Back in the day - before that transformative moment in April 2017 when we finally decided to get our financial act together - my family and I were impulsive spenders.
Fresh piece of furniture or some art for the walls?
Last-minute trip to a fancy hotel?
Brand-new hardcover by favorite author?
Cool new restaurant with $14 cocktails?
This past weekend, which consisted largely of wallet-friendly activities like making homemade meals, watching Netflix movies on the couch, tackling the laundry, and of course napping, I found myself reflecting on all that's changed in the last 1.5 years. Developing and especially maintaining new habits has always been challenging for my partner and me... especially me.
And yet somehow we've done it. We've adopted habits that have made us more aware of our spending and more frugal overall.
So what habits have stuck?
We track our spending religiously
For the past 18 months, I've kept an Excel spreadsheet that documents every single thing we've bought and every single bill we've paid. Automated tools like Mint and YNAB would do this for me, but I'm convinced that manually tracking our expenses plays a big role in our success so far. It forces to take a hard look at our choices on a regular basis. Does that mean we always hit our budget? Haaaaa. Nope. But we're at least aware of our biggest opportunities for improvement (grocery bill, I'm looking at you). They're always staring us in the face, and as a result, we never veer too far off the rails.
Forget bookstores: we're all about the library now
Slightly embarrassing admission: the library used to gross me out. I'd find myself obsessing about the number of other people who'd touched the books and the abundance of invisible germs crawling all over the covers. Then I'd head over to Barnes and Noble and buy my own copy of whatever shiny, fingerprint-free tome I wanted to read. At up to $24 a pop a few times a month, these literary purchases became expensive.
Now that our finances are on firmer footing, the library seems infinitely more appealing. Any slight aversion I may still have to book germs pales in the face of the gleeful reality that I can check out pretty much as many books as I want for free. Doesn't cost a thing! It's brilliant! I'm completely converted.
We go out to eat less (and use coupons or Swagbucks to help offset the cost when we do)
I so admire those of you who save money by never going out to eat. It makes sense: restaurants are expensive, especially when you factor in tips (and I believe in tipping well). Eating every meal at home saves a bundle.
For our family, though, this hasn't worked. We have some of our best conversations when we're sharing a meal prepared by someone else in a setting other than our kitchen. We just really enjoy going out to eat as a family, and we used to do so a couple of times a week.
We compromise by a) going out to eat less often and b) offsetting our costs with giftcards that we earn through Swagbucks. Granted, this means that Olive Garden and Dominoes feature heavily in our dining rotation (my kid loves Olive Garden; I hate it), but it makes us feel like we're not depriving ourselves.
Once or twice a month, we'll splurge at one of our favorite non-chain restaurants in town. That's always a massive treat and we never feel guilty about it because we know we've made improvements in this portion of our budget overall.
We curtailed traveling (for now, anyway)
Before we started our debt reduction journey, our family traveled on a regular basis, both in-country and internationally, by car, by train, by plane. But traveling is so expensive that we've put the brakes on it for now. Our big excursion this year was a four-day road trip to Colorado; outside of that, we've stuck very close to home and watched as our friends took delightful-looking vacations to France, South America, New Zealand, and Iceland.
I can't see adopting this as a long-term habit because I think travel is enormously beneficial and educational. I do miss it. I want my son to see more of the world. But for now, it's a sacrifice we feel we need to make in order to meet our financial goals.
We spend almost nothing on home decor
A few months ago, a friend came over for dinner, glanced around at our sparse furnishings, and asked if we'd joined the minimalist movement. We explained that no, we just don't want to invest hundreds of dollars in home goods.
I'd be lying if I told you that I don't care how my house looks. I get FOMO every time I watch Property Brothers and Fixer Upper. Do I sometimes wish our home were more fashionable? More furnished? Sure.
But do I want to spend $800 on a new sofa? Or $150 on a piece of wall art? No. (I suppose I could do the next logical thing and see what I can find at thrift stores, but I'm a bit lazy.)
So we go with what we've currently got: worn second-hand seating, an abstract painting that a friend made and gifted to us, a faded tablecloth that my mom gave me 10 years ago, some photographs in inexpensive frames, a Target lamp, a small table, and a few plants. The place does look a bit empty, but I'm not willing to devote our paychecks to filling it up. I can live with this habit.
Focus on habits that are sustainable for you
I think it's important to focus on developing habits that you have the will to maintain. For example, our grocery bill is a bit of a disaster. We could develop better habits there, but frankly, we're not ready to. We've tried and failed multiple times because we're not committed enough. So we put our focus and efforts elsewhere, knowing that habits are hard to create and we've made some big strides in other areas.
What habits have you changed in order to pursue your financial goals?