So you have a budget and you want to see where you can chop it, but everything looks just so.. NECESSARY, doesn’t it?
(I hear you on that, my necessities include boxes of macarons.)
There are a 3 ways you can trim your monthly budget: Trim, Chop and Shave.
They all work only if you’ve already done the best you can with your debt as in:
- You are currently making payments on your debt
- You haven’t accumulated MORE debt
- You have called your debtors and asked for a lower interest rate or else you’ll default
- You are slowly paying down the debt with the HIGHEST interest rate first
- You are not also saving money aside for some fancy vacation you can’t afford to take
The following tips are for people who are in debt and really think that they can’t find anywhere to chop in their budget.
You don’t have to chop everywhere all at once, but slowly reducing one category one month, and another the next, might just be the way to get ‘er done.
LEVEL 1: TRIM THE BUDGET
This is the easiest level because you just have to go through your truly frivolous variable expenses and trim them down.
Follow or don’t follow the advice, but hopefully it’ll get you thinking about it.
Go through the following budget categories:
- Eating Out — Always a money sucker; you have to become more organized and meal plan!
- Lunches Out — It’s too easy to nip down to the local subway shop, so make your own lunch
- Alcohol — You can always cut down on this budget somehow; Drink less and your liver will smile
- Clothes — Unless you’re a super minimalist with a 10-piece wardrobe, you may not need more
- Makeup — Ditto. Basic makeup should do for now, and I’m fairly sure you already have enough
- Tea/Coffee — You have probably heard this one to death, but a $3/day coffee is $90/month
- ATM fees — Taking money out of a third-party ATM because you’re too lazy is unacceptable
- Candy/Snacks — Going to the convenience store to pick up some chips almost nightly is a waste
- Fancy Vacations — Think about not taking one this year and save the cash instead
- Books/Magazines — Know where your nearest library is? No? Find out where it is & get a card
- Gifts — Nice to have a big heart, but you have to take care of yourself before you can help others
- Charitable Contributions — See above; How can you help others when you’re in $$ trouble?
Photograph I took of a snack in Portugal
YOU CAN STILL HAVE FUN, BUT IN MODERATION
I am not saying to not have ANY fun at all, but if you can’t make your budget balance to the point where you have a comfortable amount that you’re saving in addition to covering your bills, then you do need to:
- make a sacrifice and/or
- make more money
Sacrifices include not taking a vacation, buying less clothes, and in general, less luxuries.
If you say to me: But what will I do if I DON’T go out and party all weekend? I’ll be SO BORED!
Get a part-time job.
An extra job will cure that boredom because it makes you tired, you don’t want to go out after putting in long hours at your regular job and your part-time job. You’ll want to stay in.
Any free time you have, you’ll want to spend it buying groceries, running errands, napping and cleaning your place.
On the plus side, you get more money to clear that debt faster.
TREAT THOSE ABOVE CATEGORIES LIKE LUXURIES
They’re little, daily luxuries.
Treat them as such because once you get used to them, they stop being luxuries and turn into habits.
So until you get to the point where you really don’t need to freak out about spending $3/day at Starbucks, you really can’t afford to be frittering money away like that.
Get out of debt first, have a safe financial cushion in your retirement accounts, and then you can enjoy your money, stress-free.
Photograph I took in London, England (2011) of a typical English day
WHY DO YOU SAY NO FANCY VACATIONS!?
Because you’re in debt.
Want another reason? Because you wanted to get out of debt quicker, no?
Note: What you consider “debt” is up for debate. If you have a house and a mortgage, but are otherwise financially responsible, by all means, save for that vacation.
If you’re paying 30% interest rates on your credit card debt, and desperately want to be free of those plastic shackles, yet you feel like you deserve a $2000 vacation then you simply have to accept that you will take longer to clear your debt, pay more interest in doing so, and you aren’t allowed to whine.
Another point I will bring up is that vacations are a wonderful escape from reality. I myself, escape from reality when I go on vacations.
It is really a downer if you go on a great escape to another dream life for only 2 weeks, only to have reality smack you hard in the face 50 weeks of the year with 30% interest to boot.
I’m putting my money where my mouth is because until I was out of debt, I didn’t take a single vacation, and I was a lot happier to be out of debt sooner versus going to Paris.
I wanted to enjoy my vacation, not go there, rack up more debt (how can you NOT shop in Paris!?) and then come back only to face a bigger pile of debt.
Granted, I’ve always been more of a “work now, play later” sort of person, but this “treating yourself” business or that you “deserve a break for working so hard” can be a slippery slope to justifying things you can’t afford. (I know of what I speak of. 😉 )
Think of your being debt-free as the vacation, the break, and the reward from financial stress which will drag on your mood more than you know.
LEVEL 2: CHOP THE BUDGET
These areas are a lot harder to trim because it takes a little effort, perhaps on the phone and/or in-person:
- Banking Fees — You better not be paying any bank fees but if you are, you should switch banks
- Cellphone — Consider lowering down your data plan, or getting a very low-cost phone altogether
- TV — Eliminate those fancy channels except the ones you actually watch; or stick to basics!
- High-Speed Internet — You can probably go down to the lowest tier in terms of High-Speedy-ness
- Telephone — If you have a Home phone, why have a Cellphone? Or vice versa?
- Groceries — About $200/person is considered reasonable to most folks; otherwise, it’s chop time!
- Life Insurance — If you don’t have any dependents (kids), you’re basically wasting your money
- Utilities — Start turning off the lights; shutting down laptops and using less of everything
LOOK FOR BUNDLING OPPORTUNITIES
Look for a competitive provider in your area, and give your provider a call every 3-6 months to threaten to switch. They’ll generally give you a pretty good rate to try and get you to stay.
This probably only works in big cities, so use with caution.
There are so many no-fee options out there! Why are you still paying an account fee?
Consider at least keeping the minimum in your bank account so that you can have that fee waived.
CELLPHONE VERSUS TELEPHONE
BF and I use a cellphone between us. We treat it like a portable home phone. It works out great because he doesn’t need a cellphone for his personal life, and frankly, neither do I.
We’re just more organized as a result, and we make plans ahead of time.
As a result, we don’t have a home telephone. If we had an apartment for more than a year, I’d consider getting a home telephone and scrapping the cellphone.
For us, it’s one or the other. We’re currently with Virgin Mobile and we pay $21 a month for the whole bill, or about $10.50 each.
Photograph I took of brussel sprouts on the stalk
I don’t like chopping Groceries because I value good food a lot, but most people find that $200/month is sufficient for a single person.
For fancier foods, we spend about $300/month each, going up to $400/month if you include the alcohol that goes into cooking it, or other fancy treats.
As a result of our fancier budget, we don’t eat out as much.
In fact, it’s near $0 in Eating Out between the two of us as a couple.
I only eat out if I am out with friends for a meal, and that is not a weekly, let alone monthly expense.
You know, little things like shutting down your computer, turning lights off and not leaving the water running while you’re doing something, using your dishwasher on off peak hours… it actually all makes a difference.
We did an experiment when we were living in an apartment, and we had $20 for utilities every month.
Not much, right?
Well we started turning everything off (the microwave was on a switch, we turned it on, only to use it), we unplugged every electronic device or put it on a power bar, and lo and behold, our utilities budget came in at $10 the next month!!
$5 of that was service fees (we couldn’t avoid paying the flat charge), and the other $5 was our usage, down from $15/month.
Now it sounds like small potatoes, but this was in a small studio. Can you imagine the savings if you’re living in a 2000 square foot house?
You don’t need to go to extremes as we did in our experiment, but just remembering to turn off the lights, or being conscious of your usage can make a difference.
LEVEL 3: SHAVE THAT BUDGET
This is when you really want to get serious.
You’re thinking: I have done all of those levels, and I AM STILL in need of a budget boost somehow.
Aside from going out and just earning more money at a part-time job, I only have two areas that tend to eat a lot of money:
- Rent — Sell & move to a cheaper and/or smaller apartment farther away; Or get a roommate
- Car — Sell it altogether and save on gas, car insurance, maintenance; Take public transportation
People spend about 35% of their budget on Housing. It’s the biggest part of your expenses, and no one wants to move, let alone have to go through all that work of finding a new place to live.
That said, maybe you bought a house that is simply too big for you.
Or you’re living in a shoebox, paying sky-hight rent prices, when if you just commuted about 15 minutes to half an hour a day, you could cut that in half.
Sell the car if you can’t afford to maintain it. You’ll save on gas, car insurance, maintenance and accessories, not to mention parking, tolls and other things that come with the convenience of the car.
Frankly, we only use our car for groceries because it’s a lot to carry and there’s no direct bus to the grocery store.
For that, we could actually just rent a car for the day or use a car-sharing program where we can rent it by the hour, and not have to worry about paying for a full-time car.
Figure out how much your car is costing you, and make the decision. I know it isn’t easy in some cities, but mid-sized cities and larger, tend to have a public transportation system of some kind, even if it isn’t convenient and easy.
IT’S YOUR LIFE AND YOUR MONEY
Some of these decisions can’t be taken lightly, because it means an upheaval of your life, but once you make the change, you can start seeing the money roll in.
Start slow, and make it happen.
Find a place to cut each month (perhaps making your lunch every day?), and get used to that change before embarking on another.
If you try and do all of these changes at once, you’ll feel overwhelmed, upset and probably abandon this (valuable) exercise altogether.
Sacrifices may have to be made, and it’s up to you to choose which ones to take — do you want to sacrifice your time, or your expenses to clear your debt quicker?