I've never logged onto my online banking portal without nerves. I admit that I even sometimes refuse to check my balances to keep myself in a state of denial. But when I recently went in to see how much damage I've done so far this month, I was met with an entirely foreign feeling: relief. Usually by this point into the month, I would've already breezed through my checking account and had to choose between surviving off of Cup Noodles (which are delicious) until pay day or racking up my credit card debt. But after a few weeks of actively trying to save money, I've already begun to see major results.
This isn't the first time I've tried to maintain a budget, either. I've tried using countless money-saving apps and living on cash allowances only, but my lack of financial discipline always failed me. So what changed this time? I gave myself a reality check by detailing every single credit and debit card charge from the past few months onto a spreadsheet. The results were horrifying. I mean, I've always known that I was a terrible spender, but I had no idea how much was going where. Seeing my expenses laid out in front of me seriously made me reconsider my financial habits. After realizing the source of all my debt, I decided to actually follow through with the following rules.
1. Start by paying the minimum amount on your credit cards.
I know, you're probably thinking "What the f*ck?" But when I noticed that one of the largest portions of my money was going toward my balances, a light turned on. Though I was putting down some hefty payments, I was basically charging just as much throughout the month and keeping myself in an endless cycle of debt. Instead of setting myself up for failure, I put down the minimum on my cards instead to make more cash available. With my better spending habits, this pool of money still has yet to be drained. At the end of the month, whatever actual funds I have left on my debit card will be going straight to credit card payments. Yes, this does mean it will take a bit longer to pay them off in full, but I've realized that this is a smarter method than giving up everything I have up front with no room left for any other expenses. Chipping away at my balances is also way better than staying at a standstill.
2. Grocery shop for the upcoming week.
To be honest, I've always thought this whole grocery-shopping-will-save-you-money thing was a total myth. I'm happy to report it's not! I started to plan my meals out for the week ahead on Sundays and get exactly what I need from the store instead of blindly adding items to my shopping cart that don't really add up to a full meal. To make things easy, I buy several prepackaged salads for lunch and make meals with big enough portions for leftovers. Unsurprisingly, food is my biggest expense based on my spreadsheet results. As someone who ate out every day for lunch and dinner, I can tell you that grocery shopping (with a plan) will save you hundreds.
3. Be selective about social obligations.
Being social is expensive! Happy hours, dinners with friends, weekend plans, etc., are fun and all, but think about whether you can really afford it. It's OK to turn down invitations once in a while — you probably need a break anyway. Or, as an alternative, suggest cheaper things to do. For example, a former coworker/close friend and I meet at least once a month for dinner, shopping, and a movie. I obviously still wanted to spend time with her, but I offered to make her dinner at home and Netflix instead. The total? Twelve dollars versus the $80-ish that usually sets me back on our date nights.
4. Be smart about where you're going.
If you Uber/Lyft a lot like I do (my third highest expense), be strategic about your travels. Luckily, San Francisco is a very walkable city, so I can get to and from many places for free when I'm not being lazy. But in addition to cutting down my ride shares, I also started thinking about accessible locations. Instead of working out at studios across the city, I booked my ClassPass slots around my neighborhood. Suggesting restaurants and places to hang out near transit lines is also a great alternative.
5. Resist the urge to shop!
I have zero self-control when it comes to treating myself. I'm also all about instant gratification, which doesn't help in the slightest (damn you, Amazon Prime). But when I stopped myself from getting cookies delivered to my apartment and buying that top I knew I didn't need, I was preventing more damage from being done. Even buying coffee every day can really add up, so I limit my caffeine splurges to Fridays. Rule of thumb: if you don't need it, don't get it. I can tell you that this is much easier said than done, but shifting your mindset into money-saving mode makes all the difference!