If you’ve started to create a budget as a means of taking control of your financial life, you’ll soon start to notice that some expenses seem to be stretching the whole thing pretty thin. Although there are all sorts of ways to plan a budget — on paper, on a spreadsheet, or with a variety of advanced strategies — there’s no way to work around bad spending habits. You just can’t outwit math.
Succeeding with a budget requires a lot of hard work and discipline, and that means taking a close look at lifestyle spending habits that may be stretching you too thin. To help you get started, we’ve identified eight common budget-busters that have become ingrained in our society. See if any of these sounds familiar….
1. Restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. Far and away, eating out torpedoes more budgets than anything else. Eating is an inherently social activity, and for today’s generation of young Americans, eating out is the most common form of fellowship. There’s nothing wrong with going to restaurants, but eating out three or four times a week can add up to $150, $250 or more spending each month.
The solution: Set a cap on how much you’ll spend eating out each week. Take a brown-bag lunch to work, and plan to have meals with friends and affordable restaurants. And try to patronize places that have frequent specials, coupons or loyalty programs, so that you get the most for your money.
2. The Starbucks Principle. Our minds like to look at small expenses — $3 here, $4 there — and tell us that they don’t add up to anything. But if you do the math, that’s simply not true. Many of us visit Starbucks or some other designer coffee shop four or five times a week. At $4 or $5 per drink, that can add up to $100 spent on coffee each month. And though Starbucks may be the most common culprit, this principle applies to any kind of incidental spending. Small purchases add up to big expenses.
The solution: Determine in advance how much you’re willing to spend each week on your particular habit. Make coffee at home if you have to have the caffeine in the morning; better yet, cut the habit altogether. There are lots of healthier ways to start the day (I prefer a nice glass of water). And if you have a lot of “coffee dates” with friends, invite them over to your place for a home brew instead.
3. Entertainment. Have you seen the ticket prices of first-run movie theaters lately? They’re ridiculous — you can easily pay $10 or more 90 minutes of entertainment… and that’s before you purchase popcorn and a drink! And it’s not just movies — bowling, mini-golf, paintball, concerts and other common forms of entertainment can take $10, $20 or more from you each time you go out. If dinner is in the mix, then an average Saturday night of entertainment could cost you $40 or $50.
The solution: Set a cap on how much you’ll spend on entertainment each week or month. Discount movie theaters offer new-ish films for only $1 or $2. Forego the expensive theater popcorn and drinks. Or use an on-demand or streaming service to watch movies at home — these are much cheaper than theater tickets. Plan other entertainment — like concerts or bowling — far enough in advance that you can save some extra cash to cover the expense.
4. Dating. We have no intention of entering the fray over whether Christians should date (although we dated, and had a great time doing it). If you do date, you can plan on each of the entertainment expenses involved above costing twice as much. And though it might be worth going all-out at first to make a good impression, spending a lot on dates will be counter-productive over time… especially if you are trying to save for an engagement ring or wedding.
The solution: Find things that you enjoy doing together that don’t cost much money. Cook together, go to art shows or gallery hops, attend free events around town, or take walks. After dating for a few months, Laura and I decided that we would spend $15 or less on every date, and we had a great time doing it.
5. Toys. You’ve heard that the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys, right? That might be an exaggeration, but there’s a nugget of truth in it — many things that we spend money on are just adult toys. For me, that has always been drums and guitars. For you, it might be cars and trucks, guns, home theater equipment, or other non-essential things you enjoy. Many hobbies get expensive very quickly, and enthusiasts can spend thousands of dollars buying the gear that they enjoy.
The solution: There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies, or buying “toys” to enjoy. But make sure that you can afford to fund the hobby with a line-item in your budget. And if you have your eye on the next big thing, save up the cash to pay for it. Work overtime if you have to, or trim another spending item from your budget until you have the cash you need. Whatever you do, don’t go in to debt to buy a toy!
6. Cell Phones. I love my iPhone, but I know that I’m paying a premium price to use this non-essential luxury phone. Everyone around you may be using smart phones and texting up a storm. But just because smart phones are awesome and popular doesn’t mean that you have to have one. These phones cost a lot more to buy than “dumb” phones, and require data plans that can cost up to $30 each month. And if you go over your limit, service providers charge ridiculous fees on text messages — up to 25 cents each.
The Solution: It’s fine to have a smart phone, but make sure that the monthly fees all fit into your budget. If you can’t fit the fees in, then live with a simple phone, and try to limit your texting to fit within the plan limits. Once you increase your income or cut out some temporary expenses, you can get that shiny new phone that everyone’s raving about.
7. Seasonal Utilities. Water, gas and electricity aren’t free. We’ve become so accustomed to plumbing, heat and air conditioning that these utilities are now considered essential. But if you don’t plan for them, they can really wreck your budget. Your gas bill won’t be high in the summer, but it will skyrocket in the winter when you’re using natural gas to heat your house. The inverse is true of electricity, which is used to run air conditioners in the summer.
The solution: Put your utilities on a “budget plan.” This payment plan allows you to pay one fixed cost for the utilities year round, so that you’re not slapped with climbing bills as the seasons change.
8. Hair, nails and other luxuries. Ladies, this one is for you. I’m used to paying $15-20 for a haircut, but I discovered after I got married just how expensive women’s hair care can be. A simple cut for women cost much more than for a man, and if you add color or other styling, a visit to the salon can cost $100 or more. The same is true for nail care, spa treatments and other similar items.
The solution: I’m no expert in this field, but Laura has found ways to fit hair care into our budget. She gets much less color work done than when she was single, and goes longer stretches of time without a haircut. It may not be much fun, and hopefully it’s just a stopgap measure until your financial picture changes. But if you need to trim some expenses from your budget, expensive hair care is a non-essential item that you can do without for a while.
Those are eight basic budget busters. What’s busting your budet?
Photo via Flickr, by user Shinsuke Ikegame. Used Under Creative Commons License.