Make a list of what’s bugging you.
Sometimes we don’t have a concrete reason to be worried about our money—but reading the headlines about the current recession can make us panic anyway. So get clear. Confront your anxiety by writing it down: Are you concerned about regularly paying bills late? Beefing up your emergency fund in case you or your spouse loses a job? Deciding whether you can afford to quit work and stay home with your kids? Sometimes just seeing your worries on paper can make them seem more manageable. You don’t need to ponder solutions yet. Just write down what’s bothering you.
Set a “worry appointment.”
Ellie Kay, mom of five and author of The Debt Diet, says she’s learned to fit money worries into her busy schedule without letting them take over. “My grandmother taught me to pick a specific day and time to worry. If I was anxious about how we were going to afford the next baby, for instance, I’d tell myself, ‘I’m going to think about that on Tuesday at ten a.m.,'” she says. “Of course, that exercise often helped set aside my worry. But if it was still nagging at me, I’d use that hour to do some research or talk to friends about the problem.” Use the time each week to tackle one of the things on your list. For instance, if paying off your credit cards is on your mind, use your “worry hour” to check out debt calculators at a site like dinkytown.com. You can plug in differently monthly payment amount and figure out how long it will take to pay off your credit cards.
Reduce surprise expenses.
A simple way to gain control of your money worries is to tackle budget busters like big winter heating bills or unexpected car repairs. Shannon Plate, a mom of two, professional budget counselor, and author of Degunking Your Personal Finances, has an easy solution: Estimate any expenses that could pop up periodically throughout the year — gifts for holidays and birthdays, summer camp for your kids, and car and household repairs. “Divide these annual expenses by twelve. That’s what you should plan to save every month to cover your costs. You can start a separate savings account for this money or categorize it separately in your checking account if you’re careful about it,” she says. One way to eliminate the surprise factor in your monthly utility expenses: Most gas and electric companies offer no-cost “budget” or “even-pay” plans. The company simply reviews your utility bills over the past year, determines your average monthly cost, and charges you an even amount every month. No more surprise $400 heating bills in the middle of January.
Figure out one way to save on regular expenses.
You can’t cut your spending on everything all at once. Instead, Kay suggests focusing on just one area of potential savings each week:
• Try online comparison shopping at sites like MySimon.com and PriceGrabber.com for anything from microwaves to toys.
• Call three or four other daycare centers and compare their rates to what you’re paying now.
• Focus on the items that cost the most — and on those that can save you a lot. Don’t waste time figuring out how to save ten cents on baby food when diapers are much more expensive.
Pay your bills according to your paychecks.
Maybe you and your husband get paid every two weeks but you’re paying bills only once a month. That’s an easy way to lose track of how much money you really have and how much you owe.
Set aside an hour this week and try this method instead: Make a section on a piece of paper for each paycheck you get per month. If you and your partner both get paid twice per month, for instance, combine your pay and write sections for “Our No. 1 Paychecks (first of month)” and “Our No. 2 Paychecks (15th of month).” List your take-home pay for each paycheck period.
Now decide which bills you can afford to pay out of each paycheck. Anything due at the very beginning of the month (such as mortgage, rent, and daycare payments) should be paid out of Paycheck No. 2 from the previous month. Anything due in the middle part of the month can be paid out of Paycheck No. 1. Variable expenses like diapers, groceries, and clothing can be split between the two checks. If you truly have too many bills due during one pay period, see if you can change the due date on your credit card bill or if you can pay your daycare provider every two weeks instead of once a month.
Then create two folders: “First of the Month Bills” and “15th of the Month Bills.” Leave them where you can see them, and drop each bill into its appropriate folder as soon as you receive it. Now you’ll know exactly what to pay and when to do it.
Banish the budget.
“Most people hate the word ‘budget’ as much as I hate the word ‘diet.’ It’s so limiting!” says Janet Luhrs, a mom of two and author of The Simple Living Guide and a monthly newsletter at Simpleliving.com. If you’re worried about that unforgiving bottom line, try looking at the bigger picture, she says. One night after the kids are in bed, sit down with your partner in a relaxed setting and talk about what you’d really like to spend money on if you could.
What are your ideal ways to spend your hard-earned green? Traveling? Retiring early? Adding a pool? “So next week, when you consider buying something unnecessary, ask yourself if that purchase is more important than those big-picture goals you discussed. When you put spending in that context, it often helps you spend less,” says Luhrs.
Use cash for little extras.
It’s fine to use credit and debit cards for most of your monthly purchases, as long as you’re good about keeping track of what you’ve spent. But for the fun money you spend with your kids — that morning at the indoor play park, trip to the zoo, or ice cream treat — give yourself a weekly cash allowance and stick to it, says Amelia Warren Tyagi, a mom of two and coauthor (with her mom, Elizabeth Warren) of All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan. Cash can help you feel more in control of otherwise forgettable purchases. “It’s easier to relax about money if you don’t feel it’s constantly leaking out,” says Tyagi.
Start a mini-emergency fund.
Financial pros often say you should save the equivalent of three to six months of living expenses in case you hit an unexpected bump in the road, like a job loss or big medical expense. But for many families, that’s an unreachable goal.
Since a rainy-day fund is a great way to decrease money anxiety, Dave Ramsey, radio talk-show host and author of The Total Money Makeover, advocates putting $1,000 into a “beginner” emergency fund. “This fund can help you pay for unexpected expenses so you aren’t tempted to pull out your credit cards and go deeper into debt,” he says. The money should be in an easily accessible place like a bank money-market account. To jump-start your savings plan, have a garage sale or stash away your next raise.
By Teri Cettina
The bottom line: Doing something, anything, to improve your family’s money situation — even if it only takes a few minutes at a time — is a great way to break out of your worry rut. Think in terms of baby steps. Every step you take can make you feel just a little braver about taking the next one.
Teri Cettina is a mom, freelance magazine writer and family finance blogger: www.YourFamilyMoney.wordpress.com.