You know what’s the best way to kick off the new year?
Realizing that your lifestyle of ‘modest’ spending last year was a load of baloney.
You thought you were saving…but you’ve just been fooling yourself. You came up with your own personal budget, full of great intentions. Yes! You’re finally going to live within your means.
But slowly, inevitably, the slide began.
Now it’s January and you’ve got very little to show after a full year of ‘cutting costs’.
How did it come to this?
SLOW DESCENT INTO DISAPPOINTMENT
We’re creatures of comfort. Our inner voices reassure us that we are making wise choices and we’ve got it under control.
We’re blissfully unaware.
By the time the last bottle of champagne or sparkling apple cider is emptied at our New Year’s Eve party, we suddenly realize we’re swirling around the financial toilet bowl of drained savings.
So how can we learn from our total wipe-out and truly make lasting changes this year?
LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN
For me, it took some soul-searching, extensive time with my Excel spreadsheets and data exports from Mint.com.
Then I consulted with my friend Anna.
Anna and I often meet to discuss our latest projects, which fluctuate from losing weight, saving money, latest makeup techniques, parenting goals and decluttering our home. There is always food involved.
As we munched our Panera goodies, we lined up our laptops on the dining table and compared worksheets. Then, we had an undiluted talk about what’s exhausting our savings.
It was refreshing to hear someone else’s perspective and face the truth.
Anna helped me realize that I was foolishly checking my expenses AFTER I had spent the money. I needed to know exactly how I was doing at any point so I could prevent myself from surpassing my budget for that month.
It is a tedious task to keep records of every single purchase.
That’s when I decided to focus only on my top areas of over-spending. I’d track the heck out of them and force myself to shut down my wallet until the new month rolled in.
So here’s my strategy for this year and tips for you:
IDENTIFY WHAT YOU’RE WILLING TO TACKLE NOW
Let’s figure out what you’re going to devote your energy to, instead of trying to fix everything at once.
I used this worksheet below to outline my expenses, by category and amount, to create my personal budget for the year.
For this brainstorming exercise, all you need to do is write in your categories – don’t worry about the amounts.
The first column is for Must-Have expenses that you feel there is no wiggle-room for reduction or you’re not ready to delve into yet.
In the Discretionary Expenses column, list all the expenses you feel comfortable having a closer look at and possibly making drastic changes to.
Every category of expense can be reduced in some way, even what you consider to be essentials. Your mortgage can be refinanced to a lower interest rate. Utility bills could improve if you conserve water or winterize your home properly. Dining out costs can be lessened with coupons and minor adjustments to what you order. You might want to reconsider that all-inclusive vacation and do a few weekend trips instead.
Take a good look at your Discretionary expenses and choose a handful that you’re ready to take on.
Don’t drive yourself crazy with guilt about what you did or didn’t do last year or what you were dreaming about doing this year.
What you want to focus on is HOW you are willing to live THIS year so you can meet your financial goals at year-end.
Simply listen to what your instincts are telling you.
You can do this!
SET A LIMIT AND DECIDE HOW YOU’LL ACHIEVE IT
If you’re going to set a goal that’s significantly lower than last year, have a plan for how you’re actually going to make it happen.
Or else, you’re going to wimp out on your intentions and try to pretend that all of this work on your personal budget did not happen.
For my clothing purchases this year, I listed the major categories of clothing that each family member would need throughout the year, along with an estimate of the costs.
I know my clothing costs peak in August or September for back-to-school outfits. I buy new clothes for my kids and they don’t even wear most of it. And then we can never find the Picture Day outfit we chose at the end of a tired day at the mall, leaving us vulnerable to yet another exhausting trip to find a neutral sweater or shirt.
This year, I’m going to let my kids wear their summer clothing even longer and buy complementary, weather-appropriate pieces to accentuate what they already have in their closet.
Also, if I purchase an item of clothing that’s not on my budgeted list, then I know that I might need to forego something else later on, or incorporate it into birthday or Christmas gifts.
Bottom line, don’t go into this blindly, hoping for the best. Commit to a plan.
That brings me to the next phase.
HOW DO YOU WANT TO TRACK YOUR PROGRESS?
You’ve identified the expenses that are bringing you down AND figured out how you’ll lower them.
Time for Phase Three:
- From this day forward, you will scrutinize each cash payment, credit card transaction and personal check you mail out for those specific expense categories.
- Then, you will note them down and keep a running tab of them.
Are you a paper-and-pen kind of person? Ready to take that bullet journal to the next level with a personal budget?
Or do you dabble in spreadsheets or use the latest websites and apps for reviewing your spending? I like Mint but I found that I needed to actually write down every item I bought. I had to see what I wasting my money on and decide whether it was worth it.
I created this spreadsheet below to use on a daily/weekly basis. Whenever I purchase something, I add it to the file and I can see right away how I stand. I also cross-check it with Mint to make sure I’m picking up everything.
Feel free to change the categories and budget amounts.
Whatever your comfort level, find a way that you can document and observe where your money is going each week.
TAKE ACTION WHEN THE NUMBERS START TO RISE
My biggest mistake in the past was not holding myself accountable for my spending.
Anna always told me, it’s not enough to monitor the charges – you’ve got to take action if things start to skyrocket.
It’s easy for me to see when my groceries are getting out of control. It’s not so appealing to fix it.
For the past two years, I’ve been typing up every grocery receipt onto spreadsheets to see how we’re eating away our savings.
Surprisingly, a lot of my purchases were meat, veggies, fruits, Greek yogurt, and snacks for the home. Good stuff, right?
The problem was multi-fold:
- I kept buying and buying without finishing what we already had in the house;
- I was doing one-stop shopping without researching where to buy my staples at the cheapest prices; and
- I was NOT improvising with what I had in the pantry/freezer at month-end; I kept on buying new items even though I had already surpassed my budget for that month.
So, now, I’m looking at those personal budget numbers more often AND I’m forcing myself to be creative in the kitchen.
Another area I needed to tighten the spending belt was with home supplies.
Amazon Prime, you wallet octopus, you! You snuck into my life with your eight impulse-shopping arms. Those suckers pulled me into the instant-gratification abyss of 2-day shipping, one-click spending, verified reviews and boxes and boxes of stuff that would make my home run smoother.
Now, if I’m running high with my spending, I start building my Wish List. Eventually, I can move those items over to my cart.
STAY FOCUSED – REMEMBER THE SACRIFICES YOU ARE MAKING
You’re not going to maintain your early enthusiasm for an entire year.
Anna said that once she realized she was doing well with her budget in the first few months, she gave herself more leeway with her spending.
That’s when her old habits came back.
When you feel yourself slipping back into your old ways, think of the things that you gave up this year.
It was painful to cut out some of the nicer things that you took for granted in the past.
I have always loved to travel. I want my kids to have the same exhilarating feelings about exploring new places, meeting new people, and experiencing new cuisines.
A few years ago, I drafted a 10-year vacation plan that culminates with a trip to Europe for the very first time when my daughter turns 16.
However, we’re not saving enough for me to reach that goal. Thus, I will skip vacation this year.
And when I start to lie to myself and justify my increased spending, I will think about what I gave up to reach my goal.
Many of the personal examples I’ve shared with you may not be your struggle but I believe the most important factor in achieving your financial goals is to know where your weaknesses are.
Then, do whatever is necessary to fix them and get back on track.
When you’re toasting at your next New Year’s party, be proud of the hard work you put in this year, the discipline you exercised and the money you saved for the future.
Please share some of your wonderful ideas you’ve come up with for cutting costs this year.