For most of my life, I’ve been what I like to call functionally messy.
The Sisyphean task of organizing everything just so I can then use and disorganize it all, followed by an endless cycle of reorganizing and disorganizing until the day I die, defied all logic in my mind.
Growing up, my dad was pretty strict about keeping the house clean, but I tried every trick in the book to get out of having to actually clean my room. Hiding stuff under my bed, stuffing my dresser drawers full of unfolded clothing until they wouldn’t close, and shoving everything in my closet and closing the door were my favorite tactics.
In adulthood, this “out of sight, out of mind” technique carried over into my finances.
To give you an idea of how financially unbothered I was in my early 20s: I was lucky enough to get a job out of college that offered 401(k) matching, but opening a plan required me to physically print, sign, and fax a form to HR. The signed form sat on my desk for two years and never made it to the fax machine.
Like most people who graduated during the aftermath of the financial crisis, I considered the concept of saving money to be on par with country club memberships — one of those things old, rich people do. I dreaded checking my bank account, so I simply didn’t do it — sometimes for months. To avoid having to laboriously track my spending to make sure I didn’t overdraw my account, I relied on credit cards and simply paid them off at the end of each month … until one month I spent more than I could afford, and then I did it another month, and then another, and eventually racked up $10,000 in credit card debt.
I can already feel scorn from the Baby Boomers reading this, but hold the millennial critiques, please.
This story has a happy ending, thanks in part to the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” But I didn’t just obsessively fold all my clothes and arrange my books by genre. I KonMari-ed my money.
What Marie Kondo can teach us about money
Key to Kondo’s tidying-up method is a sense of gratitude — the idea that we should feel grateful for, rather than burdened by, the things we have — which makes getting organized feel less like pushing Sisyphus’s boulder up an unending hill and more like a pleasant, meditative stroll through the park. I tried to mimic this attitude in my approach to money.
Lifting some of the loaded, negative feelings I had toward money and replacing them with gratitude (including gratitude for my debt, which, for all the stress it caused, also helped me accomplish some incredible things, like moving abroad and building a new career from scratch) helped me to finally prioritize my finances.
One of my favorite things about Kondo (and, in my opinion, one of the reasons her KonMari method is so inspiring apart from being an excellent branding strategy) is that you’ll never see her leverage shame. Unlike similar reality shows that aim to make the audience feel disgust, shock, or horror rather than empathy toward their subjects, Kondo is nothing short of graceful, understanding, and compassionate in every episode.
From addiction to weight management, studies show that shame and stigma are counterproductive to long-term behavior modification. Removing guilt from the equation before diving into my financial situation made it easier to face my money and helped me stay motivated and hopeful.
Then, once I’d taken a moment to examine my relationship with money, choosing the right financial products helped me create and execute a smart financial plan for finally tidying it all up.
I used a budgeting app to get a clear picture of my financial life
If you’ve watched Kondo’s show, you know the first step: Take all your clothes out of your closet (or in my case, off the floor) and lay them on your bed in one giant pile. This is supposed to shock you into making a change.
So I started by doing something I’d been avoiding for most of my adult life: I laid out all my finances on my proverbial bed and gave them a long, hard look. After that, I downloaded a budgeting app that added up all my debt, spending, and income, and the resulting big red (negative) number that indicated the net total of how much money I (don’t) have was plenty to shock me into finally creating and sticking to a budget.
The beauty in the KonMari method of folding and stacking your clothing vertically is that you’re able to see everything you own all at once. Budgeting apps that integrate all your various accounts do this with your money.
Ultimately, I settled on the Mint budgeting app because it offers the most robust features for an app that’s completely free. This includes the ability to link all your accounts and auto-import your income and expenses in seconds, which is essential if you know you’re unlikely to do this manually.
Mint also lets you create spending categories, like groceries, dining out, travel, bills, and shopping, and create spending limits for each category. After my second month of consistently going over my spending limit on dining out (Mint sends you notifications when you’re getting close to your limits) I committed to eating at home more often. You’ll also get notifications when you receive large deposits (payday!) and if you’re getting close to draining your bank account, which helps prevent you from overdrawing your account.
I didn’t want to pay for a budgeting app at first, but after a few months I decided to spring for what personal finance gurus seem to have deemed the holy grail of budgeting programs: You Need a Budget, or YNAB.
When tidying up our homes, Kondo asks us to pick up and hold every single object we own and explore our relationship with that item. This can be reflected in our finances by reaching a level of intentionality with our money in which every single dollar we spend is a conscious choice rather than a thoughtless impulse.
To me, YNAB did a slightly better job of embodying this ethos by forcing me to assign a job to every single dollar in my account (and making it easy to do so). You can also set up debt tracking in the app, which allows you to set aside money for your monthly payments and watch your balances go down as you pay them off.
I got a free three-month trial to YNAB and then stuck with it for $6.99 per month after my trial ended.
Fee-free checking accounts that spark joy
If it doesn’t spark joy, get rid of it. That’s the KonMari way.
Seeing random $5 or $12 charges show up on my checking account for maintenance, ATM, and foreign transaction fees was giving me zero joy, so one of the first actions I took on my financial KonMari journey was to close my personal checking account with Chase and open a free checking account at an online bank.
I went with Schwab Bank’s High-Yield Investor Checking Account, which has no monthly fees and unlimited ATM fee rebates.
It’s also one of the few debit cards with no foreign transaction fees, which, as a frequent traveler, helped me save a joyous sum of $1,413 last year. A number of other online-only banks offer similar fee-free checking accounts — Ally’s Interest Checking Account is another great option.
Aside from online-only banks, your local credit union is a good bet for low-fee checking. I keep a second checking account with the same credit union I’ve used for years — First Tech Federal Credit Union— that charges no monthly fees and no ATM fees. It’s nice to maintain a relationship with a bank in your area as well in case you ever want to use them for an auto or home loan.
I use both of my checking accounts to strategically split up my money and help me further automate the budgeting process. My credit union checking account is strictly for my paychecks and bills — never purchases. I get my paychecks direct deposited into that account, and I have it set up to automatically pay all of my bills and deposit a percentage of my paycheck into my high-yield savings account. I recently paid off my debt, but I also had automatic payments set up to pay off my credit card balances.
Whatever is left in the account after I’ve paid all of my bills and transferred money into my savings account is my spending money for the month. I transfer that to my fee-free Schwab checking account and use that debit card for everyday purchases, leaving my credit union debit card at home so I can’t even use it.
Open a high-yield, online savings account to build your savings
My next step was to open a better savings account.
I opted for the highest interest rate to encourage my newfound saving habit, but I also wanted to go with a bank that allowed me to open multiple savings accounts for free and nickname each one of them.
I went with Ally’s High-Yield Savings Account because it’s free to open, has no monthly fees, and offers one of the highest interest rates on the market.
With my old savings account, I was earning pennies in interest each month, but after switching to a high-yield savings account, I started to see a bigger reward for my efforts. By the first two months of 2019, I had a full-fledged emergency fund and the beginnings a second savings account, and I’d earned $50 in interest.
Ally doesn’t require you to deposit anything upon opening the account (which is helpful when you haven’t saved any money yet), and you don’t have to maintain any minimum balance. HSBC offers a similar account with a $1 minimum balance, and robo-advisor Wealthfront offers a cash account with one of the highest interest rates I’ve seen.
I’m a little obsessed with using multiple bank accounts to organize and sub-categorize my money, much in the way Kondo uses tiny boxes within bigger boxes to organize belongings; in fact, I’ve opened up more than half a dozen free savings accounts with Ally. In addition to my “Emergency Fund,” I’ve also got “30th Birthday Fiesta,” “Self-Care,” and “Trip to Tokyo.”
Keeping your finances tidy going forward
Even the best high-yield savings accounts won’t help you earn your way to retirement, so once you’ve got your debt paid off and a solid emergency fund built up, it’s time to start funneling your money toward the long term. Contribute to and max out tax-advantaged retirement accounts — especially if your job offers employer matching — and consider low-cost investing options, like mutual funds, that help you build wealth through compound interest.
Throughout this process, I learned how important our emotions are to changing our habits. Studies show that the only factor that actually predicts whether or not we’ll stick to our long-term goals is enjoyment. That’s why Kondo’s method is so effective: it doesn’t focus on how practical or important our belongings are, but rather on whether or not they bring us joy.
Getting sizeable interest deposits in my savings account and watching balances build up under nicknames like “30th Birthday Fiesta” adds an enjoyment factor to my savings habit. Whether you need to bake yourself a cake every time you make a student loan payment or swap clothes with a friend to avoid shopping, do what you need to do to add a little joy to being financially responsible.
And when you do spend your money, whether you’re buying groceries or paying off credit card debt, don’t forget to thank every dollar for its service.
Original article written by Elizabeth Aldrich at Business Insider