I’ll admit, I’m a reluctant budgeter. I hate crunching numbers—and I spent my 20s refusing to do it. But, at 36, I’m finally getting that it’s crucial for financial health.
Last year, I talked to a financial planner, who set me up on his go-to strategy: Calculate your fixed costs—housing, insurance premiums, bills—then “pay yourself first.” That’s expert jargon for setting aside cash for emergencies, retirement, and other goals like a home down payment or, my favorite, traveling.
So after I save about 25 percent and my fixed expenses are accounted for, I have $300 a week to spend on groceries and non-necessities like happy hours, take-out meals, and new clothes.
But here’s the thing about budgeting: Once you start tracking your money, as I’ve (mostly) done for a year, you want to keep optimizing. When I dropped $10 on a salad one day at Whole Foods, it felt excessive. And I resolved to figure out how I could scale back further—ideally, without feeling the pinch. So when the editors at Grow challenged me to cut my spending by 25 percent for a month, I took them up on it.
The Challenge: Save $75 a week.
Instead of spending $300 on discretionary items, I’d shoot for $225 a week. Easy enough, right?
Wrong, I discovered after week one, when I spent $325, thanks to the $20 bag of gluten-free flour I bought to make pumpkin bread, some extra afternoon coffee runs, and a splurge at Anthropologie.
At the start of week two, I realized if I wanted to successfully slash my spending, I couldn’t wing it, and created some strict guidelines:
1. I’d make my own coffee. Spending $5 on beans rather than $30 at the coffee shop would save $25—a hefty chunk of my $75 weekly goal.
2. I’d avoid Whole Foods for lunch. A typical week involved two or three trips to this health-food mecca, which cost me approximately $12 a visit. Packing my lunch would save me another $25 a week.
3. Actually, I’d avoid high-end, organic food stores completely. I’m a sucker for delicious-looking organic grub, and if I don’t come prepared with a list, I’ll way overspend. Even worse, I’m ashamed to admit my fridge’s crisper drawer often serves as a produce cemetery. I vowed to switch to lower-cost grocery stores for produce or buy it frozen at Trader Joe’s.
4. I’d play hostess. Since going out could easily blow half my budget, I’d rearrange plans and invite friends over instead. I’d supply the food, they’d bring booze—we’d all save.
5. I’d say “no” to Anthropologie (and Macy’s and TJ Maxx) for a month. This one would be tough, but I’d completely avoid the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales that fell during this challenge by not stepping foot in the stores and refusing to open any of their emails.
With these rules in place, I felt confident I could save $75 a week without feeling totally deprived. Even if I wasn’t perfect, I’d built in enough wiggle room to achieve my goal.
The Verdict: Some simple switches can make saving a cinch.
By the end of the challenge, I was about $300 richer—and immediately transferred the money to my travel fund.
The upsides, aside from the extra cash? I’ve discovered I love the ritual of brewing my own coffee, and feel a little righteous whenever I pop a homemade lunch into the office microwave.
I’ve also uncovered the budget-friendly gem that is Trader Joe’s frozen organic vegetable selection, and have made a serious dent in the Costco bag of quinoa I bought months ago. Overall, I’m up a couple bucks and down a couple pounds—win-win.
It wasn’t always easy packing my lunch when I was running late, or convincing my friends to come over instead of going out, but I did prove that it’s possible (and worth it) to save a little extra—especially if that means I can take that beach vacay a little sooner … and maybe even hit up an after-Christmas sale without feeling guilty. I think I’ve earned it.
January 4, 2016