Well Worth It Week 3: Spend Less Money
You’ve started a budget now and have a few weeks under your belt. Great! At some point you may have realized that after including your bills, debt repayments, play money, goals, savings…the amount going in was less than what was going out.
You’re not alone. Nearly two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, as shown in a recent survey cited by CNBC. And according to the American Bankers Assn., about half of active card accounts carry credit card debt month-to-month (i.e. the balance is not paid in full each month).
When income and output are unequal, you have two options: earn more or spend less. The labor market has been hot. If you feel like you are underpaid, now is a great time to look for a new opportunity or negotiate your current job. You could also consider getting a second job or a side gig – LA Times freelance writer Kathy Kristof offers a guide to some of the most popular options on SideHusl.com.
But sometimes you just need to spend less.
When I started budgeting, I realized there were surprisingly few categories I could move money into if I went over. As we discussed, you can’t really go to the electric company or your landlord and say, “Things are a little tight for me this month, so I’m just going to spend less on my utility bill. electricity and my rent.
Here are some ideas for reducing or cutting out entirely.
Take stock of your expenses: what can you cut?
One of the biggest changes budgeting made in my life was that it made me stop spending money on bullshit that I didn’t really care about. Take a close look at your monthly fixed expenses, those recurring costs that stay the same. Do you really watch the five streaming services you subscribe to? Or could you cancel one for a few months until the show you love comes back? Are you really using that meditation, language learning, or yoga app you pay $6 a month for? Those dollars add up. Don’t spend money that doesn’t get you anything back.
Let us now examine our categories of variables which have the possibility of being reduced. You probably can’t spend less on gas to get to and from work. But what about food, clothes or video games? We have already talked about factoring reality into our budgets. But there are probably places to cut back.
When my husband and I got serious about paying off our debt, I quickly, horribly realized how much we were wasting eating out. We both had long drives that got us home after 7pm. None of us were particularly motivated to make a meal from scratch at the time, so alarmingly we were ordering pizza or going to sushi in our neighborhood. These were not “dates” where we had a good time and savored every bite. We were just getting food into the food hole as quickly as possible.
I used to be against most “fast” meals on principle. I’m a decent cook, and I can whip up something much healthier and tastier than frozen pre-made fried rice if I have the time and the inclination. But if I get home at 7:30 on a Tuesday, I don’t have the time or the inclination. So I invested in the freezer section of Trader Joe’s.
I also reduced my weakness – buying books – by getting a card from the Los Angeles Public Library. I use the Libby app to borrow ebooks. I also use the free subscription to the New York Times. I borrowed books from friends or bought used books online instead of new.
I can’t tell you what your BFFs budget will be. Mine are the Trader Joe’s freezer section and the library. I kept going out to eat or stop reading. I just stopped spending more than necessary to do this stuff. When my husband and I went out to eat we went somewhere new and fun and had a great time. When I invested in a brand new hardcover, I savored it, instead of tossing it on the pile to read with half a dozen others.
Budgeting made me more conscientious about what I was spending my money on, which made me enjoy it more when I did.
What about impulse purchases, spontaneity and fun?
Budgeting doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have fun. I gave a presentation on the topics of this newsletter to a group of LA Times interns. At the end, one of them raised his hand and said, “But what if I want to be a fun person who can do spontaneous things?”
I realize writing a multi-part personal finance newsletter somewhat contradicts that, but I’m a fun person. I love going out to eat and trying overpriced cocktail bars and singing karaoke and walking the Las Vegas strip in a dress I bought this afternoon at Forever 21 with a yard ice cold drink long by hand. How do you think I got into so much debt in the first place? It wasn’t because we weren’t having fun.
What budgeting taught me to do is prioritize. If you want space in your budget to say yes to a last-minute trip to a spa, Sephora, or Mexico, make a line for “fun things” and put some money into it. You probably can’t afford all of these things, but you can probably find a way to afford the one you want the most.
Another intern said he spent a lot of money buying things he saw on TikTok. It is very good! Know thyself. Have a line item for “TikTok buys” and check you have money left in that category before you spend it.
That’s really the thing: take advantage of that minute of attention to money and say, “Yeah, I want that, but can I afford it?” Let me check my budget real quick. Some personal finance experts recommend putting things in your shopping cart and waiting seven days before spending money. I think if you’ve budgeted correctly, you don’t necessarily have to wait a week. But you have to wait long enough to see if your “TikTok buys” category has enough for new string lights.
How do you say no to fun things?
Sometimes you’ll check your fun money category and find there isn’t enough for a small void for crumbs or for Tulum. Even the most diligent budget can’t say yes to every fun thing all the time.
One thing to remember: your friends are probably broke too. If they suggest going out tonight and you say, “That sounds super fun, but I’m actually trying to save money and cancel my student loans right now,” more often than not they’ll respond. “Yuck, I really should do that too.” Remember that what you see on Instagram is other people’s trailer, not reality. Your friends who are constantly on vacation or driving new cars or running errands aren’t much smarter or better than you at budgeting. They either have a trust fund or a lot of credit card debt, or both. Or they have organized their priorities differently.
If they want to get together and you can’t afford what they want to do, offer them something else fun! My road to financial freedom was paved with board game nights and cheap pizza and wine delivery. I went on vacation anyway, but stayed at a cheap hotel and Ubered at the expensive Airbnb during the day, or asked if anyone wanted to share a room. I was the person who showed up with a box of Clif bars and a six-pack of Diet Cokes in my suitcase to grab as an emergency snack or breakfast. If you want to go all out for accommodation, take the earliest and cheapest flight.
This word comes back: priorities.
If you really want the little crumb vacuum you’ve seen on TikTok (it would probably speed up cleaning your office), you need to move that money elsewhere. Can you spend less on eating out this month? You’ve been saving up for a PS5 – do you want to push that goal back a month for that? Can you take it from your “new wardrobe for school this fall” fund? I cannot answer these questions for you. It’s your call.
Your money is limited. Your choices are not.
Things still don’t add up. Now what?
I know that what I discuss in this newsletter will not – cannot – apply to everyone in every financial situation. If you’re drowning in debt and housing costs and your income doesn’t even cover your needs, you’re probably not wondering how to move money around to have some wiggle room for Sephora. Being money conscious does not solve income inequality, low wages, and predatory debt in the United States.
The power of personal finance doesn’t go that far. But taking a hard look at your finances at least puts you back in the driver’s seat. Knowing that you can’t pay your bills is better than guessing that you might not be able to pay them and racking up credit card bills.
Next week we’ll talk about creating an emergency fund, and after that we’ll tackle debt repayment. I know this stuff can be stressful and difficult. It’s much easier to live in relative ignorance about your finances and assume you’ll figure it all out one day. Well, one day is now.
See you soon.
This newsletter is free. But doing it is not. Totally Worth It will not have sales pitches for specific financial products – i.e. I will never tell you that you need to buy this specific software or open an account with this specific bank. My only selling point is this: if you’re not already, consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times. $1 for six months. I promise I can make it fit within your budget.
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