Rule #1: Spend Less Than You Earn.

14 money rulesA reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.

If there is a single rule that underlies everything I’ve written about on The Simple Dollar, it’s this simple sentence:

Spend less than you earn.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet there are many people out there burying themselves in debt (spending more than they earn) or living purely paycheck to paycheck (spending exactly what they earn).

Positive Effects of Spending Less

1. You begin eliminating your debts.

Spending less than you earn frees up the money you need to make larger payments on your debts. Over time, they begin to disappear, reducing your monthly bills and giving you even more breathing room.

2. You begin to save.

First, you build up some cash savings in your savings account, enabling you to roll through emergencies (like a car breakdown or a job loss). You’ll also have the breathing room to start saving for retirement, paving yourself a great future for your golden years.

3. Your stress level falls.

Knowing that you have fewer debts, your emergencies are covered, and your retirement is being planned for reduces your stress level. You sleep better, your overall health improves, and you feel happier about life.

4. You are now able to explore possibilities closed to you before.

When your debts are gone and you are spending far less than you’re bringing in, you suddenly have many more career possibilities. You don’t have to stick with your high-stress job – you have the financial freedom to move on and chase your dreams. You can live where – and how – you want to live.

All of that comes back to one basic principle – spend less than you earn.

That statement actually has two parts, though.

Spend less refers to the fact that you do need to cut your spending. The first step doesn’t need to be anything drastic – nor should it be. Many of the more extreme money-saving tips come from people who have already tried out the basic tips and love them, so they seek out more intense strategies to further cut their spending. I do this myself – I’m always trying out new money-saving strategies, discarding the ones that don’t work for me and keeping the ones that do.

Getting Started on Spending Less

1. Go through every monthly required bill.

Ask yourself if you really need that service at all. Do you really use Netflix enough, or could you just rent a movie once in a while from Redbox? Do you really use your cell phone much at all, or could you just replace it with a pay-as-you-go phone? Then, go through each bill and see if there are any optional services you can eliminate. Do you really need premium cable? Do you really need unlimited text messages?

2. Keep diligent track of your spending.

Keep a notebook in your pocket and write down every expense you have. The simple process of doing this will make you think twice about unnecessary expenses. When you do have a month’s worth of expenses written down, take a careful look at them. Ask yourself whether or not each of these expenses actually contributed to the value and joy of your life. That process will offer a lot of insight for you as to where your spending is going to waste.

3. Look carefully at your routines.

Watch what you do every day (or most days). Are there things you do each day that cost money? Those things are the most powerful ones to adjust, as trimming just $1 from your daily spending saves you $365 a year. Do you stop at a coffee shop each day? Why not cut down your daily order a bit, or switch to a different shop, or start making your coffee at home? Do you eat out every day? Perhaps you can start brown bagging it a few days a week. Look at every regular expense you have.

4. Get a better bank.

The vast majority of Americans are with banks that don’t treat them very well. No interest at all on their checking accounts. Tons of fees for ATM use. Draconian overdraft policies. A tiny interest rate on savings accounts. Monthly usage fees of all kinds. All of these things are a waste of money. Switch your accounts to a bank that respects you. From my own personal experience, I use ING Direct for both savings and checking. I get great customer service, interest on my checking account, a solid interest rate on my savings account, and I’ve never had a fee of any sort.

4. Do some one-time energy improvements around your home.

Replace some of your light bulbs with CFLs and LEDs. Install a programmable thermostat. Air seal your home. Blanket your water heater. Install some SmartStrips to cut down on electricity use. These tactics will cut down your energy bill significantly, directly reducing your bills.

Want some more tips? Dig into my list of 100 great money saving tips for people just getting started, as well as 100 free things to do during a money-free weekend.

The rest of the phrase, than you earn, though, points to the other part of the equation: increasing your earnings. Increasing your earnings gives you more money with which to get rid of your debts, save for your big dreams, and build a foundation for whatever future moves you may want to make.

There are countless ways to earn more money, but there are several tactics almost anyone can apply in their life.

Ways to Start Increasing Your Income

1. Don’t waste time at work.

The time you spend sitting idle, browsing the web, or chatting on IM or Twitter with your buddies is time you’ve effectively lost. Instead, invest that time in something devoted to your career, even if it’s not directly on a work project. There are lots of things you can always be working on – see the other things below, for example.

2. Work on your transferable skills.

I’m a big believer in transferable skills – skills that one can utilize in almost any career path. Work on mastering such skills. Jump on any and all opportunities to speak in public. Hammer out an effective time management scheme for you. Get into a routine of organizing and filing your paperwork. Brainstorm ideas for things going on in your office. Write clear documentation for the standard procedures of your work. Step up to the plate, take charge of a work project, and get the ball moving forward. All of these things push you towards developing skills that are genuinely useful no matter where you’re heading in life.

3. Build strong relationships with as many people as you can in your field.

Join services like Twitter or LinkedIn and start conversations with people in your career. Send emails to people you’ve interacted with a lot in your career and keep up with what they’re doing. If you have an opportunity to connect people that can help each other, do it immediately, without hesitation. Share what you know and be valuable to others.

4. Start a side business.

I don’t mean filling out surveys or other things you can use to burn a few minutes during the commercial breaks on Lost and earn a few pennies. I mean actually devote serious time and effort to turning a passion you have into a money-making enterprise. Don’t know what that could possibly be? Here are fifty ideas to get you started.

5. Step up to the plate at work in little ways.

There are

lots of simple ways to stand out. Speak up at meetings. Show empathy for the problems that others have. Take on only projects you can handle, but do them well. Get to know the support staff – and treat them well. Don’t burn bridges when you move on – make an extra effort to maintain good relationships when you leave. These little things add up to a huge difference.

Keep that rule in mind: spend less than you earn. Each move you make to maximize the gap between what you earn and what you spend will put you in a better place in your life.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.