While I’m still a long time away from official retirement age, I’ve had my eye on my personal finances for a long time. I’m not a financial expert by any means, but we’ve got a pretty realistic — and successful — approach to handling our finances that I’m going to turn into a new monthly series, Easy Ways to Save Money Each Month. Starting with January, I’ll share money saving tips that apply to the time of year, including seasonal trends or reminders about budgeting tips to help you have more money for a specific event or need. Everyone should have some money set aside for an emergency, and sometimes, we need to save money fast just to pay the bills. We’ve all been there!
A little bit on our background! Our tips and ideas come about as a result of being a young family with four children. If having four kids isn’t expensive enough, we chose to buy a home to stop renting, but we had no down payment; we knew our PMI would be high and we needed an affordable monthly payment, so we chose to purchase a HUD home at auction. It literally had a chalk outline in astroturf in the livingroom, but it was within a price range we could afford. We looked past the mess and saw a beautiful three-bedroom space (with an indoor pool!) that we could renovate, doing a lot of the work on our own. A few months later, the home was complete, and our credit cards were maxed out.
This was when home interest fixed rates were around 8%. (Our current fixed mortgage is 3.5%, to give an indication of the swing that interest rates can take.) Our credit card interest rates were quite a bit higher, so our goal was to pay them down quickly. With some serious buckling down on our expenditures — something that may be harder to do now, but is still possible — we paid off all $20k of the debt in less than 18 months, on the husband’s full-time income and my part-time at-home income. It was rough, but we did it!
As I said above, I’m not degreed in anything financial. My job isn’t in finance, and I’m definitely not a lawyer either, so nothing I share is legal advice. With that out of the way, let’s get to the money saving tips that may help you in 2024!
Monthly Money Saving Tips Series: Building Your Emergency Savings
How? The husband worked OT, and a lot of it, as an hourly employee. I baked and cooked almost all of our food, and we shopped at places like Wal-Mart. We rented movies instead of seeing them in a theater, and we’d babysit friends’ kids and they’d babysit ours so we still got a date night without the cost of a sitter….and date night may have included a coupon at the restaurant or going during happy hour, where costs were low. (And, this one’s embarrassing to admit, but hey, transparency: I drank boxed wine at home. Oh the memories!) We didn’t have car payments, and we held off on all major purchases until the debt was paid off. Seeing it drop each month was a huge motivator — along with the whole idea of being able to splurge a little when it was done.
Over the years, we faced the same financial issues most people face: layoffs, job changes, health issues that resulted in missed time at work and medical bills, cars that die and need to be replaced, etc. Getting through them wasn’t always easy, and it took creativity, but we had made a decision after paying off that first home renovation to not carry credit card debt again, if we had ANY other way around it. (Never say never, life’s a rollercoaster with a lot of turns we can’t see.) We didn’t get help from others, we were on our own, so having a contingency plan is something I always recommend. Have enough money to pay for your housing for at least 2-3 months, if not six. Don’t touch it. THEN you can build on your savings for that trip you’ve been wanting to take or that new car you need a down payment for.
Prioritize. Life’s short, so I’m all for traveling and enjoying the fruits of your labor, but make sure you can pay the necessary bills, such as housing, electricity, gas, wifi (yes, it’s necessary), food, insurances, etc., over anything else. Nights out, fancy shoes, a new dress for your work party, a day at the spa — those are all normal wants, but they aren’t needs, so learn to differentiate. Sometimes you have to let go of the wants so you can pay for the needs, and that’s normal. We ALL do it, and we need to be okay with doing it sometimes.
So for January’s money saving tips, let’s talk about building that contingency saving. The new year is a great time to start! You’ve got the holiday expenses behind you, and if not, pay them off first. After you pay your actual living expenses (the list I shared above), pay down those interest rate balances first. If you’ve got a card that’s 20% interest and another with 18%, pay off the 20% interest first OR, if possible, pay it off with the 18% card; you’re saving that 2% off the top and it’s easier to pay down one balance. Don’t skip making the payment though! Pay what you would have paid on it along with the payment for the 18% preexisting balance; get that principal paid off as soon as you can. Sometimes you even can score on a lower interest rate for using your card to pay off another; inquire with your provider!
Here’s where the hard work starts: take a look at your budget with honest but harsh eyes. Where are you blowing a lot of money? You may need to write down your budget, then ask your partner to also look at it. (Last time I did this, I left off my Disney line-item. Oops.) Make sure you’re being truthful with your monthly expenses. Now is not the time to be in denial about how much you spend eating out. If writing down the total makes your eyes pop out, that’s a sign, I’m just sayin’…
Add up the actual necessary expenses first. Then add up the ones you have choices over, like going out to eat, monthly clothes shopping, streaming services, etc. You have little choice over the required expenses, but there could be a few hidden ways to save money. Let’s start there.
Saving Money on Your Housing Expense: are you paying a higher interest rate than is available now? Let’s hope the rates drop in 2024, because this is an area that won’t help most people just yet…but eventually, rates will swing and most of us (thought not all, some got killer rates in that very short period of time in 2019-2020) will be able to shave off some. Do the math and be sure the loan refinance fees will be lower than what you’ll save. Can you get rid of your PMI? It doesn’t always fall off automatically; you may need to point out to someone that you now owe less than 80% of what your home is worth. If you’re renting, did you choose a place that you love but can’t quite afford anymore? Consider a move, but figure gas costs and safety before you do it. Many people can save money by moving just a little further away or losing an amenity or two that does pay off later.
Utility Bills: Does your heat really need to be at 72 degrees all winter long? Grab a blanket or two and drop it to 68-69 degrees…70 if you’re shivering or have small children. Even one degree means $$ off your bill. Turn off that gas fireplace and turn on a space heater — a SAFE space heater, like an infrared one that’s got good safety specs and is safe for dogs and kids. A one-time expense can save big in the long run. It may not be as fun as the fireplace, I mean, I feel you, mine are gorgeous holes in my wall now since SoCalGas raised the rates so much, but safe the fireplace for ambiance on certain nights and use your space heater or even the whole-house heating system instead. We’re talking about January ideas here, but it’s still a good time to apply this to your a/c bill, too; 72 is fantastic but you may really appreciate the money you save by cooling it only to 75-76. At least try it!
WiFi: check out what’s available in your area. We’ve gone through them all locally and are still with Spectrum, but you may be able to save some money and still have reliable service. There are also deals some providers will give you if you are new or switch. Extra tip: we’ve had a TON of issues keeping service in one area of our home, so we purchased our own mesh kit router system. It’s $197 upfront, but we have better service and we can return the Spectrum router that costs us $5 per month. (Yes, it will take a few years at that rate to pay it back BUT we were running out of options to keep Wifi in the family room and dining area, where I frequently work, so the $5 per month saved is just a bonus.)
Food: There are so many ways to save in this category, I’d need a whole series of posts to adequately cover it, but I’ll summarize it to a few things, starting COOK AND BAKE YOUR OWN FOOD. Yes, it takes time and yes, sometimes we’re tired, but if you’re truly trying to save money, you WILL have to make some sacrifices. I get it, I was a single mom of two under two for a while there. I worked two jobs, no child support. I’ve also had four kids needing my attention after me working a 50-hour work week, and I’m dead on my feet trying to make sure I get everything done…but you can’t stop paying the rent or the power bills, so you have to find a reasonable place to cut costs. Convenience food is it.
Making weekly menus in advance makes it easier to plan, but shopping the grocery store sales is still going to save you the most. Chicken is cheap? Buy a few — and I mean whole ones, which cost less and can be repurposed in so many different ways, including making your own broths. Pork loin is on sale? Buy two, freeze one and stuff the other in a crock pot tomorrow. If you shop on sale, you not only save each week, but you’re building an emergency stockpile in your freezer. Also, canned veggies are not evil. Fresh is always going to be best, but fresh can cost, especially more at certain times of year. Frozen is a really good middle-ground. More than can, less than fresh, and you can also buy on sale.
Keep the basics on hand: flour, sugar, oatmeal, buy it on sale, grow your pantry and eventually you’ll have a wide array of tomato sauces, canned tuna, seasonings, pastas and more to throw something together quickly. Produce prices go up and down; buy seasonal for lower costs, and learn how to freeze it for future use. (Not all are great frozen, so spend a little time learning the difference!) Corn on the cob is five for $1? Grab it! When you get home from the store, put together your menu ideas for the next week while it’s still fresh in your memory. You’ve saved money AND time.
Let me throw in one more thing I hear a lot: “But good food is expensive.” Yes, so you don’t regularly buy prime rib and crab legs when you’re building a savings. However, you DO give yourself a goal, like “Once a month, I’ll buy steaks for dinner!” or “After I get one mortgage payment in savings, we’ll have a seafood dinner at home.” Rewards for your hard work are important, because restrictions that are so tight just build resentment; find that middle ground and stick to it. I promise that once you see your savings grow, you will be inspired to keep it up.
Aaaaaaand….good for you food does not have to be expensive. I can make a roast chicken, mashed potatoes and fresh corn for less than $10 for four of us. Then I can boil that chicken bones, fat, skin, whatever is left, along with an onion and a few random veggies, and make a couple quarts of broth to be used for something else later in the week. What chicken doesn’t get eaten that night can get shredded up for burritos with refried beans (also made from scratch) on another night. See where I’m going?
But I miss cocktails and apps at happy hour! Yes, I feel you…because holy heck, drinks are way more expensive than they used to be. Pick and choose your times! Utilize happy hour times and don’t go every single week. Same with coffee; you do not need to drop $5 several days a week to have mediocre coffee. Research a machine that makes the type of coffee you need. Buy it, learn to use it, and take that to-go mug everywhere. It’s a huge chunk of change that hopefully you added to your budget list if you are a coffee freak like me. (I have a coffee cabinet, where I keep my French press, my frothers, my pourover systems and my espresso maker. I use these in addition to my Keurig, because I’m lazy many mornings and that works for me, with the right dark roast pod and a good oat creamer. Yum.)
Got a favorite drink? Learn to make it at home! I love a good bourbon sour, so we bought a 1.75 of Bulleit and tried it out with some lemons grown in my father-in-law’s citrus orchard. It’s so easy! All I really need is a cocktail shaker and some simple syrup, made at home. Now we sit by the fire pit some nights and enjoy a cocktail that costs me probably $.75 max to make. The only problem is that I can’t just order another one, I have to get up and make it….
Lastly, streaming services — everyone has them, because they are indeed cheaper than cable. We cut that cord last year and save about $100 per month. We keep Netflix, Hulu+ Live and Disney+ year-round, but I rotate through Paramount+, Apple TV and Peacock as shows come out that we want to see. We also got rid of Sirius in our vehicles and have a family Spotify instead. That’s another $10 saved and our music selections are so much better!
This is a lot for the first post in our money saving tips series but I think it’s a great start on finding ways to save money in 2024! Each month, we’ll talk about more in-depth ways, and reasons, to save money, and each of our budgeting tips will be realistic, reasonable approaches that actually can work. We’ll talk about saving money for the holidays, or a trip (as well as making those dream trips affordable), proactive medical bill coverage, building an escape fund (in the event of the domestic violence event no one ever thinks could happen to them), joint vs individual bank accounts, prepping for retirement, changing careers or working hours in midlife, and other money-related topics that are relevant to parents as their kids are getting ready to leave, or have left the house. I hope you’ll keep visiting!