Does this sound familiar? You get a $3 coffee every morning and pick up lunch from the deli most days. On Thursdays, it's drinks with friends and on Saturdays you shop for groceries. You need pick up a new pair of pants for work and dinner out with your new squeeze-and bam!
You've got a fun lifestyle and a hell of a credit card bill to pay.
The things we buy each day to maintain our lifestyles seem like necessities. But even small regular purchases, health-conscious choices, and occasional splurges add up fast. Today, half of all Americans are living paycheque to paycheque because they're spending it all on "basics" that they don't actually need.
This situation may apply to you even if you can pay your bills on time. If you're regularly getting hit with bigger credit statements than you planned, then welcome to the party. Credit has a way of making us think and spend like we have more money than we do.
The hardest part of creating better spending habits is deciding where to begin. Figuring out which essentials you actually need will help you filter out what you should be buying from the rest of the noise. Identifying what's actually important will put more money in your own pocket and less toward feeding those running the $2.4 trillion global clothing industry, among others.
To get started, consider this: by definition, "essentials" are vital and nonnegotiable.
These expenses keep you alive and keep you fed, clothed, and satisfied on a deep level.
There are probably lots of things you can stop buying right now and you won't even miss them, because they're not true necessities. Like these ones, for starters:
1) A drink with dinner
Figuring out what's essential in your life should be relatively straightforward. Start by asking yourself if you can live without ordering an alcoholic beverage with dinner?
When you're in your 20s and 30s, it can feel like you have to order a drink with your food, especially when you're out with friends. But each alcoholic beverage adds anywhere from 100 to 300 calories to your meal and $8 to $13 to your tab. A $15 meal can literally double in price just by adding a drink to it. This is a solid reason to drop the "dinner and drinks" habit and start cutting your going-out budget immediately.
At the end of the day, what matters most is the time spent with your people. If you want to have drinks, then why not go to your place first to share a (significantly cheaper) bottle of wine or stop by at their place after dinner for a night cap? Spreading out costs like this can save you a lot in the long run, and you'll be far, far away from servers helpfully offering to top up your drink every 20 minutes.
2) Keeping up with fashion trends
Don't get me wrong: personal style is a big deal. Mark Twain said it best:
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
The problem is that this idea has taken on a whole new meaning in the era of fashion blogging and Instagram. Now we're encouraged to keep up with every development in the hyper-speed fashion reel. You know what I'm talking about: the 90s chokers, quasi-Mexican-patterned scarves and ponchos, and "the spirit of the 80s" B.S. that changes like clockwork every season.
Not only is it a waste of your money to keep up with fast fashion trends, but these clothes and accessories are terrible quality and usually last only one season. They either they fall apart or become obsolete, literally tossing your hard-earned money in the trash.
Fun fact: Americans throw away more than 11 million tons of textile and clothing waste every year. Yikes.
So how can you balance modern life and kick the nasty shopping habit?
Easy: spend your money on fewer but better quality clothes and accessories.
Dress to impress by buying high-quality closet staples like pants, a nicer spring/fall jacket (just one!), and shoes in classic styles. If you want to stay on top of trends, opt for buying one higher-end accessory in the season's trending color rather than buying clothes and trinkets in a style or print that will look sad next year.
Lastly, keep your eyes open for marketing designed to make you buy more stuff because it's for a good cause. Businesses are not above appealing to your better nature to sell you more stuff than you need. For example, choosing not to buy an "eco-friendly" shirt from a fast fashion retailer is actually a better environmental decision than buying more stuff. It's reduce, reuse, recycle, right?
3) The gym
Unless you're really a dedicated gym rat (going a minimum of three or four times a week), you could save a lot of money just by getting rid of your unused gym membership.
The gym can cost from about $50 to more than $100 every month, or $600 to $1,200+ each year, not counting initiation fees. But a joint study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that average gym attendance is less than five visits per month. Sixty-seven percent of people with gym passes never even use them.
Keeping your membership might feel like it underscores your intention of living a healthy lifestyle. No-one will debate that exercise is good for you, but at the same time, no-one will judge you harshly for not going to the gym. Only you might.
Instead of trying to meet your health and fitness goals by doing what everyone else does, figure out something that actually works for you. Honestly think about how you feel when you're at the gym. Do you enjoy using the equipment? Do you mind sharing your space with strangers? Or would you have more fun playing a team sport, rollerblading in the park, or walking your dog?
Seasonal team sports usually cost way less to participate in than a monthly gym membership, and you can change up your sport each season to keep things fresh. As long as you're moving and tiring out your muscles, it's exercise. Hit up web sources for bodyweight exercises or get your own weights to use at home without having to wipe someone else's sweat off first. And the word on the street is that rollerblading works your butt pretty hard.
4) The newest tech
Not owning any gadgets doesn't sound like a lot of fun. At this stage, we can agree that a computer and cellphone are modern necessities. And sure, that step-counting watch reminds you to get up from your desk to keep your muscles from atrophying.
But do you really need a bigger TV, the latest iPhone, every new gaming system, and the hundreds of accessories that come with these gadgets? Probably not. Every time you throw your old tech in the garbage and replace it with something bigger and better, you're hurting your wallet and the planet.
Although 70% of cellphones could be reused, only 14-17% are recycled for the precious metals in their circuits. Americans dump about $60 million of silver and gold in landfills each year just by throwing out cellphones.
Americans also spend $920 billion on tech each year-a number that continues to grow.
How much did you spend on gadgets last year?
How much tech did you throw out?
Seriously, quit wasting your money upgrading to the newest gadget with specs that make no difference. Use your stuff until it breaks and then fix or recycle it. Use your money for things that actually matter.
5) Living in the most happening hood
There are certain perks to living in the hip part of town...sweet cafes, high-end food options, swanky shopping, and your friends' resp-alright, envy.
Yet the reality of these neighborhoods is that rent is at least a few hundred dollars higher than anywhere else and basic items are more expensive too, including food, dry cleaners, barbers, furniture, and entertainment.
You can have a significantly better quality of life and not have to worry about making your monthly rent just by living in a different neighborhood. When choosing where to live, focus on things that matter to you and on the aspects of life that are nonnegotiable.
For example, is it important to live in a very walkable area close to basic services? Or would you be happy living in a quiet part of town that's transport accessible and has lots of green space? Would it make sense to live a bit farther from work or school? The cost of transportation or e-books that'll make the ride home from work more relaxing will be significantly less than the ridiculous monthlies you'd be paying to live in a hip area.
6) Your home pharmacy
Some personal hygiene products are necessary, but how many do you have at home? Marketers would have us believe that both men and women need a range of products to wash ourselves, smell fresh, and moisturize; to pluck, trim, soften, and control our hair; to get a deeper or squeakier clean; and most importantly, to have everyone else wondering how we look so damn good.
A staggering new survey from SkinStore.com found that the average woman wears about $8 of makeup and skincare products every day, adding up to almost $250 per month. She'll spend more than $200,000 on cosmetics in her lifetime. Meanwhile, men's spending on personal grooming is exploding as moisturizers, hair products, and specialty shavers are becoming viewed increasingly as "necessities." The male personal care industry is worth $18.9 billion and growing fast.
Cut your grooming costs with these easy steps:
When you buy a new product, use it all up. Don't get things when they're on sale, collecting multiples of each item. Try to stick to just one cleansing or makeup line, and have just one simple skin routine, hair routine, and mouth routine. Your wallet will thank you. And your bathroom will be 300% tidier.
7) So much fast food
Fast food isn't just burgers and fries at a restaurant: it's your daily coffee, premade breakfast sandwich, salad, or wrap for lunch, and any other conveniently prepared food you can pick up for three times the cost of making your own.
Consider this: an average morning coffee from your favorite chain might cost anywhere from $2 to $5 depending on what you order. If you grab a cuppa joe before work every day except for holidays (that's about 49 five-day work weeks each year), you'd be paying $490 to $1,225 a year just for your morning coffee.
On the other hand, brewing one 16oz coffee in the morning takes $0.39 of high-quality ground coffee. Adding filter paper, a paper cup, and a flavored creamer adds about $0.11 per cup. Now your morning coffee costs $0.50. Making your own espresso is equally easy and cheap using an Italian stovetop machine. By the same calculation, your daily coffee would cost you $122.50 for the year.
You'd save anywhere from $367.50 to $1,102.50 by making your own coffee at home.
Time Magazine also confirms that supermarket staples like beef and eggs are less expensive than before, but restaurant prices are rising faster than the inflation rate. As wages and benefits increase for restaurant workers, so does your tab.
No matter how you slice it, there's literally no better time than now to start making your food at home. Whatever your reason has been for avoiding making dinner and packing your lunch, it's time to get over it.
Instead of ordering a $15 high-fat restaurant carbonara dinner for one, try this 15-minute homemade version that'll feed four happy people for the same price. Or feed two people for dinner and then lunch the next day (leftovers make the best lunches!).
There are fantastic places to find cooking inspiration online along with easy-to-follow directions to make things you never thought possible. Don't forget to read the reviews for helpful tips from people who tried them out:
Of course, you can also find amazing food bloggers who focus on niche foods and cuisines like Italian food, Asian recipes across many cultures, vegetarian and vegan cooking, and anything else you can imagine. Get online, get inspired, and get cooking!
The examples mentioned above are things you might assume are "essential" to your way of life- but odds are that you'll get rid of them and you won't even notice they're gone. Except, of course, you'll have more money in the bank and less on your credit statements.
Making the decision to save on these things, big and small, will improve your quality of life immensely. You'll have more money to spend how you want, whether it's paying off those nagging bills, investing in yourself, or putting money aside for a well-deserved vacation.