Most people who aren’t independently wealthy go through periods of time when they have to live on as little as possible. There are college and graduate school years filled with discount grocery stores, months spent saving like crazy for a downpayment on a house, and anything from unexpected job loss to the addition of children to a family can drive people from luxury spending back to necessity based budgeting.
Even if we’re lucky enough to get past the stage of having to account for every single dollar it’s still easy to fall into casual overspending and forget how we ever lived on less. Things
we once viewed as once-in-a-while luxuries become “treats” that we indulge in on a regular basis. Eventually those “treats” can transform into things we expect and feel we genuinely deserve. Anything from weekly manicures and daily smoothies to indulging in the latest tech gadget or car can become part of your regular lifestyle.
I believe that once you make a specific indulgence a routine part of your life you begin to lose the enjoyment you once derived from it. I think eventually you can get to the point where you stop noticing the luxury at all. Just like a broken drawer that becomes invisible the feeling of specialness that comes with going to a restaurant or a salon starts to wane when it becomes a given.
So, what does adaptability have to do with any of this?
This is all guesswork on my part, but I think the reason people start to take luxuries for granted is because we’re all highly adaptable and not because we’re generally ungrateful. I think understanding adaptability is important if you’re looking to make long lasting frugal changes, because it works both ways and you can use it to your advantage if you know how.
There are a few ways to use your knowledge of your own adaptability to cut your budget, here’s my 5 step plan to get you started. Before you begin you must have an accurate monthly spending budget that’s detailed enough for you to see what you’re actually spending your money on. It doesn’t matter how you get your budget, whether you use credit card statements, a program like mint, or your own excel tables, but it’s important to have it in front of you. Ok, here we go:
- The first step is redefining the term luxury in your own mind. When people hear “luxury” they naturally associate it with things that are out of their own financial reach. Someone who makes $60k a year might say a luxury is a yacht or a sports car whereas someone who makes $300k, and owns a yacht and sports car might say that a private jet is a real luxury . “Luxury” in its essence implies something WE think is luxurious, and we adapt to new situations so quickly that the window for seeing our own lifestyle perks as luxuries is very small. For our purposes here a “luxury” is anything that is not vitally necessary. A luxury is something that you could live without if it were a matter of choosing between that item/service or food, shelter, or medicine, for your family.
- The next step is identifying the luxuries currently in your budget. Look at your monthly spending data and write down an itemized list of every luxury charge you see (including the amount). Once you’ve done that you can easily group the expenditures into categories like spa, gym, lunch out at work, tech, morning coffee, books, art, hobby, clothes, decor, memberships, etc. Now, as you’ve probably guessed, you’re going to tally up how much you spend in each category in the span of a month.
- As you look at your list of luxuries you might start to feel anxious. You might already be telling yourself there’s no way you could do without x, y, or z and that without x,y, or z, you’ll be terribly unhappy. But here’s the thing, you don’t really know how you’ll feel after halting or decreasing a luxury purchase. You are way stronger and more adaptive than you think! At some point in your life you probably didn’t have all those luxuries, and at some point those little forgotten luxuries probably seemed like huge splurges to you. You adapted to having those luxuries and you can adapt to a happy life without them! I promise you won’t be sitting around pining for old luxuries for the rest of your life.
- Now it’s time to look for luxury categories you can eliminate completely. If there are any categories you can halt cold turkey write those down first and come up with an alternative option. Start with easy little stuff that doesn’t hugely impact your life. Even if the expenditure amount is low it makes a difference, a $2 coffee once a day during the work week might only be $40 a month, but saving money is all about the long game. It all adds up and in time you’ll see how big a difference it makes. Here are a few ideas for cutting items from your budget:
- Brew coffee at home instead of buying it out. Even cheap coffee makers have timers these days so you can set it up at night and toss it in a cup in the morning. Bonus: you get to wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
- Cool it with the snacks already! The fella was never a big ticket spender, but when we met he spent a lot of money on little stuff like coffees and snacks out. You don’t have to quit your actual snacking but I implore you to stop spending your hard earned money at convenience stores, gas stations, and the like. If you’re a natural snacker, and you know you always will be, just accept that fact and plan for it! Shop bulk, shop sales at the grocery store, or if you’re feeling confident make your own! Pack snacks for yourself and pocket the savings.
- Ditch your cable in favor of netflix and/or hulu. I actually prefer netflix and hulu to standard cable and it’s a fraction of the cost. You get to watch what you want whenever you want and if there’s ever something you’re truly desperate to see you can always purchase it on iTunes or amazon.
- Quit your totally unnecessary shopping habits. Only you know what your recreational shopping outlet is (if you have one). Some people favor handbags, fragrances, and shoes, and others favor outdoor equipment, gadgets, and convenience items. Only purchasing the things you need (and keeping things until they are no longer usable) not only makes you appreciate new items more it also inspires you to really do your research before buying, which usually results in more savings and higher quality items. Above all else remind yourself that spending money is not a hobby, instead find fun (preferably free) ways to replace your shopping time.
- Finally, it’s time to look for ways to decrease your spending in the luxury categories that you’re unwilling or unable to fully eliminate. I think having replacements or compromises in place before you start is important for maintaining a money saving lifestyle.
- Downgrade your memberships. No one “needs” a $150/month gym membership. I’m a big believer in staying active, and getting an affordable gym or club membership (the fella pays $10/month for his gym membership), equipping your home with an efficient little gym (if you have the space and money), taking one-off classes, and working out outside, are all great ways to spend less while staying buff.
- Decrease your lunch expenses. Cutting out coffee is great, but if you can take your lunch to work just 3 days a week, and treat yourself to lunch out out 2 days a week you’ll see some significant results. I recommend you do the same thing if you regularly purchase breakfast before work in the mornings. Who knows, you might find you like taking your breakfast and lunch to work (like the fella) and eventually eliminate buying it out altogether.
- Decrease your book/music buying. Libraries are amazing! If you’re the type to drop major cash on books or music, set a monthly limit. Buy books once a month, online, and set a budget for them. This method will not only force you to really consider what books (or other media if you’re into games, etc.) you want to buy it will also decrease the amount you spend on shipping and handling. We buy most of our books secondhand from amazon, once every three months or so, often for less than $6 a pop including s&h.
- Decrease your outsourcing. If there’s anything you currently pay someone else to do that you could realistically do yourself put it in this category and try to decrease it, at least a little. If you get your home cleaned once a week, cut it to once every other week. If you get a mani/pedi once a week cut that to once a month and do your nails at home the rest of the time. If you go out to dinner or order takeout on a weekly basis cut it down by at least 50%. Any time you can decrease a recurring expense you stand to save a lot of money.
Initially, you might feel annoyed at not indulging in one thing or another or put out by doing things like packing lunch or making coffee, but you aren’t some weak pathetic little creature! You’re a highly sophisticated and adaptable being that’s capable of way more than just a little planning and self-control!
Expect to be a little annoyed by the changes at first and just trust that those feelings will go away. The same adaptability that made you accustom to manicures, coffees, shopping, and takeout will kick in if you just give it a chance. I promise that in time you will adapt to your lower budget and you won’t even think about “treating” yourself. Who knows, once a couple of months pass and you see how much money you’re saving you might even scoff at your former habits like the fella and I do!