There are thousands of articles about saving money, budgeting, and living frugal. They’re great, but they don’t answer a basic question — how do you know you’re saving enough?
When you’re young, it’s hard to know how much you really need to save. You’re fresh out of your parents’ house, you’re working your first job, you’ve just started on the whole ‘buying food’ thing; how the hell are you supposed to know what a good price for eggs is?
As a young and stupid guy myself, it definitely took me a while to figure out how to save money. It’s one thing to figure out what’s the cheapest thing available right now, but it’s something else to figure out whether out what’s the cheapest thing this month. Here’s what I do:
Follow Savings Rules
I only buy cheese for 33¢ per ounce or cheaper. I don’t buy meat above $3.00 a pound and my general target is $2.50 and lower. Rice is purchased in bulk for less than 60¢ per pound. Hard disk data storage is purchased at 3¢ per gig or less and flash memory at 50¢ per gig or less. I don't buy video games for more than $20. I keep a $5 limit for books. I have similar savings rules for all sorts of things.
Pay attention to the cost of things you buy every week (milk, eggs, bagels, etc), and don’t be afraid to try alternatives if you encounter a price hike. You can even digitize your receipts with Evernote and reference them later, in case you can’t quite remember what you usually pay for something.
When it comes to non-food items, set a rule to only buy non-urgent items at a certain savings threshold. Generally speaking, I won’t buy something unless it’s at a 30% discount or higher. If it’s important enough that I can’t wait for a sale, it’s important enough for me to shift my budget; if it isn’t, I wait.
Read Reviews First
I’ll pay a couple dollars more for a portable charger from Anker because they’re the best reviewed manufacturer on the market, but there isn’t enough of a difference between cheap flour and King Arthur flour for me to pay the difference. Jana and I will go out of our way to get Save-a-lot pasta sauce, because at 99¢ a can, it’s the best (and the cheapest) sauce we’ve found.
If you don’t have experience with a product, don’t assume that the name brand is the best. Likewise, don’t assume that the off-brand will deliver the same quality at a better price. Check out forums and subreddits focused on thrifty living, find blogs that have a frugal focus, and look for review sites that aren’t traffic funnels (pro tip: if the name of the product is in the url, it’s a traffic funnel).
Taking the time to read reviews and research your purchases will let you figure out whether or not you really need it. Set a price tracker via Camel Camel Camel while you’re reading up, see what other people are saying, and don’t be afraid to wait. If the thing you want really is as cool as you think it is, you’ll still like it when you can afford it.
Don’t Carry Debt
Carrying debt prevents you from making change. When you’re in debt, you’re not allowed to call in sick, take a random trip, or make an impulsive purchase. You’re not allowed to have car trouble. You’re not allowed to let your life interrupt your work.
If you cut down your monthly budget by $200 right this minute, don’t re-budget that money right away. It’s easy to create a clean budget on paper, but it’s a lot harder to pull one off in the real world. Unexpected expenses crop up all the time, and you’ll never be able to hit all of your targets. That $200 you think you’re saving might only be $100, and acting like you have extra money on hand can land you in a tight spot down the road.
When you do have the chance to save money, take the time to asses what non-recurring expenses you’ll be faced with in the next couple of months. Address those expenses first, then see what you’re left with. Every season has its extra expense, and it’s impossible to budget for everything. You might need to buy road salt in the winter, yard cleaning supplies in the spring, repair your lawn mower in the summer, and extra cold medicine in the fall. Your car might be due for maintenance, you might need to visit the doctor, or you might need to buy new bedding after an unfortunate incident with a candle; whatever happens, you’ll need some flex in your budget.
Do you have any money saving rules that helped you stay in the black? Let us know!