Dear Carrie: I’m 28 and trying to be smart about my money. My problem is that as soon as I pay down my credit cards, I start running them up again. The result is I can’t seem to save, and I feel as if I’m fighting a losing battle. I know I need to adjust my financial attitude, but how? — A Reader
Dear Reader: First, realize that you’re not fighting a losing battle. The very fact that you see the problem and want to do something about it means you’re already starting on the solution. And you’re correct that it is a matter of attitude — because if you start now to think and act positively, you’ll be able to not only control your current debt but also get started on saving and investing for the future.
A lot of people your age think they are too young or can’t save enough money to invest. But it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of money. What it requires is a personal commitment to change not only your attitude but also your behavior. It won’t be easy at first, but once you see the results, I believe you’ll be motivated to keep going. Here’s what I suggest.
Tackle Your Debt
Always having to pay off credit cards can be an emotional roller coaster. You pay the bill and feel great. Then you have no extra money, so you pull out the cards again, run up more debt and set yourself up for the same disappointment the next time a large bill is due. So come up with a realistic payment plan — one that allows you to pay your debts and still have a little extra money in your pocket.
Take a look at your current income and expenses. Decide how much you can put toward your debt while still having some money for that meal out or that new sweater. If you create a balance between paying off debt and paying for the things you want, you’ll be able to handle both better.
Take Charge of Your Spending
Now take control of your spending. One of the best ways is to make a commitment to cash. Using a credit card makes it easy to overspend. Instead, give yourself a set amount of cash each month to cover what you usually spend on discretionary things, such as meals out, haircuts and entertainment. If you come up short at the end of the month, don’t automatically turn to a credit card. Rather, put off that expense until you have the next month’s cash allotment.
It can also be helpful to manage your spending with online tools such as those available from Mint. You might be surprised by the different spending decisions you make when you have the big-picture view.
Save Toward a Specific Goal
Keeping your debt and spending under control can then pave the way for saving. Ideally, saving should be a line item on your budget.
But saving for saving’s sake isn’t nearly so motivating as saving for a goal. So give yourself a boost by making a list of short- and long-term goals. When you have a little extra money, it will be easier to save it if it goes toward something tangible.
Start Investing for the Future
Once you have your spending and debt under control and can begin to save, I strongly urge you to think about the future. To me, first and foremost, this means starting to save for retirement. If you have the chance to participate in a 401(k) or a similar retirement plan through work, do it at the first possible opportunity. If not, open an individual retirement account and start your own savings program.
The beauty of saving in either of these types of retirement accounts is that you’ll then have the chance to start to invest. The minimums for investing in a retirement account can be as low as $500. Plus, you don’t pay taxes on earnings until you withdraw them, and you pay no taxes at all when you make a qualifying withdrawal from a Roth IRA or a 401(k). So over time, you have the potential to really grow your money. And though there’s a lot to learn about investing, you could easily get started with a broadly diversified mutual fund or exchange-traded fund. This way, you can increase your knowledge as you increase your savings.
Believe in Yourself
None of this will happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all unless you believe you can do it. Be realistic and take a systematic approach to both paying down your debt and taking control of your spending. Focus on your goals, and use them as a motivation to save and invest. Take it step by step, and realize that each step brings you closer to a more secure financial future. You can do it.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “It Pays to Talk.” You can e-mail Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.