.
Still, worrying about your money problems won’t make them go away. In fact, it can cause more stress and lead you to make mistakes, said Scott Bishop, executive director of wealth solutions at Avidian Wealth Solutions.
When you’re drowning in financial uncertainty, it’s time to take stock and make a plan. To rest easier at night, follow these eight steps to get your finances on track and stop worrying about money.
1. Understand Your Money Situation
The first step to take to stop worrying about money is to identify your assets — house, investments, savings — and your liabilities, or debts, said Michael F. Kay, a certified financial planner and founder of Financial Life Focus. Once you know what you have and what you owe, you can identify your biggest problem and assess what needs to change. For most people, it’s too little savings and too much debt, he said.
“Before you can stop worrying, you need to know where you stand financially,” Bishop said. “The best way to do that is to get a handle on or snapshot of your current situation.”
2. Know Where Your Money Is Going
Once you know where you stand financially, you need to know how you got there. This means figuring out where your money goes each month, Kay said.
First, identify your necessary expenses — mortgage or rent, utilities, transportation and anything else you must pay for each month. Then, look at your bank and credit card statements from the past month to see how much you’re spending on discretionary items — things you want but don’t need.
If you’re spending $1,000 on discretionary items, ask yourself what else you could do with that money, Kay said. You might be worried about living paycheck to paycheck or not making ends meet. But by tracking your spending, you might realize you have the cash you need to boost savings, pay off debt or get ahead — if you cut back on unnecessary expenses.
To keep tabs on where your money is going, Bishop recommended using an app such as Mint, which helps you track your accounts and spending in one place and create a budget. You also could use software such as Quicken, or even give yourself an allowance of cash to limit your spending, he said.
3. Get a Handle on Your Debt
Once you figure out your assets and liabilities, find out how much you owe. “It is important to see how much this debt is costing you and draining your cash,” Bishop said.
List your debts and the interest rate on each. Focus on paying off your highest-rate debts first — likely credit card debt — so you’ll pay less in interest over time. Once you know where your money is going, determine what discretionary expenses you can cut so you can put more money toward your debt.
However, before you start paying down debt, find out why you have accumulated it, Kay said. Was it because you had a major medical expense or borrowed heavily to cover the cost of college? Or, are you simply using debt to cover your spending?
“If this is your normal way of living, it’s time to take stock and think about why,” Kay said. Consider working with a counselor to figure out what triggers your spending and how to get it under control, he said. Visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s website to find a certified credit counselor near you.
4. Set Financial Goals
To stop worrying about your finances, it’s not enough to know where your money has been going. You need to give it a place to go, which means setting goals. Look at what must happen for you to feel like your finances are on track, Kay said.
It might mean being debt-free, building a college fund for a child or having a certain amount in savings for retirement. Not having a plan can be a huge cause of money stress.
In addition to covering your necessary expenses, your money should be going to these “musts” — your goals — before your wants. Then evaluate whether your career and other financial choices you’ve made will help you meet those goals.
“What are your options if your current income won’t get you where you want to go?” Bishop said. You might need to get a second job, go back to school or follow these tips to double your income to reach your goals.
5. Educate Yourself About Personal Finance
You might be worrying about money because you think you don’t know enough about personal finance. However, gaining mastery of your finances doesn’t mean you need a degree in finance, Kay said. But you do need to know what’s creating fear or discomfort for you.
Perhaps you’re worried because you don’t understand how your credit score affects your ability to get credit. You can learn the basics at a site such as myFico.com, the consumer division of the company that invented the FICO credit score.
If you’re confused about how much to save for retirement, check with your employer to see if you have access to financial advice through your workplace retirement plan. Or, go to a personal finance website to learn money basics.
6. Plan For the ‘What Ifs’
You can alleviate some of your financial worries by identifying your worst-case money scenarios and preparing for them, Kay said. For example, if you consider losing your job to be the worst thing that can happen financially to you, find out what you should do to prepare for a job loss. Creating an emergency fund to cover expenses in case you’re ever out of work is a good place to start.
If you have people who depend on you financially, you need to have enough life insurance to help support them when you die. If you become disabled, you need to make sure you have enough disability insurance coverage to replace your lost wages. Consider everything that could derail your aspirations, and cover all of your bases, Kay said.
7. Stop Trying To Keep Up With Others
Be honest with yourself about whether your money woes stem from trying to keep up with what others have — whether you’re spending to impress others or belong, Kay said. Ask yourself what you’re working so hard for. “Is it a label on a shirt, a certain watch, a vacation in Tahiti? Or are we working for something else?” Kay said.
To avoid falling into the trap of trying to keep up with others and worrying that you can’t, write down what you care about. If you’re married or in a relationship, ask your partner to do the same. Then agree on what you both want and let those values guide your spending decisions.
8. Get Help From a Financial Advisor
If you’re worried about your health, you’d likely visit a doctor. If you’re concerned about your financial health, you can get help from a professional, too.
You can hire a financial planner to help you with any of the above steps — from understanding where you stand financially, to setting goals, to creating a plan to reach those goals.
Kay recommended looking for an advisor who is a fee-only fiduciary who will work in your best interest rather than try to sell you financial products that might not meet your needs. You can find one near you through the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
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