Are You Bad with Money? Here’s How to Get Better

By Jamie Cattanach · September 02, 2023 · 11 minute read

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Are You Bad with Money? Here’s How to Get Better

There are moments when you may feel as if you are bad with money: You overdraft your account, pay a bill late, can’t put any cash towards retirement, or realize your savings account balance hasn’t budged in months.

If you feel as if you aren’t managing your money as well as you could in these instances, you might be right. But by taking a closer look at these signals and then shifting your course, you can get on a better track to taking control of your cash, building wealth, and reaching your financial goals.

So instead of just thinking, “I’m bad with money” and sidestepping the issue, read on to learn the signs that you could boost your money management. Then try the simple strategies that can help you improve.

4 Signs You’re Bad With Money

Sometimes the signs are clear, like getting multiple notifications for overdraft fees in a week. Sometimes, however, being bad with money is less obvious. Here are some red flags that can indicate you’re heading down the wrong financial path.

You Tend to Live Paycheck to Paycheck

Even if you are able to pay your bills in full each month, if you’re often broke after paying them, it can be a sign that you’re not all that financially stable.

Whatever your income or budget is, it can be wise to always have at least a little bit of extra money to put into savings. If that extra doesn’t exist, then you could be walking a financial tightrope, where a major crisis could be waiting just around the corner.

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You Don’t Have an Emergency Savings Fund

Not starting an emergency fund (rainy-day money tucked away in a separate savings account) is an indication that you’re living too close to the edge. It’s important to have that cash to cover an unexpected expense, such as a medical bill, car repair, or sudden loss of income.

Although the specific dollar amount you should have in your emergency fund varies from person to person, many financial experts say you should try to have at least three months’ worth of living expenses set aside to cover the unexpected.

Without this cushion, a single large expense or loss of paycheck even for a couple of months could put you in a debt spiral that can be hard to get out from under. You might be tempted to put too much on your credit card and wind up with high-interest debt.

You Only Make the Minimum Payment on Your Credit Cards

Speaking on high-interest debt: Here’s another sign that you may be bad with money. Paying the minimum on your credit cards may seem like you’re keeping up, but in reality you are gradually getting further and further behind.

If you don’t pay the card in full each month, every dollar you put on a card can end up costing you many times more in interest charges over time. Credit card debt that you can’t get rid of can be a clear sign that you’re not being as good with your money as could be.

You Often Overdraft Your Account

If you’re gotten into the habit of spending almost everything you earn, it can be easy to overdraft your account. This often results in a high overdraft or NSF fee, which can make keeping up with your expenses even harder.

Overdrafts can also result from disorganization. Maybe you have the money, but didn’t transfer it over to your checking account in time. This can be a sign that you’re not keeping close enough tabs of your money.

Recommended: How to Avoid Overdraft Fees

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How to Be Better With Money: 11 Tips

Becoming better at money management doesn’t have to happen overnight. In fact, the best approach to lasting change is often to take one small step at a time. This can be much easier to do and, as you start to see the rewards (more money, less stress), you will likely be inspired to keep going.

The following tips can help put you on the path to being good with money.

1. Setting Some Specific Money Goals

You likely have a few things you’d like to do in life that having enough money can help you accomplish. Maybe you want to take a great vacation next year, buy a home in a few years, or retire early.

Setting financial goals, both for the short- and long-term, can give you something to work towards — or, in other words, a reason to be better with your money.

Recommended: What is Financial Therapy?

2. Tracking Your Cash Flow

In order to get better with money, it can help to know exactly where you currently stand.

You can do this by gathering all your financial statements for the past several months, and then adding up all of your after-tax income to see how much is coming in each month.

Next, you can tally up how much you are spending each month. To do this, you may want to make a list of all your spending categories and then come up with an average amount you’ve been spending on each.

You may find it helpful to actually track your spending for a month or two, either by journaling or using an app that tracks spending right on your phone.

Ideally, you’ll want to have more coming in than going out each month. That means you have money you can siphon off into saving and investing, which can help you build wealth over time.

3. Coming Up With a Budget Method That Works for You

Once you have a clear picture of what’s coming and going out each month, you can create a budget for your money moving forward — in other words a budget.

While budgeting may sound onerous, it’s simply a matter of going through your expenses, seeing where you may be able to cut back, and then coming up with target spending amounts for each category.

One budgeting framework that may help you get started is a 50/30/20 budget breakdown. The idea is that 50% of your after-tax income should go to necessities, 30% goes to fun spending or “wants,” and 20% goes to savings goals.

These percentages may not work for everyone, especially if you live in an area with a high cost of living, but they can give you a general rule of thumb as you get started with budgeting.

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4. Curbing Impulse Purchases

If you tend to shop without a plan, it can be easy to grab this and that without realizing how quickly these small costs can add up. A perfect example is going grocery shopping. But the same thing can happen if you are mindlessly browsing shops at the mall or online.

Making a list — and sticking to it — whenever you shop can help you avoid overspending. If you see something you really want but you weren’t planning to buy, it can be a good idea to put the purchase on pause for a day or two.

Once you have a cool head and a fresh perspective, you can then ask yourself if you’ll actually use this item and if you can afford it, meaning you can pay cash for it now. If not, it may be a good idea to skip it.

5. Thinking About Larger Spending Cuts

There are only so many lattes you can skip or cents per gallon you can save by heading to the cheaper gas station around the corner. So when you’re trying to find places to save money in your budget, you may also want to think bigger.

For example, you might decide to ditch your car in favor of biking to work — a move that means you save not only what you’d be spending on gas each month, but also insurance, registration, and likely a monthly car payment. (And you might even be able to ditch your gym membership, with all that moving around!) Or, you might consider moving to a less-trendy neighborhood or getting a roommate to help split the rent and other household expenses.

While lifestyle changes might be harder to enact up front, once you commit to them, they can help you save large amounts of money on a regular basis.

6. Automating Your Savings

Building an emergency fund and saving for future financial goals are key steps toward fiscal wellness. So once you have graduated from being at risk of overdrafting your accounts, a great next step can be to automate your savings.

That means setting up an automatic transfer of money from your checking account (or wherever your money is deposited) to one or more accounts designated for saving. This can be done on a monthly (or bimonthly) basis, and can be timed to happen right after your paycheck hits.

If saving is a chore that you have to remember to do every month, you may get busy and forget. Why not let technology do the heavy lifting for you?

7. Bringing in More Income

Do you feel like you’re cutting back on spending as much as possible but not getting anywhere? You may need to work on earning more money.

How exactly you go about this goal is up to you, of course. Maybe this means sitting down with a boss and creating a path towards earning more money. Or, it could mean picking up some freelance work in your profession, or starting a side hustle (like pet-sitting or signing up with a ride-share or delivery app).

8. Listing All of Your Debts

Many bad financial habits are born from the easy access consumers have to money that isn’t theirs — and the need to pay those debts back, with interest.

As with budgeting, the first step in conquering your debts is knowing exactly what you’re up against. To get the big picture, you may want to create a computer spreadsheet (or just make a chart with pen and paper) and then list each source of debt that you currently hold.

This includes student loans, credit cards, car loans, and any other debts you may have. You may also want to include the loan servicer, the size of the debt, the interest rate, and the amount and date of the monthly payment on each debt.

9. Knocking Down Debt One at a Time

If you’re paying the minimum on more than one high interest credit card, you may want to focus on getting rid of one entirely. It could be the debt with the highest interest rate, or it might be the smallest overall balance to give you the psychological victory of kicking a source of debt to the curb.

Whichever one you choose, you can then put as much extra money as you can towards the balance (principal) of that debt, while paying the minimum amount due on all the others. Once you pay that debt off, you can move on to the next one.

10. Avoiding More Credit Card Debt

Getting better at managing your money can be hard to do when you’re adding to your credit card balance. Credit cards are notoriously difficult to pay back when you’re only making the minimum payments and can be nearly impossible if you’re doing that while adding to the balance.

So, you may want to use your newfound money management skills to find ways around going further into credit card debt. Maybe there are more cuts that can be made to your budget or some overall shifts in lifestyle that could help. No matter how you do it, it can be helpful to focus on spending only the money you actually have.

11. Contributing More to Your 401(k)

You might think saving for retirement is something you don’t really need to focus on until you’re older. But the truth is that the earlier you start saving for retirement, the easier it will generally be to save enough to retire well. That’s thanks to the magic of compounding interest, which is when the interest you earn on your money earns its own interest.

If your company offers a 401(k), it can be a good idea to contribute at least a small percentage of each paycheck. If your employer offers matching funds, you may want to take full advantage of this perk by contributing the max amount your company will match.

Recommended: When to Start Saving for Retirement

The Takeaway

You don’t have to master all of the above concepts right away. Becoming a person who is “good with money” is a journey. Start with one area and move on to the next as you feel you have mastered each financial tool.

One simple step that can make it easier to manage your money is to find the right banking partner, one who can help you with tools for tracking and managing your cash.

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