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How to automate your personal finances

Originally posted Feb. 23, 2023, on The Verge, by Victoria Song

Instead of manually managing your money and bills, you can make your money manage itself.

Automating your finances can make it more convenient to pay bills, save, and budget. Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

Few things are more stressful than money. Between paying bills, buying necessities, investing for retirement, and saving up for a rainy day, personal finance can feel like a full-time job. But it doesn’t have to be. The best part about online banking is that everything can be automated — even if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

There are several benefits to automating your money. You’ll always pay your bills on time, which in turn eliminates late fees and protects your credit score. If you’re bad at saving money, you can automatically transfer a set amount per week or month to a savings or retirement account. Budgeting sound like a total nightmare? That can be automated, too.

But while automating your finances can be convenient, you still have to be intentional about it. The point of automation isn’t to be completely hands-off. (That can actually hurt you if you’re not careful.) It’s more that by automating your finances, you can shift your mindset from actively handling your money to passively supervising it.

Everyone’s needs will be different, but here are a few guidelines and tips to help you get started. And, of course, feel free to tweak what doesn’t work to better suit your lifestyle.

Figure out what you’re working with

Before you automate, you need to take stock of where you’re at. Write a list of any accounts you use on a monthly basis. For most people, this’ll consist of checking accounts and credit cards. For now, leave out anything that you monitor or only occasionally interact with (e.g., savings accounts, stocks, 401(k) accounts, etc.).

Next, list any monthly expense you pay for using a specific account and its due date. If it doesn’t have a due date, don’t include it. For example, include utilities, rent, credit card bills, and car payments, but leave out your monthly grocery spending.

When you’re done, you should have something like this:

Checking Acct: Rent (1st), renter’s insurance (17th), Credit Card A (21st), Credit card B (30th), Student loan (25th) Credit card A: Netflix (8th), Hulu (15th) Credit card B: Car loan payment (30th), electricity bill (1st), pet insurance (12th)

There’s a good chance you’ve probably automated some of these payments already. For example, most apps and services have you submit your credit card information when you sign up for a subscription. Lenders also often offer incentives — like lower interest rates — for enrolling in autopay during setup as well. But even if you’re part of the way there, there are a couple of things you can do to streamline your automated payments.

  • Consolidate your bill due dates. Not every institution lets you change your billing due dates, but the vast majority do. That includes credit card issuers, utilities, and lenders. Some will let you change dates online, while others will require calling customer service or filling out paperwork. Rearranging due dates to the same one or two days each month is a smart move. It reduces what you need to keep track of and gives you greater control over your cash flow. Say you’re living paycheck to paycheck — you can sync your most important bills for the day after payday to reduce the risk of over-drafting.

  • Try not to charge your most important bills on credit. Credit cards are helpful tools, but they can also be dangerous. If you pay your rent by card, for example, you might find yourself paying interest on that rent while paying down your credit card debt. Same goes for loans that you’re already paying interest on.

  • Designate one credit card as the subscription card. This can be a headache up front, but doing this makes it easier to keep track of all your subscriptions. (It also comes in handy when you’re looking for what to cut.) That, and lumping all your subscriptions onto one credit card — as opposed to a debit card — means you only have to pay once, regardless of when you’re charged.

Reminder: if these tips don’t work for you, that’s fine. You have full control over how you split up which accounts to pay for which expenses and when. The point of this exercise is to have a game plan written down before you start automating.

Set up autopay, alerts, and reminders

Enabling autopay is a straightforward process, though the steps will slightly differ depending on your bank or credit card issuer. Generally, you can log in to your account either online or in the mobile app. From there, you should see a payments tab or menu that contains autopay settings. The same goes for utilities and loan providers. If you have trouble finding it, try entering “autopay” or “automatic payments” into the site’s search bar.

For credit cards, you’ll be prompted to link to a checking account. Once you do that, you can typically choose one of several payment options: your current balance, your last statement balance, the minimum payment, or a custom amount. Select whichever you’re most confident you can pay every month. If money is tight, you can opt for the minimum (or a custom amount) and make one-off payments whenever you have some extra cash. Depending on the issuer, you may then be prompted to set the payment date. Otherwise, it’ll automatically be paid on your due date (another reason why it may help to consolidate due dates). And don’t worry — you can always go back and edit your settings later.

Most creditors, utilities, and banks offer autopay these days.Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Automate your budget

Bills aren’t the only things you can automate — it can help with building up savings and with budgeting, too. The process doesn’t have to be complicated, either.

Here’s one simple method for automatically allocating 50 percent of your paycheck for rent and other bills, 30 percent for flexible spending, and 20 percent for savings.

  • If you pay your rent out of your current checking account, open a second checking account for discretionary spending and a high-yield savings account for, well, savings.

  • Contact your company’s HR and ask them how to either set up or edit direct deposit settings for your paycheck. The benefit of direct deposit is you can have your company divvy up your paycheck for you.

  • Fill out the necessary paperwork and send 50 percent of your paycheck to your first checking account, 30 percent to your second checking account, and the rest to your savings account. Most payroll software will calculate the exact amount for you, so you can just put in percentages.

  • Starting with your next paycheck, everything will be automatically budgeted with the designated amount in the appropriate accounts.

Alternatively, if you’d rather not deal with HR (or perhaps don’t have an HR department), you can set up recurring transfers from your main checking account to your other accounts. Recurring transfers or payment settings are often in the Payments menu on your bank’s website.

You can make automated budgeting and saving as simple or complex as you like

You can make automated budgeting and saving as simple or complex as you like. For example, you can set up multiple checking and savings accounts for specific purposes, like vacation and emergency funds. If you’ve got investment accounts, you can also set up recurring payments to them. It may mean extra prep work and more accounts to keep an eye on, but some people appreciate the greater customizability.

Periodically review your setup

Automating admittedly involves a ton of work upfront. But you can relax once it’s all done, right? Well, yes and no. You won’t have to do as much, but it’s still vital to keep an eye on how well your system is working and make adjustments as needed. Circumstances change. Maybe you have a particularly large credit card bill one month that requires you to switch from paying in full to making a smaller payment. Maybe a particularly hot summer causes your electric bill to soar. Whatever the reason, it’s much easier to tweak automated finances than remembering to pay and save manually.

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