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How to Put Your Finances First

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Money can’t buy happiness, right? But it can buy experiences that make us happy. So it’s easy to rationalize not letting cost hold us back when we decide what to spend on. And then we find out our supposed happiness is making us broke. It’s so much more fun to dream of the next vacation or electronic device than to think about its financial impact. But, at the risk of sounding like a scold, indulge me for a moment for a review of four tried-and-true suggestions to help keep you solvent without taking away all life’s pleasures.

1. Budget First, Then Decide

Track every dollar you spend for three months, and determine an average for each category per month. Once you create a budget (and don’t make it so austere you can’t follow it), stick to it. Define reasonable goals and consider your budget before you order in late-night food or purchase a weekend excursion … because you saw it on Groupon. (You may not have time to go anyway.)

2. Set Aside Extra Living Expenses

Your budget should include long-term savings for goals like buying a home and retirement, as well as some emergency money to have on hand when something unexpected comes up. Having and growing a rainy-day fund is essential to your financial well-being in case you lose your job, have a serious accident, become ill or face any other unexpected financial challenge. Leave that money untouched except for in an emergency. Without this money you could find yourself relying on high-interest credit cards or personal loans. (Also, check your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com and your free credit scores from Credit.com regularly. In the event you do have to borrow, good credit scores can mean lower interest rates.)

3. Avoid Consumer Debt

Living within your means is a constant challenge when overspending and credit card charges are at your disposal. Having high-interest credit card debts or loans can stress you — no pair of shoes, new iWhatever or car can help that. Spend only what you can afford so you don’t put yourself in a financial hole that will be difficult to climb out of.

4. Learn to Say No

One big obstacle to putting your finances first is the inability to say no. Whether you feel like you will be hurting yourself, by missing out on experiences, or others, by disappointing them. You don’t need to use your budget as an excuse — it’s best to find a way to talk honestly with those in your life about what you can afford and look for low-cost bonding ideas or pick your activities with an eye toward what you can afford.

When you feel tempted to abandon your financial good intentions, have a backup plan in place. Phoning a friend to discuss the implications of taking on debt or forcing yourself to wait 24 hours before making a large purchase can help you avoid impulse spending. And you may find that financial security is also a source of happiness — or at least that it brings relief from worrying about money.

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