If summer is a season of spontaneity and indulgence, then fall offers a counterpoint: It’s a chance to get back on schedule, and back on budget.
“Summer, with travel and no school, tends to be a really spendy time. The fall is a nice reset,” says Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, a certified financial planner and author of “The 30-Day Money Cleanse.”
Gerstley says giving yourself a “money cleanse” offers a chance to carefully go over your spending and financial habits so you can make any necessary changes to end the year strong. With inflation and economic uncertainty in the background, that’s no easy task, but putting in the extra effort now can pay off.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to a fall financial cleanse that could help get your budget on track for the rest of the year:
Start with a look back
Nate Hoskin, a CFP and financial assistant at Brightside, a provider of financial wellness to employees, says the first step to a fall financial cleanse is to look backward, starting with your New Year’s goals. He suggests checking on progress toward resolutions set in January so you can make any needed adjustments.
Then, Hoskin says, initiate what he calls a “financial audit,” which means tracking all of your spending over the last couple of months by poring over credit card and bank statements. From there, you can see what unexpected expenses popped up or why it has been so hard to save. “With inflation, it’s extremely challenging, and you might find your budget didn’t work even if you did everything right, because some things are out of your control,” he adds.
He suggests giving yourself the chance to make small changes going forward without dwelling on previous missteps.
“Knowing where our money is going is a huge shift and can help us change our habits,” Gerstley says.
Try a budget
If you don’t yet follow a budget to help you track your spending, then the fall is a great time to give one a try, says Ashley Lapato, a financial expert on TikTok who posts as @TheOrganizedWallet and is a spokesperson for the budgeting app YNAB.
“I always think the first step is a zero-based budget,” she says, which means every dollar is accounted for, including money set aside for savings and any debt payments.
“It forces you to confront spending decisions and to get really clear about financial priorities,” she says, because you comb through every little bit of spending.
Establish a new morning habit
Lapato likes to start each day with a quick check of her own budget. For fewer than five minutes every morning, she logs in to her budgeting app or checks her bank account and financial goals.
“Doing this has changed my perspective. It puts me in the right brain space in the morning if I’m looking at bills, goals and things I want to accomplish,” she says. Then, when she has to make spending decisions later in her day, her balances and goals are top of mind.
Prioritize paying off debt
Stuart Boxenbaum, president of Statewide Financial Group, a financial advisory firm, says that with interest rates rising, this fall is also a great time to aggressively pay off high-interest or variable-rate debt, such as credit card debt.
“Before you sock away other money into savings, pay off high-interest debt — if you’re paying 18% or higher on a credit card, then it’s a no-brainer. Pay off the debt first,” he says, because yields on savings accounts are far lower than those interest rates.
Check your tax situation
A money cleanse should also include a tax checkup, says Karla Dennis, an enrolled tax agent and founder of Karla Dennis and Associates, a tax and accounting services firm. “You could go all year long and assume your withholdings are on point, but you might be short,” she says, which would mean a surprise tax bill in April if too little taxes have been coming out of your paycheck.
To avoid that fate, she suggests using the IRS’ tax withholding estimator tool. Enter your personal information and get an estimate of how much to withhold so you can make any necessary adjustments for the remaining months of the year. If you were recently married, received a pay increase or started earning extra money through a side hustle, then estimating your withholding is especially important, Dennis adds, because you might be at a higher risk of withholding too little.
Make space for fun, too
Budgeting, debt and taxes aren’t exactly words that people associate with fun. That’s why it’s so important to also build treats into your budget, Lapato says, because doing so can actually help keep you on track. “Sometimes, we need that serotonin boost,” she says. For her, that usually means splurging on a new blush or book.
“Instead of feeling guilty, I have it built into my budget as its own category,” she says, adding that she sets aside a bit of money every month for this purpose. “Give yourself permission to enjoy life,” she adds — a philosophy that applies to this fall and beyond.
Kimberly Palmer is a personal finance expert at NerdWallet and the author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KimberlyPalmer.