TIME Budget

Government Budget Cuts Are Hitting ‘Red’ States Hardest, Say Analysts

A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington
A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 30, 2013, approximately one hour before the U.S. federal government partially shut down after lawmakers failed to compromise on an emergency spending bill JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN —REUTERS

Experts suggest the discrepancy may point to the politicalization of public spending

Recent governmental budget cuts have not been distributed evenly with slashed spending hitting pro-Republican states the hardest, according to new analysis by Reuters.

Funding for a range of discretionary grant programs has fallen 40% in Republican states compared to a drop of only 25% in swing states or states that tend to support the Democrats, claims the news agency.

“I would suggest these numbers would tell us there is politicization going on,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, who helped Reuters analyze the federal spending.

The money that the government allocates to discretionary spending goes to initiatives like the Head Start preschool education scheme and anti-drugs programs.

Read more on the study at Reuters

TIME animals

Americans Could Spend $703 Million on Their Pets This Valentine’s Day

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Dog wearing tiara Getty Images

Nothing says "I love you" like a diamond collar

The candy and flowers industrial complex that is Valentine’s Day had gone to the dogs. Literally.

One in five Americans will take their pets into consideration on Feb. 14, according to a new study by the National Retail Federation, a trade association. Out of a total of $18.9 billion spent on the holiday, consumers will drop $703 million on their furrier companions, the group forecasts.

While the figure at first appears staggering, the retail group points out that consumers will just spend $5.28 on their pets on average.

But even though opting for heart-shaped Milkbones suffices, nothing says I love you like splurging for that diamond dog color Fluffy’s been eyeing.

MONEY consumer psychology

7 Ways to Trick Yourself into Saving More Money in 2015

piggy bank in various clamps and a vice
Steve Greer—Getty Images

These simple strategies can help you squeeze more out of your budget—and end the year with a lot more cash socked away than you started with.

If your New Year’s resolutions included growing—or starting—your savings, you’re already ahead of the pack.

Only about a third of Americans recently surveyed by Fidelity made any kind of financial resolution this year; and of those who did, just over half were aiming to stash more cash.

Kudos to you for taking this important step toward financial security.

Want to make sure your good intentions aren’t derailed before the month is out? The key is taking initial actions that will make repeating good habits easier, says University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler.

“We tend to revert to our long-run tendencies,” says Thaler. “To effect real changes, you have to make some structural change in the environment.”

With that wisdom in mind, the seven life changes that follow will help you save more money this year.

1. Use Inertia to Your Advantage

Research by Thaler and others has shown that people are victims of inertia: If you aren’t used to saving money with regularity, it’s likely going to feel like such a chore to start that you’ll never bother—or, you’ll quit after one account transfer.

But when your money is already being saved automatically, inertia works in your favor, since it’ll take more effort to stop saving than to do nothing. That is why a growing number of 401(k) plans offer automatic enrollment with a default monthly contribution rate.

Still, you may need to stick a hand in the machine if you want to have financial freedom in retirement, since the default rate (often around 3% of salary) won’t get you far in your golden years. Most planners recommend saving at least 10% of income.

Even if you set up your own plan, you probably haven’t touched your contribution rate since; more than a third of participants haven’t, according to a TIAA-CREF survey.

You can benefit from another relatively new feature called “auto-escalation.” Offered by nearly half of companies, auto-escalation lets you set your savings rate to bump up annually at a date of your choosing and to an amount of your choosing.

For other savings accounts, harness your own “good” inertia by setting up automatic transfers on payday from checking to savings (if you don’t see the money, you won’t get attached to it). Better yet, ask your HR department if you can split your direct deposit to multiple accounts.

2. Keep Your Eye on One Prize

Setting up automatic savings works well if your income and expenses are predictable; but what if either or both aren’t set in stone? You can save money as you go, but you’ll be more successful if you narrow your objectives.

Research from the University of Toronto found that savers often feel overwhelmed by the number of goals they need to put away money for—a stress that can lead to failure. Thinking about multiple objectives forces people to consider tradeoffs, leaving them waffling over choices instead of taking action.

One solution? Prioritize your goals, then knock out one at a time. If you know you need to contribute $5,000 to your retirement funds this year, focus on completing that first. Once it’s done, move on to saving for that dream home.

Another strategy is to think about your goals as interconnected; participants in the Toronto study were also able to overcome their uncertainty about saving when they integrated their objectives into an umbrella goal. So, for example, if you are saving for both a car and a vacation, consider setting up a “road trip” fund.

3. Focus on the Future

A part of what keeps people from saving is that we don’t connect our future aspirations with our present selves, research shows.

One way to get around that is by running some numbers on your retirement using a calculator like T. Rowe Price’s. When participants in a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research were sent exact figures showing how retirement savings contributions translated into income in retirement, they increased their annual contributions by more than $1,000 on average.

Another easy trick? Download an app like AgingBooth, which will show you how you’ll look as a geezer. One study showed that interacting with a virtual reality image of yourself in old age can make you better at saving.

This trick can work for more than just retirement. Another study found that when savers were sent visual reminders of their savings goals, they ended up with more cash stored up. Consider leaving photos of your goal (e.g., images of your children or dream home) next to the computer where you do your online banking to cue you to put more away.

4. Ignore Raises and Bonuses

As Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan has said, the biggest problem with getting a bonus is it’ll likely make you want to celebrate and spend it all—plus some.

The windfall creates an “abundance shock,” which gives you a misleading sense of freedom.

The simplest solution to this problem is to pretend you never got the raise or bonus in the first place, and to instead direct that new money into savings right away. (Remember the 401(k) auto-escalation tip? Set your contribution to bump up the week you get your raise.)

The same goes for when you return an item to a store for a refund or get a transportation reimbursement check in the mail. The faster you put extra cash into savings, the faster you’ll forget about spending it.

5. Make it Contractual

Carrots and sticks work.

One study asked smokers who were trying to quit to save money in an account for six months; at the end of the period, if a urine test showed them free of nicotine, the money was theirs. If not, the cash was donated to charity.

Surprise, surprise: People who participated in the savings account were more likely to have been cigarette-free at the six-month mark than a control group.

If you’re the type who responds to disincentives, enlist a buddy who can help you enforce upon yourself some kind of punishment if you don’t live up to your savings goal (e.g., you might promise a roommate that you’ll clean the bathroom for six weeks).

Maybe you respond better to positive feedback? Simply having a supportive friend or relative to report to on a set schedule may help you achieve results, as many of those who have participated in a group weight loss program like Weight Watchers can attest. Or you might look for some (non-monetary) way to reward yourself if successful.

You can use the website Stickk.com—inspired by the aforementioned study on smokers—to set up a commitment contract that involves incentives or disincentives.

6. Keep Impulses from Undoing Your Budget

Setting aside cash is only half of the equation when it comes to saving more: It’s just as important to keep spending under control.

Most people know to shop carefully—and early—for big-ticket items like cars or airline tickets (which are cheapest 49 days before you’re due to fly). But the premium for procrastinating on smaller items can also add up: Studies show that people spend more on last-minute purchases partly because shopping becomes a defensive act, focused on avoiding disappointment vs. getting the best value.

So give yourself plenty of time to research any item you’re planning to buy. And always go shopping with a list.

When you see an item that tempts you to diverge from your list, give yourself a 24-hour cooling-off period. Ask a sales clerk to keep the item on hold. Or, put it in your online shopping cart, until the same time tomorrow (chances are, that e-tailer will send you a coupon).

Or you could try this trick that MONEY writer Brad Tuttle uses to determine whether an item is worthy of his dough: Pick a type of purchase you love—in his case, burritos—and use that as a unit of measurement. For example, if you see a $120 shirt you like, you can ask yourself, “Is this really worth 10 burritos?” Likewise, you could measure the cost of an item in terms of how many hours of work you had to put in to earn the money to pay for it.

Also, since gift-shopping procrastination undoes a lot of people’s budgets, you might think about starting a spreadsheet where you can jot down ideas for presents year-round. That way, someone’s birthday rolls around, you can shop for a specific item on price rather than spending out of desperation.

Finally, remember that “anchor” prices can bias us to be thrifty or extravagant. So when you are shopping for products that range widely in price (like clothes or cars), start by inspecting cheaper items before viewing pricier ones. That way your brain will stay “anchored” to lower prices, and view the costlier options with more scrutiny.

7. Force Yourself to Feel Guilty

Surveys show that about a third of people don’t check their credit card statements every month.

That’s a problem, and not only because vigilance is your best defense against extraneous charges or credit card fraud. Seeing your purchases enumerated can also help reign in spending by making you feel guilty—one of many reasons people avoid looking.

Another perk of staying up-to-date with your bills: It makes you more aware of paying for redundant services, like Geico and AAA car insurance or Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus.

Keep in mind that shaving off a recurring monthly payment gives you 12x the bump in savings. So a few of these expenses could boost your annual savings by a few hundred bucks. That’s a lot of burritos.

More on resolutions:

Read next: These Types of People End Up More Successful and Make More Money

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MONEY Debt

7 Ways to Free Yourself From Debt—for Good!—in 2015

How to pay off debt
PM Images—Getty Images

These smart and easy strategies can get you back in the black before you know it.

If you’re in debt, getting out may seem impossible.

One in eight Americans don’t think they’ll ever pay off what they owe, according to a survey by CreditCards.com.

But it’s a new year and a new balance sheet. And the seven steps here can help you put hundreds more towards your bills every month—while still living the kind of life you want.

Can you taste the freedom?

1) Know What You Owe

It may sound easy, but this can be the hardest part, says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation of Credit Counseling. “A disturbing number of people come to our offices with grocery bags filled with bills,” she adds.

After you’ve tallied up your total debt, make a “cash-flow calendar” to track how much money is going in and out of your accounts, and when, Cunningham says. When do you get your paycheck, and how much do you get net taxes and benefits? When is each bill due every month, and what is the typical cost? How much do you spend on each of your other expenses, and when?

The more you want to procrastinate on this step, the more you need to do it.

“People resist doing this,” Cunningham says. “I think that’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll find. There’s nothing like seeing your spending staring back at you. That could force a behavioral change.”

2) Follow the 10×10 Rule

If you want to create a debt-repayment plan you can follow, you need to set reasonable and sustainable goals. Curb rather than cut your spending, advises Kevin R. Weeks, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

“Just like a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, it’s very difficult to go cold turkey and say, ‘I’m going to do all this, this week, or today,'” Weeks says. “People bite off more than they can chew, with good intentions.”

Start slowly by following Cunningham’s 10×10 rule: “If you could shave $10 off 10 disposable spending accounts, you’d never miss it, never feel it, never feel deprived—and you’d have another $100 in your pocket,” she says. “Little money adds up to big money.”

3) Spend Cash

Researchers have found that when people shop with credit cards and gift certificates, they are more likely to make impulse purchases on luxury items because they feel like they’re using “play” money. If that sounds like you, cut up the plastic.

And force yourself to feel the pain associated with spending real money by going on a cash-only diet.

“People who live on a cash basis typically save 20% over their previous spending, without feeling deprived,” Cunningham says. “It’s because using cash creates a heightened sense of awareness. You are more contemplative, and you realize you’re going to have to pay for things with hard-earned cash. Something clicks in that allows you to feel better about not buying the item.”

4) Tackle Christmas First

There are two possible ways you can go when it comes to prioritizing your debts: You can pay off your highest interest-rate balance first to cut your financing charges the most or you can pay off a small debt first to build confidence and momentum.

To decide which path is best, you need to know what drives you, Weeks says.

Whichever way you choose to go, Cunningham recommends beginning with a goal of paying off all your holiday spending debt by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

“That will keep you from dragging that debt along with you all the way through 2015,” Cunningham says. “You’ll be back to where you were debt-wise before the holidays.”

No matter what, expect a series of small steps. “It’s going to take time,” Weeks says. “If you’re looking to lose 50 pounds, you should focus on losing the first five and then you move yourself forward. It’s the same thing on the financial side.”

5) Reduce Your Rates

Don’t do all the work yourself. Get your lender to cut your interest rates.

One way to do that is a balance transfer. Many credit cards offer promotions of 0% interest for a year or more if you transfer your debt from an old card and pay a small fee.

You can save $265.48 on a $5,000 debt with a typical balance transfer, according to a new report from Creditcards.com. That’s assuming a 3% balance transfer fee, a 12-month 0% intro APR, and the debt being paid off within the year.

You could do even better than that if you used Money’s pick for a balance transfer card, the Chase Slate, which currently offers a 0% APR for 15 months, no balance transfer fee in the first 60 days, and standard APR of 12.99% to 22.99% after the promotional period.

If you won’t be able to pay off your debt in the promotional period, however, this might not be the best option. You don’t want to move your debt only to possibly get stuck with a higher APR than the one you already have. A better choice: Move your debt to the Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa, which has no balance transfer fee and an ongoing APR starting at an ultra-low 6%.

Or, simply call your issuer and request that your APR be reduced. In another report, CreditCards.com found that two-thirds of people who asked for a lower rate got it.

6) Stop lending so much money to the IRS

The average household got a $3,034 tax refund last year. In other words, every month, an extra $253 was taken out of your paycheck and loaned to the IRS interest free!

Sure, you’ll get it back after you file your taxes, but don’t you need it now?

“I don’t want anybody to receive an income tax refund—that $250 a month can make a major, life-changing difference,” Cunningham says.

Rather than paying interest on your debt every month while the government gets your money, you should be funneling that cash toward your balance. On a $5,000 debt at 16%, adding $250 a month to a payment of $200 a month, you’d save $675 in interest and get your debt paid off in just over a year vs. two and a half.

You can put your money back in your pocket by adjusting your withholding on a W-4 tax form.

Of course, you don’t want to owe money at tax time, so use the government’s withholding calculator to figure out exactly how many allowances you should take. File your new W-4 with your human resources department and give yourself a raise.

7) Ask for help

If you can’t stop taking on debt or are really unable to make payments on what you owe, you may need professional help. Credit counseling can be especially useful if you’re struggling with student loan debt or medical debt, not just credit card debt.

Find a nonprofit credit counselor through the National Foundation of Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Financial counseling should be free, though agencies can charge an enrollment fee for a debt management plan, which will consolidate your debt into one payment with a more reasonable interest rate, Weeks says.

If you don’t need professional help, but you need someone to keep you honest, ask a friend to be your accountability partner, Cunningham suggests. Share your debt repayment plan and check in periodically about how you’re doing. Leverage the positive power of peer pressure.

“People don’t want to let somebody down,” Cunningham says. “They don’t want to have to admit that they weren’t as committed to their plan long-term.”

More on paying off debt:

More on resolutions:

MONEY Shopping

Why Teens Hate Shopping at ‘Teen’ Clothing Stores

Paper covers the windows at a closed Wet Seal store on January 7, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Wet Seal, a teen clothing retailer, announced that it has closed 338 of its retail stores and will lay off nearly 3,700 employees.
Paper covers the windows at a closed Wet Seal store on January 7, 2015, in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Teen retailers are suffering for not paying enough attention to the shifting taste of their target audience.

Expect to see more blank storefronts at your local mall—that is if you even go to the mall anymore. Teen clothier Wet Seal announced this week that it will close 338 stores after years of slow sales.

The once popular teen clothing store Delia’s filed for bankruptcy in December with plans to shut down entirely, and yet another apparel specialist targeting teens, Deb Stores, slid back into bankruptcy that same month. The struggles of youth-oriented retailers don’t stop there. Aeropostale lost $141.8 million in its most recent fiscal year and shut 120 stores last year. Rival Abercrombie & Fitch fared little better, while American Apparel has posted net losses of more than $300 million since 2010.

At the same time, sales are booming at shops like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. The latter plans to double its number of stores in the next three years.

So what happened? Why are teens no longer shopping at the stores that were once the hallmark of “cool”?

1. Individuality Trumps Logos

Thanks to social media—in particular the popularity of searching “outfit of the day” or “OOTD” posts on Instagram—teens now can view hundreds of different products and looks to help them figure out what they want to buy and how to style it. They don’t need a store or brand to help dictate their look for them and aren’t relying on a single brand’s cachet. Instead, millennials favor individuality and shop accordingly. They’re less attached to brands and more willing to mix and match to create their own style, surveys by Nielsen, the Boston Consulting Group, and others have found.

Even Abercrombie, whose name and moose logo were signature design embellishments for every shirt, has realized this. A spokesperson acknowledged to Reuters: “They no longer want to be a walking billboard of a brand. Individualism is important to them, having their own sense of style.” To that end, Abercrombie has shrunk its well-known logo and increased the assortment of offerings in an attempt to better appeal to teens who don’t want to look like store mannequins (or each other).

Abercrombie isn’t the only company that has taken note and been busy “de-branding” designs, notes the Intelligence Group, which found in a study on millennials that they also favor more durable purchases, not flash trends, like classic dark plain denim jeans that can be worn for several years. Retailers that have been more successful with teens of late such as H&M and Forever 21 tend to focus more on selling clothes that seem brandless and still trendy, without prominent logos.

2. “Faster” Fashion Dominates

Stores like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21, which have much shorter waits between when clothing is ordered and when it goes on sale than traditional teen retailers, can roll out new clothing options each week, not each season, meaning they can quickly adopt trends from the catwalk and rapidly bring them to a sales floor. They can also better capitalize on cuts and patterns that are trending well with teens, giving them exactly what they want, faster than ever.

These “fast fashion” shops typically sell clothes at low prices—ideal when your clientele doesn’t have much money—and an ever-changing roster of products lures teens back into stores (or websites) again and again to see what’s new. It’s easy to see how this trend snowballs and hurts the competition, with teens having less time or inclination to look at other shops selling the same 14 sweaters they were a month ago.

3. Malls Are No Longer a Hangout

Remember Clueless, that movie that Iggy Azalea replicates in the “Fancy” music video? In it, privileged 1995 teen Cher’s default retreat is the mall. It’s where she goes to find comfort and break in her new clogs, and where a major popularity restructuring happens. Such a plot point wouldn’t be happening today, and I don’t just mean about the clogs.

Twenty years later, Cher’s counterpart’s default hangout could be at a fast-casual restaurant or at home in front of a screen of some sort. Basically, anywhere but the mall, which has seen a drop in foot traffic across all age groups, but among young people in particular. Strict “parental supervision” policies, like the one Ford City Mall announced this week, make it impossible for some teens to hang out at the mall even if they wanted to, with requirements that anyone under 18 be accompanied by a parent on Friday or Saturday evenings. Roughly 80 other malls have implemented similar policies, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Add in the fact that in 1990, about 3 million retail jobs were held by 16-to-19-year-olds, vs. about 1 million today. When someone works at the mall, they’re more likely to shop there simply as a matter of convenience. Plus, isn’t part of the fun of going to a mall getting to annoy your working friend by unfolding all the shirts or pretending to be interested in smoothies so you can spy on your Jamba Juice crush?

Oh, and young people today are less likely to have driver’s licenses or own cars than prior generations, so it’s just plain more difficult for them to get to the mall. Assuming they wanted to go there, of course.

4. Budget Cuts

Clothing simply isn’t the top spending priority for teens it once was. In 2003, teens spent nearly 30% of their budgets on clothing. Nowadays, that figure has dropped to 21%. Of course, teens in 2003 didn’t have the newest iPhone 6 and its accompanying data plan to pay for or selfie sticks to buy. The best a 2003 teen could hope for was a pink Motorola Razr, if they got a cellphone at all. But the point is that today’s teens and millennials are likely to spend less on clothing and more on electronics and eating out at restaurants like Chipotle.

5. Yoga Pants, Yoga Pants, Yoga Pants

Skinny jeans? Flare? Colored? Forget them all. No teenage girl wants to buy new denim each season when she can slip on the modern uniform involving some variation of yoga pants, leggings, or upscale sweatpants. Sales of these “athleisure” offerings, embodied best by retailer Lululemon, have soared this past year as millennials swap their jeans for bottoms that can do double duty at the gym and school. Sales for activewear topped $35 billion last year and now make up 17% of the total clothing market, according to market-research company NPD Group.

With leggings offering greater wardrobe versatility at a lower cost than a typical pair of denim, teens just aren’t feeling the urge to buy those artfully ripped jeans in 10 different washes that still dominate the offerings from American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch. And though AEO and Aeropostale have tried to break into the leisurewear market with new offerings, they’re having a hard battle for attention with established players likes Lululemon and Athleta.

MONEY consumer psychology

7 Reasons to Pretend You Make Less Money

Trick your brain and your wallet will follow.

We all know you can get in financial trouble by pretending to have more money than you actually do — and most of us know that you can’t make an educated guess at someone’s salary by checking out the car they drive. So you can appear to be wealthy even if you’re not. But can you get ahead by telling yourself (and intimating to others) that your paycheck is smaller than it actually is? There are some pretty compelling reasons to do it, and you could find yourself in a far better position than if your paycheck just barely covers expenses.

Here are some reasons to consider pretending your paycheck is just a bit smaller than it really is.

1. Sock Away Money in an Emergency Fund

If you don’t have an emergency fund (or even if you do), you can pretty much count on having an emergency. Car transmissions break, you need to travel unexpectedly or someone in your family ends up needing help. Experts recommend six to 12 months’ worth of expenses in your emergency fund. If you don’t yet have that, you may want to make sure you have access to credit. (You can check your free credit report summary on Credit.com to get an idea of how you would be judged by potential lenders.) But having the money saved is a better alternative.

2. Pay Down Debt Faster

If you pretend you make, say, 10% less than you actually do, you can probably cut expenses to accommodate the reduced pay. But the money you will save isn’t pretend — and you can send it to your creditors, reducing or eliminating debt much more quickly. This little fib helps keep your spending in check, which will free you to direct the money someplace else, making some other dream a reality more quickly. You can even figure out a timeline for getting out of credit card debt with this nifty calculator.

3. Save for a Down Payment or Your Kid’s College

Whether you’re looking to buy a house, educate a child or take a trip around the world, your dream is likely to require a significant chunk of change. And one way to get that is to pretend that earmarked money does not even exist. You can have it transferred into a designated account the same day you get paid so that you are not tempted to use it for the heavily discounted camping equipment that you know about because the advertisement for it popped up in your inbox. (Another money-saving hint: Most of us will spend less if we unsubscribe.)

4. Put More Money in Retirement Savings

Retirement seems a long way off when you are in your 20s, and it is. But most people’s expenses grow with time (particularly if you choose to raise children). It is not going to suddenly become easier to save more, at least not until you have far less time to do it, and the money has less time to grow. How many people have you heard complaining that they wished they hadn’t saved so much for retirement?

5. Friends Won’t Pressure You to Splurge

We’re not suggesting you do away with little luxuries altogether. You and a friend want to go get manicures? Go for it (sometimes). But think about whether all of your get-togethers need to involve a meal out, shopping or manicures. Maybe they made a resolution to move more. Walks can do double duty to help get your body and finances in better shape. And if your friends know you are on a beer budget, chances are they won’t assume you have a champagne salary.

6. Friends & Family Won’t Consider You a Human ATM

Do you often or always pick up the tab for groups because you can afford it? If you say, “my treat” too often, it’s possible you’re sending a signal that because you have more, you have an obligation to share it with your friends and family. You may feel that way as well, and if you do, you would be especially wise to pretend you have a little less money than you actually do. If you do choose to give or lend money to friends and relatives, make sure everyone is clear on what is a gift and what is a loan. Money misunderstandings have the potential to damage relationships.

7. Your Income Could Drop

It’s easy — and tempting — to think your salary will be on an upward trajectory from your first day of work until your last. (Don’t the retirement calculators assume that?) And who plans for a furlough or the loss of a big client? During hard times, it’s not unheard-of for companies to levy across-the-board salary cuts. And if you’re acting as if you make every dime that you actually do, it will be harder to adjust than if you’ve been acting as if you made less.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Budgeting

10 Free Tools for Creating a New 2015 Budget

Keep that New Year's resolution to better track your spending with these handy free tools.

So your spending went a little haywire during the holidays. Now is the time to get back on track with a new budget for 2015.

These days, it’s easy to track spending and set up budgets, often without the need to log in to any complicated software program.

For those looking to do a better job of tracking spending and keeping their financial goals within reach, these tools should help you as you head into the new year.

1. Mint

Mint offers an array of tools to help with budgeting. It’s possible to link all of your financial accounts, including your investments, and view them on a single platform. You can also track and categorize all transactions, and export your financial data to your TurboTax account at tax time. Best of all, you can set up an unlimited number of budgets and even establish goals to track. Mint is available online and on apps for smartphones and tablets.

2. Personal Capital

If you like Mint, you’ll also like Personal Capital. Its budgeting tools are not quite as robust, but I find it’s a little snappier than Mint. Personal Capital also offers financial advice and management for a fee.

3. Buxfer

Buxfer allows you to sync all of your accounts just like Mint and Personal Capital, but has an added feature that allows you to send money to friends and family online. It also helps you dole out shared expenses, like portions of rent or groceries, so it’s perfect for young people with roommates.

4. BudgetPulse

This web-based application is a good option for those who prefer to not link all of their accounts. BudgetPulse requires a little bit more work, because you have to enter all of your financial information manually, but it has a nice interface and some easy-to-adjust budgeting tools.

5. Level Money

Level Money allows you to enter your income, expenses, and “spendable cash” and then offers a real-time picture of what you’re buying and how much cash you have left. It’s best feature is its simplicity.

6. GnuCash

The GnuCash personal and small business accounting program has many devotees because it’s free and works on almost any computer platform, including Linux. Because it’s based on the double-entry accounting system, it’s very robust (and sometimes confusing for those unfamiliar with double entry). Still, with it you can track bank accounts, stocks, and other financial information, and get helpful charts. It’s also possible to import from software programs such as Quicken.

7. Spendee

The first step to budgeting is learning where your money is going. And that’s Spendee‘s strength. It’s easy to enter transactions with just a few taps on the app (iPhone and Android), and the interface is about as clean as you can get. The budgeting tools aren’t as robust as other apps, but you may find it’s just perfect enough for tracking spending.

8. HomeBudget

A well-reviewed app for iOs, Android, and desktop platforms, HomeBudget is great for couples who want to manage budgets together. The app has a slick interface and offers a syncing capability that allows more than one user to track spending and income. The downside to this app is that it costs $4.99, but many find it worth it.

9. Paper Envelopes

Yes, just a handful of plain white envelopes will help you stay on the right financial path. Fill each envelope with a specific amount of cash for certain items. Once the envelope is empty, you can’t spend any more on that item. It’s a simple, but effective, way to reduce your dependency on credit cards and rein in your spending.

10. Microsoft Excel

This may seem a little outdated — and it’s only free if you already have MS Office installed — but it can be effective. Microsoft’s spreadsheet program offers a simple monthly budget template that allows you to compare monthly income and expenses. Sometimes simple is best.

If truly free is your thing, you might try a similar template on Sheets, google’s free alternative to Excel.

Read more articles from Wise Bread:
Fess Up to Your Addictions: How to Satisfy Them on a Frugal Budget
Making Every Penny Count With A Zero-Based Budget
The Most Valuable Thing Debt Takes From You Isn’t Money — It’s This

MONEY Shopping

Walmart Will Trade You for Other Merchants’ Gift Cards

Don't like the gift card you got for Christmas? Walmart feels your pain.

Don’t worry if you don’t like some of the gift cards you receive this Christmas. The AP reports that Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines.

Beginning on Christmas day, shoppers can trade in any eligible gift card for a Walmart gift card of similar value. How much you get depends on what kind of card you’re trading in. An Amazon card will fetch 95% of its value, a Gap card will be worth 85%, and some cards will be matched with just 70% of their original value. The exchange program is being done in partnership with CardCash, the largest platform for buying and selling gift cards. Walmart says this exchange is a test but could be made permanent if there is heavy demand.

To exchange their gift cards, shoppers don’t even need to leave the house. Walmart’s card exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com, lets users input their gift card’s information, and a Walmart gift card will be emailed to them once the original card’s balance is verified.

The motivation for Walmart’s gift exchange is probably to increase store traffic, but there are many reasons retailers love getting their gift cards into the hands of shoppers. As MONEY’s Kara Brandeisky points out, shoppers are likely to overspend when given what seems like fake money. In addition, researchers have found that consumers buy items they don’t need when they use a stored-value certificate; the CEB TowerGroup consultancy has found that 65% of gift card users spend 38% more than the face value of the card.

The CEB also reported that customers tend to forget about their gift cards and don’t spend the full balance, resulting in more than $1 billion in unused store credit this year alone. But that appears to be less true in the case of Walmart: A company spokesperson told the AP that 95% of Walmart holiday gift cards are usually redeemed by February.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
Why gift cards are the only present that makes sense
Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

MONEY holiday shopping

11 Clever Stocking Stuffers They’ll Never Know Cost Almost Nothing

If you’ve ever struggled to get a good gift at the last minute and, like most Americans, ended up spending way too much as a consequence, do not fear. Here’s a list of $25-and-under presents that will impress with their (read: your) savvy—without putting a big dent in your wallet.

  • Citrus spritzer ($5)

    Citrus Spritzer
    Citrus Spritzer

    Whether the goal is keeping guacamole from browning, adding an even mist of lime juice to some (chili!) popcorn, or simply wowing guests, the Quirky Citrus Spritzer is pretty much the coolest gadget you can get someone for $5. Expert tip? Increase juice flow by rolling the fruit in question on a table for a minute before inserting the device—and spritzing to your heart’s content.

  • “Drinks are on me” coasters ($6)

    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters
    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters Karin Åkesson

    Get these charming furniture-protecting coasters from illustrator Karin Akesson for the pun enthusiasts in your life (or that friend who always picks the most literal responses in Cards Against Humanity). Or anyone, really: Who doesn’t love a good double entendre?

  • Clothespin clip-on reading light ($7)

    Clothespin Reading Light
    Clothespin Reading Light MoMA

    Like any unsung hero, this ordinary-looking clothespin doesn’t seem like much at first glance. But pin it to the corner of a book and it transforms into the (drumroll…) Clothespin Clip Light—casting extra light across text while holding pages in place. It’s a sweet stocking stuffer for bookworms and lovers of modern/contemporary art alike… and worst-case scenario, it can be used to hang laundry.

  • Tetris Jenga ($12)

    Jenga Tetris Game
    Jenga Tetris Game Hasbro

    If you thought Truth or Dare Jenga was bold, give Tetris Jenga a spin. This new take on the game has six different shapes that look like the ones you used to flip around on your Ti-84 instead of paying attention in math class. It’s a lot harder to pull a piece out, but destroying the tower is the whole point anyway, right?

  • Tablet “hands” prop ($16)

    TwoHands E-reader prop
    TwoHands E-reader prop Felix

    In the catalog of first-world problems, having to hold your iPad while you use it might be at the top of the list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue people want solved, and luckily for us, TwoHands E-reader prop is here to help. TwoHands not only props up your tablet so you can read or watch movies hands-free, but its cute little hands will make you smile.

  • Folding cutting board ($16)

    Folding Cutting Board
    MoMA

    Unless you’ve got knife skills like a ninja (or Jamie Oliver), it’s hard to keep all those darn veggie bits on the chopping board and off of the floor. MoMA’s Folding Cutting Board solves that problem with bendable sides that transform into a little chute to help keep chopped food in check and transfer pieces from one place to another neatly. It’s the perfect gift for friends or family members with culinary inclinations but a low tolerance for clean-up.

  • Personalized “magic” mug ($17)

    Walgreen's Magic Mug
    Walgreen's Magic Mug Walgreen's

    This Collage Magic Mug from Walgreens lets you add text and up to 15 custom photos to a mug—with a fun extra twist: Those images appear only when the cup is filled with a hot beverage. Whether you lean more sentimental or silly, a personalized gift like this is likely to mean more than the typical holiday present. One playful idea? Photoshop images of you and other friends so it appears you’re “trapped” in the mug.

  • Smartphone gloves ($20)

    Agloves smartphone gloves
    Joe Coca

    Unless you live in a naturally perfect climate, you might be familiar with the winter misery of trying to type on your smartphone with the useless icicles you once called fingers, as freezing sleet and wind whips around you. Enter Agloves smartphone gloves. Yes, there are even cheaper versions out there, but deep discounts come at the expense of quality and touch-screen responsiveness. These sleek puppies give you the equivalent of BMW performance at Hyundai prices.

  • Foodie Survival Kit ($20)

    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit
    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit Restoration Hardware

    For foodies and flavor junkies who can’t tolerate a bland meal, this emergency Mobile Foodie Survival kit is a game-changer, especially while on the road (or camping). With 13 organic spices, your gift recipient can heat up a too-tame Tikka Masala or add herbal fragrance to a mopey pasta Alfredo. Plus, buying the kit supports a good cause: It’s assembled by disabled adults through non-profit Brooklyn Community Services.

  • 10-in-1 bartender tool ($22)

    Restoration Hardware Bar10DER
    Restoration Hardware

    We’re not going to say they’re the best part of December, but holiday cocktails are a delight, and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Hopefully those on your gift list understand the truth, because you won’t find a better gift than this Bar10der tool from Restoration Hardware. Whether one needs to muddle some rosemary, zest an orange, or strain ice, the 10 devices that pop out of this tool have got the cocktail game covered.

  • Dining Table Tennis ($24)

    Dining Table Tennis
    Dining Table Tennis Restoration Hardware

    Here’s a scenario: It’s day two of your family’s holiday celebration. Cookies have been eaten, presents opened, and Netflix queues depleted. Everyone’s trapped together and there’s nothing left to distract from food comas (and bickering relatives). Enter Dining Table Tennis, a kit with all you need to turn your dining room table into a ping pong battlefield. It burns more calories than Scrabble and gives your loved ones something fun to do—even after all the wine is gone.

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