Tired of living paycheck to paycheck? Doing fine but want to do better? Prepping for the zombie apocalypse? Whatever your financial goals, you’ll have a better chance of reaching them if you have a plan for your money.
Here’s the good news: Spending plans aren’t hard to create. Whether you’re a service member, spouse, or veteran, you can typically lay out a battle plan for your cash in fairly short order. It just takes a little focused effort and some structure. Here are four steps to get it done.
Do some initial reconnaissance.
Successful missions often start with a little upfront reconnaissance, and the same goes for your spending plan. Get the lay of the land by listing all the money you have coming in and going out; be sure to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then add up all inflows and outflows, subtract your total outflows from your total inflows, and see how much is left over. With a little luck, the result will be a positive number. If it isn’t, don’t sweat it; we’ll fix that in the next step.
Related: 3 hard rules to follow with your money in the military »
Make a strategic plan to reach your goals.
Once you know your financial terrain, you can look for places to cut back spending to reach your goals. This will be especially important if your recon exercise resulted in a negative number.
As you build your strategy, start by paying yourself first — try to set aside a 10% to 15% of your monthly gross income — and then live on the rest.If saving that much won’t work right now, start with whatever you can carve out and increase it later when your pay goes up.One of my favorite savings tricks is to “set it and forget it.” In other words, automate your savings. If you don’t have to think about saving and you never see the money, you’re more likely to actually do it.
Implement your plan.
Now that you’ve got a plan for your money, it’s time to execute. Document your new spending targets by category for the coming month. Then, break it down to the coming week and if you can, even down to each day. Try hard not to overshoot your targets but if you have to, cut back somewhere else to make up for it. Making a spending plan work requires active monitoring and flexibility. Set your targets, but stay flexible enough to allow spontaneous fun into your life.
Finally, build in a process for keeping yourself honest, whether it’s setting a daily reminder on your phone or using an app to help you stay on track. The method you use to follow your spending plan over time is possibly more important than any other step you’ve taken thus far.
At the end of the week (or maybe even the day), compare your actual spending to your plan. Did you stay on track? If the answer is no, why didn’t you? Tweak your spending plan and your behavior until you find a workable balance. Don’t be afraid to adjust if you need to, then work hard to stick to the plan.