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Despite having an accountant father, I struggled greatly with my finances when I moved out on my own. I’d cut corners when it came down to it, like shopping the sales section for literally everything. Even so, my goals were often bigger than that: I wanted to save for trips, and for going out and having a good time with my friends. But my spending habits showed a different story.
Around my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh, I was living alone and doing everything for myself. This was uncharted territory, which means there was a lot of room for error. I felt like I was drowning and I couldn’t afford anything that mattered. So after a night of extreme self-pity, I decided enough was enough. I got the box of finance books my parents bought me out from where they had been lingering in storage (whoops) and read up.
Shopping in the sale section is one thing, but there are a lot of ways to save money — and they don’t always have to do with clearance tags. Over time, I realized I was saving over $100 weekly once I was more mindful of my habits.
Here are five rituals and habits that worked for me, and why.
1. I went through needs and wants.
The best piece of financial advice I ever got came from the money-help book, “You’re So Money: Live Rich, Even When You’re Not” by journalist Farnoosh Torabi. Within the first five pages, she talks about categorizing your monthly statements. “Figuring out your hierarchy of true needs and wants is extremely important as we evaluate our financial lives and how we ultimately allocate our money,” she writes.
You start by looking back at a month of past spending habits, without curbing them. At the end of every month, categorize your purchases into Needs — such as rent, bills, groceries, and hygienic purchases — and Wants, which means everything else. When it comes to the latter section, ask yourself, could I legitimately survive without this? Then you work from there.
At first, it felt impossible to stay mindful of my Wants … I had a lot of them! But I also wanted to feel comfortable with money. For the first month, I found myself looking for more deals and ways to save on my Wants, while still indulging. But after looking at my daily spending, I noticed I had more money to spend on things I wanted in the long run.
Of course, slip-ups happen, and the line between Needs and Wants is going to be thin sometimes. Just because one person might define ordering takeout after a long day at work as a Want doesn’t mean you don’t need it in the moment — sometimes giving yourself a break is worth the extra cost. But by simply asking myself if each purchase was a need or a want, I wound up saving nearly $75 on average, each week.
Forrest McCall, the founder of financial independence and personal finance blog Don’t Work Another Day, is a big fan of creating a budget in advance. “To stick to a budget, write down your expenses each week so you’ll have a good idea of how much money you’ll be spending,” he suggests. “Compare this number with your [actual] budget and see where you’re at.” If your projected budget is over how much money you actually have, it can be helpful to see where you can make small adjustments, or where you might want to ask for help if needed.
2. I converted what I can spend each week to cash.
I always found it difficult to stick with a weekly budget, until I began to physically withdraw the cash I budgeted for that week from my checking account. (The only things I still paid for digitally were electronic subscriptions and bills.) I’d then take the cold, hard cash, and divvy it up into allocations for groceries, eating out food, transportation, and any needs I had. It seems like a “cold turkey” approach, but giving myself a hard boundary, and telling myself I couldn’t use what wasn’t in each stack was helpful in the beginning.
To make sure I stuck with my new budget, I put my credit card in my freezer to avoid temptation. In the weeks I really didn’t want to go over budget, I’d go even further by putting my card on my ice cube tray, pouring water over it so it froze inside the ice. I’d only break it out a week later for my next budget.
“Exercising self-control can be a struggle, especially if you are doing the challenge in cash or an easily accessible checking account,” Lauren Silbert, VP & General Manager of The Balance, tells our friends at Apartment Therapy. “If you are putting money in a checking account, get rid of the debit card to make it harder to spend. You can also put the money in an interest-earning savings account; knowing that it is earning money just by sitting there may make it less tempting to spend.”
It’s hard to quantify how much money a cash-only system helped me save, because I wasn’t the best at keeping track of a budget before I overhauled my financial ways. But I do know that I barely went over my weekly budget when I switched, which I consider a win.
3. I invested in big purchases to save on small ones.
Hear me out on this one: Instead of buying a five-dollar coffee every day, I invested in a good coffee machine and travel mug. The purchase stung in the beginning, but over time, I made the money back because the joy of using my own coffee machine curbed my desire for a pricey latte. I saved at least $30 a week when I did the switch, which reabsorbed the price of my coffee machine, and then some.
Of course, just because money experts are obsessed with the idea of cutting out your daily latte doesn’t mean you need to — especially if it brings you a small amount of joy in an otherwise harried day. Financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW, says to sometimes allow mini-splurges because those will help you stay motivated in the long run.
“Black-and-white rules set people up for feeling bad or disappointed if they make a mistake,” she notes. “Building in wiggle room makes saving for future goals feel less daunting and can inject a bit of fun along the way.”
4. I aim to eat out one day less per week than last week.
Before COVID, I used to go out for lunch every weekday, which is a habit that admittedly added up quickly. When I looked at my monthly statements, I saw that I spent more than $200 a month at Panera alone — and that was a wake-up call both my wallet and I needed.
As a result, I decided to limit the times I eat out one day at a time — first to four days a week, then to three, and finally down to two. It was difficult at first, but over time, it felt like second nature. As time went on, I realized I preferred to save my takeout day for the end of the week, and gave myself space to enjoy the purchase without guilt — after all, if you’re not kind to yourself in this process, it’s not going to be any fun. Because ordering out can cost upwards of $30 for each meal, even making one swap each week saved tons of money.
Donna Tang, a budgeting expert at CreditDonkey, advises planning your meal ahead of time. “Own a meal planner so that you have a better idea about your meal plans,” she suggests. “It’s an awesome frugal hack as knowing all the details of your meal plans and grocery list will help you save hundreds of dollars weekly” when compared against ordering out for every meal.
5. I rethink which groceries I’ll actually use.
When I began to curb my spending, I also found inspiration in the grocery store aisle. Because I live alone, I questioned if I really needed a gallon of milk when a quart would do. Would I be inspired to cook with other ingredients if I got only a few frozen meals instead of a week’s worth? Over time, I noticed myself buying plenty of fruits, so I leaned into finding unique ways to center my meals and snacks on them if I could.
The trick paid off, literally: In past weeks, my grocery bill has been over $200, but after taking saving seriously, I saved over $80 on average.
You can also turn your time at the grocery store into a game, “Supermarket Sweep”-style. “When I go to the grocery store, my goal is to rack up savings and discounts equal to 10 percent of my weekly grocery bill,” Samuel Rockwell, MBA, AAMS, a financial advisor at Raymond James & Associates. says. He also recommends comparing not only the prices of different brands’ versions of the same product but the size. “When I am looking at buying different items at the grocery store, look at the price per ounce. This helps you understand exactly what you are spending on how you are buying,” he says.