We're feeling really pinched by rising fuel and food prices. Do you have any tips for stretching our family income?
- Name withheld, via e-mail
Answer: During this time of inflationary prices -- especially gasoline -- spreading throughout the economy, it's a good time to consider how we can make our resources go further by being a smart spender. Keep in mind, the Lord tells us in Proverbs 27:23, "Take good care of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." Here are five tips to help.
1. Have a plan.
Having a spending plan and buying according to your plan is the most effective step you can take. Considering the big picture to see if your spending patterns match your long-term goals, and looking for opportunities to uncover unwise spending will lead to an effective overall review.
If you don't track your spending, start today with a 30-day spending diary. Once you've kept your spending diary, look for creative ways to reduce expenses. Can you ride your bike to work? Review your overall phone costs. More and more people are eliminating the cost of a landline phone in favor of mobile only. But mobile phone plans need to be managed well. Many people get surprised with hundreds of dollars in extra charges caused by excess minutes, texting and other special features. Teens can especially run into trouble here. Get on the right plan -- then live within the plan.
When developing your plan and completing your spending diary, make sure to complete a review of your housing and transportation expenses. Discretionary spending will need to be looked at, too, which includes eating out, groceries, entertainment and clothing. But if your housing and transportation costs are too high, even cutting to the bone in these other areas will leave you in a hole.
2. Pay cash
Studies show that when people use credit cards, there is a willingness to spend more for the same item. Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester of the Sloan School of Management at MIT have completed one such study. In it, participants were willing to spend up to double for the same item when they used a credit card.
Does that mean you should carry wads of cash in your purse or wallet? No. What it does mean is that you need to at least handle your credit and debit cards in a "cash equivalent" manner. That means you pay the balance in full every month (in the case of credit cards), spend according to your plan and maintain a price list (see tip No. 5) so you know you are paying a fair price.
3. Watch the groceries.
You can save substantial amounts on groceries. Changes in your buying habits can not only save money but can offer healthier alternatives.
Prepare more of your own foods and purchase more in the way of whole grains (in bulk), fruits and vegetables.
Start a small garden. Spending time together in the garden will be refreshing and a lot of fun for younger children. Coordinate planting with friends and family so you can trade your oversupply of zucchini for their oversupply of tomatoes.
4. Buy used.
Did you know that you can cut bills by half or more when buying previously owned items? Home furnishings, textbooks, clothing and automobiles are examples where items in excellent condition can be purchased for a fraction of the original cost. If you have a close-knit family, or group of friends, passing items back and forth when needs arise can offer additional ways to save.
5. Keep a price list.
How do you know when you are paying a fair price for an item -- whether groceries or a car? Comparison shopping is a key to managing your spending. A price list provides a simple way to accomplish this by keeping a record of your regular purchases and tracking their cost per unit. That way you know when you're getting a good deal. It can also be used for larger purchases by documenting the results of your comparison shopping. We saved more than $1,000 per year on our milk bill by using the price list. Start one today.
Phil Lenahan is president of Veritas Financial Ministries and author of "7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A Catholic Small Group Study" (OSV, $19.95). Send questions to Phil Lenahan, Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN, 46750 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.