A blogger who goes by “empressjuju” thinks she and her husband spend too much on restaurants. “Every month we find ourselves rushed, or tired, or invited out with friends and there goes the budget,” she wrote in a post on her website, (the) Vegas in Austin.
Her husband wondered whether it is unreasonable to spend less. Given that they want to be homeowners, she took a different view: “We are eating our house!”
Her words reminded me of an interview with personal finance expert Mary Hunt. On the subject of giving college students credit cards for emergencies, here is what Hunt thinks: Young people rarely encounter true emergencies. “If you can eat it, drink it, wear it, watch it or listen to it,” she said, “then it’s not an emergency.”
But naturally, when your only tool is plastic, all your problems start to look chargeable. Which brings me back to empressjuju’s plaint: How many of us are eating, drinking, watching, wearing or listening to our future goals?
It doesn’t have to be a house. Maybe you dream of retiring early, starting a business, staying home with a child, paying off student loans or even just paying cash for your next car.
It’s your money, so manage it
Some people can’t meet their goals because they simply don’t earn enough. That’s a whole different story. However, plenty of people are broke because they don’t manage their money.
Ever listened to a friend bemoan her paycheck-to-paycheck status while using an iPhone to Instagram her entrée?
Ever sat courtside with a pal who sighs that his truck payment and CrossFit costs are so hard to meet?
Maybe you are somewhere in the middle between entry-level salary and paycheck-equals-toys mode. Track your spending for a while and take an honest look at the results.
If careless spending is torpedoing your goals, the following workarounds just might help.
Cooking up savings
Food is often the budget item with the most wiggle room, especially when it comes to meals out. According to the USDA, 43.1 percent of our food dollars are actually spent on items consumed away from home. But you don’t have to quit eating out altogether. Trying this might be just as counterproductive as trying to quit any other habit in an all-or-nothing fashion.
Instead, scale back gradually. Start with dishes that are simple to prepare. Look for recipes to create your favorite restaurant dishes at home.
Not much kitchen experience? Blogs like Budget Bytes and CheapHealthyGood will hand-hold you through the process.
Double the recipes so you will have leftovers for lunch. Tote meals twice a week for a while, then inch your way up. Aim for five, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss the mark.
Possible workarounds: Batch-cooking. Slow-cookers. Coupons, social media vouchers and other specials for reasonably priced meals out. “Speed scratch,” e.g., fixing a salad and rice to go with a Costco rotisserie chicken.
Drink up! (Or not.)
My partner makes dark ale for $1 a bottle. It’s a fun hobby and a single batch lasts for months. (By “a single batch” I mean “a double batch,” because he reuses the yeast-heavy sludge at the bottom of the fermenter to start a second series of bottles. Can’t help lovin’ that man.)
Not everyone wants to do that. But instead of buying expensive craft beers at a brewpub, why not drink at home some (or most) of the time? Find a pal with a similar palate and split a six-pack, enjoyed with a batch of chili or some inexpensive snacks.
More of an oenophile? Try inexpensive wines from around the world. Check wine websites, talk to the folks who sell the stuff, watch for social media vouchers involving regional vineyards.
In some states, you can even buy discounted vino online; see “Wine Online – Savings Tips for Frugal Sips.”
Possible workarounds: Host a BYOB wine-tasting. Beer, wine and hootch does go on sale, so watch for your favorites. Join Costco or Sam’s Club where beverages of all varieties are cheaper.
Wearing out the budget
Cheaply made clothes means more frequent replacements. Look for apparel that evinces craftsmanship rather than churn. Consignment shops, thrift stores and rummage/yard sales can be great places to find good-quality duds.
Ever shop out of boredom, or just to be with friends, or because you are insecure about your appearance? Address those habits, pronto.
Perhaps your profession puts a premium on tasteful dressing. A few nice suits — for men or women — create a professional and affordable vibe. A new shirt and tie/scarf now and then keeps your look fresh.
Possible workarounds: Clothing swaps. Flash sales. The clearance section of your favorite clothiers, either on- or off-line.
Watching your dollars
Plenty of people have cut the cable in favor of alternatives like Netflix and Hulu. Consider joining them.
Regarding new movies: Are you at the theater after work on Friday rather than hitting weekend matinees or pay-one-price day? Do you go see stuff you know is probably junk or buy a ton of refreshments?
Do you buy DVDs by the handful, watch them once or twice and then shelve them with other titles you just had to have (but have since forgotten)?
Sporting and cultural events can also vacuum dollars from your wallet, especially if you buy expensive seats and season tickets/subscriptions. Personally, I care nothing for sports, but I do support the arts. However, I always look for ways to reduce the tab.
And I’d like to add “play it” to Mary Hunt’s eat-it-drink-it-etc. list, since some people buy new video and/or board games like candy bars. How many titles can you reasonably expect to use?
Entertainment is important, but so is that future house (or whatever). Prioritize, people.
Possible workarounds: Movies from the library. Redbox rentals (search for “free Redbox code” first). Split DVD or game purchases with a friend, then trade them in. Pay for movie tickets, DVDs and games with discounted gift cards. If you must have popcorn, join the theater rewards program.
The sound of wasteful spending
The average person spends between $45 and $68 a year on music downloads. Others pay upwards of $120 a year for on-demand subscription radio services.
Maybe you are passionately devoted to certain artists. (For now, anyway.) But give your music collection a reality check: How often do you really listen? Was it worth the combined outlay?
Concerts can cost a bomb; but even if it is a band about which you feel meh-emotion, there is just something about a live performance (and concert T-shirts, too).
On the other hand, you could pick your spots and attend only shows you know you will regret having missed.
Possible workarounds: Listen to regular radio. Download singles instead of buying CDs. Get discounted iTunes gift cards (see discounted gift cards link above). When asked what you want for birthdays/Christmas, mention concert tickets or gift cards.
To be clear, I am not saying you can never have fun. I’m just suggesting that you think beyond that day’s desires and pick your spots. You might be able to have it all, but you probably won’t have it all at once. And if spending without thinking is your M.O., then you probably won’t ever have much that’s lasting anyway.
Reaching goals is an everyday kind of thing, isn’t it? Share your workarounds and stories in the comments below!
(Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman is on staff at Money Talks News and writes for a number of other websites and magazines. She blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com and about writing at WriteABlogPeopleWillRead.com.)
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