10 tips to help set yourself up for financial success

Share story

$100 bills
After a holiday season filled with gift-giving, and with tax season just around the corner, now is a great time to look at your finances.
LM Otero | AP 2014

Saving more, paying down debt and sticking to a budget are top New Year’s resolutions. MPR News’ Marianne Combs sat down with two financial experts who shared some smart, simple money moves to help set yourself up for financial success in 2020.

Those guests were:

Ruth Hayden, a personal finance educator based in St. Paul and the author of several books, including "Your Money Life" and "For Richer, Not Poorer."

And Jacquette Timmons, a financial behaviorist and the author of “Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate.”

Here are a few tips and takeaways from their conversation:

1) Look forward

Challenge yourself to let the past go and set up new structures for the future. “That hope and structure are needed to make it different,” said Hayden.

2) Know where your money is going

You can accomplish this through a formal budget, but the main goal is to identify patterns in your spending, Timmons said: “How are you spending it, how are you saving it, how are you earning it?” From there you can start to make changes where you see problems.

3) Communicate with yourself

What are your priorities when it comes to spending and saving? “For example, saving isn’t simply saying ‘OK, I’m going to put $100 into my saving account.’ That’s 80 percent. The [remaining] 20 percent is ‘I’m going to leave it there,’” said Hayden. Check in with and hold yourself accountable to your own priorities and goals.

4) You can start small, but start now

There’s almost never a perfect time to save money. If you can’t afford to save a lot, try to save something small, even if it’s a few cents on an interval. The time it’ll take to reach a goal might seem impossibly far off, but remember you are, in fact, making progress. It builds habits and a few cents today can become hundreds of dollars down the road, Hayden said. “Just start.”

5) Give your budget meaning

A budget is your plan, Hayden said, so first answer the question, “Why do I need a plan?” From there, divide your budget into parts and give them meaning, too. For example, segment the things you know you’ll need to spend money on — bills, car payments, food. Keep that amount separate from money you’ll spend when you reach a goal — for a vacation or special purchase — and money that stays in your account in case of an emergency.

6) Recognize the emotional side to debt and savings

While you want to pay down your debt, you don’t need to funnel every spare dime you earn toward that purpose, Timmons said. Seeing your savings go up while your debt goes down, even if it’s slower than you would like, can help you build healthy habits and encourage you to keep going.

7) Cash or credit? Decide for yourself

While some studies suggest people who typically use credit or debit cards spend more, deciding which you want to use has more to do with the habit you are trying to change. If you’re looking to be more conscious, cash could be better because you physically remove it from your account. But if you track your money just as frequently online, you can accomplish the same thing using a card, said Timmons.

8) Change your expectations around debt

If you have a large amount of debt, know that it likely will take a long time to pay it off, and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up or treat it like a “Scarlet Letter,” Timmons said. Keep track of your progress and do what you can. “It’s not so much that going into debt is bad; it is, rather, that going into debt without an exit plan [is bad].”

9) Recognize there isn’t one ‘best way’

Identify what your system is and why it works for you. There’s no single equation for saving that will work for everyone. Try using a spreadsheet, or money tracking app, or written record, and keep at whatever you see working, said Timmons.

10) Choose clarity over certainty

Don’t fixate too much on goals like “I want to get out of debt” or “I want to save money,” said Timmons. Get specific on how much you want to pay off by the end of the year when it comes to debt or the amount you want to save over a certain period.

Resources for those struggling financially

Hayden suggested these two services for those who are facing serious financial struggles.