Over the years that I’ve been doing the reader mailbag columns, I’ve received many, many emails from readers. A lot of those readers tell me that they’re in a serious financial bind and that they’re on the verge of being unable to pay their bills or debts. They claim to have stretched every penny they can and they practically beg me for some sort of magical answer to their problems.
What I’ve found is that people in these situations often have huge blind spots when it comes to their spending. Often, they are acting very frugal in some respects, but in two or three areas of their life, they’re spending money in very unnecessary ways.
I often want to send them back a list of questions covering many of the most common spending mistakes people make. After receiving several emails from readers asking what boiled down to this exact same question, I started actually drafting a list of those questions. Then, I realized that those questions would make for a pretty worthwhile article.
Give each of these ten questions a bit of thought. Hopefully, one or two of them might push you toward a new money behavior. The best part? Most of these changes are relatively painless ones. They just save you money.
Are you buying store brand or generic items at the store? Many people simply associate their purchases with the name brand version of that item. A recloseable sandwich bag must be a Ziploc or a bag of flour must be King Arthur. Step back from this and try the store brand. Quite often, they work just as well as the name brand except they cost substantially less. If you’re bothered (for some reason) by the generic packaging, save your old name brand package and fill it with the generic contents when you get home.
Are you paying for just basic cable or do you buy extra cable or satellite channels? For that matter, are you paying for television programming at all? Netflix costs $9 a month and it’s got more interesting content than I’ll ever have time to watch. If we hooked up a digital converter box and stuck a small antenna on our roof, we could get about 20 channels – including at least two all-weather channels and an all-children’s channel – for free over the air.
Are you running your thermostat carefully in relation to the season? If you leave it at the same number year round, you’re burning money. Turn it up a few degrees in the warm season and down a few degrees in the cool season and you’ll barely notice the change. Of course, you’ll notice the substantial change on your next energy bill.
Have you gone through your phone bill to look for extra charges? People will pay for unlimited texting and use only a few dozen texts a month. They’ll pay for unlimited data and use only a few dozen megabytes a month. They’ll get charged for things like call waiting that they never, ever use. Check your bill and see what services you’re paying for that you don’t use, then axe those unused services to make your bill smaller.
Are you giving extra spending money to your spouse/your child/yourself? It’s easy to pull out a $20 bill and give it to your child or to a spouse without thinking about it. Turn those $20 bills into $10 bills and you’ll save quite a lot. The only change you’ll notice is that the people figure out how to spend a little bit less when they’re out and about.
Are you a consumer of alcohol, tobacco, soda, energy drinks, or drugs? All of these things are needless money drains. They’re ingested, forgotten about, and then contribute a long-term negative to your health. They cost substantial money, too.
Are your light bulbs efficient? Are you leaving electrical items on when you go to work or to sleep? Stop by a hardware store the next time they have a demonstration of LED bulbs and take a look for yourself as to how efficient they are and how good the light is. Swapping all the lights in your home for LED bulbs can save you a ton on your monthly energy bill. Another way to cut that bill is to just make sure your lights and electronic devices around the house are all off before you go to work or go to bed.
Are you aware of all of the foods in your pantry or cupboards? So often, people have food sitting in the back of their pantry that they’ve forgotten about. Empty it out and use it for meals before it goes bad. You likely have several meals’ worth of food just sitting there, as well as the backbone of a lot of additional meals over the coming weeks and months.
Do you eat out with coworkers as a matter of course? Start a “brown bag” club at work so that everyone saves some cash. Bring in leftovers or a simple meal from home each day and find a quiet place to sit with that same group of coworkers. You have all of the camaraderie with a significant lowering of expenses.
Do you drive places where public transportation will work just fine? Ideally, public transportation can replace a car. Even when it can’t, a trip on the metro is often far less expensive than getting your car out onto the street, particularly if you’re going places where parking may be a hassle.
These all seem so simple, but so often, it’s a simple thing that we have a blind spot for. If we figure out that blind spot and get around it, we’ll often find ourselves with more money than we expected.