5 Tips on Budgeting and Debt From Someone Who Really Just Likes To Research

As someone with a lot of anxiety issues, I have a tendency to stress out a little bit more about paying bills on time and things like that. Over time, I’ve managed to build up a lot of debt through schooling, job problems, etc. etc. But there is one thing I have going for me, and one thing that my family has always been pretty good at – we know how to manage debt. I may be overwhelmed now, but I have a plan, and I’m on my way to getting out of it. But anyway, my anxiety paired with my being a librarian-research nut has caused me to look up and read a lot of different ways to make life easier by budgeting and paying down your debt in different ways. Again – I am by no means a financial expert, but I do have a few tips (and resources/guides from others) that might help you in managing your debt.. and help keep you a little less stressed!

1. Get a free credit report. This can help you figure out if there are any cards, inquiries, or late payments, and ultimately give you your credit score. Sometimes your bank or credit card company will have your FICO credit score updated every month, and it should be visible on your account page.Two other places that offer free credit reports are:

  • FreeCreditReport.Com 
  • Credit Karma (also available as an app)
    • For me, this one has my score lower than pretty much every other score system out there, so it may be a good benchmark for your “worst case scenario.”
  • Your banks and credit card websites! Most banks and credit card companies have the option to view your credit score for free each month online. Just browse through your account page, and you should find something for it. I know for a fact that Wells Fargo, Discover, Chase, Barclay, American Express, and CapitalOne have the option.

2. Keep track of your spending. There are a lot of ways to do this, but it is one of the most important ways to help keep track of your finances. Have you ever taken a step back and looked to see how much you’re spending on food? I know that the first time my husband and I both had full time jobs, we went a little nuts and ate out constantly. Before I realized it, we were spending well over a thousand dollars a month on food alone! It’s important to take note of your needs first so that you can have money to focus on your needs when you can’t anymore (which is how we learned the hard way and racked up a bunch of debt).

  • Daily Worth has a great guide on several different budgeting apps and spending trackers out there. I managed to find a great one for me early on, so I haven’t experienced too many others.
  • Mint
    • I personally am a huge fan of Mint and have been using them for years. Mint allows you to sync all of your accounts (even 401(k)s, student loans, car payments, and if you list your car info it will even calculate it’s worth!)
    • It will have a list of all of the transactions from every single account. It categorizes them already, but you have the option to change or add the category for each item.
    • It has a bill pay section where you can pay your bills directly from the app (or desktop site).
    • It has a budgeting option, where you can physically make your budget. You insert in about how much income you get each month (if it’s not fixed, aim for a lower amount). Then you can put amounts for each of the different categories of spending – rent, credit cards, food, auto insurance, etc. The bars will fill up as you spend in those categories, and you can even have it alert you if you have spent too much in a category.
      • You can set a savings goal, and add this goal as part of your budget.
      • You can also set other goals like “vacation” or “pay down your debt.”
    • There is a spend analyzer which shows you how much you have a tendency to spend in each category, which can help you figure out where you’re spending too much.
    • It also gives you a credit score that keeps updating.
    • Because it keeps track of your transactions from all of your different counts, you can also search through your transactions for all of the ones from a specific place: for example, I try to keep track of how much I spend at doctor’s offices via this method.
    • The only problem that I’ve had with Mint so far is that it has problems linking certain accounts sometimes. It can’t link my 401(k) or USAA accounts for security reasons, even though it did at one time. But that’s a minor flaw.
  • Bullet Journaling. I mentioned how I recently got really into this in a previous post, but bullet journaling is a great way for you to be mindful of your life and can also be a creative way to keep track of your spending. There are many ways to include budgeting in your bullet journal, whether it be writing down what you purchase each day or making different budgeting charts.
    • Apartment Therapy has a great guide with some awesome Instagram images of budget layouts for bullet journals.

3. Debt Consolidation. Consolidating your debt into one area can be one good way to reduce your monthly payment, save on interest, and pay down debt faster. There are many ways for you to do this.

  • Open up a new credit card with a free balance transfer option and zero interest for the first year. Transfer over your highest interest cards to this account, and pay it off as fast as you can.
    • Chase Freedom is one of the many options that you can use. I just got one with a free balance transfer offer. If you click on my link, you will get a $150 bonus after spending your first $500 in 3 months.
  • Take out a personal loan, and transfer your debt to this loan. You can do this through many places, including banks.
    • I suggest first writing down all of your current interest rates and averaging them out (add all the percentages of each card together and then divide by the number of cards). When you apply for a loan, you will want to make sure that it is less than this number, or else you will not be saving on interest.
      • Ex. Chase – 22.49%, American Express – 18.49%, Discover- 17.99%, Barclay 24.49%, Citi – 24.49% (22.49+18.49+17.99+24.49+24.49 divided by 5 = 21.59%)
    • If you are approved for the loan at a decent interest rate (so for the above example, if you got any offer under 21.59% you would be saving money), this will allow you transfer your chosen amount of debt and make only ONE payment, instead of payments on several different cards. This can help you pay debt down faster and accrue less interest.

4. Debt Reduction Calculators / Snowball & Avalanche Methods. Do you have a lot of credit cards, loans, etc. and you don’t know which to pay off first? There are many different methods of making payments that can help reduce how much you pay in the long run. Making minimum payments just won’t cut it sometimes, and if you can even add in an extra $100 a month, you can make a huge difference on how much interest you pay over time. But where should you put that $100? Maybe I’m just a nerd, but I find debt reduction calculators to be a lot of fun and really fascinating.

  • The best tool I have found (and use myself) is an excel sheet debt-calculator available here.
    • It may look complicated, but it’s fairly easy to use and can ultimately give you a list of how much to pay on each card each month, and then how long it will take you to pay off each item.
    • It only allows you up to 9 (it says 10, but only 9 seem to work for me) different items, but you can pay $9.95 to increase it to 20 items. I suggest just using the free one and just entering in your 9 highest interest items.
    • How to Use:
      1. Find and write down all of your cards, loans, etc. with their interest rates, minimum payments, and current balances. If you can’t find the interest rate and minimum payment amount, they are normally located on your account statements.
      2. Fill in the top section of the excel sheet with the information you just collected about each item and today’s date.
      3. In the “Monthly Payment” area, put how much you are willing to spend each month on these cards/loans.
      4. Select which strategy you would like to use. If you want to save the most money over time, choose the Avalanche method. If you want to see results faster, select the Snowball method. You can also do custom methods if there’s a specific order that you would like to pay the accounts off.
      5. The chart will then calculate the bottom box and table for you with payoff dates, interest paid, etc!
      6. If you click the next sheet tab (at the bottom of excel) that says “Payment Schedule”, you will see a sheet with exactly how much you will need to pay for each card each month (so cool!) The chart will show you exactly when you will pay off all your debt.
  • You don’t have to use an actual tool to pay down your debt if you don’t want to, but it is generally best to put more money on one payment rather than spreading it out among payments. The interest rates play a big part in your card’s balance. If you pay off the highest interest card first with only the minimum payments for the other cards (Avalanche method), you will be paying much less over time.
  • The Avalanche method mathematically is the most effective way to pay down your debt, but some say that it is not the best way. Another way is the Snowball method (which Dave Ramsay, a pretty well known Financial Advisor, suggests using), which involves paying off the lowest amount first. Some say that this works better because you’re more motivated when you see that a card is paid off and are more likely to continue the process.

5. The Envelope Method. One simple way to aid in budgeting and to make sure you’re not spending too much on specific things (like food) is by using the “envelope method.”

  • To use this method, figure out how much you can spend each month, and then divide your expenses into categories. Get some envelopes and write the category names on them.Then allot an amount for each category, withdraw cash, and put the amount of cash for each category in its respective envelope.
  • Now when you go to pay for things, you can take the cash out of it’s specific envelope. This way, if you notice you only have $50 left in your food envelope and you still have 10 days left in the month, you will know that you can’t eat out and need to plan your meals.
  • You can make an envelope for all sorts of things, and you can either choose to place the leftover money in next month’s envelope to “roll it over” or you can potentially even place it in a new envelope as savings for something!
  • Just a note – my husband and I have found a lot of success with this method especially when used for food spending; though we aren’t very good at following it perfectly, it definitely does the job of helping us decrease our monthly spending on food.

This all may seem a little overwhelming, but it’s really not as much as it seems. You can look into stuff little by little and maybe you’ll get just as excited by it as I was when I first discovered half of it! I hope some of this is somewhat helpful. If you’ve got any questions or comments… or even suggestions and complaints, please comment! I’ll eventually be posting another finance-related post on couponing and stuff once I get the chance, so keep your eyes open 🙂

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