Put Your Finances on Autopilot

Time To Read 5 MIN READ

When you lived at home, your biggest financial concern was probably how to spend your weekly allowance. Now that you're on your own, you've got a slew of new financial responsibilities. You have to pay for utilities and other household expenses, manage your credit cards, pay off debts such as your student loans and car loan. Plus, you know you should start saving for a rainy day and investing for your future.

It would seem to take an organization freak with no life to keep track of everything and remember to make on-time payments.

But even organization freaks can have a hard time. Consider one twenty-something who cut the financial umbilical cord to her parents at age 18, and since then has been an organization nut when it comes to her money. She keeps a strict filing system, and has a customized Excel sheet to build her budget and track spending. But no matter how strictly she adheres to her system, she still admits to losing track of a bill here and there in the pile on her desk and scrambling to the post office for stamps at the last minute. And she never seems to have enough money left at the end of the month to stash away into savings or investments.

So she decided to go automatic—and you should too. Now she never misplaces a payment. She always has enough money to make regular contributions to savings accounts and her Roth IRA, and the only reason she goes to the post office now is to mail Christmas presents. She spends less time fiddling with her finances and more time doing what she wants. Here are six ways you can simplify your life and put your finances on autopilot.

Simplify your life

1. Deposit your paycheck directly into your bank account. Not only does this save you a trip to the bank each pay period, but it keeps the money from creating a temptation in your hot little hands (and it guarantees that you won't accidentally toss your check in the laundry with your pants). Plus, the money shows up in your account the day the check is issued, even if you're out of town or home sick. Most employers offer direct deposit. You just need to fill out a form in your human resources department and provide a voided check from the account into which you wish to have your money deposited.

2. Save without thinking. You may have the best of intentions to start saving, but by the end of the month, all your money is spent. The trick is to pay yourself first—without having to make a conscious decision to do so. There are two easy ways to do this: Arrange with your employer to directly deposit a portion of your paycheck into your savings account and the rest into your checking. Or, make the arrangement through your bank. Consider setting up a high-yield online savings account linked to your checking account at your regular bank. You can set up recurring fixed deposits from one account to the other. Just set it up once and forget about it. You won't even miss the money.

Participating in your employer's 401(k) is another great way to save without thinking. You arrange to have a portion of your pay diverted into an investment of your choice. And as an added bonus, the money you stash is taken out before taxes.

3. Stop paying your bills. By check, that is. You can pay most recurring bills automatically—including credit cards, utilities, phone lines, cable and student loans— without having to mess with deposit slips, stamps and envelopes. Plus, you'll never miss a payment. Everything sticks to the schedule you set. You can arrange for automatic bill-pay directly with each company. That can be time consuming at first, but it's usually free. And once you've got it set up, you can forget about it.

An easier way is to consolidate your bill paying with a single service from your bank, credit union or broker, or go through an online provider such as Quicken. Make sure you read the fine print about fees, though. Some banks may provide the service free with no strings attached. Others may require a minimum account balance or regular bill-paying activity to waive fees (typically $5 to $10 per month).

4. Track your spending. You don't have to be an Excel whiz to craft a budget and watch where your money goes. Quicken personal finance software can track your online bill payments, credit and debit card purchases and divide them into categories for you to see where your money is going. It works like a de facto budget, and you don't have to waste time sorting through receipts and categorizing every single purchase yourself.

Link Quicken to your banking, investment and credit card accounts to download the necessary information.

5. Get the right investment mix. If you want to invest but you don't know where to start—and you don't want to spend a lot of time managing your account—go with a so-called target fund. These funds are a concoction of different stocks and bonds that give you the right investment mix for your age and time frame. As you near your target date (say, for retirement), the fund automatically tones down your risk level to make sure you maintain that ideal mix.

6. Get free money. There are tricks you can use to get more out of your budget each month (see 20 Small Ways to Save Big). But one that doesn't require any work on your part is using a credit card with rewards. Go about your daily spending business, and you could rack up a cash rebate. For example, spend $80 a week on groceries on a card with a 5 percent cash rebate, and you'll earn about $200 back in a year.

If you don't have much of a credit history (or any at all), you may not qualify for a rewards card. But once you have a history of keeping your financial obligations, shop around for a good offer and let the free money flow in.