Winning at The $20 Challenge takes effort. Most days, it feels like my mind has to be constantly on one track — the money track. How much money do I have? What do I need to spend it on? What do I need to remember this week in terms of activities and appointments that cost money? How can I spend intelligently — what coupons can I use? Who has the best price? Is now the best time to buy? How can I plan ahead? So this week I'm sharing some of my thought processes with you so that if you're interested in saving some cash too, your wheels can start turning right now.
Sometimes, when the pickings are slim, it's really important to focus on wants versus needs. After the bills are paid and we are fed, in simple terms, everything else is a want. Shampoo is a want, because otherwise I go "no-poo" quite happily. A haircut is a want, because usually I just tie it back anyways. Dinner out is a want, because there's always SOMETHING we can pull together at home, even if it doesn't exactly hit the spot.
When things are a little cushier, I'm more focused on the ROI (return on investment) of the wants. Because you have to allow for some — otherwise everyone is grumpy and it does feel like deprivation rather than success. So will I buy the $8 bottle of shampoo? Not unless I'm in love with the scent. Will I buy the giant box of Goldfish rather than the small package, which is usually more economical (and my kids will for sure eat them all)? Not if the sale price and the discount makes the smaller package a better deal. Will I take advantage and spend on something expensive this month, because there's room and there may not be next month? Probably. It really requires identifying the feeling underneath the want. I don't care about using a coupon for dog treats just because they're also on sale; we already have enough dog treats. That sports bra that's on clearance for $5, though? That's a good ROI.
One thing that really helps overall is maintaining an electronic calendar that you can access from anywhere (on the web and on your phone). That's where I keep track of every bill I pay, whether on a recurring auto-debit or as a reminder that I have to physically pay for it myself. If you don't already keep track of your entire month of outgoing commitments like that, I highly recommend it — even those annoying little $3 iCloud charges and renewing apps for kids.
It also helps to have the bills on the same calendar as your social schedule, because then you know: I also have to budget for the vet this week. I also have to account for haircuts on Wednesday. Drinks out with the girls? Better estimate $20 — things like that. Having all of that information at a glance for budget building and constant monitoring is essential.
By constant monitoring, I mean (in my case) Mint. I review all of my receipts and debits to make sure they're categorized correctly, and I stay on top of where I am with my budget pretty much every day. If I have a little extra somewhere, I might move it to a category where we used to overspend regularly, like food or kid activities. If I notice I went over in one budget category, I adjust by making another total smaller. You really have to be vigilant, because (1) going through tons of receipts is really tedious, so it helps to break it up by checking in often; (2) for me, at least, going WITHOUT frequent spot-checks used to lead to a lot of "we'll be fine" and later "no we're not" moments, and (3) it's fun to find the extra! (I got a new pair of workout pants yesterday!)
I've also gotten somewhat back into meal planning, although just for me. Food for the kids falls more into the category of maintaining a master list for mixing and matching — things like apples, milk, bacon, juice and noodles. I have found in the past that when I try to design "family" meals, they don't want what I cook. You could argue they should get used to it, but right now, simply put that would be a waste of money. As long as I'm stocked with the basics for them, I have room in the budget for produce and vegetarian proteins for me.
It's really not that much, after you get used to it. The habits are easy — it's more the mental side you have to get used to, like suppressing the urge to order out instead of cook dinner or offering to take your kids on a special outing and then regretting it financially. And it helps to know the WHY behind your goal to save money: to get out of debt? To save for a vacation, retirement or college education? You can still enjoy life's beautiful moments even when you're on a budget. Deprivation is just a mindset, and our culture is obsessed with having more, more, more. None of that matters — I mean it. If you want to get serious about saving money, just start somewhere.
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