As a mother with three kids and a very hardworking, hungry husband, I have discovered that absolutely nothing is cheap. I have also discovered that it is the small, daily changes we have managed to make that have had the most profound impact on our budget.
Here are 16 of the simple, everyday changes that have worked for us.
1. Use a coupon, absolutely whenever possible. I was really surprised by how many money-saving opportunities are out there when I knew where to look.
For local purchases, get an “Entertainment Book” each year and you will save on those inevitable everyday expenses ranging from dining out to groceries to oil changes. Visit the website to find the savings specific to your zip code. http://www.entertainment.com
For online purchases, stick to the reputable retailers. You certainly will not save any money if you are the victim of fraud or if you are simply unable to return an item. And before you start shopping, always look for a coupon code that will allow you to save on your purchase. In the past, many online retailers sent out promotional codes as a series of letters or numbers that could be entered at checkout. Now, many retailers use a button or text link that automatically activates your coupon when you click through, so it is often a good idea to find the coupon first, before you start to shop.
2. Shop around. The internet is an amazing tool for researching products and retailers, as well as for comparison shopping. We make nearly all of our large purchases online (with a coupon code, of course). It is also important to know where to shop. For holiday gifts, plan ahead and check out the big online discount stores. Overstock.com and Smartbargains.com offer significantly reduced prices on trusted brands. And you can get great shipping prices, too, even on large gifts. Overstock.com, for example, generally charges a flat $2.50 for shipping per order, not per item. I once had an enormous game table shipped to me for $2.50. Overstock often offers coupons for free shipping, too, so be on the lookout for those.
3. Keep a running list of gift ideas for your loved ones. I have found that when I am confident that a gift is perfect for the recipient, I am much less likely to overspend. But that kind of inspiration rarely hits me during the mid-December holiday rush, so I need to keep a list going the whole year through.
4. Budget. Of course, it is important to know what you are really spending. For years, the budget I had in mind was really more of a “wishful thinking” budget. But this quickly led to debt. It pays to get realistic. Whether you use a computer program or a simple ledger book, make sure you know where your money is really going.
5. Save for the future. Take 10 percent of your income and put it in savings, right off the bat. Now you know what you need to cut back on (or how much more you need to earn) to shore up the deficit.
6. Plan ahead. You will want to make sure you have money in the bank for emergencies. Experts say you should have three to six months of living expenses set aside, for those just-in-case times. It sounds like a lot, but start socking away money each month, and it will add up fast.
7. Get organized. When your home is organized, you will be less likely to spend money on items that are already hiding in the nether reaches of your closet and drawers. The same goes for your refrigerator and kitchen cupboards. Purge and organize before you shop.
8. Simplify. There is a certain romance to the “simplify your life” movement. And having too much stuff really does weigh us down. Take a look at everything in your home. If it does not add joy, beauty, meaning, or usefulness to your life, give it away. And when you are tempted to buy something new, it must pass the same test.
On a quarterly basis, go through your house and ask yourself these same things again. Go through your closet, attic, garage, and basement and purge those items that do not add genuine joy, beauty, meaning or usefulness to your everyday life.
9. Reduce, reuse and recycle. A simple lifestyle, for me, is about reducing my urge to over-consume. It is about being kind to the environment. It is about spending less money on material things, so that I have more time and money to spend on memories with my family. Make changes that will help the environment and your pocketbook at the same time. Install water saving kits on your toilet. Write on the back sides of paper. Use reusable containers in your lunches. All these little things really do add up, and it is important to show our children how we can all be part of the solution.
10. Shop without your kids. I know that if I get a shopping cart at WalMart and I do not have a list, I will spend $100. If the kids are with me, I will spend even more. This is another reason it makes sense to do your shopping online. You are less likely to purchase the incidentals.
11. Make sure that your credit card is paying you back via an incentive program. I found a credit card that allows me to earn points on my daily purchases toward our annual vacation trip, including airline miles and hotel accommodations. Since most of my expenses each month are incurred at the grocery store, I found a card that rewards specifically for these types of purchases. Of course, you will need to make sure that you are paying off your balance each and every month. Paying a high interest rate on your credit card will quickly negate any savings you accrue on your incentive plan. Here is a good resource to find the rewards credit card that makes the most sense for you: http://www.creditcards.com/reward.php
12. Lower your interest rates. If you are carrying a balance on a credit card, give the credit card company a call to see if they will give you a lower rate. Sometimes, it is just that easy.
13. Shop around for insurance. The money you pay for auto insurance can vary greatly. Do some research to find out if you are getting the best rate.
14. Be wary of the influence of TV commercials and print ads, especially on your children. We hear fewer cries of “I want that!” when we keep our kids programming to those channels that do not rely on advertising dollars, such as PBS and Noggin.
15. Play “Time Warp.” This is a technique I first learned from “My Monastery is a Minivan,” by Denise Roy, and I use it quite a lot. It goes like this: When you are tempted to make a purchase, mentally fast-forward through the life of the item. For example, in her book, Roy thinks she needs new candleholders. She imagines spending time at the mall to find them, soon having to clean them, and then, years down the road, packing them in the giveaway box. She shirks the purchase and soon rediscovers the heirloom candleholders that are packed away right in her own home.
I like to play this “fast forward” technique in reverse, too, asking: What new clothes did I buy last season? (Sometimes, I can not remember). Where are those “I have to have it” items now?
16. Keep your mind on abundance. When you are thinking about money, it is really important to get out of the poverty mindset. Too often, when we are focused on saving money, we are living from a perspective that focuses on lack and scarcity, which tends to bring about more of the same. It has been really helpful for me to make a conscious effort to see the world as infinitely abundant and to rest in the notion that my needs will be taken care of. This is generally a simple matter of thinking more about what I *do* have than what I do not have.
All my days of penny-pinching have certainly proven to me that it truly does not take money to make us happy. Many of my fondest memories have occurred in the smallest homes. My child’s favorite playthings tend to be the inexpensive items that were never designed to be toys at all. And it is the simple, everyday pleasures that are the sweetest, when enjoyed together.