Correction: This column quoted personal finance author Farnoosh Torabi as advising consumers to seek help from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to settle debts. She said incorrectly that consumers can use the NFCC’s deb-management programs to settle debts without paying them off completely. The NFCC says its debt-management programs allow for the repayment of debt in full and should not be confused with debt settlement.
Usually when we seek professional help, it’s because our health is suffering, our home needs work or our vehicles aren’t running quite right. But calling in the big guns can work wonders for your finances, too. We turned to Farnoosh Torabi, a New York-based personal finance expert, author and TV personality, to learn some of her top tips for successful money management. Although Torabi specializes in making personal finance accessible for young adults, her advice will come in handy regardless of your financial situation.
1. Keep track of your spending. “We’re more and more detached from our finances — we’re not using cash anymore, so we’re not watching the dollars leave our wallets,” Torabi says. “The Internet makes it so easy to buy things; we don’t take the time to reflect on whether we’re making the right decisions for our finances.”
2. Automation is a perk, but it’s not always positive. “It’s great because you don’t get behind on your bills, but you take a back seat to managing and monitoring your finances,” she notes. “Do you really remember what you paid last month for your cellphone?” Torabi suggests using online tools to monitor your finances daily. “Do it like you do Facebook or e-mail.”
3. Pay attention to the small stuff. “We’re so busy with our lives that we don’t keep track of. little things that add up, like ATM fees, unused gift cards, unused Groupons. We spend a lot of money, but we forget and don’t make the most of it. . . . You can spend as much as $300 or $400 a year if you use a different [ATM] two or three times a week.”
4. It never hurts to ask. “If you put in a new smoke alarm or a new security system, call your insurance agency and ask for a discount,” Torabi says. “Maybe you took the car keys away from your teenager — that means you can save money on . . . insurance.”
5. Become a cash-only operation. “Cash keeps you honest about using money,” Torabi says. “When you have to pull that last $20 out of your wallet, and it’s the $20 that has to get you through the end of the week, you’ll be a lot more discriminating with what you buy.” Using cash instead of credit cards can save you about 20 percent.
6. Take charge of your debt. “Pay off the credit card with the highest interest rate first. Get rid of that sooner rather than later, and work your way down,” she says. But if you need motivation, Torabi has another tip: “If you have a card with a low balance and it will make you feel better to get one out of the way, then take your next paycheck and put it toward that TJ Maxx credit card that’s been haunting you for six months.”
7. Learn to control your impulses. “Before you buy anything you don’t really need, walk away for a minute,” Torabi says. “Put some distance between yourself and the thing you didn’t really plan on buying.”
8. If you’re having a crisis, call for backup. Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) to find a reputable credit counseling agency in your area and discuss your debt. The agency will help you plan to pay off your debt, or you can sign up for a debt management program, where the agency mediates between you and your creditors. “Your credit report will not say ‘Paid in full,’ it will say ‘Settled,’ and it will lower your credit score,” Torabi says, noting that a settlement can lower your score by at least 50 points in the short term. But the goal is to regain your financial footing. For less serious debt situations, visit Credit.com.
9. Get help online. Torabi (who consults for a host of personal finance sites) has a long list of bookmarked sites that she visits regularly. Among them:
●FinAid.org is a wealth of information on college tuition, types of student loans, scholarships and more for parents and students.
●Bundle.com, like its predecessor Mint.com, aggregates accounts and tracks your spending, but it also compares your spending habits with those of people in your area or demographic.
●Manilla.com aggregates all your assets and liabilities on one page, from your mortgage to your airline miles, letting you access your financial data with a single sign-on.
●Billshrink.com lets you compare rates for cellphone plans, cable TV service, savings accounts and more.
The Bottom Line Make the most of your money by giving your personal finances a daily checkup. Remember, cash is king — put away the plastic and deal in greenbacks to keep your spending under control. Be proactive in dealing with debt, and if you need serious help, consult a credit counseling agency. Use the wealth of online resources to save more, spend less and make smarter financial decisions.
For more personal finance advice, read Michelle Singletary’s “The Color of Money” columns.