Whether it's the holidays, vacation season, or any other time of the year when you take your spending up a notch, the aftermath can be sobering. Credit card bills and bank statements arrive. Suddenly, you feel bloated—and resolve to cut some of the fat from your budget. These five steps could help you go on a spending diet to improve your financial health:
1. Count the "calories." Where is the extra weight really coming from? Before you can trim expenses, you need to know what they are. But documenting every single item can be tedious and nerve-wracking. For many people, a better option is to make a list, based on your statements, that provides a ballpark estimate. Then you can determine what percentage of income goes toward necessities, such as housing and food costs, and what is discretionary. Aim to save at least 20% by cutting back on the luxuries.
2. Focus on the "meat and potatoes." Don't ignore those major monthly costs—your mortgage, car loans, and insurance premiums. Look for ways you can spend less on these "fixed" items. For instance, it might make sense to refinance the mortgage and shop for less expensive auto insurance. Similarly, you might be able to reduce commuting costs by carpooling or switching to mass transportation.
3. Stick to the daily regimen. Just like you can't lose weight by starving one day and splurging the next, a savings diet requires a regular routine. Consider the impact of cutting your daily spending by an average of $3 or $4. That could add up to more than $100 a month, and over $1,200 a year. Small changes can multiply into a much bigger impact.
4. Give yourself an occasional break. Even if you're watching your spending waistline, you don't have to be good all the time. If you enjoy some small luxuries—going to the movies, say, or getting a manicure—you're entitled to treat yourself. But watch out for wasteful spending on upgrades that are way beyond your pay grade. Figure out what's truly important to you to decide where you can cut costs.
5. Try an all-cash diet for a week. When you put away your credit and debit cards, you may find that you're less likely to spend frivolously. This also helps you to pay more attention to how and what you're spending, and to prioritize your preferences.
Finally, don't just sit on the savings. Take the money you've managed to set aside on your diet and invest it where it can provide benefits in the future. If you've been skimping on your 401(k) or IRAs, those are good places to stash the extra cash. This will allow you to indulge more during retirement years when you're no longer pulling down a paycheck.
This article was written by a professional financial journalist for Forbes Financial Planning, Inc and is not intended as legal or investment advice.