Budgeting 101: Where should I start?
It’s the new year so there are bound to be some new resolutions you want to stick to.
If one of them is improving your budgeting skills – or maybe just creating a budget in the first place – read on for some guidelines that may help reduce some of your expenses (including what you might call the essentials).
Start with debt and interest rates
If you have any loans in your name, rest assured there will be interest associated with those loans, unless you’ve got a really nice aunt who leant you some money interest-free. From the borrower’s perspective, interest is simply the expense of receiving money from a creditor which you’re required to pay back over time. No one wants to pay higher interest than necessary.
In contrast to other expenses, like rent, food, or entertainment, interest itself produces absolutely no value for the borrower. The borrowed money may produce value, but the interest itself does not. For that reason, you’re going to want to pay as little interest on your loans as possible.
One strategy is to transfer credit card balances to lower APR credit cards – just beware of transfer fees. Read the fine print to make sure the new card actually carries a lower interest rate, as sometimes the rate after the introductory period may go up. If you can refinance any of your loans, like student, auto, or home, consider it. For example, there’s no reason to pay 5% if you can pay 4%. (Again, make sure you understand the terms and any fees involved.)
Slim down the essentials
This is the time when all items in your budget are going to come under consideration. Everything is on the table. For transportation, any reduction in cost you can make is going to depend on your location. If you live in a high-density urban area and you normally drive yourself or use public transit to get to work or other destinations, ask yourself if you can walk or cycle instead. These options often provide health benefits as well. If you live in a rural area, you’re probably going to drive to get to where you want to go, but think about using an electric bicycle or motorcycle as an option to help save on fuel.
The key? Look at the essential sections of your budget and mentally run through how you obtain those essentials, like driving to the nearest grocery store or who your landlord is. Then brainstorm alternatives for paying for these items or services – anything is fair game! (For example, would your landlord reduce your rent if you help out with yard maintenance?) Finally, do a little research and analysis to see if those alternatives are cheaper (and feasible).
The next step is to look at each non-essential and determine its utility to you. If you barely think about the actual purchase, you might have simply developed the routine of purchasing that item or service (think: “monthly movie subscription service you never use anymore”). In that case, the hardest part might be combing through your credit card statement and nixing the services you never use. Another example of routine, autopilot spending might be the soda you buy with your lunch. Do you really need it? Maybe not. Switching to tea or coffee that you can brew at home may be cheaper. And water is (usually) free.
Repeat this process with every non-essential. Are you really using your 10GB/mo mobile internet plan? If not, look for a lower, more cost-effective GB plan. The key here is to try to distinguish between convenience and necessity.
Don’t discount the discount
There are discounts everywhere, from loyalty programs to manufacturers’ coupons to seasonal specials. If there is an essential that burns your budget, it may be worth checking to see if you’re eligible for a government program.[i]
Some credit cards offer rewards programs, but be very careful to pay off the full amount each month to avoid accruing interest, otherwise your rewards could be negated.
Keep the big picture in mind
Sometimes it can be hard to justify the time and effort that might be involved to save $2 per day. It’s just two dollars, right? But look at the accumulated savings. Saving $2 per day for a full year translates to $730. If you choose to brew that tea instead of buying the soda, maybe you can afford the 10GB plan instead of the 1GB plan.