Set your goal and parameters for spending.
Ask yourself, "Is there a cheaper way to do this?"
Ask yourself, "Is there another way to pay for this?"
Set up a sinking fund so you're not caught off guard by future expenses.
You've probably heard of a No Spend Month, where as the name suggests, you don't spend any money. There are degrees of No Spending -- are you just foregoing the extras, or are you getting down to the last Campbell's cream of chicken soup before you go to the grocery store?
I found myself in need of a budget reset this summer, but No Spend seemed too draconian and unachievable. So I invented the term Spend-Less Month to accommodate some planned spending and still get myself motivated to save money.
As I said in my newsletter earlier this month, this is not a cry for help and my family is not going without any necessities. I just want to get my checking account back to its usual equilibrium after some more-than-usual spending in June -- some of it unavoidable (like car taxes) and some of it definitely discretionary. (Like getting a damaged painting restored, how bourgeois is that??)
But on the other hand, if I continue to run a thousand dollars over my budget every month, my main checking account will indeed be paycheck to paycheck pretty soon! I ended June $1,141 in the negative on my monthly budget spreadsheet -- which meant I started July at -$634. My goal with the Spend-Less Month was to combine frugality with higher summer net pay (no pension contributions are deducted in July and August), freelance income, and a week of paid professional development to get back to $0 by the end of July.
Here are the strategies I used during my spend less month -- spoiler alert, some are "better" than others.
Have two toddlers at home and a partner who works nights and weekends.
This will keep you from spending money because it's such a giant inconvenience to you and your entire family for you to leave the house. Not everyone will be able to implement this strategy right away -- but it works! :p
Okay, now the real stuff...
I asked myself, is there a cheaper way to do this?
When our toilet bowl wouldn't fill with water early in the month, my first impulse was to call a plumber. But after some Googling, it seemed like the cause of the problem was a clogged trap (that's what she said...), which could be fixed using a toilet snake. So I suggested to my husband that I would heroically go to Home Depot, get a toilet snake, and fix the toilet. Luckily for me, he heroically said no, he would go to Home Depot and fix the toilet. And that's what happened!
So instead of spending $200 or $300 on a plumber, my husband DIY-ed the problem for $14.99. And you'll all be happy to know that almost a month later, our toilet is flushing just fine...
There were other times I took the alternative to spending money: studying at the library instead of the coffee shop, repairing a strap on my everyday sandals instead of buying a new pair, going home early from a show instead of getting a babysitter... Sometimes spending money was unavoidable, like when I bought a baby gate to keep the youngest toddler from crawling through the cat door to the basement stairs -- yikes! But I definitely saved over the month by brainstorming the "instead" before grabbing my wallet.
I raided the stash.
This was the month that cashed in my change jar and used all the gift cards I'd socked away. I even raided the "Christmas rewards points fund" to pay for an astrology reading and preorder a friend's EP. I think my greatest victory was getting a $25 sensory bin from Michael's -- a birthday present for my friend's kid -- for $5.31 using $15 in rewards vouchers and my teacher discount. Hurrah!
So raiding the stash helped me have fun this month, but of course there's only so much stash you can raid. If I did a "Spend-Less August," there would be no change to redeem and no gift cards to dig out of the sock drawer.
I shuffled the buckets.
My husband and I have somewhat combined finances -- mine, his, and ours. The Target debit card is attached to our joint account, which funds my husband's IRA contributions, anything we buy at Target, and occasional rainy day expenses like vet bills. So when I checked our grocery spending mid-month and found we were getting close the amount that should come from our own checking accounts, guess where I started grocery shopping? Target.
Another bucket some folks may be able to shuffle: if you have an health savings account (HSA), remember that you can use it to buy many over-the-counter medicines and supplies. Prenatal vitamins, diaper rash cream, period products, and sunscreen are among the eligible items I've used my HSA card for this summer. It might not make a huge dent in your grocery bill, but if you're buying Tylenol or something on a shopping trip, do two transactions and put the Tylenol on your HSA card.
Find a list of HSA-eligible expenses here.
**Note that the main purpose of your HSA is to fund your health insurance deductible -- so you should contribute more than the deductible amount if you plan to use it for over-the-counter purchases.
I kicked the can down the road.
This was one of my less-good strategies... I will often open a credit card with a no-interest introductory period to make a large, planned purchase (and then close the card when it's paid off). Recently, I've been using one of those to pay for grad school classes. The interest begins in August 2024, so I have about a year to deal with it... But I miiiiiiiiight have put my annual permanent makeup touch-up on there this month, adding around $350 to the total balance.
I paused my August savings.
As July came to a close, the monthly budget spreadsheet read -$300. Since I need to be able to pay bills out of my checking account -- and apparently I also "need" to get paintings restored and have my eyebrows tattooed on my forehead -- I paused $250 of IRA and 529 savings for August. Not the A-Number-One personal finance choice either, but cashflow is king. And honestly, having savings to pause is a privilege these days with the cost of every. single. thing. being through the roof...
Although I didn't meet my goal of getting back to $0, I only spent $80 on unplanned, unnecessary stuff -- a LOT less than I did June! And my school district hasn't paid for the professional development yet, so I can expect some extra money to arrive in August. I suppose I could have Door-Dashed my way up to $0 or sought out more freelance work -- but TBH, I was busy with toddlers, grad school, and the work I already had lined up.
What did I learn from completing a Spend-Less Month? First, I need to maintain a happy medium between throwing money around wildly and barely leaving the house. Next, a sinking fund for larger planned expenses (i.e. next year's car tax and eyebrows) could solve future dilemmas like the ones I had this summer.
And finally, this month was a good reminder that I'm fortunate to have enough money to pay my bills in the first place. It's easy to pat yourself on the back if you're also one of these people; however, you never know when something unexpected will change your financial situation. A Spend-Less Month can help keep your checking account in the black so you'll be prepared to handle challenges in the future.
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