This week I had the honor and privilege of speaking to a group of ladies about one of my favorite topics: Cutting Your Household Spending!
Truth be told, I’m a bit of a budgeting nut. I actually find the challenge of a tight budget to be very rewarding and fun in itself (weird and nerdy, I know)… but I’m also a huge believer in the other benefits budgeting produces. (Namely the spiritual, relational, and character-building benefits that come from good financial stewardship.)
I admit, it helps that I am a natural-born planner/organizer type… because taking on the challenge of slashing your spending certainly requires a lot of effort and discipline. But whether you are gifted with Type A qualities or Type B qualities, I believe that being a more responsible spender is within everyone’s reach. This seminar was a fun opportunity to meet with a group of like-minded women and encourage one another toward better stewardship of our financial blessings!
I spent the first part of the evening discussing with the ladies why I believe good financial stewardship is an important issue for us as people (with regard to our spiritual lives, our relationships, and our own self-worth.) We then spent the second half of the evening discussing very practical ideas for how we can decrease our household spending and make the best use of our money. And I thought that you Pretty/Hungry readers might like to hear a recap of the evening, since most everyone could benefit from a little financial pep-talk every now and then!
Disclaimer: I fully acknowledge that not every tip I’m offering here will make sense for every family’s unique situation. This isn’t about me telling you what you should be doing. (And it certainly isn’t about guilt-tripping you if you choose to allocate your money differently than I do.) I’m simply offering a perspective that has worked well and blessed our family tremendously. Take what tips you can feasibly apply to your own situation, and discard the rest.
So let’s recap the evening! First off… Why Do We Overspend?
1) I believe our over-spending tendencies are heavily influenced by our culture. It hugely benefits the companies that make their living off of us consumers if they can get us to tie our self-worth, our value, to the “stuff” we acquire. BMW would love us to go right on believing that being accomplished in life means we drive one of their cars. L’Oreal would love us to go right on believing that if we were really worth it, we’d pay more for premium hair color. We have to wake up, look around us, and quit buying into this nonsense. (Figuratively buying in… and LITERALLY buying in.)
2) I also believe that our culture isn’t fully to blame… that our over-spending tendencies are also rooted much more deeply within us. We sometimes allow money, possessions, the the pseudo-“security” they offer us to fill personal/emotional/spiritual voids in our lives. We might allow them to take the place of meaningful relationships, or use them to cope with unresolved pain, or spend money as a way to self-medicate.
What Consequences Do We Face When We Overspend?
1) Debt: The ultimate killer of our integrity, our relationships, and our self-worth.
2) Stress/Anxiety: And all the physical and relational hardships that stem from these conditions.
3) Spiritual Death/Numbness: We become so wrapped up in the material world that we are blinded to spiritual realities and can forfeit the opportunity to devote our lives to a cause greater than ourselves.
Ruth Haley Barton describes the vicious cycle of over-spending so perfectly in this quote from her book “Longing for More.”
“The more I give myself over to the material world, the emptier I feel inside. The emptier I feel, the more I am attracted to material things that will distract me from those feelings.”
So how do we begin the tough (dang near surgical) process of prying our fingers away from the worldly possessions and comforts we are gripping for dear life? How do we address the deeper issues that surface when we strip away the extra trappings that seem to keep us “happy” and allow our lives to get quiet and reflective? How do we shift our expectations for our standard of living and ward of the tendency to measure our value by the “stuff” we acquire? How do we learn to find contentment in our relationships with family, friends, and God… separate from the money we are able (or not able) to pour into them?
Afterall, Hebrews 13:5 instructs us:
“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Perhaps you think Hebrews 13:5 is much easier said than done. (By the way, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that! It’s a tough passage to live out.) But, practically speaking, I have found that in my quest to “be content with what I have” and “keep my life free from the love of money,” it helps to take deliberate action and make spending-cuts in the areas I tend to be excessive. Regardless of whether you have lots of money or don’t have lots of money, reducing your spending is an excellent way to address some of the tough questions I posed above. And here’s why: Choosing to make sacrifices and “go without” forces us to simplify our lives and look inward. It makes room for quiet reflection, for gratitude, for resourcefulness, and for generosity. In essence, it throws a wrench into that vicious cycle that has us “wanting more stuff… then feeling emptier… then wanting more stuff to fill the emptiness.”
So this is where our evening’s discussion got practical! Again, this list isn’t exhaustive, nor will every idea apply to every person. But it’s definitely a helpful place to start your wheels a’turning!
HOW do I reduce my spending?
1) If you don’t have it, don’t spend it! And if you do have it, pretend you don’t!
This is #1 on my list of tips because it is my most important weapon in the battle to stick to my budget goals. Many (well-meaning) men and women feel truly defeated because “no matter what they cut” they continue to go over their spending goals every month. I feel their pain… I do. But the fact of the matter is that many of those defeated people are operating under a set of expectations that needs to be adjusted. If (hypothetically) they only had $30 per week to feed their family, they would find a way to keep from starving. They would buy large quantities of rice and a few bags of dried beans, and they would make do. The real problem is not that people don’t know how to survive on a shoestring budget, it’s that somewhere along the way a certain standard wiggled its way into their brain and became their baseline expectation… and “cutting back” to them means attempting to cut items off of that list. (We might rationalize by saying, “Well, I never buy organic meat,” or “My kids pack their lunches instead of buying them at school,” or “I shop at Aldi whenever possible.”) But really… the more effective way to operate is to start with a bare-bones list of needs (that falls far below what you can afford), and figure out what you can add to it until you reach your spending limit. And don’t offer yourself the luxury of going over your limit. Remind yourself of the people who make do with less money, instead of always using those more affluent than you as your measuring stick.
2) In your written budget, broaden the scope of your “Fun Money” category.
Our family’s budget has very few categories. There are essentials like the mortgage, the groceries, etc… but a surprising number of expenses fall under our respective “Fun Money” categories. (Both my husband and I are allotted a certain amount each month that we get to “blow” on whatever fun, non-essentials we want.) However, people are usually shocked to learn that things like makeup, clothing, and gym memberships come out of our respective “fun money.” I swear by this method! It’s amazing how much more frugal I become about my “wants” and “needs” when they are coming from my personal fund instead of the general family budget.
3) Overhaul your grocery shopping habits.
Promise yourself you’ll only go to the store every ___ days, then plan ahead so that you can stick to your promise. Prioritize your grocery list by listing important items at the top and less important items at the bottom, so that you can easily drop non-necessities from the list if you hit your spending limit. Read the weekly sales circular from your local grocery store and buy most items according to sales. (See this post for a more in-depth version of my grocery shopping tips!) Stretch one meat purchase into at least 2-3 meals each week to help limit the number of purchases you have to make in each shopping trip. (See here and here for ideas to stretch your meat purchases into multiple meals!)
4) Re-assess “needs” and “wants.”
Did you know that if you ran out of mascara tomorrow and didn’t have the budget to buy more right away, the world would just keep on turning? The same could be said for about 99.9% of the “needs” we justify going over-budget for every month. Paper towels, bottled water, a new Fall wardrobe… these things are luxuries. But without them, the world would just keep on turning! Setting a spending limit is an excellent tool for helping you re-assess what is truly a “need” in your life, and what you have simply convinced yourself is a need.
5) Re-think special diets.
If you have food allergies, strong restrictions are a must. But for those who don’t, you can reach your fitness goals without going paleo, gluten-free, or joining so-and-so’s “30 Day Challenge.” These diets are very difficult to follow on a tight budget. Also, let me be a voice in the crowd saying, “You aren’t a bad parent if you don’t buy all organic food for your children.” If you simply prefer the taste of organic produce, start a small garden of your own.
In my opinion, a budget is the most powerful diet strategy out there, because it means built-in portion control. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of budget-induced portion-control in our family’s fitness level, as well as the power of more sleep, less processed food, and more water.
6) Cancel (or scale back) your TV/entertainment expenses.
I firmly believe we depend too heavily on TV for our entertainment. We claim “busy-ness” as our excuse for not studying scripture more, not having a clean house, not having time to make a meal for a friend in need… and yet statistics show that the average American watches 5 hours of TV a day and spends at least 2 hours on a computer or smart phone. We are not too busy. Cancelling your cable is bold move, but rarely a regrettable one. (See this post for ideas on how to entertain your kiddos for FREE, without resorting to the television.)
7) Make more food from scratch
Chicken broth, baby food, pie crust, marinara sauce, pizza dough… there are so many items you can make at home for pennies on the dollar. Granted, for some people, time is a more precious commodity than money, and the extra time spent is not a worthwhile trade-off. Only you can decide that. But a bit of extra cooking does not have to detract from “family time”. It is a great opportunity for your kids to join you in the kitchen, and these times can set the stage for awesome heart-to-heart conversations.
8) Reduce your electricity and energy consumption
You can practice diligence about turning off the lights in rooms you are not using. You can close the air vents in areas of your home that are rarely occupied. You can adjust your thermostat a few degrees and compensate by wearing more/less clothing. Here’s a biggie: Did you know that your dryer is the biggest energy-hog in your whole house? Consider line-drying your clothes when the weather permits. Or try using the dryer for ten minutes per load to fluff out wrinkles, then transfer clothes to a hanging rack to finish drying. Try turning down your water heater too. (My husband and I switched ours to vacation mode back in May and we’ve never bothered to turn it back up because the cooler water is quite refreshing during the heat of summer!)
9) Get comfortable with walking, biking, and carpooling more often!
Chris and I joke that in other countries, it is seen as perfectly normal to walk when you need to get somewhere (even elderly people do it!) Here in the states, it’s only normal to walk or run if you’re doing it purely for exercise (to get nowhere.) If you see someone walking down the sidewalk with a bag of groceries, you automatically feel bad for them, like “Aw… poor guy. His car must be broken down.” Haha! But might I humbly suggest that combining your daily exercise with the items on your to-do list is actually a smart idea and a great way to save on gas? I myself am guilty of driving the one mile it takes to return a Redbox movie to my local Kroger, then coming home and pedaling for forty minutes on the exercise bike. I could totally walk the movie back to Redbox and squeeze my workout in that way! I’m just so conditioned out of that habit.
10) Get organized with your tithe (or “Giving Money.”)
Whether you are deliberate about charitably giving a 10th of your earnings or whether it is some other amount, I urge you to write that amount into your monthly budget. It’s too easy to under-give when you have a vague goal in the back of your mind. The months slip away one after another, and come tax time you realize you gave about half the amount you intended to that year (or less!) I’m speaking from experience here… It felt so good when we finally started writing down the amount we wanted to give each month. That tiny little action made us accountable to keep to our intention and give back to God from our blessings. I also have found it very freeing to realize that my giving does not have to go entirely to a church or charitable organization like World Vision (though those are great things to give to!) I can use those funds to make meals for families in need, or buy gifts for kids at Children’s Hospital, or send a kid from a low-income family to summer camp. It is by design that God made giving such a heart-healing activity for the giver… start having fun with it like He intended!
At the conclusion of our evening, we had a little time for a Q & A session. Here were some of the great questions the ladies asked me:
1) How do you balance buying/eating healthy foods with sticking to lower cost items at the grocery store?
I have had great success buying healthy foods on our low budget! One helpful tip is to stay flexible and look for “manager’s special” deals throughout the store. Be willing to buy what is cheap that week even if it means adjusting your meal plan or learning to cook with a new ingredient. I also take maximum advantage of the frozen aisle… such awesome prices on healthy items like fruits and veggies! For a more detailed answer to this question, check out this Dear Carissa post.
2) What meals do you serve on a normal week?
I typically plan 3 “real” dinners and serve “fill-in” meals like French Toast or leftovers on the remaining evenings. I also try to stretch one meat purchase into 2-3 meals whenever possible. You can read this post (What Our $200 Per Month Dishes Up) for more ideas!
3) What does your toddler eat for meals and snacks?
She eats what I give her! (Haha, but sort of seriously… like I don’t buy her organic raspberries to snack on, I buy her bananas.) But yeah, she snacks on seasonal (read: cheap) fruit, Cheerios, peanut butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. And some of her favorite meals are scrambled eggs, turkey meatloaf, and homemade pizza. If you’re interested, you can read a lot more on this subject in this Feeding Your Toddler post.
4) What items do you make at home in order to save money?
Bone-in chicken (it gives me way more meat, plus I get broth out of it too), pesto, pizza dough, baby food, salad dressings, croutons… pretty much anything I need but don’t happen to have on hand at the time. One time I even made my own sweetened condensed milk for a dessert recipe! (Elsa makes an unplanned appearance in that video.)
Whew! So the evening was both thorough and thoroughly enjoyable. I loved meeting some new people and taking some time out to encourage one another toward positive life-changes. If you made it out to Little Rock Church on Tuesday, thank you so much for being there! And for everyone who couldn’t make it, I hope we get another chance to get together soon.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. See my disclosure here.