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Getty Images Once you reach your 50s, you’re generally at or near your peak earnings years. If making ends meet is a challenge now, it’s one that’s not likely to get any easier as time marches forward.
Even more than for your younger counterparts, cost control and debt reduction will be key parts of your plan to avoid spending more than you make. Right now is your last, best hope of structuring your life in a way that lets you cover your costs and enjoy your life’s journey.
With help from these five tips, you can improve your chances of making ends meet in a way that minimizes the impact on the rest of your life.
Tip 1: Negotiate your interest rates downward. Interest rates on everything from car loans to credit card debt are negotiable, and if your mortgage is at a higher interest rate than the current average, you can even try to refinance it to a lower rate. Refinancing a home loan will cost you a bit up front, but negotiating lower rates on other debt might not. The less you pay in interest, the more cash you can put toward paying down your balances.
You can begin the process with a few simple phone calls. If you’ve got a great history of paying your debts on time, your creditors will be willing to work with you in order to keep you as a customer. If your payment history is not so strong, it still might be worth your while to make those phone calls and ask for lower rates. If your creditors are concerned that high interest rates may force you into bankruptcy, they might be willing to reduce your rates to help keep some cash flowing to their coffers.
Tip 2: Snowball your debt payments. After you’ve negotiated your interest rates as low as you can get them, line up all your debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest interest rate. On every debt except the one with the highest interest rate, pay just the minimum. On the debt with the highest interest rate, pay as much above the minimum as you can, until that debt has been completely paid off.
Once that first debt is paid off, take all the cash you had been paying toward that debt and put it toward the debt that now has the highest interest rate. Repeat the process until all your debts are paid off. Since you’re in your 50s, you may want to include your mortgage in that list of debts to include in your snowball. While mortgage rates are low and mortgage interest is federally tax deductible, it’s still a principal and interest payment that represents cash you can’t do anything else with.
Each time you pay off a debt, you free up a little bit of cash that gets you closer to being able to reliably make ends meet from the income you have.
Tip 3: Prioritize and cut back your spending. Write down where every penny of your hard-earned income is going. Use a spreadsheet, pencil and paper, or personal finance software like Quicken or Mint.com to get a clear picture of your spending.
Once you’ve got that information, go back and look over each expense and mark it as a “have to have,” “want to have,” or a “can live without.” If you’ve marked an expense as a “can live without,” stop buying it. That simple move alone can free up a decent amount of cash, without cutting back on anything you need or really want.
For your other expenses, figure out if there are ways to reduce your spending. For instance, if your 50s brought you new medical conditions, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether generics or older brand-name medicines can treat your condition as well as the newest branded drug. Likewise, we all have to eat, and buying in bulk, cooking for leftovers, and using every bit of food are great ways to keep your costs low while still allowing you to eat the foods you enjoy.
Dropping the costs you decide you can live without and getting more efficient on your other expenses will get you much closer to being able to make ends meet.
If that’s still not enough, then it’s time to start cutting back on the things you want but don’t necessarily need. Even then, see if it’s possible to keep some entertainment in your budget, as it’s a lot harder to keep a budget with no fun in it than one in which you give yourself a small reward for your thrift.
Tip 4: Put your dependents on a financial diet, too. In your 50, you may well be part of the sandwich generation — taking care of both aging parents and not-quite-yet-independent children. Continue to love your family and care for them, but do so in a way that doesn’t break your bank.
For one idea, consider having all the people who depend on you live with you. Multigenerational households aren’t all that uncommon and can keep the total cost of living per person lower.
Additionally, if your dependent adult children are capable of working — even at a job that’s “beneath” their education and experience — they should be working or actively searching for work. Even if it takes a while to get them a job in their chosen field, it’s easier to get a job when you have a job than when you’re unemployed. Employers like to see experience, dedication, and consistent performance, not just academic credentials, and a degree with a job says far more than a degree alone.
Tip 5: Use your expertise to your financial advantage. The reason you’re near your peak earning years is because you’ve become an acknowledged expert in your chosen field. A great way for a 50-something-year-old to earn a bit of extra income is to hang out a shingle as a consultant. If going it alone doesn’t seem like a good fit, companies like Your Encore are designed around helping experienced professionals find second careers and may be able to link you up to opportunities.
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Following these five tips can get you to the point where you’re reliably making ends meet today and well on the path toward financial freedom for the rest of your life. Perhaps best of all, you’ll quickly notice the improvement. Once you’re reliably making ends meet, you’ll feel like a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders as the financial stress melts away.
Chuck Saletta is a Motley Fool contributing writer.