Learning the art of squirreling money away took years and a lot of trial and error—I made plenty of mistakes. If I could magically go back in time and visit my 22 year old self, this is what I’d try to bang into his thick head from the get go.
1. Spending less than you earn, rather than earning more than you spend, will free you from the treadmill of more. Expenses tend to notch up with earnings—the result being more stuff, more responsibilities and less time and energy. Learning to live simply and within your means (and how to enjoy it) is one of the best investments you can make. Learn to live like no one else so you can live like no one else.
2. Building wealth is a habit. It’s the result of thousands of micro decisions. Set up a system that serves your goals in the long term and work on developing your money discipline in the short term. It’s a practice. It doesn’t happen over night.
3. If you cannot pay cash, you cannot afford it. Wait until you can. You may find by that time you actually don’t want it anymore. Either way stay out of debt at all costs.
4. Know why money is important to you. Freedom, flexibility, security, education, kids, investing in yourself, impact, travel—what does money mean for you? Money is not inherently motivating. It’s the meaning we give it that is. You will be more motivated to save if you know what you are doing it for. You will also make better decisions with money if you know what it is you want from it. Keep visible reminders around you so you don’t forget. Recently a friend of mine shared a mantra he uses that I really like: “there are things I value more than feeling good.”
5. Build a safety net. A safety net allows you to keep living your current life in the face of financial challenge and uncertainty. It provides a base level of security and enables you to make changes in your life that may be risky but worthwhile.
Calculate how much money you need at a bare minimum to get by on a monthly basis. Your first financial goal is to save 6x that amount. This is your safety net. Put it away and do not touch it.
6. Build a runway. Your runway is how long you can operate without income before being forced to get a job. Building a runway gives you the independence to pursue that passion project full-time, travel or make major lifestyle changes that others can’t. It buys you time and space to reinvent yourself.
You can extend your runway in two ways: save more cash or reduce your expenses. For example if you’ve saved $1000 and your monthly living expenses are $500/month, you have a 2 month runway. If your savings stay the same but you learn how to reduce your monthly expenses to $250/month, you now have a 4 month runway.
Learning how to reduce expenses while you are still earning money builds your runway much faster as you not only begin to spend less but can save more.
Don’t make the mistake of not building a runway just because you don’t currently know what you might use it for. Build it now so when your opportunity appears, you have no excuse not to go for it.
7. Make saving unconscious. Make it your default mode. In other words, it’s what happens when you do nothing. Save first, then figure out how to get by on what’s left. Most people operate in the opposite order.
- Transfer money into your savings the day after you receive your paycheck, before you can spend it. This forces you to figure out how to get through the month on what’s left. Prioritizing your future with every paycheck becomes a recurring reminder that you believe you are worth it.
- Once you’ve determined how much of each paycheck you want to save, automate it by scheduling recurring transfers into your savings account. As you get better at saving and living below your means, continue to increase the transfers.
- When you receive unexpected income (bday gift, bonus, settlement, etc.) that you don’t know what to do with, immediately put it (or a portion of it) in your savings.
8. Make spending hard. The more effort it requires to spend, the less likely you are to rack up unnecessary expenses. The idea here isn’t to not spend at all, it’s to be mindful and intentional about your spending so that the things you buy truly add value to your life.
- Open a second bank account for your savings with another bank that is not connected with your checking account.
- Don’t take out an atm card or checks for your savings account.
- If you constantly overspend with a credit card put it away and force yourself to use cash for all offline transactions. Spending is harder to do when you see and feel cash leaving your hands and when you run out of cash, you’re done.
9. Make spending painful. The best way to change your bad spending habits is to be aware of them. This isn’t to be masochistic—quite the opposite actually. Pain is highly motivating and can be a strong ally in fostering meaningful change.
- Implement a monthly check in. Round up all your expenses from the past month and look over each transaction one by one. If you keep this discipline every month, you will become aware of spending habits that don’t serve you. Just being aware is often enough to start changing our behavior. When you find it too painful to revisit certain transactions at the end of each month, you are either forced to change or stop being aware. Your choice.
- This process also allows you to catch and deal with any new financial issues immediately. After doing this for years I’ve gotten my check ins down to about 45 minutes each month. I do this in excel using a simple template I made.
- Pay off all your credit cards in full every month.
- Keep track of your monthly income, expenses and savings. What gets measured gets managed.
- Calculate your most current runway (see #6 above). Knowing you have a runway gives you options.
10. Your financial transactions are a record of your past priorities. Wherever your money went—those were your priorities. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.