Manage Your Money Like a Pro – Even If You’re “Not” One

Managing your money can sound like this Big, Scary Thing – I get that. There’s acronyms, and experts, and a whole complex industry around it. Sometimes, things do need to get that complicated, but if you’re just getting started – or even if you started managing your money a few years ago – trust me when I say things do not need to be that hard, and you can totally do this.

Here’s how I know.

At its core, money is just money.

It’s just a tool that you can use to live the life you want, and no one knows better than you what kind of life that is. Trust me, you’re the expert on Things You Want.

Do you want to retire a multimillionaire on a beach? Or are you more Team Tiny House in The Woods? Both of those things will cost at least some money, so you’ll need to get a handle on the dollars to make either one a reality.

And since you’re already the expert on what those are, you’re uniquely qualified to figure out the money side of it. Here’s the first four steps to turn your PhD in You into a rockin’ personalized plan to manage your money.

PS. Want to grab a handy checklist of all eight steps in this process, plus a worksheet to price out your goals? Grab it here! I got you, friend.

Step 1. Figure out what you want.

This sounds easy enough, but can I just say, sometimes it isn’t? The amount of times I’ve mistakenly spent money on experiences and things that I thought were part of my ~best life~ and ended up hating them (or just not loving them) is way too high.

I’m talking about everything from multiple outdoor music festivals (I hate crowds and I lobster right up in the sun) to living abroad. Luckily, I only made that last mistake once, because it was not cheap, yo.

But the spending that I’ve done on things and experiences that I actively didn’t enjoy, or don’t remember enough to make it worth buying again, has helped me clarify what I do want. If you look back on your past spending and think about it in terms of…

  1. what you still remember, and enjoyed
  2. what made you happiest, and
  3. what you would 100% spend money on again,

…you’ll be in a much better place to identify what you do want more of in your life.

When I looked back with that view of my spending, I finally accepted that I am boring as heck, and I love nothing more than a comfortable couch for snuggling my dog in close proximity to family. That’s why these days, I allocate a big percentage of my monthly money to my dog, and my house downpayment savings – and almost none to music festivals or extensive travel.

Step 2. Set SMART goals to achieve those things.

This one time, I was all “money goals aren’t real!” While I 100% stand by that, I’m also very much on Team You Need to Set Goals, and Team SMART Goals Are The Best Goals.

Yes, your ultimate goal should be something that means the world to you, and that will make you happy to have achieved it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use SMART goals to outline a plan of how you’re going to get there.

As a refresher course, SMART goals stands for goals that are…

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Let’s say your ultimate goal is to spend two weeks travelling, and you know you’ll need to save up some money to make it happen. Instead of setting a goal to “save more money,” a SMART goal would look like “I save $2000 in my travel fund by August 1st, 2017.”

And to bring it back one last time to my stance on “money goals,” that SMART goal – to me, at least – is more of a detailed plan for your money than a goal-goal. The real goal in that case? Your two-week travel adventure.

Money is just how you make it happen.

Step 3. Estimate how much your goals will cost – or save! – you.

To amp up your SMART goals, it’s important to understand how much each of them is going to cost you, and which ones might actually save you money.

For example, if your goal is to buy a house, you should take a look at calculators that will help you figure out how much you need to save based on the purchase price. You’ll need to factor in things like closing costs on top of your target down payment, and the number you come up with might end up impacting your timeline (or how much money you can spend on your other goals).

On the other hand, if your goal is to eat healthier, that might include things like cutting down on alcohol and restaurant meals, or bringing your lunch to work every day. If those things are a big departure from your current status quo, you might end up saving a not-insignificant amount of money as a by-product of your goals.

Since most of us have multiple goals, spanning everything from our health, to our career, to our personal lives, it’s important to look at your goals as a whole when you’re pricing them out. If you want to save for a house AND add a personal trainer into your budget AND travel extensively, make sure all of those things play nicely together.

Which brings us to the “hardcore” money part of it.

Step 4. Figure out how your goals fit into your budget.

As of right now, you’ve only got so much monthly money to spend and save. That might change during the year, based on your career goals or your plans to start earning money on the side, but let’s assume that for the next month or two, you’re working with a roughly consistent dollar amount.

Now that you know what each of your goals is going to cost you and save you, it’s time to work those into a monthly plan for your money – ahem, also referred to as a budget.

It’s not as hard as it sounds, though, and you can take it step-by-step.

Take a look at the costs of each goal you set, and then consider the dates you wanted to achieve those goals by. Divide the total amount of your goal by the number of months you’ve given yourself to achieve them, and take a look at how that number feels for you. Does it seem like a reasonable amount to save each month?

If it doesn’t, and you’re looking at that amount like “Damn, there is no way I’ll find that much money to save every month,” don’t panic. Start with a smaller amount, and figure out how you can work up to your ideal goal-driven savings number – or adjust how long you’re going to give yourself to come up with the money.

And if your goals are going to save you money? Well, figure out how you’re going to use those savings. They might go a long way towards topping up your emergency fund or your travel savings.

But.. what do I do next?

Ok, yes, it’s not quite as simple as setting your goals once, planning out how they’ll impact your budget, and then running off into the sunset with your money. But I think that at this point, we can both agree it’s not rocket science, either. I know, because these were the first four planning steps I took when I got serious about my money.

The next four steps were things like figuring out how to handle not hitting my goals, and tracking my spending, and all the adjusting that comes with living in The Real World. Those are the kind of things I’ve been writing about ever since, so grab a coffee, grab a blog post or five, and dig in to DIY your own, personalized plan to manage your money this year.

You’ve so got this.