How To Save $500 In Our 30-Day Money Challenge

This story was originally published on March 1, 2016.

There’s something I find both thrilling and terrifying about financial planning. I want to know more about it, but every time I try to do a little reading on the topic, I get overwhelmed and lose momentum. I should invest, I think. I should actually know how much money is in my 401(k). I should use my credit card points before they expire. I should know when they expire!

I’m very lucky, because at 34 I don’t have any student loans, and I have a healthy savings account (after 12-plus years of careful saving). But, I often wonder if I could be doing a whole lot better if I actually spent as much time thinking about my money as I do other things in my life. I prioritize exercise, my career, and spending time with friends and family (ahem, and watching TV), so why not prioritize money management?

I envy people who have their financial lives together, but I think they must be few and far between. I talked with a lot of different folks as I was writing this article, and every single person said, “Yes, I need that.” This includes some pretty high-powered women whom I tremendously admire. We’re all struggling to get this piece of our lives sorted out.

Where do you even begin? Well, you can start with this article. Before you even get into investing and saving and 401(k)s, you need to start at the very beginning: knowing what you’ve got and how you spend it each month. From there, we’ll build upon this 30-day series with more money challenges. If you can master the plank in 30 days, you can master your money in the same amount of time.

To help us along the way, I’ve called on the services of Priya Malani, a financial planner and founder of Stash Wealth, a financial-services start-up that aims to change the way millennials think about money. Priya helped develop this 30-day plan, has answered all my inane questions along the way, and will answer any of yours as well.

A few things to keep in mind as you navigate this plan:

1. Most of these tasks can be accomplished in 30 minutes or less.

2. We give you the weekends off! It’s a chance to catch up on any days you missed.

3. Some of these days might not apply to everyone. We tried to keep the topics broad, so skip days that don’t apply to you. Use the time to catch up on a day you missed (or just enjoy a day off — you deserve it).

4. We’ll be going deeper into topics like 401(k)s, investing, and savings goals in future challenges, so stay tuned if this post is too basic for your liking.

5. You can download a calendar of the plan here.

There’s also an amazing savings plan attached to this story that I’m really excited about — it was all Priya’s brilliant idea. Each day, you save the dollar amount of the date. So on the 1st, you save $1; on the 15th, you save $15, etc. At the end of the 30-day plan, you will have stocked away close to $500. You’ll be smarter and richer. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

Ahead, a 30-day challenge for achieving total financial clarity. You can do this.

Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Please consult a professional financial advisor for advice specific to your financial situation.

Related Reading:

This CEO Makes Almost 2,000 Times His Average Employee's Salary
I Blew $600 On Hanging Out With Friends
5 Starbucks Savings Hacks You Don't Want To Miss

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 1

Time: 30 to 60 minutes (Take a little time on this one and think about what you want to accomplish. It might seem a little silly, but it’s important to achieving the end goal.)

Tools: Pen and paper

Save: $1

Before we even start talking about student loans or credit cards or index funds, we need to start at the very beginning: What do you want to do with your money and why? A money mantra isn’t some New Age, spiritual bullshit. It’s a statement that helps you remember the end goal of this project.

“This money challenge might be overwhelming for some people, and so we encourage you to pick a mantra to help you stay focused on the end goal,” Priya explains. “When you find your mind wandering, you might want to give up quickly, but your mantra will center you. ”

Here are some examples from Priya. Choose one from her list, or create your own. Write it down somewhere and keep it handy as you work your way through this challenge.

- I am committed to paying down my debt.
- I want to build an emergency fund, so I’m never in a money bind.
- I want to start saving in a more targeted way (i.e. for specific goals like travel or buying a car).
- I want to take control of my finances instead of relying on my spouse or partner.
- I want to educate myself on my finances, so I can make better/smarter money choices.

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 2

Time: Less than five minutes to get your score. You could spend a lot more time on Credit Karma exploring its offerings, including all the factors involved in computing your score

Tools: Computer and internet access

Save: $2

I’m willing to bet you know your SAT score but not your credit score. And, as a grownup, there are few more important numbers to know. Your credit score determines whether you’re eligible for everything from a credit card to a mortgage. And over the past few years, it’s become easier than ever to track your score — without damaging it.

Credit Karma
is one of a few start-ups that allow you to check your score for free. According to Priya, knowing your score and how to improve it can save you tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.

Your credit score is made up of several factors, she explains, but there are three main components to make up how your score is calculated:

Reliability: Do you pay on time?

Credit Utilization Rate (CUR):
Are you maxing out how much credit is available to you? The general rule is to stay around 30%. So, if you have a $10,000 credit limit, try not to charge more than $3,000 at a time.

Credit History:
How long have you been managing credit? It’s important to have a long credit history to prove your reliability over time.

Credit scores are like test scores, Priya says: The higher your score, the better you’re doing. Every credit agency sets its own range and corresponding “credit-worthiness,” and lenders have their own standards they consult when determining how they manage risk. So while there is not a standardized breakdown of credit scores, the higher the better.

If you find yourself with a lower score than you want, Priya suggests giving yourself a quick bump by increasing the frequency of paying down your debt. For instance, pay off your credit card balance every two weeks instead of once a month, and you should see your score increase pretty quickly.

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 3

Time: 15 to 30 minutes to look at your current plan, 15 to 30 to research alternatives

Tools: Computer and internet access, log-in info for your current savings account

Save: $3

If you don’t have a savings account — hold that thought. We’ll tackle that problem on Day 11. If your savings account is at a traditional bank, it could be time to take things online. Priya recommends CapitalOne360 to all her financial clients. There are a few reasons the online-only financial institution gets her seal of approval:

One, CapitalOne360 requires no minimum balance, and there are no fees. Chase charges $5 a month if you have less than $300 in your savings account. That can add up quickly if you’re just starting a savings plan and living paycheck to paycheck.

Two, your money will go further. Interest rates have come down a lot in the past few years, Priya explains, but because of the lower cost of overhead, online banks offer better rates on the cash sitting in your savings account. For example, as of writing, a Bank of America savings account offers .03% APY compared to .75% at CapitalOne360. That can make a big difference over time. If you have $25,000 in a savings account, it would be a difference of $180 in interest.

Three, CapitalOne360 allows you to set up multiple savings accounts (up to 25 sub-accounts) and nickname them based on your goals. We’ll dive deeper into these goals later in the month.

Downside: Some banks charge a fee to transfer from your checking account to an outside savings account. One way to avoid this is to adjust your direct deposit at work, so a portion of each paycheck goes straight to savings (which we'll talk about more on Day 16). Another easy fix: Sign up for a CapitalOne360 checking account.

If you want to explore all the different savings accounts offered by banks, take a look at Nerd Wallet. It offers a comparison of the best high-yield savings accounts out there, so you can find the best bank for your needs.

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 4

10 to 15 minutes exploring your company’s HR site, five minutes to write email (maybe 10 minutes if you need to call)

Tools: Computer and internet access, email address or phone number for your company’s benefits department

Save: $4

I’m a total failure when it comes to managing my 401(k). It wasn’t until I started writing this that I bothered to even check to see how much I’m contributing each month (turns out, a lot!). What’s worse, I never bothered to see how the fund was performing, so after more than a year of contributing to Refinery29’s program, I had no idea how much money I stocked away until I paused from writing this to look it up (turns out, I need to choose a better fund).

It’s embarrassing that I’ve ignored my 401(k) for so long, but I can’t believe I’m alone in this negligent investing. When was the last time you checked on your 401(k)? Maybe we need to back up some. Are you even contributing to your company's 401(k)? And more important, are you maxing your match?

Before we do a deep dive into the complicated world of 401(k)s and how you should be maximizing this investment, let’s start at the very beginning. Call or email your company’s benefits department and ask them to send you a 401(k) packet. Take a look at how much your company will match, how much you are contributing, and how much you could contribute to get the best bang for your buck. More to come on Day 10.

(Hint: You can find out how much you’re contributing by looking at your pay stub, which you can usually access through your company’s benefits site.)
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 5

Time: 15 to 30 minutes to review your credit card programs

Tools: Computer and internet access, log-in info for your credit cards

Save: $5

I pretty much pay for everything with my credit card, and I pay off my balance each month. Everyone handles their cards differently. Some people are great at maximizing their points to score awesome travel deals (definitely not me). Some people carry a huge balance and struggle to pay the minimum each month (also not me). Credit cards are as complicated as people, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to choosing and using them. But, regardless of your relationship with these thin rectangles of plastic, there are a few things everyone should know about their cards.

Priya’s clients often want to know the optimal number of credit cards a consumer should have. She generally recommends everyone have three cards, in part because not all vendors accept all cards, but also because having three cards increases your credit limit, which is a piece of your credit score. If your limit is on the low end and you have a good track record of paying your balance off in full each month, call your credit card company and ask for an increase of your credit limit. This has the effect of lowering your Credit Utilization Ratio (CUR), which helps increase your credit score, Priya explains.

An ideal CUR is usually around 30%, so if you have two cards, each with a $5,000 line of credit (total of $10,000), you really shouldn't be charging more than $3,000 total per month across these cards. If you normally charge closer to $4,000 to $5,000 per month, having a third card to bring down your CUR could be helpful. More than three cards can get hard to manage, and if you're not using each of them, having an open card with no activity can actually hurt your score.

CAUTION: Don’t make the mistake of increasing your credit limit if you’re tempted to make big purchases you can’t afford to pay off in full. IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM USING CREDIT CARDS, SKIP THIS STEP.

Take a few minutes today to review your credit cards to see just what you’re getting. Consider your interest rates, annual fees, and the rewards program, and make sure you’ve got the best card for your needs. Are you utilizing rewards? Is the interest rate too high if you’re paying down debt?

Once you have a sense of what you’re getting from your credit cards and what you want out of them, you can decide if it’s time to apply for a new card, which we’ll tackle on Day 8.

Note: You shouldn’t cancel the first card you ever opened, because that will affect your credit rating by shortening your credit history, Priya explains. But, if you have a bunch of store credit cards (hey, we’ve all been badgered into signing up for one to get the 20% savings), it’s better to cancel them (especially if you’re not in the process of applying for a loan) if you don’t use them regularly.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 6

As much time as you want to explore the different resources

Tools: Computer and internet access

Save: $6

You’re a week into this challenge, and you’re feeling good. But when these 30 days are up, you’re still going to need to pay attention to your money and keep up with changes in the financial world. It can be tough to know what resources to turn to when you want to know more. There is so much boring content out there!

Priya and I compiled our must-reads (and listens) that we rely on to keep us up-to-date. Stay tuned to Refinery29 as we write more content to satisfy your financial curiosity.

Stash Wealth
: If you’re looking for a little more help with your money, Priya’s company, Stash Wealth, offers a bi-weekly Financial Cliffnotes Newsletter with bite-sized money advice that you can implement yourself. Stash also provides an affordable financial plan called The Stash Plan for H.E.N.R.Ys (High Earners, Not Rich Yet), which is a one-stop shop to help twenty- and thirtysomethings get their financial lives in order. Learn more here.

The New York Times Your Money Section
: Sure, sometimes this section skews a little old, but there can be great information on student loans, investing, and retirement funds.

: I keep this site open when I read the New York Times business section, looking up every word I don’t know. Investopedia has clear definitions on every financial term, from “bear market” to “Japanese housewives.” I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I don’t know, but thankfully Investopedia is there to get me up to speed.

: NPR’s money news show is absolutely fascinating. You might not think you care about the stock market crash in China, but David Brancaccio makes it interesting and relatable.

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 7

Save: $7

Congrats! You made it through the first week of the challenge. Take today to catch up on anything you might have skipped earlier this week. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, tune into a Marketplace podcast, and spend some time reviewing your savings account or credit cards so you’re ready to go on Day 8 of the challenge.

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 8

Time: 15 to 30 minutes to research and fill out application

Tools: Computer and internet access

Save: $8

On Day 6, you took a deeper look at your credit card to make sure it’s actually working for you. Today, it’s time to apply for a new one if you don’t have the right card for your needs. It can be a bit daunting figuring out the difference between all those different pieces of plastic — there are so many brands and banks and rewards programs out there. Thankfully, there are a few sites that make it possible to browse dozens of card offers to find the best one for you.

Credit Karma
will recommend cards based on your credit score. NerdWallet and WalletHub are two more sites that help consumers find the best cards. Plug in a few details about the kind of card you want, and they will provide you with a number of choices with details on the pros and cons of each card.

If you currently use a credit card with an annual fee, Priya recommends looking into switching to a no-fee card like Chase Freedom that offers great rewards, including 5% cash back in categories like restaurants, department stores, and home improvement, and 1% cash back in all other categories.

Applying for the right card can be particularly important if you’re trying to pay down credit card debt. You may want to consider making a balance transfer to a card that offers a 0% APR on balances and new purchases. But, Priya warns that you shouldn’t make the switch if you plan on just sitting on your debt once you make the transfer. Of course, there's a catch with these kinds of deals, and after the introductory period (usually 12 to 15 months), the APR jumps much higher. Only use this strategy if you want to actively pay down your debt over the introductory period — or else it could cost you more over time.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 9

Time: 15 to 30 minutes to consider the best deduction for your needs; five minutes to update

Tools: Computer and internet access, your most recent W4, access to your company’s benefits site

Save: $9

You probably haven’t thought about your tax deduction since you filled out your new-hire paperwork. But it’s worth giving it another look, especially if you filled out the form in a rush without much thought (or your dad didn’t answer your text messages in time, and you just took a guess).

When you fill out a W4 form, you have to decide whether or not to claim yourself as a deduction:

0 = You don’t claim yourself
1 = You do claim yourself

The advantage to going with “1” is that less taxes are pulled from each paycheck, so you make more up front. If you’re disciplined with your savings, it can be good to choose “1” as you’ll earn interest throughout the year on that extra income. That said, there’s a chance that when tax time rolls around, you may end up owing the IRS, so make sure you have some liquid assets (money in a savings account) in case you do end up owing the tax man.

A lot of people choose “0” because even though they may get a smaller paycheck now, they look forward to a refund from the IRS — some even use it as a forced savings account. If you aren’t disciplined enough to set aside savings throughout the year, this might be the choice for you.

You can update your tax deductions throughout the year. Consider what deduction makes sense for your lifestyle (and it will be totally different if you have kids — see here for more info on that topic) and update accordingly. You can do so by stopping by HR and filling out a new W4, or online through your company’s benefits site.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 10

Time: 10 minutes to increase your 401(k) allocation, 30 to 60 minutes to determine how you’re allocating your funds, more if you decide to hire someone to help

Tools: Computer and internet access, login info for your 401(k) plan

Save: $10

I am endlessly confused by my 401(k). I was trying to take a closer look at my account when I was writing this story, and I got so overwhelmed that I made no decisions and ended up just closing the web browser and moving on to easier topics. When Priya and I sat down to discuss her advice for today, she fired off a series of complicated financial terms in rapid succession, and I just sat there, dumbfounded. Retirement funds are my financial Achilles' heel.

I know I'm not alone, and I think that’s why so many of us aren’t maxing our 401(k)s up to the company match. Studies have found that women contribute less to their 401(k)s than men. That's crazy, and we need to fix it. It is a complicated topic, but there are a few easy decisions you can make that will make a big difference over the long term.

The most important thing is to be sure you’re maximizing your employer’s match. Think of that contribution as adding to your overall income. Priya provided this very clear example:

Let’s say your employer matches 50% of the first 6% of your salary. If you earn $100,000 and you contribute 6% of your salary to your 401(k), your yearly deposit will be $6,000, and the company will add $3,000 to that for a total annual savings of $9,000. If you only contribute 4% of your salary to your 401(k) ($4,000), your employer will contribute $2,000. You just lost out on $1,000! That’s crazy. So stop whatever you’re doing and max your match.

If you're not sure how to properly allocate your funds, Priya has some suggestions. You can hire a professional to advise you on the best 401(k) asset allocation plan. Stash Wealth offers that service through its Stash Plan. Smart401K and Guided Choice also offer similar services for as little as $99 per year.

If you decide to DIY your 401(k) asset allocation, you might consider using a single-target date fund based on the theoretical year you would like to retire. So if you’re 28 and you want to retire at 65, you would select Target Fund 2052. This is the bare minimum you should do, along with maximizing your contribution.

If you’re not enrolled in your company’s 401(k), use this day to take note of the next open-enrollment period, so you can sign up when the chance becomes available again.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 11

Time: 10 minutes to set up new account, 20 to 30 minutes to close old account(s)

Tools: Computer and internet access, routing number, cell phone, customer service number for your bank

Save: $11

On Day 3, you took a look at your savings account to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Once you’ve done the research, take time today to open a new one, whether it’s at CapitalOne360 or another bank that offers a high APY. It doesn’t take long, and all you need is your routing number so you can electronically transfer some cash into the new account.

If you want to close your old savings account, you can do so by phone (which means you’ll avoid the long lines at the bank). We’ve included the numbers of a few banks to make it even easier for you.

Bank of America: 1-800-432-1000
Chase: 1-800-935-9935
Citibank: 1-888-248-4226
Wells Fargo: 1-800-869-3557
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 12

Time: 20 minutes to review credit card statement, 30 to 90 minutes (or more) to cancel subscriptions and memberships.

Tools: Computer and internet access, login info for subscriptions

Save: $12

We all have these unnecessary subscriptions and memberships that we never get around to canceling. It's time to finally take care of that annoying task that’s been hanging over your head. First, go through your credit card statements and identify the unnecessary charges. (Do you really need Netflix and Hulu Plus?) Then, start the process of canceling, whether you have to logon to an account or call by phone. If it’s a gym membership you haven’t used in six months, you might have to go in person — so save this annoying task for your catch-up day.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 13

As much time as you want to spend downloading and exploring these apps

Tools: Smartphone and internet access

Save: $13

At two weeks into the challenge, you’re probably more cognizant of your money than ever before. Make saving a bigger priority by downloading some apps that will help you stash away a few more bucks without totally giving up your social life.

: It’s really annoying when you pay full-price for something only to find it discounted a few days later. Slice tracks your purchases and helps you get a refund when that happens.
Gas Buddy: Find the cheapest gas nearby.
Retail Me Not: The app’s tagline says it all: Thousands of coupons in your pocket.
ParkingBest: Never overpay for parking again.
Happy Any Hour: For NYC-based readers, this app gets you drink deals at a number of bars any time of day — without the usual happy-hour time constraints.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 14

Save: $14

You’ve made it through two weeks, and this was definitely a big one! You opened a savings account, applied for a new credit card, and canceled some of those annoying subscriptions. Spend today catching up on anything you might have skipped. Get yourself out of the house and finally cancel that gym membership. Put on some jazz, pour yourself a stiff drink, and spend a little quality time with your 401(k) and updating your contributions. Imagine how accomplished you’ll feel if you get that done before starting Day 15 and Week 3 of the challenge!

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 15

Time: 15 to 60 minutes, depending on how many companies you need to call

Tools: Computer and internet access, cell phone, account numbers, last month’s bill

Save: $15

On Day 12, you canceled unnecessary subscriptions, and today, you’re going to continue saving money by flexing your awesome negotiating skills. It’s likely you’ve been blindly paying your monthly phone and internet bills for years without asking for better rates. Today, we’re fixing that.

If you have a good and lengthy track record with your current company, give the customer-service line a call and request a reduced rate. Be friendly, but firm, and don’t threaten to switch providers unless you get pushback.

To make the process even easier, here are the toll-free numbers of all the major cell phone carriers. (Note: You can sometimes use the live chat to renegotiate as well — that's how I got a new rate for my AT&T plan — but it can be a bit slow. It's not terrible if you're already planning on spending some time on the computer and you don't mind toggling back and forth between screens.)

AT&T: 1-800-331-0500
Verizon: 1-800-922-0204
Sprint: 1-888-211-4727
T-Mobile: 1-877-453-1304
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 16

Time: Five minutes to set up sub-savings account, 10 minutes to set up automatic withdrawal from your paycheck

Tools: Computer and internet access, login info for your savings account, routing number, access to your company’s benefits website

Save: $16

Now that you’ve opened a savings account, it’s time to designate a sub-account to be your “Rainy-Day Fund.” Set up an automatic transfer directly from your paycheck to this account. You can start with as little as $50 to $100 per month, Priya says. Having the money come directly out of your paycheck helps take away the temptation to spend it, and the automatic withdrawal means you don’t have to think about it again once you set it up. Priya recommends you don’t stop putting money into this account until you have three to six months' worth of living expenses saved. You’ll figure out that exact number when we take a deeper look at our spending habits on Day 23.

Once you hit this number, it’s time to shift your savings priorities to focus on other things: travel, a house, kids, etc, as well as making sure your money is working for you, Priya says. We’ll tackle those long-term goals a little bit more on Day 26.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 17

Time: 15 to 60 minutes, or more depending on how many gift cards you have laying around and how you like to shop

Tools: Gift cards, computer and internet access

Save: $17

I read this suggestion in a New York Times article, and I loved it. Priya was into it, too, when I told her about it. In fact, every time we met to work on this, she asked me if I spent those Loft gift cards from the present I returned at Christmas. (I’m not always great at taking my own advice.)

Today is kind of like a bonus day. Clean out your wallet of those gift cards that have been languishing for who knows how long. This is real money, people — spend it already! Sites like Cardpool or Raise make it super easy to exchange, buy, or sell a gift card, and while those companies may take a cut, it’s better to have value at stores where you actually shop. Not sure what to buy? As Priya points out, it’s less than 100 days until Christmas…
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 18

Time: 20 to 30 minutes for research, two minutes to get your rate at Earnest

Tools: Computer and internet access

Save: $18

There is a lot to be said about student loan debt, and it’s a topic we’ll continue to discuss a lot around here, especially considering there are 43 million Americans struggling with it. I know a lot of you are thinking, I can’t set up an emergency savings account when I’m living paycheck to paycheck. Priya and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have this savings account (you never know when disaster will strike and you'll need to rely on this cushion), and there are steps you can take to make sure you’re getting the best rates on your student loans, so the monthly payments aren’t bleeding you dry.

Student Loan Hero
gives you detailed info on different banks and financial start-ups, to see which ones will offer you the best rate. The site will also help you organize and track all your different loans in one place.

There are a few financial start-ups that are trying to ease the student loan burden — including Earnest, which will refinance your loan and allow you to change your monthly payments depending on your needs. Similarly, SoFi lets you to pause your payments if you lose your job. A little research can mean saving tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your loan.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 19

Time: 20 to 30 minutes to print out all your information (more if the paper jams)

Tools: Computer and internet access, printer

Save: $19

You’ve made it through more than half the month, and now it’s time to get ready for the big-picture stuff. Instead of diving right in, take today to organize (and print out if you like) the paperwork you’ll need for Day 23.

If you’re like me, you don’t have a printer at home, so it’s good to take a few minutes on a quiet Friday afternoon to print these financial documents at the office. Just don’t forget to actually pick them up from the printer — unless you want your coworkers to see how much you spent on Seamless last month.

In order to fill out Priya’s comprehensive money workbook, you need the following:
- Your last three credit card statements
- Last month’s checking account statement
- Your last pay stub
- Your W2 from last year
- Your most recent tax return (you need this so you can find out the percentage of income you paid last year)
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 20

Time: 10 minutes

Tools: Computer and internet access (unless you’re still kicking it old-school with your brick-and-mortar bank, in which case you can actually go to the bank and make the deposit)

Save: $20

If you’ve been following the savings plan, putting away the dollar amount for each day of the month, you’ve saved $210 so far. Time to make the deposit and celebrate with a little savings shuffle (think of it like a touchdown dance, but with your own style and flair).
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 21

Save: $21

What did you miss this week? If you didn't have time to consolidate your student loans, spend some time this morning getting that project done. Reward yourself by shopping with those old gift cards. If you haven’t dug up last year’s tax return, go ahead and take care of that this evening. You’ll head into Week 4 all set to tackle the big stuff!
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 22

Time: 30 to 60 minutes to fill out the form

Computer and internet access, money workbook, pen, calculator, paperwork you printed out on Day 19

Save: $22

This is it, guys: The day of reckoning. Today, you’re going to fill out Priya’s money workbook and get a very clear picture of how much money you have to spend and where it goes each month. It’s time for some financial heavy lifting, says Priya, and while it seems intimidating, she reassures me that it will only make us stronger.

And really, isn’t this why you’ve been following this challenge all along? When you have a crystal-clear picture of how and where you spend your money, you can make smarter decisions, re-prioritize, and ultimately feel happier about where each dollar goes. This is when the challenge gets hard — and exciting.

Some notes on filling out the form:
1. Finding your tax bracket: If you can’t find your 2014 tax return, you can get an approximate number at TaxAct.
2. For each category (“Fixed Expenses,” “Future Expenses,” and “Flexible Expenses”), you want to give the average you spend each month on each item — like rent, dry cleaning, and groceries. So for “Dining Out,” tally up three months' worth of restaurant receipts and divide by three to get your monthly average.

Click here to download the money workbook.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 23

Time: 15 minutes to do the math (longer if you need to triple-check everything like I do)

Tools: Money workbook, pen, calculator

Save: $23

You’ve filled out the form; now, it’s time to do the math to see how your monthly budget shakes out. Almost every money person you'll meet (including Priya!) recommends following the 50/30/20 Rule, which breaks down like this: No more than 50% of your take-home pay (that’s AFTER taxes) should go to fixed expenses, 30% should go to flexible expenses, and 20% should go to future expenses.

(Note: Future expenses refers to savings accounts, investments, and retirement funds. Priya uses the term “expenses” so it helps you think of it as paying an income to your future self, which is essentially an expense of your present self.)

First, you need to figure out your monthly spendable income:

Gross Annual Income (that's how much you bring home before taxes) = _____
Approximate Tax Rate Percentage = _____
Gross Income x Tax Rate = Spendable Yearly Income

Spendable Income/12 = Spendable Monthly Income

Spendable Monthly Income x .5 = Budget For Fixed Expenses
Spendable Monthly Income x .3 = Budget For Flexible Expenses
Spendable Monthly Income x .2 = Budget For Future Expenses

Priya provided this easy example:

If you make a $100,000 and pay an effective tax rate of 28%, that means you have $72,000 in spendable income a year. That breaks down to $6,000 per month:

- $3,000 should go to your fixed expenses like rent, transportation, groceries, etc.
- $1,800 should go to your flexible expenses like dining out, theater tickets, or even a well-deserved vacation
- $1,200 should be split between your retirement accounts and the sub savings accounts that you set up on Day 11

To see how you’re doing, tally up each category in the money workbook and divide by your spendable monthly income to see where you fall on the 50/30/20 scale. The math should look like this (if you're like me and can't do math):

If you're spending $3,000 on fixed expenses per month:
3,000 x 12 = 36,000
36,000/72,000 = .5 or 50% of your spendable income on fixed expenses

$1,800 x 12 = 21,600
21,600/72,000 = .3 or 30% on flexible

$1,200 x 12 = 14,400
14,400/72,000 = .2 or 20% on future
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 24

Time: 30+ minutes to take a close look at your spending habits and determine where to trim

Tools: Money workbook and calculator

Save: $24

Priya points out that for people who live in cities with a high cost of living, it can be hard to keep your fixed expenses within the 50% budget — especially with rent or mortgage so high — of the 50/30/20 plan. It might be easier to try an 80/20 budget, with 80% of your money going toward fixed and flexible expenses, and 20% going toward retirement and savings. It’s essential you not dip into the 20% future expenses, because that’s the money that will make you financially secure in the long run.

Today, take a closer look at the numbers you laid out in your workbook and see where you can cut. Are you wasting too much each month on random trips to the drugstore? Are you buying breakfast, lunch, and dinner out most every day? The workbook will shed light on your spending habits. Once you have all that info out in the open, you can figure out what can be trimmed and tightened so you’re living within your means.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 25

Five minutes

Tools: N/A

Save: $25

So, you’re thinking: I’m 25, I’ve got plenty of time to save. I don’t need to start now. And it’s true — we’re living longer than ever and our careers could span several decades. But, Priya points out, having time on your side is exactly why you should start saving now. And she has this nifty little “doubling penny” scenario that explains just how important it is:

If someone were to offer you $10,000 per day for 30 days, or a penny that doubled in value each day for 30 days, which would you choose? If you took the penny, it would be worth $.02 on Day 2, $.04 on Day 3, $.08 on Day 4, $.16 on Day 5, and so on. You might think that you’ll make more money taking that $10,000 per day. But wait: $10k per day for 30 days equals $300,000, while a penny that doubles for 30 days yields over $5 million. Do the math if you don’t believe us, or check out this chart.

The point of this doubling penny story is to illustrate how the money you invest usually doubles about every eight to 10 years, depending on the rate at which it’s growing. If you delay saving, you give yourself fewer doublings over the course of your lifetime. As you can see in the chart, it’s not the first few doublings that make the difference; it’s the last few. Give your money the chance to double as many times as possible! In the financial world, this theory is called compounding, but at Stash, Priya refers to it as the eighth wonder of the world.

Today is less about doing something, and more about getting a sense of the importance of savings. So tuck the money you’ve saved so far into your “Rainy-Day Account” and feel good that you’re on your way to doubling those pennies, so that one day, they could become millions.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 26

Time: 30+ minutes to determine your goals, 15 minutes to set up your sub-accounts

Tools: Computer and internet access, savings account log-in info, your money workbook

Save: $26

The old adage, “A goal without a plan is just a wish” applies perfectly to achieving any financial goal. You’re in the last few days of the month, and the biggest challenges are behind you. Today, we’re focusing on the future.

Write down three financial goals. Set up a sub-savings account for each in your online bank account. These can be short-term goals like saving for a vacation you want to take in the next six months, or longer goals like saving for a down payment for a home in the next two to three years. Next, do the math to see how much you’ll need to achieve those goals within a certain time frame, and set up auto withdrawals (weekly or monthly) from your main checking account.

For example, if you want to avoid overspending at the holidays, set up a sub-account with the goal of setting aside $1,000 for gifts. You’ll need to save $84 per month to hit that goal within a year. If you think you can’t afford to save that much each month, just consider that it’s easy to drop $12 on takeout lunch each day — that’s $60 per week, $240 per month. Pack your lunch just seven times a month, and you’ll have saved that $84.

Refer back to your money workbook to consider other areas where you can trim your spending in order to set aside more money each month for longer-term goals. Saving seems like less of a bummer if you’re skipping that slimy takeout salad in favor of taking a trip to Barcelona next spring.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 27

Time: 15+ minutes to download and explore these apps

Tools: Smartphone, financial account info, money workbook

Save: $27

Budgets are a bit like diets in that it's easy to start one, but hard to maintain. You've spent the past 27 days thinking about your money, but as this month winds down, it might be easy to slip back into your old bad habits of basically ignoring your finances. Thankfully, in the digital age, there are a ton of tools to help you "balance your checkbook," so to speak. Here are a few of our favorites:

Mint: Link Mint with all of your accounts (credit cards, checking, savings, etc.) and track your spending. Set up notifications so you never miss a bill. Create a budget, and Mint will help you stick to it.

Good Budget: This app is a digital version of the old-fashioned "envelopes" method. You determine how you want to divide up your money each month, and Good Budget helps you track it.

Level: To get a better idea of where your money goes every month, Level helps you monitor daily spending. Once you've completed the money workbook, this can help you stay on track and maintain your financial awareness.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 28


Congrats! You made it to the final weekend of the challenge. Week 4 is definitely the biggest week, so don't feel bad if you've got some catching up to do. This is a great day to spend some time planning your 80/20 budget if you didn't have time during the busy work week. Catch up on anything you missed from last week, so you can coast into the last two days of the challenge.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 29

15 to 20 minutes (or more) to decide your next financial goals

Tools: Computer and internet access

Save: $29

Financial well-being, like your physical well-being, has to be maintained. And while you might be feeling like a total money pro, there are still so many topics to conquer. Now that you've achieved financial clarity, it's time to focus on the future and start thinking about growing your savings, investing in stocks, and making the most of your 401(k) and other retirement funds. Stay tuned as we continue to cover these topics on Refinery29.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Day 30

Time: As much as you need

Tools: A celebratory beverage of your choice

Save: $30

You did it! You made it through our 30-day challenge! Not only should you feel more confident about your financial plan (with clear goals for what you want to achieve in the future), but you've also saved $465! That's a nice little nest egg to deposit in your "Rainy Day" savings account. It's time to celebrate, because all this money stuff is hard, but as we've proven this month, it's not impossible. Take a moment to toast the accomplishment before getting ready to start the new challenge.
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