Cutting Back the Nice-to-Haves

I could hear my mailman struggling to get a certain envelope through my mail slot recently. It was the credit card bill and I knew it was bad when it finally landed like a brick on the floor.

So my husband and I sat down and analyzed every line of our credit card statement. What we discovered was about $200 in monthly expenses that we could do without. Everything from a Netflix subscription that barely gets used to more than $100 a month in dry cleaning. While Shop To It is a blog about the act of purchasing, it has evolved into a blog about the act of making the smartest purchases. Together as blogger and reader we've debated everything from the best grocery deals and the true savings at warehouse shopping clubs to the best places to board our pets and who has the best deals on photo processing.

This first blog post of the year will hopefully be another great debate on the art of figuring out the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. Here are a few tips on what I learned from my own experience of trimming the nice-to-haves:

Tip #1: Analyze every line of your most recent credit card statement. Make a list of all the items that appear there every month. I'm talking about things like gym memberships, movie rental subscriptions and dry cleaning.

Tip #2: Set some rules for yourself before you start slashing some of those monthly expenses. Our children's activities, like my daughter's weekly art class, were hands off.

Tip #3: Ask yourself which of those monthly expenses are key to your survival and which are just a waste. You'd be surprised how easy it is to forget about expenses that just live with you without being too obvious. For example, my husband and I realized we don't take advantage of our Netflix membership enough. Our $10 a month subscription was cut, which will save us $120 in 2009. I cut the e-mail and Internet service on my cell phone, saving $30 a month or $360 a year.

Tip #4: Pinpoint the stores on your credit card statement where you're spending the most money. Go on a fast from those stores for a few weeks. I'm banned from Target during January because I'm one of those people who walks in with the intention of just buying toilet paper but ends up with $100 worth of additional items.

Tip #5: Shop around for cheaper services. It's so easy to just stick with a retailer because it's part of your routine. For years we've used the same dry cleaner for its convenience but I called others near our house and found a place that charges $1 less per shirt and $5 less per suit. (My motivation to find a cheaper dry cleaner was not only driven by saving some dough but by my husband's suggestion that I start ironing his shirts.) Also, call your phone company and cable provider to see if you can get a cheaper rate. You may have signed up for a premium package during a promotion period and not even realize that you're paying for channels or phone coverage that you never use.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to continue cutting our monthly expenses. The goal is to eliminate at least $20 per month. That could mean buying more generic products than name-brand. Or stopping myself from adding a magazine to my pile of groceries at the check-out line. And asking myself if I really need that 10th tube of lipstick. What are your New Year's resolutions? What have you done to cut your monthly expenses?

By Tania Anderson |  January 1, 2009; 12:00 AM ET General Interest
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My husband and I recently eliminated our phone bill completely by transferring to Ooma for phone service. We still use our "normal" phone but it connects through the internet. It is a great way to save another $30 a month. Thanks for the other tips!

Posted by: jengo | January 1, 2009 5:30 PM

How about not using the freaking credit card in the first place? If you can't buy it with cash, do you need it?

Posted by: gm123 | January 2, 2009 9:14 AM

I have a serious lipstick buying habit! Recently, I've taken stock of how many I have (too embarrassed to say how many I have) and decided on no more lipstick purchases for 2009. I cut back on my discretionary spending for the latter half of 2008 and will continue in 2009. The economy is just too scary and I find I am happier with fewer possessions. Tania: Happy New Year and happy writing in 2009, I enjoy your columns.

Posted by: MILW | January 2, 2009 9:52 AM

Hi Tania, several years ago, my husband wanted to cut our drycleaning bill by having me iron his shirts . . . . I told him he could iron his own shirts . . . . so now, he does!

Posted by: ramona54 | January 2, 2009 10:05 AM

gm12 wrote:
How about not using the freaking credit card in the first place? If you can't buy it with cash, do you need it?

###

Wow, so judgmental, gm! Some of us carry and use credit cards simply for convenience reasons---it's safer and more convenient than worrying about carrying cash all the time.

I essentially treat my credit card as cash---I don't spend more than I can afford, and I pay off my bill in full every month.

Plus, spending with a credit card really allows me, at the end of each month, exactly what I've spent and where I've spent it. That would be harder to do with cash, absent fastidious recordkeeping.

Posted by: _virginian_ | January 2, 2009 11:47 AM

Way to go, ramona54!!! My husband has been ironing his own shirts for the 26 years of our marriage. More parents should teach both sons and daughters to iron. And after reading Tania's blog, I think that at least one more husband should learn how to iron a shirt!

Posted by: Catthecat | January 2, 2009 3:54 PM

Virginian, it's really not hard to track cash spending. But if you have to take cash out of your wallet, you think twice before buying it.

Posted by: gm123 | January 2, 2009 4:11 PM

Those little items that you can "live without" really vary with a person's lifestyle and activity level. For instance, I was doing my husband's ironing for 6 years. I then had some friends tell me that if I told him to take care of it, I could get more done in that "ironing" hour every Sunday evening. I told him that his shirts meant that he had to deal with them -- and it truly amazed me what a difference. Then, the shirts-to-be-ironed pile so large that I was having trouble getting to the closet. So, I made the decision to outsource. It really is worth it to me to be able to have that extra hour every week AND be able to have an unobstructed path to my closet for the $15/week in dry cleaning. It's cheaper than a Starbuck's habit (which I don't have, thank goodness). Maybe if I didn't work full-time outside the home, but I do and my time has value to me. Plus, my husband is just happier that he does not have to iron.

Posted by: casxo | January 2, 2009 6:29 PM

Good points, but I find moderation is important. Packing lunch is much cheaper than buying. But unless you're completely broke, packing is easier psychologically if you go out to lunch one day a week with friends. Buying a good brand of lunch meat also makes me more willing to pack lunch.
A habit we have learned to avoid is shopping as recreation. In cold or rainy weather, it's tempting to hit the mall just to have something to do, but either we buy stuff we don't need or we feel a little down looking at all this stuff we can't buy. I would be interested in suggestions about what to do with kids on such days. Sometimes we go to the library or the local aquatic center.
It's useful to remember that for most of us, $$ spent on one thing is not available for anything else so the question I try to ask myself is "Do I want this more than something else I might spend that money on?".

Posted by: aallen1 | January 4, 2009 11:18 AM

I think skipping trips to Target is a great idea, and filing up the time instead by taking a bike ride or taking a walk with a friend. In other words, finding more fulfilling activities that do not involve spending. I find that the money I probably save at Target is spent on impulse purchases and leaves me with that empty feeling of knowing I wasted an hour of my life at Target. Do not look through the Sunday ads -- makes you want things you didn't know you were missing. We ditched our cell phone plans and have the pay-per-minute plans. We spend $100 and have 1000 minutes, which lasts most of the year for me. We also don't have cable. I have never missed it. Every time I want to buy something that costs just a few dollars, I add up the cost of it for a year. For example, if I want that one candy bar, I add up the cost of one candy bar a week for a year, and that puts it in perspective. Doesn't always work, but helps!

Posted by: TakomaParkMD | January 4, 2009 8:12 PM

aallen1 - Trying to find free or cheap indoor activities with kids is a tough one. It's very easy to say, "Let's go to the mall." We've recently been re-discovering our region's great museums. Most of them are free and have kid activities. We hit the National Museum of American History this weekend and it was very interesting to my 5-year-old. I'll be blogging about the amazing gift shop there on Thursday.

Posted by: ShopToIt | January 5, 2009 11:59 AM

I like "Casxo"'s point about things that you really can't live without. To me it's worth it to have dry cleaning and ironing done by a professional. It's all about quality of life sometimes. I guess we have to be able to cut out enough of the other "nice-to-haves" in order to keep a few.

Posted by: ShopToIt | January 5, 2009 12:03 PM

Ugh. I haven't put anything on the credit card in months and months. We're trying very, very hard to spend as little as possible. Honestly, I feel better now that the kinds of things I have to do are more popular and widespread practices! We're not those poor folks anymore: everybody is doing it.

The points about reducing expenses are very valid - those are good places to start. I also quit looking at catalogs (had them stopped to the house) because they just make me want things that I can't have. Target is a rough one, but what I generally do is I don't buy it if it isn't on sale. That mentality keeps me from getting some things that I would otherwise want to purchase. Almost certainly (these days), it will eventually be on sale: wait it out.

Another (actually fun for me) trick is to sit down with all of the grocery fliers and all of the coupons I have and plan what to eat the next week. Menu planning really helps with food waste, and is kind of the "art of the possible." What I save on coupons (it's totaled at the bottom of your receipt) goes to a fund for extras. I'm literally milking the grocery budget for money to spend on entertainment and such!

As for free/cheap places to go with the kids, that is rough. We love the library, museums, and bowling (it costs, but not much - and we can really stretch out a game). My husband insists on his netflix, but he's the only one who gets to use it basically. The rest of us go to the library and check out movies for free! As long as you return them on time, there is no charge whatsoever. Therefore, that is another good free activity on a rainy day - movies from the library.

Posted by: badmommy | January 6, 2009 7:17 AM

I have a question about how to cut back if you don't do the several things already mentioned.
1. We do not have a cell phone to cut. I would LOVE to get rid of the landline and have NO phone, but my spouse thinks it's a safety issue.
2. We do not have a netflix account, and in fact, we do not go to movies EVER. Haven't been to a movie since 1995.
3. We rarely eat out, and I cook from scratch, so our food costs are less than average. We have a garden, grow and "put up" a lot of produce in the summer/fall.
4. We don't have cable. Once the digital cut-over happens, I think we also don't have TV any more. This does slightly bum me out.
5. We don't recreationally shop.
6. We do shop at locally owned businesses, like small groceries, rather than Wal-mart, into which I've never been. And never will.
7. Both of our cars are older and paid for.
8. We have not vacationed in six years.
9. Our house is paid for.
10. We do belong to a gym, but it's the YMCA, so it's not very expensive. And we use it every single day.
11. We use debit cards usually, but if we do put on the credit card, it's fully paid off each month.
12. We are not rich. We have a modest combined income; we put about 1/2 of our income into savings and investments. And of course, we've lost about 1/3 of that recently.
13. Looking over this list, I realize we are pretty much Amish. And while we do live frugally, it's not that hard as these are lifelong habits. We've not really ever succumbed to pop-culture. I think that's the key, actually.

Posted by: khachiya1 | January 6, 2009 11:30 AM

Your husband can iron his own shirts. It's not a gender-based activity like giving birth, it's a skill, and one he should learn how to do well.

Posted by: Reader3 | January 6, 2009 11:45 AM

My husband has been ironing his own shirts his entire adult life. I can't imagine why he'd expect me to do something for him that (1) I wouldn't even do for myself and (2) he's the only one who cares about. He actually has sent them to various cleaners, only to find that they do not iron them to his standards. Oh, well. Everybody needs a hobby.

Posted by: margaret6 | January 6, 2009 1:46 PM

Um, your HUSBAND told you to iron HIS shirts? Is this column a reprint from 1949? I can't believe I actually read that...

Posted by: CAC2 | January 6, 2009 2:56 PM

Don't forget the outdoors! And it's not just for summer! And it's not just for families with children. Once your "consciousness is raised" about the wonderful experiences available, just by slipping through the looking glass into the natural world, you can never go back to the artificial realities indoors. Washington is surrounded by many lovely areas. How about finding the nearest cypress swamp and taking a path through it on a quiet winter morning?

Posted by: Thrush | January 6, 2009 3:17 PM

When cutting back, use your grocery store receipts. Did you actually use everything you bought, or did you pick some things up because they were on sale and "looked like I could use them"? When my husband and I both retired and were faced with living on a fixed income, I found that I was throwing away a lot of expired condiments, partly used bags of salad mix, etc. After a few months of careful buying, I was saving at least $50 a month on groceries.

missglr

Posted by: missglr | January 6, 2009 3:30 PM

Her goal is to cut at least $20 from the monthly budget? How about at least $100? Honestly, now - tell me what real difference saving $20 - or even $50 - a month is going to make in your life. What's next - a column on watching paint dry?

Posted by: achilli | January 6, 2009 11:16 PM

You spend $100 than you expect every time you go to Target and you're supposed to be giving us shopping advice?!

Posted by: subwayguy | January 7, 2009 9:08 AM

Now ...now...my husband's request for me to iron his shirts was his way of being funny. It wasn't a serious request.

Posted by: Tania Anderson | January 7, 2009 1:45 PM

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