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Anyone who’s ever set a goal knows: Envisioning the end result is the easy part. The actual execution can be a little trickier. And when that goal involves anything that has to do with your finances — well, that can prove to be even more daunting.
If you find meeting a money goal intimidating, you can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone: According to the American Psychological Association's 2016 Stress in America report, 67% of respondents cite money as a source of stress.
But that shouldn't stop you from striving to take control of your finances — and one way to help make that feel a little more manageable is to turn smart financial practices into habits.
Start with this four-week challenge. It breaks things down into easy-to-do tasks, with just one per week. By turning the occasional good choice into your new norm, smart money moves can soon feel like second nature.
Week 1: Save by Starting Small
Your morning cup of coffee, after-work drinks with coworkers, ordering takeout for the third night this week — these little expenses add up. This week, give up one of your small purchases to kickstart savings.
Maybe you start by brewing your own coffee in the morning. If this feels too difficult, just remember — it’s only for seven days. If you simply can't live without your daily joe, then next week bring the barista back and find something else you can do without. Maybe that's swapping a boutique fitness class for a jog in the park or packing your lunches for the week. Add a new cost-saving cut each week while maintaining the old ones and see how that feels.
Keep track of your weekly savings and tally up the total at the end of the month; then transfer that amount to a savings account. Chances are, you'll be surprised by what you were able to save. And by taking a break from some of these previously routine purchases, you may find you're ready to cut ties with one or two permanently — meaning extra savings for you in the long term.
Week 2: Put Away the Plastic
When’s the last time you used cash? Bet you had to think about that.
This week's challenge is to use cash exclusively for all non-essential buys. To start, calculate your flexible spending budget for the week so you know how much cash to have on hand. In short, this means taking your monthly take-home pay and subtracting your fixed costs, financial goal contributions and non-monthly expenses, leaving you with your leftover "fun money." Finally, divide that amount by 4.3 to adjust for the number of weeks in an average month.
Now that you know how much you can spend in a week, consider how it feels each time you reach into your wallet. As the money physically leaves your hands, you may reconsider whether some purchases are really worth it. Make this mindfulness a habit.
Week 3: Dip Your Toes Into Investing
If just thinking about the stock market fills you with anxiety, this is the challenge for you. You won’t actually invest any of your money — but you will develop a better understanding of the market by setting up a mock investment portfolio.
This exercise can help you gain experience without actually putting money on the line. That way, if you do decide to invest for real, you’ll have a better idea of what to do.
To start, choose some stocks or funds you would theoretically like to buy, and then keep track of how they do for the next few months. Pretend to buy more, sell some or keep them the same — the goal is just to get a feel for how the market works so you can eventually consider making it a part of your financial routine.
Week 4: Schedule a Check-in on Your Net Worth
You’re in the home stretch, and it’s time to take a look at the big picture. In financial terms, that means your net worth — or the difference between your assets (what you own) and your liabilities (what you owe). This number gives you a snapshot of your financial health.
To determine your net worth, add up the value of everything you own, including checking and savings accounts; brokerage and retirement balances; and substantial assets, like real estate, cars and jewelry. From that number, subtract what you owe, whether from credit card debt, student loans or a mortgage. The resulting number is your net worth.
If this number is negative or smaller than you were hoping, don’t panic. Now, you can devise an action plan to grow that number while also establishing future goals, like a wedding or a down payment on a house. Schedule regular check-ins to gauge your progress — perhaps it's once a quarter or twice a year — so you can keep an eye on how your needle is moving. It'll provide motivation for sticking to a saving and spending plan for the long haul.