What rules do you have to manage your money?
I ask because, generally, when I work with folks, I realize that when it comes to their finances, they’ve been mostly winging it. I call it “financial chaos.”
Personal finance is complicated, and one way to avoid trouble is to set up some guidelines. For instance, my husband and I have rules about managing money in our marriage. Neither of us can spend more than $200 without consulting the other. It takes two “yesses” to make any major purchases. We don’t co-sign for anybody.
Recently I wrote about how the Urban Institute, in partnership with D2D Fund, had tested the theory that if you create rules-of-thumb for credit card users who carry balances month to month, you could change their behavior for the better.
The two guidelines for credit “revolvers” were: “Don’t swipe the small stuff” – or, simply put, use cash for purchases under $20; and keep in mind that using credit can add about 20 percent to your total.
The rules worked for some, and I asked readers to share other strategies they’ve used to fend off financial chaos.
Tom Hoffman of Pearisburg, Virginia, wrote: “I have only one rule of thumb for my credit cards: Pay them in full every month, absolutely no exceptions permitted. I have a spreadsheet that projects my income and outgo approximately six weeks in advance. If a purchase were to cause me to carry a balance, I simply do not buy it. If it’s an emergency or something necessary, I probably have enough in savings to cover the expense when the credit card is due.”
Another reader echoed the importance of regularly paying off your credit cards and had a laundry list of additional rules:
▪ Set your menu to what is on sale at the grocery store.
▪ Pay extra toward your mortgage principal every month.
▪ Ask yourself before each purchase: “Is it a want or a need?” (This is one of my top rules.)
▪ Avoid bank fees whenever possible.
▪ Pay your tithes; you are blessed.
I loved the advice from Mary, who wrote, “One rule I use when I’m buying an item is to calculate how many hours I would have to work to pay for it. That puts into perspective whether I really want to buy it. I started using this rule when I was 16 working for $1.65 an hour at a department store, and I still use it today as I’m closing in on 65.”
Here are another reader’s top money rules:
▪ Buy a house on a 15-year or less mortgage.
▪ Pay cash for cars. (I know this rule would be difficult for most. So do what my grandmother Big Mama taught me. If you do get an auto loan, keep making those same monthly payments after you pay off the car – but to yourself. After all, the payment is already in your budget. Do this and, when you need a car in 10 or 15 years, you'll have the cash to pay for it.)
▪ If married, try to live on just one income.
▪ Have fun and use some of your money for vacations and other activities.
Having guidelines can help you avoid being money shamed by people. You know what I mean, right? There are folks who just have to make a comment about how you spend, trying to make you feel embarrassed about being frugal.
One reader wrote that her dryer broke. So she replaced it but with a machine that wasn’t made by the same manufacturer of her still-working washer. “My friend told me [the machines] didn’t match. They were both white, so they matched to me.”
Laura McAfee of Catonsville, Maryland, wrote, “My No. 1 rule, which I figured out in college, is never subsidize my lifestyle with credit. If I can’t afford $30 for a dinner out now, why would I think I can afford $30 plus interest next month?”
A Virginia reader got some great advice from one of her customers when she was a bank teller: “Never use credit to pay for something that will be gone before you get the bill.”
Jennifer Steffy of Great Falls, Virginia, says she avoids monthly bills if she can. “Those automatic payments drain the bank account! We dropped our cable TV plan, and waited to buy a car until we had cash, so that we wouldn’t have a monthly payment. When we had to have one, like a mortgage, we paid ahead so as to get rid of it as fast as possible.”
You want to be rich?
Get some rules for your financial life, and stick with them.