It’s easy to dismiss mindfulness as some kind of woo-woo new age nonsense, but it’s not all navel-gazing and chakras. But when we are mindful of the things that are important to us, including money, we can greatly improve our lives.
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What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness just means giving your full attention to whatever you are doing at the moment and to the areas of your life that are important. Eating is an easy example.
If you are trying to eat less to cut calories, the advice is to do nothing else while you’re eating. Don’t watch TV, don’t read a book, don’t mess around on the computer. Just eat, smell your food before you eat it, taste each bite, chew each bite thoroughly.
When you eat this way, you eat less. If you want a comparison, eat whatever your weakness is, cookies, chips, in a mindful way and then while you’re doing something else at the same time. Count how many cookies or how much of the bag of chips you ate. You’ll find you did indeed eat more when you weren’t paying attention.
What Does This Have to Do With Money?
Our money is one of the most impactful areas to use mindfulness. When we don’t pay attention to where our money is going, it disappears like the chips we ate in front of the TV. When we don’t keep track of due dates, we pay bills late which means paying penalties and interest or even having services cut off.
When we don’t mind our money, we find ourselves aged 40 with no money saved for retirement or to help pay for our children’s college education.
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Why Aren’t We More Mindful?
Why are we so often unmindful or our finances when even those of us with the most remedial personal finance skills know how important money is. And not in the sense that it’s important because it makes you happy, not everyone feels that way, but important in that if you don’t have enough, you might not have a place to live or any food to eat.
For some of us, it’s because we weren’t taught right money habits by our families and virtually none of us learned them in school. We don’t know what good money habits are or what bad ones are for that matter.
For almost all of us, money is a taboo subject. Even if we don’t mind discussing it, we’re unlikely to find a lot of people willing to talk about it with us.
People who are doing well don’t want to feel as though they’re bragging and those not doing so well feel embarrassed or ashamed.
And some of us just find the whole subject too boring to be worthy of discussion no matter how we’re doing.
How often do you use cash when you make purchases? It’s preferable to use a credit card because you get rewards and it’s easier to track spending. But swiping that card rather than seeing cash disappear out of your wallet can lead to money mindlessness. Cash is less ephemeral than a credit card.
You can’t use cash for everything of course, but you can use it for the things most of us tend to overspend on; food, entertainment, drinks, little odds and ends like a soda and snack when we buy gas.
If you mindlessly swipe your credit card to pay for those things and then wonder why you can’t save any money, start paying for them with the envelope method.
Budget how much you can spend on those things for the month. Take out that amount of cash and divide it among envelopes marked for each category. When an envelope is empty, you can’t spend anything else on that category for the month.
The envelope method helps you develop money mindfulness. It makes you think before you spend in a way that spending on a credit card doesn’t. Once you find you’ve reigned in that spending and are sticking to a budget, you can abandon the envelope method but if you get off track, reinstitute it.
Okay, we need to be more mindful of our money. How do we do that? Sit around chanting and taking deep breaths, making a dream board stuck full of all the things we want to buy, get a life coach? No, the ways to bring mindfulness to money are more concrete.
The first thing to know is what is measured gets managed.
If you want to take control of your money but don’t know where to start, a budget is a first and arguably most important step. You have to know what you have coming in and what you have going out.
Our favorite budgeting tool is Mint. It’s free and easy to use. You’ll spend maybe an hour attaching your financial accounts so Mint can automatically pull all transactions and set up your budget. Once you do that, Mint needs very little attention.
If you need budgeting help, we’ve covered many aspects of it from how much you should spend on housing to how to cut down on food expenses (the category where we almost always spent too much and can cut down pretty painlessly).
The next step is to put money a part of your everyday life. That doesn’t mean you check your Betterment account every day or that you read the Wall Street Journal cover to cover.
It can mean finding a good personal finance podcast or blog (this one!) and keeping up to date with it. It can mean bringing up the topic of money with family and friends. There are ways to do so without making people uncomfortable.
Every Little Bit Counts
You can give money a more prominent place in your life by setting some financial goals. Set three; a short, medium and long-term goal. A short-term goal could be finding ways to cut $50 a month from your spending.
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Do you shop online for everyday things like toiletries and cleaning products? It’s an excellent way to save money because those things are often cheaper online and it saves you the hassle of having to go out and buy them.
You can save even more when you shop through Ebates. Ebates is a shopping portal that not only offers discounts for over 2,000 retailers but gives cash back too.
Viola! You’ve saved $50 a month painlessly. This will give you an extra $600 a year, not exactly small change for many of us.
You managed to cut $50 a month, now let’s make an extra $100 a month. This is still a small goal, so we don’t want to invest a lot of time or effort in it. Luckily there are lots of ways to bring extra money that doesn’t involve much of either.
Instead of wasting downtime reading Reddit use your time to make some extra money. You can use Swagbucks to make time you waste, time to make money.
Swagbucks is a rewards website. You can earn points for doing things you already to like searching the web, shopping, playing games, and watching videos. Each time you complete an activity, you earn points. You can then redeem those points for cash or gift cards.
Like to register your opinions? Make some money doing it with Survey Junkie. You earn points by taking surveys that help companies deliver better products and services. Those points can be redeemed for cash and gift cards.
Spend a few hours a week driving for Uber. On average, an Uber driver makes $10-12 an hour. By just giving up two hours of your week, you’d have your $100.
Easy but impactful. Between saving money and making money, we have an extra $1,800 a year. These small goals allow you to have a “win” right away and that helps drive you to achieve even more.
Working towards a medium-term goal lets you continue the momentum you feel from achieving your short-term goal. You did that so you know you can do this too. A good medium range goal might be to save three months of expenses for an emergency fund.
Remember, in an emergency; you would be able to cut down your monthly expenses a lot if you had to, you could cut cable, stop going out to dinner, etc.
So you just need to save three months of bare-bones expenses. If you want to stretch your medium-term goal a bit further, you can save six months of expenses which will give you the ideal emergency fund.
This goal takes longer to achieve, and you have to break it down into smaller steps. You saw what a difference it made to cut out little, everyday expenses. Now you can go after some bigger costs and wittle them down.
Still paying off student loans? How much is your interest rate? You might be able to lower it by refinancing. Reducing an interest rate by even 1% can mean hundreds or thousands of dollars saved over the life of the loan.
You can go to Earnest to see how much you could save. Enter in some basic information, and you will see several potentials refinance offers from different lenders.
It’s exciting to get a big tax refund at the end of the year, but it means that you’re giving the government a tax-free loan. If you get a substantial refund, adjust your withholdings on your W4. This puts extra money back in your pocket every month.
When we combine the money from our short and medium-term goals, we should have at least $2,000 at the end of 12 months. If you don’t have that much, look for more things you can cut, cable, gym memberships you don’t use, and dedicate a few more hours a week to making money on the side.
Planning for the Future
Now we can focus on the long-term goal. This goal can be whatever you want it to be but should be something that it will take some time to achieve and will have a financial pay off in the future like saving to buy a home or saving for retirement.
You have to have some real numbers to work with. If you want to buy a home, how much can you spend? How much is at least a 20% down payment so you can avoid PMI? Remember, your housing costs should be 30% or less or your total expenses.
And don’t be seduced by those mortgage calculators that show you can buy a whole house for less than you are paying in rent. You have to factor in expenses that come with home ownership like property taxes, maintenance, and repairs.
How much do you need to retire?
There are all kinds of things that have to be taken into consideration, at what age you want to retire, if you’ll continue to work in some capacity, how much social security you will get if you will face expensive health problems.
We can’t answer all of those and there are a million different formulas to come up with your retirement number, but we want to keep this simple. Betterment’s Retire Guide Calculator will lay it all out for you. Take a look.
Now that you have your numbers, you can start working towards them. It might seem impossible to save 20% for a down payment, but we can show you how to do it fast.
Retirement might seem far away but the longer you wait to start investing, the harder it will be to play catch up. We detailed the ultimate blueprint to invest which will guide you step by step through investing.
Always having and actively working toward a financial goal helps develop and sustain money mindfulness.
Remember, what gets measured gets managed. We not only need to track our investments, but we also need to set benchmarks, so we know if you are on track to reach out goals. An easy rule of thumb is:
- Age 35: The amount of your gross yearly salary saved.
- Age 40: Twice your salary saved.
- Age 50: Four times your salary saved.
- Age 55: Five times’ your salary saved.
- Age 60: Six times’ your salary saved.
- Age 67: Eight times’ your salary saved.
Take that final number and multiply it by 4%. That’s what you’ll be living on each year if you use the 4% rule.
You can use Personal Capital to track your investments. Personal Capital is a free suite of tools that help track wealth and optimize investments. These tools help investors track their net worth, budget, improve investment allocations and cut 401k fees. We did a full review of Personal Capital.
If you see that you are not on target, you can make adjustments to get back on track.
Now we want to find tools that make being mindful of our money easy. There are lots of ways to automate things, so you don’t have to think about them so much. Wait? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking about money more? Yes, but in a larger sense.
By automating things like bill pay and investing, we don’t have to remember to do them so we can focus on bigger money goals like buying rental property, starting an online business or refinancing our student loans. The day to day stuff should be off your plate so you can use your mindfulness for bigger, better things.
Almost all bills can be paid online now either through your bank or the service provider’s site, and most can be set to auto pay. If that makes you nervous, set an alert on your phone for three days before a bill is due and make sure to set it for a time when you’ll be in front of a computer to manually pay it.
We can’t spend money we never see, and that’s why it’s so essential to automate investing. If you aren’t already, participate in your employer’s 401k plan. The money is deducted from your paycheck before it hits your account. If your employer doesn’t offer a 401k, you can still invest automatically.
Open an account with Betterment. There is no minimum to do so, the fees are low, and you don’t need to know a thing about investing to get started. You can automate investing with Betterment by signing up for automatic deductions.
Every month (or whatever interval you choose) an amount of money you have set will automatically be deducted from your checking or savings account and invested for you. You even get a reduced fee when you sign up for auto deposit.
Money on Your Mind and Your Mind on Your Money
We have a lot of unconscious behaviors whether it’s eating the whole bag of chips without even realizing it or blowing through our paycheck and wondering where it all went. But when we make an effort to bring mindfulness to our behaviors, we can change negative habits into positive ones. Keep money in your mind and your mind on your money.
Thomas’s rock star web site to help you get the most out of your college years and beyond.
Simple Wealth: Research and evaluate rental properties.
Tool Box: All the best stuff to manage your money.
Lift App: An easy way to make a good practice a habit.
Calm.com: A guided meditation site.