It’s summer — chances are you’ve got better ways to spend your free time than worrying about money.
But for 61% of Americans, money is an unavoidable source of tension, according to a survey from the American Psychological Association. More than one-third (36%) consider reducing stress a priority, but quieting money concerns requires more than deep breathing or meditation.
As a certified financial planner who spends a lot of time helping clients get their financial life in order, I’ve noticed a cruel irony of money-related worries: The more you try to ignore your financial situation, the more you tend to think about it. In my experience, the best way to reduce financial stress is to face it.
So, to put money out of your mind, schedule a few focused hours and add the following five tasks to your to-do list. Before you know it, you’ll have your money management on auto pilot, and you can return to more enjoyable things, like relaxing on the beach.
1. Put — and keep — one month of take-home pay in your checking account.
For most of us, on a monthly basis, paychecks come in, and payments go out. One of the best ways to put your money on autopilot is to get ahead of this process.
Having enough cash in your checking account will prevent you from overdraft fees and insufficient funds, but you don’t want to keep too much, since checking accounts rarely pay interest like savings accounts do.
If you’re an employee, a good rule of thumb is to keep an amount equal to about one month’s worth of paychecks in your checking account. That way, you’ll be able to confidently pay bills that come up, knowing not long after you do, you’ll get another paycheck to replenish the balance.
If you’re a freelancer, keep an amount equal to two or three months’ worth of expenses, depending on how long you tend to have between projects. If a bill comes early, or before you’ve gotten your next check, it won’t be a big deal, since you’ve got a built-in cash cushion.
If you don’t currently have that much cash, you can work towards building it up over the next few months. Start with a goal of getting to $1,000 extra in your checking account, and keep going from there.
Once you hit your target checking account balance, start siphoning off anything extra into a savings account. If your current bank doesn’t pay 1% interest or more on savings accounts, then look for an online bank that does.
Extra time required: 5 minutes to adjust account balances online, or longer if you need to save up.
2. Change the statement closing date for the credit card you use.
Budgeting takes time, and a lot of effort. But there’s a simple way to manage your spending without spreadsheets and tedious tracking, and all it takes is one credit card.
The strategy is to pay your credit card bill in full on the last day of the month, so you begin the next month with a $0 balance. This allows you to easily track your total spending from month to month. It also allows you to quickly check in on your progress throughout the current month — if you usually spend $1,200 a month and have already spent $500 in the first week, you know you need to scale back.
To make this work, you’ll probably have to make the following adjustments:
• Choose one credit card (or maybe two, depending on your spending and the rewards you earn), and use it for all of your spending.
• Call your credit card company and ask to change the closing date for your statement to the last possible day of the month. Since the date has to stay the same, but every month is different, this usually means selecting the 25th or 26th.
• Pay your current total balance (not your statement amount) in full on the last day of the month.
When your statement closes, your bill is usually due two or three weeks later. That means you’re often paying off your balance for the previous month on a random day during the next month, making it difficult to keep track of what you spent when.
Using this strategy means you’re paying the amount you owe early — just a few days after your statement closes, instead of a few weeks. You’ll also end up paying for anything you charged over the last few days of the month, which will be included on the next month’s statement, but there’s no harm in paying off those charges early.
You might miss out on a tiny amount of interest you could have earned by keeping your cash in savings, but the amount of brain space this strategy frees up will make the trade-off more than worth it.
Extra time required: 15 minutes to call your credit card company.
3. Increase your 401(k) contribution.
One of the best parts about saving in a 401(k) is that the contributions are taken directly out of your paycheck, before you have a chance to find a better use for that money. You’ll also get tax benefits, and — if your company offers it — free money in the form of a 401(k) match.
It takes very little time to log into the online dashboard for your company’s plan to change the percentage you’re contributing. Push the amount as high as you can realistically handle, up to the annual maximum of $18,000 if you’re under age 50 ($23,500 if you’re 50 or older).
You’ve probably heard you should save 10%, or 15%, but the reality is the more you save, the sooner you can quit your 9-to-5 job. Some people save half their salary or more.
A good starting point, if you’re new to this, is to save 5% more than you’re doing today. If that amount is 0%, then go up to 5%. If you’re already saving 10%, push it to 15%. If you’re afraid to go that high, try something smaller to start. It’s easy to log in and increase it again once you adjust to the slightly smaller paycheck.
At a minimum, if your company offers a match, make sure you contribute enough to get it. If you hit the maximum amount, don’t stop saving for retirement there. You can contribute to an IRA in addition to your 401(k).
Extra time required: 5 minutes or less by using your company’s 401(k) dashboard.