Realistic Savings Goals: Holiday Edition

The holidays are approaching quickly, and this means a plethora of parties, presents, and potlucks. Holiday spending can get stressful, but planning appropriately beforehand can lower your stress levels.

Take 15 minutes right now to open up a new Google Spreadsheet, and make a list in the first column of everything that comes to mind that you expect to buy or spend on this season. Or download a pre-made template here: Downloadable Holiday Spending Spreadsheet. To edit, click on File -> Download As or File -> Make a Copy.

Below is a brief holiday spending list for inspiration.

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Starter Holiday Spending List

  • Presents for family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors
  • Food for parties, gatherings, and gifted baked goods (including decorations if you are throwing the party)
  • New clothes for holiday events, such as black tie galas, New Year’s Eve celebrations, ugly sweater parties, weddings, or holiday work get-togethers
  • Charitable donations for community organizations, churches, or apartment complex cleaning staff
  • Packaging and postage for out-of-town gifts and cards
  • Travel costs for driving or flying to visit family
  • Dinners with friends and family visiting from out of town

After writing all of your spending categories in column A move to column B and start estimating what you expect to spend in each category. Obviously these will not be accurate numbers, but make your best guess. You can even use column B for the “low estimate” and column C for a “high estimate.”

Finally, at the bottom of the list write “Total” in column A and in column B (and C) add up all the numbers you wrote by using a “sum” formula. Write “=sum(B1:B20)” and it will add up everything between box B1 and B20 (maybe your list ends at B10 or B50, adjust accordingly).

How does your total look? I know the numbers can be intimidating, but let’s discuss ways we can take control of our finances during the upcoming season of spending.

  1. Start Saving Early: Put away money each month, starting in January, to evenly spread the cost of the holiday spending across the full year. A slightly different approach is to start saving weekly, maybe cutting down on going out to eat during the holidays or daily coffee runs. Every little bit helps! If you save $50 for 6 weeks that is $300 you can use for guilt-free holiday spending.
  2. Cut Back: Are there any categories in your holiday budget you can tweak? Maybe you go to a secondhand store to buy your ugly sweater or borrow it from your grandma. Maybe you can DIY crafts as presents for friends and family. Maybe you can make your holiday party a potluck.
  3. Sales: Cyber Monday and Black Friday are coming up. Take advantage of the sales by planning early and creating a list of presents you’ll need. You are already on your way with the holiday spending spreadsheet!
  4. Credit Card Rewards: Many credit cards offer reward points to help you save on clothes, plane tickets, and gift spending. Do some research to see what your card can offer you today!
  5. Update Your List: As you start purchasing gifts and attending parties, keep track of exactly how much you spend. You can create a new column on your spreadsheet for “Actual” amounts. This will help you adjust your numbers in the other categories if you spend more or less than expected, and more importantly, it will give you a better estimate for next holiday season!

In just a few short weeks this holiday season will be over. Time passes quickly when you’re having fun! Take your recorded “Actual” spending amounts from Step 5 and go back to Step 1. It is never too early to start saving for next year’s holiday season, and this time you will be extra prepared by knowing almost exactly what you will need to save. Let’s work together to take the spending stress out of the holiday season!

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Other Realistic Savings Goals Posts

Google Spreadsheets 101: The Basics

Spreadsheets are one of my favorite organizational tools because they are fun and easy to use! I use Google Spreadsheets to budget, store my favorite recipes, create travel itineraries, make shopping lists, organize potluck dinners with friends, and more. Spreadsheets are a quick and simple way to efficiently store, organize, and share data.

In the new series “Google Spreadsheets 101,” I will share the tips and tricks to make using spreadsheets an effortless part of your everyday life.

The first five tips you see below answer some questions you have asked about customizing the starter budgeting spreadsheet. In the beginning, spreadsheets may seem overwhelming and cumbersome, but they can become a fun part of your budgeting process!

Tip 1: Overview of a Google Spreadsheet

First, let us review the main parts of a spreadsheet using Google Spreadsheets.

  • Name: If you click on this you can edit the name of the spreadsheet directly.
  • Toolbar: You can format the look of the spreadsheet with colors, borders, number formatting, etc.
  • Function Box: This allows you to perform functions such as summing a set of numbers to find a total value. See the complete list of functions here.
  • Column/Rows: These make up the body of the spreadsheet.
  • Tabs: You can create new sheets within one spreadsheet to group relevant data.

Tip 2: Freezing Columns

The first step when starting a new spreadsheet is to determine how you want to use it. Will it be a simple shopping list, an itinerary for your trip, a new budget? This will help you determine which headers you need. Start by filling in the main headers. You can freeze the first column so that whenever you scroll to the right on your spreadsheet, the headers are always showing. You can also freeze the top rows as well.

Tip 3: Adding Columns

If you want to add a new column simply right click on the top of the column (with the letter) then click insert to the left/right depending on where you want to place the new column. If you have a specific formatted set up that you want to implement in your new column (like colored highlights or bolding), you can also right click, copy the appropriate column, and paste it in your new column to duplicate its format. This is also true with rows.

Tip 4: Creating a “Sum” Formula

The most common reason to use a spreadsheet is to take advantage of its handy formulas. For example, if you want to add up all you spent last month, you may use a “sum” formula. In a new box on the spreadsheet, write “=sum(” (without the quotations) and then highlight all the boxes you want to add up. If you want to add the numbers in the boxes in a row or column, just drag your cursor along the row. If you want it to add up boxes that are not connecting, hold the “ctrl” button on your keyboard and click the selection of boxes to add up.

Later on you may need to double check that your formula is adding the correct boxes, especially if you add new rows or columns. Double click on the box that has the “sum” formula. In the function box at the top of the screen you will see which boxes it is adding. It should also highlight those boxes in different colors on the spreadsheet to help you easily identify any boxes missing from the sum formula.

Tip 5: Duplicating a Tab

I prefer to keep my budget spreadsheet organized with a new tab for each month so that I can easily review a year’s expenses. To create a new month’s spreadsheet, right click on the appropriate tab at the bottom of the screen and select duplicate. A “copy” of that tab will appear, and you can double click to update the name of the new tab. Keep in mind that this will duplicate all the information of the previous tab, so I suggest duplicating clean tabs without any of your monthly data before putting in the information.

If you have any other questions about using Google Spreadsheets please contact me through the blog’s Contact page or Facebook page. No question is too small! I will answer the subsequent group of questions in the next installment of the “Google Spreadsheets 101” series. Thank you!

What’s the Deal with Credit Scores?

What is a credit score? Ads are always offering to help improve it, so it must be important! A credit score is a number that ranges from 300 to 850 and is a measure of borrower reliability. Lenders, such as banks and credit card companies, use credit scores to evaluate the probability that an individual’s debts will be repaid. There are six different factors that contribute to the overall number.

Millennials have an average credit score of 634, which translates to a “Poor” rating. (Source: BadCredit). I believe this score is low due to a lack of knowledge, so let’s learn more about credit scores today!

Mint.com offers a free way to look at your credit score. When you first click on the button to see your credit score, the website may ask you a series of questions about possible loans or mortgages you have (or do not have) to verify your identity. I suggest taking a few minutes now to complete this step. (If you use another website to see your score, let me know what you use and if I should check it out!)

How does your score match with the average credit score for millennials? See below to find your ranking.

  • 720 or More: Excellent
  • 660 – 719: Average/Fair
  • 620 – 659: Poor
  • 620 or Lower: Bad

If you are not happy with your score, adjusting your spending habits and being patient can help you increase the ranking. Below we discuss the individual factors that affect your score in detail.

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The Six Credit Score Factors

High Impact Factors

  1. On Time Payments: Setting up an automatic payment between your bank account and credit card is the best way to stay on top of your credit score. Late payments can have a major negative effect on your credit score.
    1. Bonus Tip: If you pay the balance on your credit card account before the monthly bill is released, this will not affect your credit score. You have to wait until your monthly bill is released before paying the full balance to have any positive effect. (I know. How strange!)
  2. Staying Below 30% Usage: Take note of your credit card usage limit and make sure to try to stay below 30% each month. Sometimes this means using cash, debit cards, or other credit cards instead of maximizing use of just one card.

Low Impact Factors

  1. Average Age of Credit: Luckily this is a lower impact factor. Those of us starting out with new credit cards will automatically have a poor rating in this section. It is a good idea to keep older lines of credit open to help this factor.
  2. Total Accounts: A higher number of total accounts is beneficial for your credit score because it shows that more lenders trust you. This total comes from your various loans, mortgages, credit cards, etc.
  3. Credits Inquiries: Inquiries stay on your report for two years and occur when you apply for any lines of credit (credit cards, loans, etc.). It is inevitable that this category is poor when you start opening your first lines of credit, but make sure that you do your research so that you do not apply unnecessarily and get rejected, which will reduce your score.
  4. Derogatory Marks: This includes credit accounts in collections and bankruptcy. Pay those bills on time! If you do have any derogatory marks, it takes over seven years to clear these from your history, so patience is your friend.

This topic is very important, but it is also one of the most confusing personal finance topics in my opinion. Clear answers to questions about credit scores are hard to come by, so if you have any trouble with this information, please reach out, and I will happily do my best to help you find an answer! Good luck and happy credit building!

Realistic Savings Goals: Travel Edition

After graduating college and joining the workforce in 2013, the first thing I wanted to do was save up for a trip to my favorite place, Japan! To take the first step towards my goal, I had to figure out where I was spending my money so that I could realistically cut back spending and start saving. That was the start of my budgeting journey!

If you are reading this blog, you are probably passionate, motivated, and very busy. I bet you have a multitude of fun projects and trips in the works. Maybe you are building your very own home gym or saving to go backpacking in Europe or even creating an art business on Etsy. Whatever it may be, determining a smart and realistic budget is the right way to get started.

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In the “Realistic Savings Goals Series” we will explore tried and true methods used to save up for a variety of goals.

Today we will discuss how to save for a trip, either domestic or international travel. This method will help you create a manageable savings schedule.

Five Step Process to Save for Travel

  1. Determine the overall cost. When I was planning my trip to Japan, I thoroughly researched the cost of airfare, housing, food, local transportation, and even souvenirs. It is better to be safe and go a little overboard than to have your savings pool run out halfway through your trip.
  2. Determine your timeline. When is the soonest you can depart? Figure out your ideal vacation date and then work backwards to do the math. Let’s say you want to save up $1000 for a trip to California, and you have five months to save. $1000/5 months = $200 a month you need to save.
  3. Determine if it is realistic. Would $200 a month be possible to cut out of your current budget? Maybe you decide to spend less on going out to eat or don’t add to your emergency savings goal for a month or two. If you don’t feel comfortable with this plan, it is time to rethink your departure date. If you wait a total of eight months: $1000/8 months = $125 a month. This turns into about $30 a week. Is this more realistic? If not, keep working backwards.
  4. Stick to your budget! The hardest part of any budget is sticking to your plan. Some tricks I’ve used in the past include updating my budget spreadsheet weekly (instead of monthly), setting alerts on Mint.com (when I overspend in a category), or taking out cash instead of aimlessly spending with credit cards. Let me know what tricks you use!
  5. Record everything. Every time I return from a trip, I’m itching to plan the next one. If you record all of your costs (from airfare to snacks) in a separate spreadsheet during or after your trip, this makes budgeting for future travels easier and more realistic. It also is fun (for me!) to compare what you expected to spend versus what you actually spent. Sometimes this is possible to do in your monthly budget, but most trip expenses span multiple months, such as the day you buy airline tickets months ahead or book hotels a few weeks ahead. Keeping everything together in one place is a great way to simplify saving for your next trip!

Bonus: Travel Checklist

There are a lot of expenses to consider when traveling, this checklist covers the basics. If you can think of anything I am missing, let me know, and I will continue to make the list more comprehensive!

  1. Airfare – Take advantage of price tracking sites like Kayak, Cheapoair, Skyscanner, Mobissimo to determine the best time to buy affordable tickets. Tuesdays are generally the cheapest day to buy tickets!
  2. Housing – Consider the costs for all housing options such as hostels, AirBnB, or hotels. Consider joining an awards club for free nights or deals. If you stay with friends and like to bring gifts to your hosts, don’t forget to budget for those too!
  3. Sightseeing and Activities – Do research before you go! What are the top places to see and how much are they? Are there city or combination passes that include a lot of these locations?
  4. Food – Determine average cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks at your destination. Look up unexpected costs of that particular destination, such as places that charge for tap water and bread. If you want to want to save money, think about stopping at a grocery store for breakfast items, snacks, or even food to cook if you are staying somewhere with a kitchen.
  5. Transportation – Will you be using taxis, trains, subways, renting a car, or walking? Be sure to look up if your location has a special rate for all-you-can-ride for 24 hours, 3 days, or a week!
  6. Souvenirs – Before you leave, make a list of friends and family for whom you want to buy souvenirs and how much you are willing to spend on each person. Be sure to calculate how much you want to spend on yourself as well.
  7. Luggage – If your purse, backpack, or suitcase needs to be updated before you leave, you may want to add this into the overall cost of your trip.

Starter Budgeting Spreadsheet (Part 2)

In our last post we talked about the Starter Budgeting Spreadsheet. Since this may be the first time you are doing any sort of budgeting, I wanted to provide clear and concise steps to get you started! By the end of this post I know you will be much more comfortable and confident with the process!

Goal for this Week: Review September 2017 income and expenses

Resources Needed: Budgeting Spreadsheet and an account with Mint.com (Sophie’s Top 5 Reasons for Using Mint.com)

Estimated Time: One hour or less

Let’s begin!

  1. Open up your editable copy of the starter budgeting spreadsheet in Google Drive or Excel.
  2. Login to your Mint.com account. Open the Transactions page and export all transactions via the link at the bottom of the page.
  3. The Mint.com export comes in .csv format, you can open this with either with Google Spreadsheets or Excel. Then open your starter budgeting spreadsheet in an adjacent window for easy access.
  4. Manually copy and paste each transaction from September to the appropriate section of your spreadsheet. See how to format the spreadsheet in the “Sample Version” tab of the Starter Budgeting Spreadsheet or in the screenshot below.
  5. Finally, spend a few minutes reviewing the end result. The totals in Column C will automatically add up due to embedded formulas, but it is good to double check that all of your entries are being “summed” correctly.
  6. If you have any trouble using the spreadsheet or find the formulas are not working, please feel free to Contact Me! As we talked about last week, remember that it is a work in progress, and I bet you can quickly find ways to update the spreadsheet to make it easier to use. I encourage you to make it your own!

Congratulations! You are done with September’s budgeting spreadsheet!

Look at the totals for each category and your final profit or loss for the month.

Does it surprise you? Were there any categories that you spent more or less than you expected? I am sure right away you can identify some areas that you could save in for next month!

As you get more comfortable reviewing your finances each month, I strongly recommend updating the spreadsheet to fit your lifestyle. For example, it might be helpful to add new categories in Column A such as public transportation costs, student loan repayments, or specific savings goals for travel or weddings.

Later we will learn how to analyze and review the results in detail to help you confidently create a budget that fits your spending habits and savings goals. Please follow Sophie Explains on Facebook for the latest updates!

Note on adding transactions manually: Although it seems tedious to copy and paste each value of every transaction monthly, I find it essential to identify any red flags, such as recurring payments you thought you had cancelled or abnormal credit card purchases.

Keep in mind that manually adding each transaction can lead to error (as we are only human). Use a method that helps you identify which transactions you’ve transferred to your budget. My preferred method is to highlight rows on the exported Mint.com spreadsheet once I have added them to my budget so I do not miss or duplicate any transactions. Good luck!

Starter Budgeting Spreadsheet (Part 1)

Congratulations on taking the first step towards achieving your financial goals by reading this post! To celebrate, this week we have a two-part series on starting your very own budgeting spreadsheet. If you spend one hour at the end of each month recording and reviewing where you spent your money, you can stay focused on your savings goals.

A budgeting spreadsheet helps you understand where to cut back in spending to make room for what is important to you.

Budgeting is a work in progress, but it can be a fun one! There is no perfect template that will help you start saving money right away, and you might have to adjust the spreadsheet every few months to fit your lifestyle and spending habits. Maybe you enjoy collecting video games or are saving for a wedding or love to pamper your pets! Everyone has different priorities for spending their money that are factors for your spreadsheet.

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To get you started I have created a generic Starter Budgeting Spreadsheet based off of my own current spreadsheet:

View the Spreadsheet on Google Drive

To save this spreadsheet in an editable format, go to File in the top left corner of the page, and then Make a Copy. This will create your own private and editable spreadsheet in Google Drive. If you prefer to use Excel, go to File, Download As, Excel.

Later this week we will learn step-by-step how to fill out the spreadsheet. If you haven’t already created a free account with Mint.com, don’t forget to sign up (it only takes 15 minutes!) and link your accounts so you are ready to go on Thursday!

Note to Readers: I wanted to thank each and every one of you for all of the support I have received since launching the site, you are all amazing! Also, I want to hear from you, what budgeting problems or questions do you have? If you are thinking it, I promise other people are too, so reach out on Facebook or my Contact Page and I will do my best to answer everyone!

Mint.com: The Ultimate Time-Saving Tool for Budgeters

When I first started recording my earnings and expenses monthly, it was a tedious process: I was logging into each individual bank and credit card account to view transactions, copying them over to my personal budgeting spreadsheet, and finally re-ordering everything chronologically. At the time, I was a full-time student and did not yet have many expenses, but when I started working and living on my own, the long process made budgeting unbearable. Then I found Mint!

Mint.com is a secure and free way to combine all of your account transactions to help you budget efficiently each month.

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As this is a personal blog, I wanted to share with you my own reasons for using Mint.com. This post is extremely relevant because next week I will help you create and fill out your very own budgeting spreadsheet, and using Mint.com is a necessary time-saving resource for that process.

Sophie’s Top 5 Reasons for Using Mint.com

  1. Free: Who wants to spend money on budgeting tools when you could spend it on fun vacations and pampering pets?
  2. Secure: Mint is owned by Intuit, the same company that runs both TurboTax, a popular tax preparation software, and QuickBooks, a small-business accounting program. Mint uses multi-factor authentication upon login and SSL encryption to ensure that all data stays safe.
  3. Convenient: In addition to organizing your daily transactions, Mint provides an updated credit score each month with a breakdown explanation of the factors that affect your score, as well as clear instructions on how to improve your score. (We will dive into the importance of credit scores in a later post!)
  4. Accessible: You don’t have to worry about missing and leaving out your cash transactions, just log into the Mint app on your phone anywhere anytime and record your expenses directly.
  5. Easy: The first time you use Mint you will have to spend a few minutes linking all the appropriate accounts, but after that it’s ready to go! Mint saves me hours each month when I budget because I don’t have to switch between accounts to log information. I appreciate that Mint can find ways to save my time and work efficiently.

Mint has so much more to offer than I have discussed above, so take some time to explore for yourself and see what a wonderful resource it is. Other sites, free and paid, are similar to Mint, and I suggest you check those out as well and let me know if you find something better. In the end, I encourage you to find a resource that helps you save time each month so that budgeting is a fun experience, not a tedious chore!

Next week, to thank you for being so supportive, I have a special two-part series ready to get you started on creating your own budgeting spreadsheet! Please follow Sophie Explains on Facebook for the latest updates.

Note to Readers: No, this is not a paid promotional post, although if Mint would like to change that I would be happy to accept. (Just kidding!)

Why Should You Budget?

Do you know exactly how much you spend each month? Do you know how much of that goes to food? Clothes? Transportation?

Until I graduated college I did not know the answer to any of these questions. I had a job and a goal to go on my dream trip to Japan. I realized that to travel, I had better start figuring out where my newfound income was going. My first budget was rudimentary and not very helpful, but it did show me that if I cut down on eating out and buying new clothes, I could realistically save up for a trip within the next year. This was an exciting realization!

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What are you passionate about? I love to travel, painting, and trying new food. All of these hobbies cost money, and I believe budgeting has helped me stay conscious of my spending habits in order to save enough to continue pursuing these endeavors.

According to Google, a budget is an estimate of income and expenditures for a set period of time. When I refer to budgeting on this blog I also expand the definition to include recording past finances. At the end of each month, I take an hour to review and record my spending habits, which in turn helps me stay focused on my savings goals.

I truly believe that you cannot accurately budget without first knowing where you currently spend your money.

The hard and fast rule of budgeting is:

  • 50% of your income goes to fixed expenses (rent, grocery shopping, transportation, etc.),
  • 30% goes to other spending (clothes, movies, concerts, etc.), and
  • 20% goes to savings.

Although this ideal ratio may not always be possible, it is a great reference point. How does your spending and saving measure up?

If you are reading this blog, you are a motivated, passionate, and goal-oriented person with a multitude of plans for the future. I am here to help you achieve your financial goals in order to make these plans a reality!

Please stay tuned as we dive into starting you first budgeting spreadsheet, creating realistic savings goals, and learning about the dependable resources that quickly and efficiently review my monthly finances. You can also follow me on Facebook to stay up to date with new content.

The picture you see below was taken in Japan this year. Because of effective budgeting, I have been able to save enough money to go to Japan three times!Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 1.32.21 PM.png

 

Welcome

Welcome and thank you for visiting!

The mission of this blog is to be an easy-to-use resource for young adults who want to take charge of their personal finances and professional development.

My goal is for readers to leave this blog ready to take action and feeling empowered to follow their dreams through smart, attainable goals.

By using personal anecdotes I hope to inspire a kinship with readers, which encourages them to reach out and start a conversation about their hesitations and concerns in their personal quest to reaching their financial and professional ambitions.

Please join me on this journey!

Best Wishes,

Sophie