Photo: Courtesy CNBC
4. Try Harder to Save
When I suggest that people send in more money to pay off credit card balances or increase the amount they save each month for retirement, I hear the same sad story: "Oh, Suze, I would if I could, but I can't because there's no extra money left at the end of the month." I beg to differ. There's no money left because you haven't evaluated your spending habits. You need to dig deep and be willing to change those habits; to set goals and use those goals as the motivation for lifestyle changes that will allow you to save and invest. Take a clear-eyed look at your credit card statements for the past six months. Can you really tell me that there isn't at least $50 or $100 showing up that you could easily do without? I didn't think so. I call this "hidden money," and here's how you can find it.
I challenge you to reduce every one of your monthly utility bills by 10 percent. Change your calling plan or get rid of the landline account unless you absolutely need it. Dial back the platinum cable package to silver. I bet you can seriously trim your utilities by spending one afternoon increasing your home's energy efficiency: Attach a draft-blocking guard to the bottom of any external doors; add caulk or weatherproofing material around drafty windows; put low-flow aerators on your showerheads and faucets; and replace burned-out bulbs with compact fluorescent energy savers (they're pricier than conventional bulbs but last much longer, saving you money over the long term).
Cars are another great place to save. Plan on driving yours for at least seven to ten years (regular tune-ups will help keep it running longer). Consider buying a used or certified pre-owned car rather than a brand new one. If you get a three-year loan, you have plenty of life left in your car, and money that once went to car payments is freed up for other financial needs. And please, avoid leasing. Since you don't own the car, you never have a time when you are driving your car free and clear. Also, raising your deductible or designating one car to be used for low-mileage driving (under 15,000 miles a year) can reduce your insurance premiums by 15 percent or more.
5. Separate Savings from Investments
Now we're ready to move on to how you put your money to work for you and your family. There is a vitally important difference between money you need to save and money you need to invest, yet it's a distinction many people don't grasp. Money you know you need or want to spend in the next few years is savings. Money you keep handy for an emergency belongs in savings. Money you hope to use soon for a down payment on a house belongs in savings. And all savings belong in a low-risk bank savings account or money market account. The goal is to keep your money safe so that when you go to use it, it will be there.
Money you won't need to use for at least seven years is money for investing. The goal here is to have your account grow over time to help you finance a distant goal, such as building a retirement fund. Since your goal is in the future, money for investing belongs in stocks. As I'll explain later, the potential inflation-beating returns that only stocks can deliver make them the right choice for a successful long-term investment strategy.