Friday, January 13, 2012

Learning Self-Control. Sorta.

It is safe to say I'm not terrible with money. However, I have a serious problem with self control. There is just this thing that happens to me when I see something I want: I have to buy it. It's borderline obsessive, really. While it is necessary for me to dress professionally for my job, I would say that at this point in my life I have more than enough clothing options.

And shoe options.

And accessory options.

Options are good, but I recently realized I was spending more than necessary on items that were not, well, necessary. My closet is packed to the brim with stuff, y'all.

So, what's a gal to do?

Like everything else, dealing with money is all about tricking myself into having some semblance of self control. Because I have none when it comes to retail purchases. I am by no means bankrupting anyone, but I could stand to save more rather than spend more.

Here are some of the ways I'm working to fool myself into being thrifty:

1. Unsubscribing from e-mail lists for retail stores. Here's how this works: I sign up for the e-mail list. They give me free shipping, 20% off my first order, whatever. Then, they have me. They send me weekly e-mails, reminding me of sales and cute tops and oh look this thing you don't need is 30% off now! BUY IT. See, again with the self-control. I was on a lot of these lists. Every time an e-newsletter arrives, I unsubscribe. Out of sight, out of mind.

2. Using mint.com. This website is awesome: it's totally free, completely safe and it allows you to pull every single account that exists in your life together in one convenient location. I do mean everything too: car loans, mortgage, student loans, credit cards, bank accounts, investment accounts: they are all there. Plus, it shows you how you're spending your money, which is crucial for my self-control impaired self. Did you know that if you spend $30 here and then $50 there you soon spend $300 a month on clothing? Math is hard. Mint also lets me set a budget for categories as well, so I know when I have overspent for the month. Which makes me feel guilty about those 3 pairs of dress pants I bought last month.

3. Waiting a day. I realized something important about myself that is crucial to this situation: I want something right now. Or, yesterday. I can't be sure, things are hazy here. But, what I really want today is probably going to be a stupid idea tomorrow. Like, another pair of boots. Or, some black dress that is identical to the 343,000 I already own. I rarely sit on an idea before acting on a purchase---but I force myself to do it now. That dress really is a dumb idea and I don't buy it if I wait until tomorrow to revisit the idea.

4. Setting big & little goals. It's actually lot easier to save money when you are saving for something very specific. Maybe you want to buy a new car with cash. Perhaps it is your wish to go on a luxurious vacation next summer. Whatever it is, saving is much more fun when it's specific. We like to set really big goals and smaller monthly or yearly goals to keep things interesting. For example, we want to refinish our basement. We would be doing the work ourselves, which saves a lot of money. However, materials still cost money. That's our current "small" goal. Our big goal? To have our mortgage be the only major debt we have in 5 years. It's lofty, yes, but it's also very possible.

5. Making lifestyle changes. This, as you can imagine, is difficult. I like mineral makeup, salon hair products and other expensive things. I have come to realize that it is possible to have nice things without breaking the bank--it just takes some effort. These are some small changes that have really added up:
  • I am currently growing out my hair, which means I get fewer haircuts. I also went back to my natural color with the help of my hairdresser, then started dying and highlighting my hair at home using this product, which I love. I spend $15 every three months instead of $150.
  • We dropped our gym membership and bought a treadmill--which paid for itself in a year. Surprisingly, I find it's easier to stay motivated to exercise at home anyway. I also use a lot of exercise DVD's. When I get tired of a DVD, I sell it on half.com and buy a new one that is gently used.
  • We get the Sunday newspaper every week for the coupons. And er, the news. But mostly the coupons. I'm usually able to get multiple copies, which means multiple coupons.
  • We grocery shop based upon coupons & sales. I used to make fun of my husband for only buying something he wanted if it was on sale AND he had a coupon. But, it makes sense. Everything goes on sale eventually--and when it does you should buy it in bulk. A great example of this is cranberry juice. That stuff is crazy expensive, but we drink a lot of it. So, when it goes on sale we buy at least 12. The same goes for shampoo, hair products, toothpaste and whatever else you use. If it doesn't expire, you can just store it in a closet for later.  
6. Trick yourself into saving money for the future. When I got my first job out of college, the best advice I ever received was this: start saving for retirement right now. I was 22 and retirement was literally the very last thing on my mind, but I took the advice. We both work for organizations that require us to contribute to a state retirement account, but my husband and I both opened additional retirement accounts as well. Each year, we increase our contributions and in just six years time we already have impressive nest egg(s) that will only get better with time. The best part? Since we started saving right away, we never missed the money we contribute because it was never there for us spend in the first place.

7. Create an untouchable account. One of the greatest feelings in life is receiving a sizeable sum of money unexpectedly. It is wonderful to dream of all the things you could spend it on, but it's even better to pretend like it does not exist. If you were fine financially before that money then you will likely be fine without it, too. We were fortunate to be in this situation recently and after a day or two of thinking about it, we put it all into an investment account that we could not touch for one year. The stock market has smelled much like a moldy egg since then and we have failed to earn any money, but this was still a better idea than spending it on something else. We are planning to roll this account into a longer term account that we can contribute to each month to grow the money for use somewhere down the road. Or, for a rainy day. Either way works.

8. Pay extra when you can afford it. This is not realistic for everyone, but if you can afford it this is my advice: when you pay off one debt, use that money to pay down another debt that has the highest interest rate. We recently paid off my husband's truck, meaning we would have an extra $300-ish a month for other expenses. However, we are fine without that money, which we would spend on more dress pants who knows what if it sat idly in our bank account. Instead, we are adding the entire amount of his car payment toward my car payment instead. Not only will this help pay off my car sooner, but the extra money we pay goes toward the principle of the loan and means we pay less interest in the long run.

9. Pick up extra work. To make some extra cash, I regularly do freelance work on the evenings and weekends. I was able to find a position through Elance, a website dedicated to freelance jobs. I work with a company to write about 5 articles a day. It's perfect for me, because I love to write and it's not hard work. It also doesn't take much of my time, and it means I have some extra cash to spend however I choose. Whatever your talents are, use them to make some extra cash for splurging on the "extras" you like.

I am by no means a money expert, but I think saving money or being frugal is more about realizing your weaknesses and tricking yourself into avoiding those pitfalls so you can save money. I still have my moments, but I am beginning to realize there is nothing wrong with being frugal, even if you can afford to be spendy.

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