Having More Fun on Less Money
by Gary Foreman
Dear Dollar Stretcher,
In my search for simplicity I continue to struggle with over-spending. I'm sure there are plenty of people who face the same difficulty. Two of the largest areas that I have trouble with are eating out and entertainment. I'm young and tend not to be thrifty when it comes to hanging out with friends and taking in the latest movie.
I would really appreciate some suggestions on curbing spending--and better yet, suggestions on how to curb the urge to spend. I realize this is a monumental task, but I would love whatever help you could provide.
Amy asks a good question. Many of us seem to struggle to watch our expenses. Sometimes it's hard to just say no. So what's a person to do?
We'll begin by asking two questions. Where do you spend money? And why do you spend money? The answers to those two questions can help us get more enjoyment out of our income.
Let's look first at where we spend our money. That should be fairly easy to identify. If you have trouble remembering just look at your credit card bill or ATM transactions. Then look for some common theme among the expenses. Perhaps all the purchases happen in the mall. Or maybe Saturday afternoon is when you pull out the credit card. Finding a pattern will help you with the second question.
And that's to ask yourself why you spent the money. You don't need to be a psychologist. Just look at your habits. Do you think that you're spending money because to get a bargain? To please or impress your friends? To reward yourself? Perhaps it's because you want to be part of a group. Be honest with yourself. There's no advantage to self deception.
Suppose, for instance, Amy liked to do 'happy hour' on Fridays. And that often led to dinner afterwards. If it's not part of her planned expenses, why does she do it?
The most likely reason is that it's a reward for surviving the work week. Or maybe because she enjoys spending time with friends from the office. And it's understandable if that's what she wants.
But, let's ask one more question. Is going to 'happy hour' the best way to achieve her goal? Could Amy be happier by doing something different? The answer to that question is important. Right now, she might think that missing out on Friday night with her friends would be a big sacrifice. Just saying 'no' is going to be hard every Friday. Very few of us has the strength to withstand that type of temptation for very long.
But, what happens if Amy finds that she gets more enjoyment out of doing something different? Suppose that she spends an average of $20 each week when she goes out. And that she goes out to be seen in new and trendy clothes. In fact right now she has her eye on a dress that costs $100 but won't buy it because it's too expensive. Would she be willing to trade two months worth of happy hours for the dress? If so, after eight weeks she could buy the dress without guilt and still have saved $60. She'd go out less often, but look better when she does. Could be a worthwhile trade for her.
Or maybe Amy is really one of those social type people. She needs that Friday evening companionship. Couldn't she invite three of her office friends to her home after work? Between them they could easily afford a $20 bottle of wine and still save $60 (or about $15 each). Even if they ordered in a pizza they'd still save $10 each.
The trick is to think about what really makes you happy and then find out how to get the most pleasure for your money. Amy mentions that she likes to go to movies. And at today's prices that can get expensive. So let's think about the situation. Why does she like to go to the movies?
If it's because she likes the atmosphere of a movie theatre she could save some money by using the theatres that have matinee specials or offer lower prices for 'second run' releases.
Then again, maybe it's the discussions with friends about what they liked or disliked in a movie. If that's the case Amy could get as much pleasure from discussing television programs. Or even waiting until she does see the movie months after it's release and then starting a conversation about what she just saw. After listening to others she might just decide to skip seeing some movies.
Home video is another alternative. She could invite some friends over for popcorn and a movie. It might be a 'repeat' for her guests, but a 'first run' for Amy. The conversations would be just as enjoyable for her but the popcorn sure would be cheaper!
Once you know what really makes you happy it's possible to use that knowledge to help you withstand temptation. Let's go back to the dress illustration. A reminder (perhaps a picture) stuck in her desk calendar at work every Friday could be enough to get the job done. Perhaps a note reminding her 'two weeks down, six to go' would be just the spur she needs.
It's also possible that Amy will study the situation and decide that she really likes spending money on movies and eating out. And that could be ok, too. At least now she'll be able to do it without feeling guilty. It might mean that she'll need to drive that old car for another year or so, but if that's what makes Amy happy so what? After all, getting the most value for the money she spends was our goal.
Most of us are like Amy. We spend out of habit. But by considering what we really want it's possible to actually have more enjoyment while we spend less money. It will probably be hard the first time we turn down an invitation or suggest people come over to our place instead. But that first step is really a step towards being your own person. And that's where you'll find the greatest pleasure.
Debt is preventing me from taking a vacation this year or the vacation I'd like to take this year! Tell us: Yes, debt is affecting my vacation plans! or No, we're going exactly where we want to go but we'd love to learn make our trip as inexpensive as possible!
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.