We have found some things that make a huge difference for us in our ability to save. Some are specific to our family, but others could make sense for a lot of people. The most important thing to me is to have a goal. If I’m not saving to achieve some goal, the moments of feeling impulsive to buy that shiny new whatever take over. And you have to have a little room in your budget for living – something fun or a little indulgence occasionally.
Here is the first part of what will be a few installments on budgeting & saving. This is what is working for my family on our quest to live more simply.
- Budget – this can be the hardest part, but is the necessary first step. Look at what you bring in and what is going out. Cut and reduce unnecessary expenses. Look at all your bills and figure out if there is a way to pay off debt faster to reduce interest payments or to cut the bills by using less (water, electricity, gas, etc). Work out a plan that represents what you will spend, as your budget goal, in every category of expenditure. It helps to take a look at a few months of recent expenses to get an idea of what you’re spending on things like groceries, household items, clothes, entertainment – the things that add up but aren’t a bill you can look at.
- Track – I use Mint.com to track my spending. I’ve been using it less as the budget became second nature, but in the first month or two it’s especially helpful to track all your spending. You can do this in a spreadsheet or in your checkbook (they still have registers, right?) but I liked doing it all online. There are bar graphs to show how you’re doing. It shows your debt to cash ratio. It can incorporate data from all your accounts – loans, checking, savings, debts, etc. Love this.
- Pay Cash – In the short term, paying cash helps you get used to your budget for each item. Withdraw your grocery money at the beginning of the week, and make it last. (Planning meals ahead and shopping only ones or twice helps with this.) In the long term, paying cash can save huge amounts of money on things like large purchases (especially “play things”) that would end up on a credit card. Pay cash for a vacation, and you won’t end up paying interest on your experience. Pay cash for a car and you have more negotiating power. Save up for the things you want, the delay can be frustrating but paying cash means it’s paid for right away. Start with paying cash for your budgeted items and you’ll get used to the budget quickly.
- Don’t pick it up – when you’re in a store it’s hard to put something down once you’ve picked it up, so if it’s not on your shopping list, don’t pick it up. Don’t put it in your hand. And along those lines, don’t go to stores without a list and don’t go to stores for fun. If you aren’t in the store, or if it isn’t in your hand, you can’t waste the money.
- Farmer’s markets – local farmer’s markets can be a great way to save money and eat fresh. Buying local, in-season food is less expensive than food that was shipped from Chile or Mexico (or wherever). If you buy a lot from one farmer’s stand, he’ll likely give you a deal. If you shop late in the day, farmers will often offer you a lower price to take food off their hands.
- Buy in bulk & at sales – coupons don’t really work for my family. We eat very little packaged food, and most coupons are for packaged foods. We could probably do even better by clipping coupons for the pantry staples that we do use, but we have found that stocking up on non-perishables or freeze-ables at Costco or when things are on sale works really well for us. Most of our grocery store purchases end up being fresh fruit & vegetables, because our pantry and freezer are stocked.
- Plan ahead & Use what’s in the house – Choose a few recipes to make in the coming week, make a grocery list and go get everything needed. Then when the end of the week comes and you need to find something to make, use what’s already in the house. This was a particularly hard lesson for me, because I love to experiment with new recipes, which often require ingredients I don’t have laying around at home. But if instead of choosing a recipe at the end of the week and then needing to go to the store to buy another 6 items I can make a recipe by shopping in my fridge, I can not only save a lot of money but also reduce food waste.
- Make what you eat – cooking and eating at home is the most cost-effective way to eat really well. You could probably save money eating only off the dollar menu at a drive-through or eating nothing but cup-of-noodles, but it will get old. We eat really well, and I make almost everything we eat. We take leftovers for lunch and eat simple breakfasts. We make bread and yogurt, and occasionally I’ll bake goodies instead of buying desserts. We found an ice-cream maker on sale for about $20, and although we don’t make ice cream all that often it only takes about 5 pints of premium ice cream to be saving money on that purchase. If you want to eat well and health-fully, make what you eat.
- Take your lunch/snack - As mentioned above, we take our lunches to work. That saves probably $10 a day. That’s $50 a week for one of us, or $2,500 a year. Since I am at home now I usually eat whatever’s in the house for lunch, but if I go out I take a snack and my water bottle. I buy things like Clif bars when they go on sale and throw them in the diaper bag so I always have one. My one weakness is the cafe at Costco. I have a cart full of food and I always want that Polish!
- Reduce – We reduced our rent so that we wouldn’t have to go into debt while we were unemployed. This meant moving out of the apartment we loved & the city we loved, but it also meant that rather than growing debt while we were on unemployment, we grew our savings. We reduced our bills – cable, internet, and phone plans were all dropped to the next level down. We reduced our electricity and water use by keeping the thermostat low and taking shorter showers. We reduced how frequently we went to the store to reduce impulse purchases. We reduced our entertainment budgets, which meant that we did more together and we didn’t spend money on the things we didn’t love to do.