This is a guest post from Trent Hamm, who writes about frugality and fighting debt at The Simple Dollar.

The Big Top Restaurant by pixeljones on Flickr!When I was young, going out to eat at a restaurant was a rare treat, something to anticipate and savor. About twice a year, we would go to an elegant buffet restaurant called Johnny’s Supper Club in a nearby town. I looked forward to eating at Johnny’s for days in advance, plotting all the different delicious foods I would eat. I would even skip lunch on those days so I could eat more at the buffet.

But at some point, the treat of dining out became a matter of routine. When I got married in 2003, my wife and I settled into the habit of eating out for almost every meal. Soon, spending $20 on a meal at a restaurant became the norm. There was no joy in this process — it was simply the way we did things, for better or worse.

Later, I began to appreciate cooking at home, particularly when we moved into a larger house with a decent kitchen. We started preparing a lot of food at home, often spending only a few dollars to feed our family of four. After a while, this became the norm — it was normal to spend just a few dollars on a family meal, prepared in our kitchen and served on our dining room table.

Now, we’ve come full circle. When my wife informed me that my parents were planning on taking us out to eat at a nice little restaurant nearby, I felt a twinge of excitement and immediately began to look forward to the experience.

Unsurprisingly, it was during those years of eating out for almost every meal that I began to get into financial trouble. I had established some expensive routines in my life — eating out, buying piles of new DVDs and books and video games on a weekly basis, golfing several times a month, and so on. These expensive things were enjoyable, but they weren’t treats — they were the expected routine of life.

That meant that as a matter of course, I’d drop a couple hundred dollars at restaurants in a week and spend roughly a hundred on entertainment, too. That was the normal routine.

What made it worse was how high the bar was set for occasional splurges. A new video game system was a potential splurge — $300 right there. A new golf club? A weekend trip to a tournament? A DVD box set? These were the kinds of things that I would buy to indulge myself every month or two, often blowing a couple hundred dollars above and beyond my normal expensive routine.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you’re playing a dangerous financial game. After a few years of this, I found myself in a downward financial spiral. I realized that without making some major changes, I was going to lose everything I had.

The most important change I made was resetting my norms. Instead of eating out for every meal, I started cooking at home. It was rough at first – I had difficulty preparing even the most basic things – but I already had some rusty skill in the kitchen, and before long I was making passable meals at home. After a couple years’ worth of steady practice, I can make all kinds of interesting stuff.

Instead of buying a new DVD or video game or book every week, I found other ways to manage those hobbies. I started borrowing DVDs and books from the library. I started to use swapping services like PaperBackSwap. I made an effort to actually master old video games before acquiring new ones.

Before long, the things that had seemed part of the routine — like eating out or picking up a new video game — began to seem like splurges, and my new baseline routine was much cheaper. The best part is that I never really felt like I missed out on anything during the transition. I still had delicious meals to eat, books to read, games to play, and DVDs to watch — I just didn’t gorge myself on them.

So, what’s the take-home message here? Make your routines as cheap as you possibly can.

  • Cook at home.
  • Make your own coffee.
  • Don’t hit the bookstore or the electronics store every day.
  • Start utilizing the library.

Once the low-cost choices become the norm, you’ll start to have a lot more financial breathing room. Then, the little things (like eating out or getting a new book) will begin to feel special again — and a lot of fun. You won’t lose the joy of day-to-day life. Instead, you’ll find deep appreciation and happiness in the wonderful little splurges. Even better, you won’t have to worry about making ends meet.

J.D.’s note: I, too, have experienced treats becoming matters of routine, especially with books and music. Now they’re treats once again. (In fact, they feel like indulgences.) I continue to struggle with dining out, though. It’s a part of my routine, and not one that I’ve been able to cut back.

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