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10 Money Challenges Everyone Should Try

Take the Challenge!


From digging yourself out of credit card debt to finally paying off that home mortgage, many financial goals can seem overwhelming and even out of reach – but they don’t have to be.

The truth is, you can significantly improve your financial situation through a combination of smart planning, creativity and motivation.

For guidance, we asked personal finance experts from around the country to share their favorite money challenges anyone can take on to help solve a variety of common financial hurdles. In some cases the experts have tested the method for themselves and share their personal stories.

Here are 10 challenges to try today, plus tips to help you achieve success.

Photo Credit: 401kcalculator.org

Challenge: A 40-Day No-Shopping Spree


Do you think you could go 40 days without shopping? J. Money, the writer behind the personal finance blog Budgets Are Sexy, once did for Lent, and it saved him $300-$400 dollars.

OK, he didn’t cut out essentials such as groceries, but he did stop buying things like clothes, coffee, gum, snacks and knickknacks, or as he puts it, “anything that was a ‘want’ over a ‘need.’”

“The number-one thing that helped me throughout the process was simply not walking into any stores at all,” he says. “It seems pretty obvious, but it took me at least a week or two to realize that every time I walked through those doors I was immediately putting myself into tempt-land. As soon as I avoided them altogether, it got much easier.”

J. Money also suggests steering clear of online sites such as Amazon, which can lure you into buying things you might not need.

Go ahead and give this challenge a try, or if 40 days simply seems too harsh, see if you can cut down trips to the mall to just once a month.

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Challenge: Slash Your Monthly Bills


David Bakke, an editor for the personal finance website Money Crashers, managed to climb out of $30,000 of debt in part by slashing his monthly bills.

“I called my cable, Internet and cellphone providers to inquire as to how I could save by trimming features or downgrading my plan, and I got rid of my home landline telephone,” he says.

Bakke also “drastically reduced” his utility bill by dropping his thermostat by three degrees in the winter and raising the temperature of his home in the summer.

“I adjusted to this change by adding extra layers of clothing in the winter and wearing shorts and a T-shirt around the house in the summer,” he says.

You can challenge yourself by following Bakke’s tips and exploring additional ways to reduce your monthly bills.

“I was surprised to see how much I could save on my monthly bills by putting forth just a small amount of effort,” Bakke says.

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Challenge: Pay Extra on Your Mortgage


Want to pay down your mortgage faster? Do some calculations and figure out how much extra you can afford to pay each month.

J. Money has decided to devote $2,000 extra to his monthly mortgage payments with the goal of paying off his home in less than 10 years.

“I’m six months into it so far and doing well,” he says.

What’s his secret?

“My goal is to mainly pull it off by taking on more projects and gigs to create more income,” he says.

But he doesn’t mince words on just how challenging this challenge really is.

“It’s crazy hard sometimes – not only bringing in the money, but also not spending it on other more exciting things like upgrades or stuff for our new baby coming down the line,” he says. “But I keep focusing on the end goal here of having zero major expenses in 10 years, and that has kept us motivated along the process so far.”

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Challenge: Declutter Your Home, Then Sell Your Old Stuff


If you need some extra motivation to get your spring cleaning under way, consider the fact that decluttering your home can actually help you save money – and earn money too.

“Clutter is a huge money waster,” says Erin Huffstetler, the frugal living guide for About.com. “It causes you to buy replacements for things that you already own but can’t find, and takes up valuable space in your home.”

Huffstetler suggests tackling the mess one room at a time until you have it all under control. Then, sell anything you no longer need to put some extra cash in the bank.

“Books, movies, video games, clothes, collectibles and antiques can all fetch a good price and free up a lot of space in your home,” she says.

Some good resources Huffstetler recommends for selling your old stuff include BookScouter.com for books, SecondSpin.com for movies, GameStop for video games and resale shops such as Once Upon A Child, Clothes Mentor and Plato’s Closet for clothes.

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Challenge: Build Your Emergency Fund


It’s always a good idea to have extra money stashed away in case of unexpected events, but many of us don’t have enough (or anything) put aside in an emergency fund.

A great way to build up your emergency fund quickly is by directing all extra money to it, including bonuses, overtime pay, rebate checks and even change you find in parking lots, Huffstetler says, who adds that you should track your progress regularly to stay motivated.

“I recommend setting a specific dollar amount that you’re trying to reach, and then keeping at it until you reach your goal,” Huffstetler says. “If you have a really big number in mind, consider setting several smaller goals so it doesn’t seem like such a daunting task.”

If you need some extra support to get motivated and stay accountable, consider joining an online emergency fund challenge.

“I have an emergency fund challenge on my forum that anyone can join,” Huffsteler says. “Basically, you declare how much you’re trying to save, and then post anytime you manage to squirrel a little away. Everyone cheers each other on and offers plenty of encouragement along the way, so it’s lots of fun.”

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Challenge: Cook Meals With Ingredients You Already Have


Looking for an easy way to save money? Consider rethinking how you prepare your meals.

Certified Financial Planner Jorie Johnson of Financial Futures, LLC in Manasquan, N.J., suggests cooking meals only with ingredients that you already have in your pantry or fridge once a month for two to three days straight.

“This helps clean out your kitchen and should save you $40-$60 for a family of four,” she says.

Of course, taking on this challenge means avoiding grocery store visits, pizza takeout orders and trips to restaurants during these designated days each month.

And who knows? You might just discover a few new great recipes in the process.

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Challenge: Tackle Credit Card Debt


Need some help tackling that mountain of credit card debt you’ve racked up?

Try totaling all of your credit card debt as of a specific date, then establish goals for how to lower the total on that same date each month in the future, suggests J. David Lewis, a financial adviser and president of Resource Advisory Services in Knoxville, Tenn.

“What is a reasonable amount the total can be reduced each month? It means pay the amount you charged this month plus the amount you want to reduce the total,” he says. “An achievable goal like this seems to affect how people use the cards when they are committed.”

Just don’t set your goals too high at first or you might become overwhelmed and abandon the challenge. Instead, Lewis suggests setting a smaller goal for about three to six months, then gradually increasing it.

“Don’t be too concerned if you miss the goal one or two months out of six months. The point is to always make progress,” he says.

Need a little help with the math? As MainStreet has reported, the website CreditCards.com offers an online calculator that can figure out what monthly payment you would need to make in order to pay your debt off in a specified time frame.

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Challenge: Buy Meat in Bulk


When it comes to grocery shopping, meat can be among the more expensive items in your shopping cart, but there are ways to save money while still buying all of your family’s favorites.

For a challenge that will help you cut down that grocery bill, try buying meat in bulk and freezing it for future meals.

“It is quite a bit cheaper to buy bulk meat such as chicken breast,” says Certified Financial Planner Jeremy E. Portnoff of Portnoff Financial LLC in Woodbridge, N.J. and Tustin, Calif. “I buy the bulk pack – such as chicken and pork chops – and then I separate it into smaller packages, for example, two chicken breasts into a freezer-safe Ziploc bag. Often I will also pour marinade into the bag of chicken before freezing. This way when I take a bag out to defrost, it is marinating the whole day and when I cook it, and you can’t tell it was ever frozen.”

Portnoff suggests always looking at the price per pound of meat before buying.

"I have stopped eating lunch meats because I realized the price per pound can be around $6 whereas the bulk chicken breast is about $2 per pound,” he says. “It’s better to cook extra chicken and use the leftovers for a sandwich.”

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Challenge: Find a Side Job


This challenge requires you to find ways to earn a little extra income during your free time.

“If you're self-employed or have a flexible work schedule, perhaps tutor a few hours of chemistry or French one afternoon,” suggests Certified Financial Planner Jennifer Lazarus of Lazarus Financial Planning in Durham, N.C. “If you’re attentive to detail and don’t mind data entry, perhaps you could find a consultant group that conducts research who might be looking for someone to enter their survey results.”

Lazarus also suggests pet-sitting for someone you know who might not want to put their pet in a kennel when they travel.

After figuring out what you'll do to bring in more income, you then have to decide the best way to use the extra cash you’ll be making.

“If you’ve got debt, ideally you’d use the extra money to pay off the debt faster – but that isn’t always gratifying,” Lazarus says. “In that case, perhaps you’d use 50% of it to pay off debt and 50% for however you want to spend it, figuring that at least more money is going to pay down the debt.”

If you don’t have debt, consider using the extra cash as pocket money for things like clothes, movie tickets and eating out. This way, you can save more money from your primary income and use the extra income to cover, well, all your extras.

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Challenge: Set Up 2 Checking Accounts


One way to help ensure that you always have enough saved to cover essentials is by setting up two separate checking accounts, suggests Lazarus.

“Create one for all your monthly bills and prorated annual bills like car insurance, and one for your discretionary spending,” she says. “This way, you’ll know your bills will be paid and you can live within the limits of your second checking account balance.”

In order to do this, Lazarus suggests setting up an annual budget.

“This can be as simple as mapping out on a single sheet of paper how much you earn each month and how much you plan to spend, month by month,” she says.

Lazarus advises putting enough money into the bills account to cover your bills – both the monthly ones and the ones that come every now and then. Then, with the money that’s left over, figure out how much you want (or can afford) to spend on discretionary items and add that to the other account.

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Money Misconceptions


Sometimes what you think you know about your money isn’t the case. Here are 10 financial mistakes, miscalculations and little-known truths to watch out for.

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Kristin Colella is a writer/editor for MainStreet. You can follow her on Twitter at @KrisColella.

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