You’re running at a brisk pace. Everything is going your way. The sun is shinning and life is just too good to believe. And then, the unthinkable happens. You somehow stumble and take a fall. To try and regain your financial footing after suffering such an unexpected, tumultuous fall at that very moment can appear to be insurmountable. Yet, it is entirely possible to recover and get back on the right financial course with some careful forethought and a few sound strategic moves.
1. Look at where you are now, financially speaking. Avoid playing the “should have” or “could have” game. Mentally replaying old scenarios over and over again is a waste of time, leaving you stuck in a perpetual limbo. Fretting and obsessing about money you have lost is a useless activity. When the money is gone, it’s gone. The past is exactly that, the past. You must now prepare for a new game. The most productive course of action is to focus on the present. Think about what you can do right now to improve your situation. One first, useful step is to simply get rid of your mental and emotional clutter. Discard all the negative thoughts and self-doubts. Constantly thinking about all the financial and non-financial problems which you cannot control is counter-productive, resulting in needless physical and emotional stress and fatigue. Instead, put your energy towards all the aspects of your life which are within your control. Give yourself time to emotionally heal and prepare for the new personal and financial challenges. Find solace, inspiration and strength from your hobbies and time spent outdoors. Concentrate on activities which build and nurture your self-esteem and make you feel emotionally empowered. Having a clear, strong, unburdened mind will be your greatest single asset in formulating a proactive financial plan for achieving your personal goals.
2. Create a monthly household expense worksheet. But, go one step further and calculate your assets and liabilities monthly. A big part of getting your finances back on track is in knowing exactly how much you have in dollars and cents on a monthly basis. Nothing else can draw a more realistic picture of your financial situation in terms of opportunities, weaknesses and strengths than seeing the “real” numbers. You should see steady month-to-month improvement in your fiscal health as a result of your spending, savings and debt reduction strategies.
3. Pay yourself first. Consistency and persistency are the drivers of financial success. Perhaps in the past, you never cared to pay yourself first. Saving money was never a meaningful priority. Or, maybe, you felt that saving “small amounts” could not make much of a difference. But “small amounts” can and do add up to a significant of money over time. Now, is the time to get into the habit of paying yourself first. Challenge yourself to save at least 12-15% (or more) from your weekly or monthly salary. Paying yourself first is only the first part. The second, crucial part, and one which makes all the difference, is the decision as to where to ultimately put the money. Ideally, the “pay yourself first” strategy is for the purpose of achieving long-term financial goals such as building personal savings and investments. If you want to focus on building up your mutual fund accounts (taxable or retirement account), you can have the money automatically deducted from your checking or savings account and invested in the fund of your choice. Give some thought as to where this money could be most prudently and productively utilized in accordance with your long-term financial priorities.
4. Build a 3-tiered emergency fund. Staying on firm financial footing means only thing: save, save and save! In an economic environment characterized by shrinking salaries, limited opportunities for career advancement, escalation in the cost-of-living and general uncertainty, personal savings can be regarded as a pivotal cornerstone of your financial plan. As you develop your emergency funds, consider your age, lifestyle, expenses, income and ability to earn the equivalent or possibly higher salary. It is prudent to have a separate emergency fund which can cover your living expenses for at least a year in the event of a job loss. A practical approach is to establish and contribute to emergency funds for various time horizons and situations; 6-9 months, 18 months and 2-3 years. Money stashed in your emergency funds should always be held in safe, FDIC insured accounts such as savings accounts or certificates of deposit.
5. Focus on building assets of value and not on leveraging debt. Debt simply does not build wealth. Foolish and risky debt strategies can only briefly create an aura of wealth. They can never create real, lasting wealth. Make it a goal to pay in cash whenever possible.
Getting financially back on track and staying on track requires a high level of personal motivation and self-discipline, being able to distinguish between “good debt” and “bad debt”, controlling spending, keeping credit cards to a bare minimum, paying bills on time and in full, checking your credit report annually, and not least of all, building, accumulating and owning assets of tangible value.