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Real People, Real $$

Questions, issues and stumbles related to money and budgets are often measured by one challenge at a time: saving for a house, paying off a credit card, even establishing an emergency fund.

Couple reviewing budget.


Name: Stephanie, 30, legal administrative assistant, freelance event planner

Goal: Pay off credit card balance. Steph gave up a full-time job for a part-time position, but the job required a long commute and created wear and tear on her car. Eventually she took a full-time job with benefits and a minimal commute.

Our expert says: Saying "pay off my credit card debt" is a huge task that will keep you awake at night. Instead, figure out how much you can pay each month so your goal can be "Pay off $250 or whatever the number is of my credit card balance each month so I'm debt-free in eight months."

Make a list of your monthly expenses. Make another list of your annual expenses and divide it by 12. Now sort needs from wants, striking a balance between having fun and removing habits that aren't as important. Compare your monthly income and expenses. How much extra is there every month? That's the amount you should use to pay down your debt monthly. Once you've paid it off, continue to save that amount (in a bank account that is earning interest) to build an emergency fund.

Bottom line: Review your expenses to create a realistic goal for paying off debt.

Melissa and Bryan

Names: Melissa and Bryan, both 40, R.N., nutritional product franchisee, mom of four (Melissa), Realtor (Bryan)

Goals: Become debt-free, build savings, take family trips. Melissa worked part-time and from home for several years, and Bryan was a pastor and then a nonprofit fundraiser. He transitioned to real estate so he could pursue his passion of college basketball officiating.

For a while they had to put living expenses on credit cards, but they have a snowball plan to pay off their balance of about $10,000 as quickly as possible. However, his income is irregular, which makes it difficult to figure out how to budget.

Our expert says: Have two bank accounts: one for depositing income and one for paying bills. For the second account, take time to figure out a realistic budget, including savings and paying off debt. At the beginning of the month, transfer that amount into the account. If you find extra in the first account, build an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses so you have a buffer when life throws you surprises.

You need to run the numbers, figure out how much you need to save for retirement and to pay off your debts, and begin contributing to that goal. This is likely to mean tough decisions, but don't avoid saving — the quality of your retirement depends on it!


Name: Sarah, 30, online marketing director

Goals: Manage money better, save for a down payment on a house. Sarah has been working for a little over six years now and salary increases have gone to fun things like shopping and eating meals out. Within five years, she'd like to be able to put down 5 to 10 percent on a house.

Our expert says: If you save $1,000 a month for three years, you'll have close to $40,000 for a down payment on your own place. If you make it $1,500, you'll have saved $55,000 — 20 percent down on a $275,000 home. When it comes to eating out, how many of those meals are you going to remember in a week? A month? When it's a special occasion, absolutely eat out. When it isn't, bring in lunch and save the money. Here's another rule of thumb: If you are around 30 and probably have 35 years to retirement, any money you save is likely to triple in value. When you don't feel like bringing in your lunch, triple the costs of everything on the menu, because that's the real cost to you. Your $8 salad is costing you $24. Still want it? Picture that house or condo in your mind. Spend some of your lunchtime envisioning it, so when it gets hard to make a good choice, you can imagine how proud you will be to unlock the door of the home that you bought!

Bottom line: Limit meals out to celebrations, use the savings to build your down payment.

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