Spend less. Save more. Get out of debt.
Saving isn't easy.
Nor is keeping your wallet in your pocket when temptation calls at the mall.
But that's what it takes to start building financial security for yourself and your family. The key to success is an overall plan or strategy that's easy to remember, simple to follow and helps you make smart decisions each and every day.
So here's our 6-step plan for managing your money. It will help you control your spending, get out of debt and start saving for the future. Make it a part of your life, and you'll see the results in days, not decades. You'll be able to stop worrying about money all the time and begin building real wealth.
We're not saying you're going to be as wealthy as Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. They'll always have more cash, more investments, more homes, more everything.
But you can have enough cash, enough investments, a home and enough everything else to make a difference in your life.
It won't be a crisis if your car breaks down or you get laid off. You'll be able to help your kid go to college and your mom recover from a stroke and retire at a reasonable age. That's the real meaning of wealth.
Here's how to do it:
Step 1. Make a monthly budget and stick to it.
Stop wondering where all your money went at the end of every month. You need to develop a plan that ensures your hard-earned dollars are being spent on what you value most and that you're saving at least a little toward future goals, whether it's your retirement nest egg or a trip to Cancun.
A budget empowers you to take control of your financial life, and creating one is easier than you might think.
Step 2. Pay off your credit cards.
It's almost impossible to get ahead if you're paying 17% or 18% a year on thousands of dollars in credit card debt. The interest payments alone are gobbling up most of your money.
Start by shifting credit card debt to a card that charges little or no interest on balance transfers for six months or more.
Either way, your interest costs will plummet, freeing up money to reduce your debt more quickly.
Step 3. Build a rainy day fund.
Nothing will make you breathe easier than not living paycheck to paycheck.
Socking away three to four months of living expenses in a savings or money market account should be your initial goal. Long-term, shoot for six months of living expenses or more if you work in an industry prone to layoffs.
Begin by banking gift or refund checks, bonuses or some of the money you save by switching high-interest credit card debt to lower-interest loans. Work toward saving something from each paycheck.
Even if it's only $50 or $100 a month, see how quickly the balance will grow with our savings calculator.
Take advantage of our extensive database to find the best saving rates from scores of banks.
After you've accumulated a few thousand dollars, you can move some of it into higher-earning, three-month to one-year certificates of deposit.
Step 4. Take advantage of your retirement accounts.
Start by putting just 1% of each paycheck into your employer's 401(k) plan. Add another 1% every four months. Your initial goal: Contribute enough to take full advantage of any match your company offers.
If your company matches half of everything you contribute up to 3% of your pay, your goal should be to put 6% of your pay into your 401(k) plan. Obtaining that match is like getting a 3% raise.
You'll barely miss the small percentage of each paycheck that goes into your employer's 401(k) plan. And your contributions are tax-free, so your net pay doesn't even drop by the full amount of your contribution.
Your next goal should be to increase your contributions by 1% every six months until you are contributing as much as your company or federal law will allow.
Begin by investing in a mutual fund that owns shares in large, dividend-paying companies or one that owns a combination of stocks and bonds. As your balance grows, you can diversify into funds that own smaller companies and foreign investments.
Step 5. Spend less on cars.
Cars are the second-largest household expense. A 2007 government survey found they consume 17% of the average household's expenditures, about $9,000 a year.
Buying a smaller, more fuel-efficient car and holding onto it for a longer period can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.
Big trucks and luxury cars don't just cost more to purchase. They cost more to insure, maintain, repair and fill up at the pump.
A $30,000 car that gets 20 miles per gallon could run about $4,750 per year in annual expenses, including finance charges, insurance, gas, maintenance, repairs and registration.
If you trade in your car for a new one every five years, your car expenses over a 40-year period run more than $500,000.
Switch to a $20,000 car that gets 35 m.p.g. and you'd cut your car expenses to about $350,000. If you also increase the time between trade-ins to 10 years, your total car expenses drop to about $250,000.
That's a quarter-million dollars you can save, invest and profit from.
Step 6. Track your progress.
Use our net worth calculator to see how your wealth is growing.
Think of it as your financial score in the great game of life.
After each quarter -- they end March 31, June 30, Sept. 30 and Dec. 31 -- record how much your savings and retirement accounts are worth. If you own a house or car, estimate their current value.
Then enter all of your debts, such as how much you owe on your house, car and student loans.
The calculator will subtract your debts (or liabilities as they're often called) from your assets to obtain your net worth.
Don't be surprised if your debts are bigger than your assets, especially if you're in your 20s. What you want to see is your net worth steadily improving. Maybe not every quarter. But most quarters. Celebrate the success.