These tactics work for me. I'm not a financial expert or debt counselor, so consider yourself disclaimer'd:
- I don't care if the drive-thru "value menu" seems cost-effective. Rarely is the phrase "cheap and easy" ever a compliment. It costs far less to buy your own ingredients, put in some time and elbow grease, and make meals yourself (see photo above, and click to see a larger version). If your concern is that you don't have enough time to do this, consider making several meals' worth of food one evening or weekend when you do have time. Then portion off leftovers and store accordingly. If you're complaining about the time factor, then eating healthier food while saving money is honestly not really a priority for you. You will make the time for what you value most. So quit complaining, then, and enjoy your Taco Bell.
- Don't bring cash with you anywhere. Keep one credit card on hand for emergencies, and make sure it has a low balance. This inhibits impulse spending. If you don't have the money with you, you can't spend it.
- Pack meals and snacks ahead of time. It took me a while to adjust to this, but now I completely avoid the office kitchen and lobby café because I can fulfill my hunger urges with better options. I find that I don't pine for the doughnuts and cookies if I'm armed with something satisfying, like a homemade trail mix or granola, fruit, carrots with hummus, or tea. I actually have a box of tea on my desk, so I can make something flavorful to curb hunger (often times what feels like hunger is dehydration anyway). I even keep some instant hot cocoa packets around for those inevitable sweet tooth cravings.
- Keep a water bottle with you. No sense in paying for bottled stuff that isn't any different from what's in the drinking fountain. I even have a water bottle with a built-in carbon filter, so I can fill up with tap water when I'm on the go and it doesn't taste like butt.
- Libraries! You have free access to books, music, videos, learn a new language, even surf the internet if you don't want to pay for that anymore. Of course, late fees are not free, so be timely in your returns as well. Wen the weather is pleasant, I've been known to walk a mile to the library, pick out a book or movie, and walk home. I just exercised and picked up some evening entertainment, without spending a penny.
- Having a social life can add up: a cocktail here, a lunch outing there. For date nights it is easy to go out for dinner or see a movie. Consider paring down the spending without losing out on time with your favorite people: invite friends over for movie night (free from the library, perhaps!), to play board games, to do a clothing swap (hello, free new wardrobe!), to have a drink (buying the wine or beer--- or mixing drinks yourself---- is way cheaper), or just to sit around and chat. Sit in front of the fireplace, if you have one. If not, sit in front of a TV or computer screen playing video of a crackling fire. Go outside, play yard games. If the weather sucks, stay inside and roast marshmallows over unscented candles (yes, this works when you really want a s'mores in January)! Take turns cooking for each other, making cocktails for each other, hosting BYOB or potluck gatherings. One group of my friends likes to host theme parties and set up their own photo booth with a camera and props. This is much more fun, much more creative, and much more wallet-friendly. If you must go out, only have one alcoholic drink, or seek out local specials, or watch a movie in the cheap seats.
- Turn off Groupon and other coupon e-mails. Seeing stuff offered for a fraction of what they normally cost will--- surprise!--- really influence you to make a purchase. I actually set up filters in my Gmail account to automatically send any of these coupon offers to a folder without even appearing in my inbox. You could also just unsubscribe from everything, too.
- Stay out of the mall, dammit! There is nothing in there you need. You need groceries, you may need gas for your car, you may need electricity... none of these things are at the mall. If your weakness is Target or TJ Maxx, don't go there either. Just don't. If you think you have an exception to that rule, you're wrong. If you really wanted to, you could live your life without ever setting foot in Target or Wal-Mart again. I once stayed away for five months and didn't miss it. Their stuff may seem cheaper, but it also breaks or wears out faster when it's cheap, so you have to go back and buy more. If you must buy, take the extra time to seek out an item from a locally-owned business. You will also go in one day intending to buy cat food, and you'll walk out with a new scarf and lipstick and DVD and pants and... now you've hit a setback. Know your weaknesses and avoid them.
- Those things your grandparents used to do? Learn them. If you tear a seam in the sleeve of your shirt, could you sew it instead of throwing it out and buying a new one? I bet you could learn. Instead of paying several dollars for a loaf of bread, could you make it by hand for mere pennies? I bet you could learn. If your car gets a flat tire, could you change it yourself instead of calling AAA? I bet you could learn. Could you create your own laundry detergent for a few coins instead of dropping eight bucks on a jug at the store? I bet you could learn. Acquire a skill that modern conveniences have all but dismissed a need for, and you'll not only be cool like MacGuyver, but you'll be saving dollars, too.
- Get rid of your $#!T. By setting up an eBay account, you can take pictures of stuff you no longer want and sell it to someone who does. I made over $500 from September to December just by selling things I wasn't even using! (And then I used that moeny to pay my mortgage... how sexy!) I'll cover the world of eBay in another post. Craigslist is also an option, if you're trying to sell items like furniture or kitchen appliances. You could even take a carload of items to Goodwill and write it off on your taxes. If you itemize and list what you donate before you drop it off, you can see savings come tax season.
- Don't use the car if you don't have to. This doesn't apply to everyone, but reducing your time in a vehicle can cut costs rapidly. You save on fuel, you save on wear and tear, and if you walk or bike to your destination you can give yourself some health points as well.
- Post a picture or other reminder of what it is you REALLY want, and refer to it all the time. Each time you decide to buy a new nail polish, or order a new item of clothing, or grab a latte on-the-go, or impulsively buy a bunch of exotic cheeses, you are taking away money that will pay for your rent/mortgage/debt recovery/travel dreams/college loans/slimmer waistline/new camera or scooter or thing that would truly mean a lot to you. When you keep pining for something but don't have the funds, or if you're stressing about being able to pay the bills on a monthly basis, then you're depriving yourself of the peace of mind you genuinely want. You're sacrificing the big desire for a short-term one, and you're only hurting yourself.
- MAKE A BUDGET AND STICK TO IT! Learn how to track your spending, sit down and do some math to figure out your average cost in categories like food and gas and rent, and don't spend more than you make. Then honor it. Have someone help you set one up the first time if you're feeling overwhelmed. Keep tabs on it, and don't deviate. You know how when you gorge your face on holiday food over two weeks in December and suddenly you're thinking, "Whoa, these must be someone else's pants!" because they don't fit? You have no one to blame but yourself and your impulsiveness. Fiscal responsibility will prevent your debt's waistline from expanding. If you don't want to honestly face where your money goes (mine was always getting sucked up in new clothes and dining out), then you can't complain when you've got a house full of collectible Voltron toys but no money to fix that alternator in your car. Seriously, you're a grown-up. Don't be an idiot. Make a budget, be straight with yourself, and adhere to it.
Do you have any money-saving tricks that work for you? Knowledge is the real wealth... share away!