Personal Finance

Financial discipline is an everyday practice

By Michelle Singletary

The Dow Jones industrial average hit an epic, historic, noteworthy 20,000, and you know what?

Your financial life is still a mess.

The Great Recession left a lot of investors apprehensive about investing in the stock market. So I can understand the media’s focus on a financial benchmark that once seemed elusive. Yet reaching this milestone isn’t going to change your everyday money issues. It’s just a number.

“The Dow hit 20,000. The Queen of England turned 90 last year. Both are round numbers. Neither carry any real significance,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst.

Rather, he added, you should focus on maintaining or developing a discipline of investing regularly.

Your attention should also be trained on getting rid of debt or on the fact that you can’t benefit from a bump in the markets if you’re not investing in the first place.

To help you concentrate on what’s germane to your day-to-day financial life, I challenged you to participate in the #NoDebtNoMess Color of Money Challenge. For three weeks, I encouraged you to declutter your debt and some messy areas in your home. The two are much the same. Without order you can have chaos.

At the beginning of each year, we make promises to ourselves and for a little while we keep our word. But change — real transformation — happens over months, not just weeks.

You have to start somewhere. So during the first week of the #NoDebtNoMess challenge, you assessed the mess in your home and in your financial life.

Going forward, here are some tips to help you continue.

Once a year, calculate your net worth. Set a goal for what you want this number to be, and regularly review your assets and liabilities to help you determine how to get there.

To make it easier, I’ve posted a net worth statement online both as a PDF (wapo.st/2j5dhJ5) and as an Excel spreadsheet (wapo.st/2kt23es).

Keep striving for less mess in your home. Maybe you’ll find some items you can sell online to pay down your debt. If you do decide to sell things, take precautions so that you’re not scammed. The Better Business Bureau offers the following advice:

▪ Don’t take money orders or checks. A fake check can look real. It can take weeks for a bank to discover it’s a fake.

▪ Never accept overpayments. In one type of scam, a buyer sends a check for more than an item is worth and asks you to send back the overage.

▪ Meet potential buyers in person — and in a safe public place. Check to see if your local police department has set up a “safe exchange or zone” program where you can meet a buyer in the parking lot or lobby of the police station.

The website safetradestations.com compiles a list of police stations nationwide that allow people to meet for such exchanges. Click on the link “Where to Trade.”

In week two of the challenge, focus was on reducing redundancy. And in week three, I encouraged you to lighten your load by working to rid yourself of any credit card debt.

Need an incentive? Go to bankrate.com and search for “Credit card minimum payment calculator” to see how long it will take to be free of that debt if you make only the minimum payment each month.

Continue to shed financial documents you no longer need. You’ve worked hard to declutter your files. Don’t you dare let the paper start to pile up again.

One reader said the challenge validated her decision to finally declutter her home office/den.

“My husband died almost 10 years ago and I decided it was high time to get rid of a lot of financial stuff dating back to his days of managing our affairs,” she wrote.

She eliminated and shredded so much paper that she was able to dispose of a “big ugly four-drawer metal filing cabinet.”

Throughout the challenge, I posted videos of my own mess. My intent was to show how disorganization in your physical space is much like disorder in your financial life. You can find the videos online if you ever need encouragement:

#NoDebtNoMess Introduction: wapo.st/2jAlG43

Week 1 — Assess the Mess: wapo.st/2jbBvS4

Week 2 — Reduce Redundancy Part 1: wapo.st/2jSUP7t

Week 2 — Reduce Redundancy Part 2: wapo.st/2jMwr4j

Week 3 — Lighten Your Load Part 1: wapo.st/2jZhK0p

Week 3 — Lighten Your Load Part 2: wapo.st/2jZrW8P

Our New Year’s exercise may be over, but your work is far from done. Keeping your house organized and striving to be debt-free is a lifelong challenge.

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