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5 Sneaky ways to trim your budget


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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 03/09/20

If you're trying to save money, try implementing these strategies.

The other day I came across a meme that stopped me in my tracks:

What does it take to waste $10,000 a year? Just $27.40 a day in misc spending.

I did the math, and sure enough, it checks out. Oof.

Spending $27.40 outside the budget each day may not seem like a big deal. But multiply that same decision hundreds of times, and you’ve got a major problem.

If you want more disposable income on hand, the quickest and easiest way is to cut back on spending. After all, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” But perhaps you’re already making responsible, budget-conscious decisions, and don’t think you can cut back much more. These five tips will take your budget savvy to the next level.

1Write it down for later

I started out applying this tip to my kids, before I discovered it works amazingly well for myself, too. When we’re at the store and they start asking for every random toy in sight, I tell them, “I’ll write it down on your birthday (or Christmas) list.” Promising to write it down for later makes them stop asking, and by the time their birthday or Christmas does roll around, they’ve completely forgotten about it.

The grown-up version is that, when I see something I want to buy that’s not accounted for in my budget, I write it down in a note on my phone. Something about writing it down satisfies the urge to take it home right then and there. At the end of the week, I review the list. If I still want the item, I  buy it—but most of the time, I don’t want it anymore once a few days have passed.

2Buy used first

Thrift shopping is very much in fashion right now, thanks to platforms like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and with the common knowledge that it’s better for the planet to reuse than buy new. Of course, not everything can be bought used, but so many things can: things like cars, furniture, clothes, and books — even refurbished laptops and tablets easily can be found good-as-new for much, much cheaper.

Especially when it comes to things that you won’t use for very long (like children’s clothing and furniture) buying used is a genius strategy. A stop at the thrift store or a few garage sales can outfit your kids for the next season for a fraction of what you’d spend buying at retail.

3Meal plan

Switching from eating out to cooking at home is one of the biggest ways to see a quick and drastic drop in spending. And to take your savings (and overall life organization!) a step farther, make a meal plan, so you won’t waste any food and you’ll only need to get groceries once a week.

Meal planning can seem intimidating, so let me break it down for you. After 7 years of weekly meal planning, I’ve got the process down to a science.

First sit down at home and make a list of dinners for the next week. Start by looking through the fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what you already have, and base meals off that, making sure to use up any meat, produce, or other perishables. For example, you might say, “I have half a cabbage; I can use that to make egg roll in a bowl or sausage, potato and cabbage soup. I have rice; I can serve it with Korean beef bowl or chicken tikka masala.” You get the idea.

Another important factor is to look at your schedule for the week and plan meals around that; if you’ll be out of the house one afternoon, plan a crockpot meal so that you can put it together in the morning and have dinner ready for you when you get home, instead of rushing around at 6 p.m. trying to throw together dinner. Also consider the weather; soups and stews are best when it’s cold, while you might not want to turn on the oven or stove when it’s hot. For meal ideas, try googling stuff like “best crockpot dump meals,” “best low-carb sheet pan meals,” “best gluten-free instant pot meals” or whatever you and your family prefer to eat.

As you make your list of dinners, look at the ingredients for each recipe, and add whatever ingredients you don’t have to your shopping list. (I like the app AnyList for that, as my husband and I can both add to and see the list, and it’s synced with our Amazon Echo so I can verbally update my shopping list as I’m cooking.) Once you’re sure you’ve written down all the needed ingredients for dinner, add anything else you need for the week (bread, milk eggs, coffee, staple lunches for your kids).

Now it’s time to take your list and go to the store (or do Instacart or store pick-up). The trip should be quick and painless with a thorough list; no second-guessing yourself in the aisles. When you’re in the store, if you see something you want to buy that’s not on your list, ask yourself, “What’s my plan for this?” If you don’t have a plan for how you’ll use it, don’t buy it; it’ll just go to waste.

Boom, you’re done. Now every day of the week you can feel calm and peaceful as dinner time approaches, knowing that you not only know what you’re making for dinner but have all the ingredients on hand. Meal planning is such a lifesaver. Before long, you’ll wonder how you lived without it!

4Become a regular at your local library

Libraries have come a long way from the “hush, no talking out loud” days. My local library, in a small suburb of Chicago, not only has a seemingly endless array of books, CDs, DVDs, and audiobooks but also stocks board games, puzzles, and “STEM kits” filled with educational toys. When you feel the urge to splurge, take advantage of the library.

Every week or so, we go to the library and each of my kids gets to pick a STEM kit and kids’ CD to check out, plus a big stack of books. I browse the DVDs and pick something out for my husband and I to watch, or grab a new novel. Libraries give you that feeling of bringing home everything you want, but without spending a dime.

5Get an accountability partner, and make it a game!

My neighborhood friends and I are proudly budget-conscious, and we regularly text each other to share cool thrift finds, free events, and great deals. Having this accountability helps immensely in being financially responsible. When a friend says, “That’s too expensive” (or as we jokingly call it, “Code Red Spending Alert”), it helps keep your own spending in check. My husband is a big help here, too. We check in with each other regularly and make it a game to find the best deals on most everything we buy.

If you want to save money, find a friend who’s on the same page. Agree to text each other for support when you’re wavering on a purchase, and share your “wins” with each other as well. Support and community help so much when you’re trying to make a positive change!

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