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By Hanniz Lam

THE economic impact of the pandemic has derailed the savings ability for most Malaysians where the number of individuals who cannot save at all rose to 21% in 2021 from 19% in 2020, while 31% of respondents save less than RM500 a month.

In the 2021 RinggitPlus Financial Literacy Survey, many Malaysians are still susceptible to financial shocks, and a considerable amount continue to spend more than what they earn.

So what can you do to put living paycheck to paycheck in your past?

First of all, if you’re one of many who devotes your entire paycheck to bills and debt each month with little to nothing leftover for savings — lose the guilt.

It’s time to get out of the shame and worry cycle, and actually make moves to make things right. Yes, we’re talking emergency funds, retirement savings, and more.

STEP 1: DISCOVER THE CAUSE

Track your expenses for as little as two weeks to understand exactly where your money is going including whenever money comes in, cash leaves your hand, or what you buy on credit. Keeping your receipts help.

STEP 2: BUILD A BUDGET

Once you see how you spend your money, you can build a budget. It can seem like a big task and impossible to keep to, but keep in mind that it’s always growing and evolving. So what you set up today doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll stay like that forever.

Your budget should include how much money you have coming in on a monthly basis, whether it’s from your full time job, or side hustle. Include all the sources of income you have.

Then it should include a line for every monthly expense. This includes regular payments like rent or mortgage, utilities, car payments, and loans.

This should also include food, subscription services (Yes, Netflix and Spotify counts), home supplies, personal care, and anything else you’re paying for every month.

If you pay for things like child support, alimony, or schooling for your child, those will need to be included as well.

STEP 3: ADJUST YOUR SPENDING

Building and monitoring your budget will show you where all your money goes and then you can make changes accordingly.

For instance, if you and your partner work from home, would it make financial sense for you to have just one car?

Even if it’s already paid off, you can lower your car insurance payments and use the cash from the sale to pay off debt or build up savings. 

Also think about small changes.

For example, can you dine out less, cook more or monitor what you buy so the stuff in the fridge doesn’t get old and mouldy resulting in wasted money?

Making these changes isn’t always easy and in some cases, is very different from your normal routine. But creating and maintaining new financial habits will only be for the better.

STEP 4: CREATE A DEBT PAYOFF PLAN

If debt is eating away at your income, it’s time to figure out how to get rid of as much of it as possible. 

Take a little bit of time to list out all your debt, including credit cards, loans (car, student, personal), or other outstanding things, like medical bills.

Write out how much you owe, the interest rate, the minimum monthly payment, and the due dates. Then pick the repayment plan that works best for you. Some popular ones are:

Debt Avalanche: This is when you pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first. Doing this reduces how much total interest you’ll pay over the course of your debt repayment.

You’ll start by making the minimum payments on all your debt, then put any extra cash towards the debt with the highest interest. You’ll do this until the debt is paid in full, then move on to the next debt with the highest interest. Keep this up until all your debt is paid off.

Debt Snowball: This method focuses on the debt with the lowest amount owed. You’ll make minimum payments on all your debt and then put any extra towards the debt with the lowest amount. Once that’s paid off, you’ll move all your payments to the debt with the next-lowest amount. Continue this until all your debt is paid in full. 

The debt snowball method is good for those who need small victories as an encouragement to keep going. The debt avalanche is best for those who want to minimize how much they want to pay in interest and can focus on long-term goals.

STEP 5: START SAVING FOR EMERGENCIES

Saving and paying off debt go hand-in-hand, so consider this step in line with the previous one. You don’t have to finish paying off debt before you start saving money. They can be done at the same time.

Since your budget is always growing and evolving, add a line in there to make contributions to a savings account. Try to find a high-yield savings account where you’ll earn as much as 25 times more than a regular savings account, depending on where you open it.

You don’t have to make huge contributions to your savings; a little bit goes a long way. Start small with RM10 or RM20 every paycheck. Try to make small goals, like hitting RM100, then RM1,000, then one month’s worth of expenses. Then three. And just like that, you’re out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

STICKING TO THE BUDGET YOU SET

Whatever budget you choose, sticking to it is a difficult but extremely rewarding undertaking. Knowing where to put your money offers you a sense of control, power, and independence. Begin by keeping track of your expenses for a month or two.

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