Spending

6 Unpredictable Expenses That Can Blow Your Budget if You Let Them

You know those months when it seems like every single “extra” hits you at once? You’d been doing so well sticking to your spending plan—until your dog got sick and you had to rush him to the vet. And your car needed new brakes. And you had to buy a birthday gift for a last-minute party. And now your budget’s completely wrecked.

A scenario like that may be hard to predict, but it’s not an uncommon one. Think back, and you’ll probably realize something similar happened a few months ago and a few months before that, too. Because the truth is, the only thing unpredictable about unpredictable, non-monthly expenses is which one will hit you when. Unexpected expenses actually come up pretty regularly for most of us.

And that can really kill your savings mojo. So we’ve rounded up six of the most common (and costliest) pop-up expenses—plus tips on how to prepare for them so they don’t throw you off your game.

Vet Bills

Your dog may be your best friend, but he may not always be your budget’s. “Keeping your pets healthy can be expensive…and an unexpected surgery can set you back thousands,” says financial advisor Robert Baltzell of RLB Financial in Valencia, Calif.

Aside from padding your pet-care budget line item, consider pet insurance, especially if your pet is prone to health problems. While you’ll pay a monthly fee—starting around $15 to $25, though it varies according to the type of animal, size and other factors—insurers like Healthy Paws and PetPlan will cover significant portions of your vet bill. That can translate to thousands saved.

Gifts

Showering loved ones with thoughtful gifts isn’t cheap. “If you’re lucky, you might get some advance notice of upcoming events, and you can start setting aside money,” Baltzell says. “But those unexpected invitations to birthday parties and bachelor parties can require you to dip into your savings [if you’re not careful].”

If you’re blindsided, control costs by choosing a meaningful or sentimental gift—like golf balls from your friend’s favorite course or a cool pair of socks to add to his collection.

For generic gifts, stock up early. “I pick out small, inexpensive gifts, like nice-smelling candles or pretty stationery, throughout the year when they’re on sale for those last-minute gift needs,” says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. She also buys greeting cards at the dollar store. “Who wants to waste money on a piece of paper?”

Prefer to give gift cards? Sites like GiftCardGranny.com sell them at up to 70 percent off.

Medical Bills

If you’re like most employees, you can count on health insurance premiums being automatically deducted from your paychecks. But other expensive medical costs—from a new, non-generic prescription to a pricey procedure—aren’t so easily budgeted.

Before agreeing to pay the quoted price, shop around for cheaper options. Many pharmacies offer a discount card. You can also call your doctor to see if there’s a similar, cheaper drug, says Steve Anzuoni, Retirement Income Certified Professional for Boston-based Fairway Financial.

For the best prices on procedures, Woroch recommends checking out ZendyHealth.com, a platform where you can search for qualified health care providers, based on your budget. Or ClearHealthCosts, which offers comparison pricing for procedures and visits. Your doctors may also be open to negotiating their prices.

Finally, look into accredited stand-alone surgery or radiology centers instead of a hospital. “There are major price variations between facilities, so it’s important to review prices,” Woroch says.

Home Maintenance and Repairs

From leaky dishwashers to seasonal expenses like snow removal, pop-up home expenses can sideline any budget. If it’s not your first year living in the home, do an audit of last year’s bills and note the times expenses spiked (like in July, say, when you kept the air conditioner on for hours). Find your average, then adjust your budget. If you don’t need the full amount, bank it for later.

“Unless it’s an emergency, like you have a leaky roof or your air conditioner fails in the middle of a heat wave, most home maintenance and improvement projects should be built into your budget,” Woroch says. An emergency savings fund can cover urgent repairs (try to set aside at least three months worth of expenses).

Child Care

It’s no secret that kids can be expensive. Even if you’re used to having another mouth to feed, out-of-the-ordinary expenses crop up all the time, from school field trips to summer camp extras.

Whenever you can, Baltzell recommends making plans—especially for the summertime—as early as possible in order to lay out your options and take advantage of early-bird discounts. It’s also wise to review the previous season’s budget to get a ballpark of costs, then put away a percentage each month.

If you have older children, he suggests getting them involved in the planning process, too—asking for them to chip in a portion of the cost of something they want from their allowance. This may not take much off your own plate, but you’ll be grooming responsible savers for the future.

Car Maintenance and Repairs

While your car payment is unlikely to fluctuate, insurance payments and fluctuating maintenance costs may slip your mind. “A good rule of thumb is to plan on spending 10 to 15 percent of your total monthly budget on all automotive expenses,” Anzuoni suggests—and include everything from maintenance and repairs to gas and commuting costs. Again, if you don’t need the funds one month for, say, new tires or your registration, chances are good you might the next.

That ensures you won’t have to put off any necessary work that might end up costing you more in the long run. An AAA survey found that 35 percent of Americans have skipped or delayed recommended service or repairs—which ultimately costs them $100 more each time they visit the auto shop.

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