When it comes to making decisions about what to do with our money, I find that the struggle is almost never due to a lack of information. Simply by googling any question I can find literally thousands of articles from around the web. Want to spend hours and hours researching the perfect investment? Well, you’re in luck, because if it’s been conceived of as an investment product, it’s probably available. In fact, there are currently about 4000 stocks traded in the US market, and probably tens of thousands of penny stocks available through pink sheets and bulletin boards. If you prefer fixed income investing, you can access bonds of any type — from treasuries to high-quality corporates, even all the way to “junk” bonds if you like — all of them are available in just about any online brokerage account.
And that’s just stocks and bonds; I haven’t even begun to talk about mutual funds, ETFs, index funds, REITs, annuities, fixed and variable annuities, and so on. The point is that we don’t suffer from a lack of choice. And, we don’t suffer from a lack of information either. After all, it’s all on the internet in one corner or the other.
Dr. Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, believes that the abundance of choice we have in modern life does not make us happier. If anything, it ultimately makes us more stressed out and unhappy. His best-selling book, The Paradox of Choice, argues that although we will always choose to have more options rather than less, we are actually made happier when there are less options.
A recent series of studies, titled “When Choice is Demotivating,” provide the evidence. One study was set in a gourmet food store in an upscale community where … researchers set up a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire 24 varieties were available for purchase … when it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small variety of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array did.
So, with all that paralyzing choice and data whizzing by us on a daily basis, what can you do to move ahead with your finances? Simple! Here are six quick and easy money wins that will make you feel like you’re making progress, little by little, towards your goals.
Increase your 401(k) by 1% (Or, Get Signed Up if You Aren’t!)
A 401(k) should be the centerpiece of almost every working American’s retirement, because the benefits are too numerous not to. From an upfront tax deduction, tax-deferred growth, and company matching, this is the first place to start saving for retirement if you aren’t already. In fact, I recently showed how a hypothetical couple could retire early (in their 40s) and pay no taxes whatsoever for their entire lives, and the 401(k) was a crucial part of the strategy. But if you never get started because it just seems too overwhelming, then make a simple goal to just sign up for the account. Set it up to just put 1% of your paycheck in the plan, if necessary; a little bit is better than nothing!
Sign up for Mint.com and Start Tracking Your Spending
Mint.com is one of the easiest ways to stay on top of your spending. Simply sign up for a free account, and link up your bank and credit cards. Then, as you spend money, you can track the areas where impulse-buying can sometimes become a problem.
In addition, one of the great things about Mint is it can be setup to notify you of unusual purchases. That way, if anyone hacks your account, or fraudulently uses your credit card, you can catch and report the charges before it’s too late. Check out my review of Mint.com and safety to learn more.
Cancel One Subscription Service You’re No Longer Using
Recently, I noticed my spending had gotten a little, ok a lot, out of control, so I took some radicals steps on my budget. You can read all the details in my post on how a financial cleanse can get you back on track, but one of the key strategies I used was to cancel subscription services that had piled up over time. I had monthly charges hitting my credit cards for spanish classes, TV sports packages, and coffee delivery services; none of which I was regularly using.
Take a Class (Just Sign Up for One)
Many large employers offer classes on benefits or the company 401k, and some even offer some on general personal finance. These might seem boring, but they’re a great (and free!) resource to take advantage of. In addition, many community colleges offer courses for working professionals at night and on weekends.
Sign Up for CreditKarma.com and Check Your Credit Score
CreditKarma.com is a free service that you can use to check your credit score online for free. It works similar to Mint.com in that you sign up and use it for free, and in return it recommends products (usually credit cards) for you to buy. However, I personally don’t find the ads annoying, and the advice they give about how to improve your credit is usually pretty good. Most importantly, it’s a good way to stay on top of your credit report and score.
Take 15 Minutes and Find Out What Your Money is Up To
Ever wonder how much money you spend, on average, each month? Or, how much you save? A quick “big picture” cash-flow summary is an overview of the flow of money from your paycheck to spending or saving, and it’s surprisingly easy to do. I show you how (with a video) in my article called “How to Know What Your Money’s Up To in About 15 Minutes.”
Take 15 Minutes to Shop Around for Cheaper Home and Car Insurance
One of the biggest expenses in your budget is always going to be your auto and homeowners insurance (if you own your home). What you may not know is that insurance companies tend to slowly hike your premiums each year. And, if you’ve had a clean driving record for a while now, you may be eligible for discounts that you’re not receiving. The dirty little truth is that they aren’t going to give you a discount on their own. You have to call and ask them, and while you’re at it, call a few other companies too just so that you know you’re not being ripped off.
We all want to dominate our financial lives, but sometimes “perfect is the enemy of good,” which means that striving to be perfect can keep you from making small, incremental steps forward. Hopefully, you can implement one of the above tips and improve your finances just a little bit, because all it takes is one step forward at a time to climb any mountain.