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5 expert-backed ways to rein in spending

5 expert-backed ways to rein in spending


It was also, well, expensive. I don’t regret the money I paid, but as the weather starts to cool off here in New York (or at least hints at cooling off), it feels like the right time to recalibrate my budget and dial back my spending as well.

I’m likely not the only one who feels this way. Consumer spending has been strong over the past few years, with retail, travel, and experience spending particularly robust. Despite the Federal Reserve’s best efforts, Americans spent 5.8% more in August 2023 than they did last year.

Though Americans haven’t been under stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic in years, there is still a pervading sense that we’re catching up on things we missed—or that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so you might as well spend today, says Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

“We’re in a YOLO economy,” says Samana, referring to the acronym for “you only live once.” “We should be in an intermittent fasting economy to save up for the recession.”

This fall is a great time to check in on your finances even if you haven’t been overspending. For almost 44 million, October brings the first additional multi-hundred dollar bill each month, as federal student loans are due again. Credit card debt has surpassed $1 trillion, a record high. And gas prices have been soaring.

Interest rates have also been creeping up, as the Fed tries to rein in inflation, partially caused by all that spending. A recession hasn’t materialized, but if you’re anything like me, you’re always a little worried it could, leading to job loss or general anxiety.

With all of those macro—and personal—headwinds at play, here’s what financial advisors suggest to work on for your financial peace of mind.

Reassess your budget

Look, no one likes to hear it, but actually understanding where your money is going is crucial to getting a handle on it. With the price of just about everything on a seemingly neverending upward spiral, it’s important to take stock of what you’re paying and to whom.

For example: You probably know what subscriptions you pay for, but do you know how much you’re paying? Many have increased costs recently. If you’re going to the office more and use public transportation, is it time to opt back into your company’s commuter benefits program?

“Take a close look at your checking and credit card accounts and examine every purchase, charge, and expense to determine what was a necessary purchase and where you may have overspent on something unnecessary, your ‘needs’ versus your ‘wants,’” says Mary Hines Droesch, head of consumer and small business products at Bank of America. “This can help you determine some areas where you may be able to cut back your spending in the ‘wants’ category as you reevaluate your habits and priorities.”

There are a number of programs you can use to track your household’s spending. Software like Mint and You Need a Budget are particularly popular, and there are online communities you can join to get more insight into them.

Create an “honest list” of your assets, debts, and upcoming large expenses, suggests Kelly Palmer, founder and chief wealth officer of The Wealthy Parent, a financial planning firm in Chicago. “If you are in a relationship, this is a hugely important step to take with your partner,” Palmer says. “Fall is a great time to reconnect with your partner financially before the stress of the holidays sets in.”

Personally, I track my savings and investments in a Google spreadsheet; I’ll be adding on my daily spending this month to get a fuller picture. I also get text alerts of all of my credit card swipes and daily updates with my balances, which you can do by logging into your account on your bank or credit card company’s website.

Prioritize certain spending

When I’ve strayed from my financial goals, I like to reset with a No Spend month. During these periods, I cut out on non-essential purchases or follow other pre-determined rules I’ve made.

“While it may seem like a drastic step, think of it as the equivalent of putting your spending on an elimination diet to see what you can truly live without,” says Hines Droesch.

A No Spend month can be helpful because it’s a temporary reset. But reassessing your budget doesn’t mean cutting back on all discretionary spending long term. In fact, doing so can often backfire.

“Give yourself permission to spend a little on ‘fun stuff,’” says Hines Droesch. “Applying the 50/30/20 method to any budget is a universal way of ensuring the proper amounts of your income is going to saving and investing while leaving enough room to enjoy your hard-earned money.”

The 50/30/20 budget is a popular method of divvying up expenses. Following it, 50% of your after-tax income goes toward needs, like your housing payment, student loans, groceries, etc. Another 30% goes toward wants, and 20% goes toward savings (including investments).

“By living below your means, you’ll lay the groundwork for a lifetime of financial progress,” says Hines Droesch. “When you treat savings as mandatory, you make it that much easier to stay serious about achieving financial stability.”

Pay down credit card debt

Though student loan debt has gotten a lot of attention lately, credit card debt is often a bigger headache for the consumers who have it. The interest rate is likely to be higher, and it can be more predatory. That’s why if you’ve accrued some, it’s critical to focus on paying that down ASAP, says Andrea Woroch, a family-budgeting expert.

That’s doubly true in the current environment because not only has consumer credit card debt hit a record high, but so have interest rates: The average credit card APR in September hit 24.45%, according to LendingTree, with 35% of cards charging as high as 29.99%.

Of course, many of these steps are easier said than done. What’s helped me focus on these types of goals is finding others in a similar boat. There are Facebook groups and subreddits related to personal finance that can inspire you to stick to your budget, and TikTokers (like Jamie Feldman, whom I profiled here) chronicling their debt payoff journeys. If you’re only watching content that encourages you to spend, or talks about how pointless or difficult saving is, it’s hard to make changes. But seeing or reading about others do it can be the encouragement you need.

If you qualify, look into a 0% balance transfer. With these offers, a credit card company allows you to use a new card to pay off a credit card balance you have with another company, often with a 0% interest rate for a set amount of months. So if you have 0% for 24 months, you have two years to pay down your balance without more interest accruing. That can help you become debt free, or at least make substantial inroads.

Think long term

As a millennial with a propensity to doom scroll, it can often feel silly to prioritize saving and investing when the future is so uncertain. That’s a popular sentiment among younger generations: 45% of workers aged 18 to 35 don’t see the point of saving for retirement “until things return to normal,” a 2022 report from Fidelity found.

I won’t pretend to know what the future holds. But one thing that’s helped me is the realization that no matter what happens, there likely won’t come a time when I wish I had less money saved.

One thirty-something put it to me as saving in a “nihilism fund.” Focusing on what you can control in an uncertain world can be empowering.

Get help

If you’re struggling to make your budget work, there are ways to ask for help.

For example, if you have federal student loans, an income-driven repayment plan may help lower your monthly payment. The new SAVE plan is particularly generous. You can apply on the Department of Education’s website.

If credit card debt is stressing you out, you might be able to negotiate your interest rate, consolidate your debt, or get on a payment plan. Set aside an afternoon to call your credit card company to see how they can help you.

“If you’re struggling, communicate with creditors and work with them on paying down your debt,” says Brandon Robinson, president and founder of Texas-based financial firm JBR Associates. “Many are willing to be flexible.”

Another option is to work with a credit counseling company, which can give you advice and help you develop a budget and repayment plan. Just remember: Most reputable credit counseling organizations are nonprofits—check with your local credit union or even a university to find one that won’t overcharge you.


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