Money matters | Diet for a healthy bank account

Many people spend more than they make. Overspending and impulse control are often related. The challenge is creating tools to separate emotions and spending.

We all know of friends or family members who have spending problems, credit card debt or other credit problems. Money problems can make you feel as if you are suffocating. To start breathing again, you have to change your behavior. That means trading off pleasure now for achieving financial goals later.

So how do you start taking control of your financial behavior? The first step involves a simple but challenging proposition: Spend no more than your earned income.

It’s all about your goals.

Spending habits have a direct impact on achieving financial and life goals. Spend more than you make, and you build debt or deplete savings. Debt seems to grow a great deal faster than savings. Interest payments grow quickly, especially on credit cards. Credit card companies have figured out how to make spending feel painless, at least in the moment.

Something else to think about: Debt kills credit ratings fast. Try to buy a home, or keep the one you have, when you’re riddled with debt. Or attempt to rent an apartment. Your prospective landlord will be looking at your creditworthiness. Credit scores affect your ability to secure insurance policies, including life and auto.

Most of you have a home to live in even if it is expensive. But how will you be able to afford vacations, your children’s education and a secure retirement? If you begin to use some basic tools, you can deal with current debt and prevent future debt.

You can change your financial behavior — not just in the short term, but over the long term. These tips seem intuitive and simple, but they are not easy to achieve. Maintaining the changed behavior is the biggest challenge.

I won’t mislead you. You won’t find all the answers in this or any other column. Taking back control of your finances is too complex. But since the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, here are three to help you start gaining control over your finances and enjoying peace of mind:

Take it slow. Starving yourself is not the best way to lose 20 pounds. You won’t keep them off. Running 10 miles after being a couch potato isn’t the best way to get in shape and is a good way to get hurt. Changing spending behavior is much the same. It takes time. Let yourself ease into the process.

Work with a simple tool you already possess. Have all your pay deposited into a single checking account — one with a “safety” balance of, say, $500 or $1,000, if you have that. For one month, pay every bill and expense from that account with either checks or cash. Don’t use money from anywhere else.

Stop at the break-even point. When you “run out of money” for the month, stop buying. (Big hint: Stock up on groceries early.) So what happens after three weeks when there’s a dinner you’d like to enjoy at a favorite restaurant or a piece of jewelry you’d love to own? If your checking balance has reached your safety balance, meaning all your previous month’s income is gone, eat at home and wear the jewelry you already have. Repeat for a second month, then a third. Spending without limits is like driving a sports car 100 miles an hour, then discovering you’re about to go over a cliff you could have avoided.

When I mention this approach to some clients — many with impressive six-figure incomes — they often respond, “But this can’t work because it’s too simple. Shouldn’t I be doing more?” My answer is, “No and yes.” If you do nothing other than keep your monthly expenses within your monthly income, you’ll be achieving more than millions of other people.

But yes, after you’ve disciplined yourself to live within your means and discover you feel more in control of your life, there will be more to do.

In my next column, I’ll talk about a more comprehensive approach to securing your financial situation. It’s also simple, but best accomplished with a bit of professional guidance.


Ira Fateman is a certified financial planner in San Francisco who conducts free personal finance workshops for Hebrew Free Loan. His next workshop, “Managing Finances for Aging Parents,” will be held at 7 p.m. May 13 at the Embarcadero YMCA in San Francisco. For information, visit “Money Matters” will appear every four weeks in J.

Ira Fateman

Ira Fateman is a certified financial planner at SAS Financial Advisors in San Francisco. He can be reached at (415) 277-5955 or [email protected].