If your December credit card bill is a bit more bloated than usual, you’re not alone: Gifts, holiday travel, and other end-of-the-year expenses mean that many of us spend more during the last month of the year than at other times. According to a recent Gallup poll, consumer spending at retailers, restaurants, and gas stations jumped up to almost $100 a day from about $65 a day just before Christmas.
[In Pictures: 12 Money Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes]
But just as a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables can counter the effects of too much ham and pumpkin pie, a spending diet can give your budget a fresh start in the new year. Here’s a quick and easy five-step plan to a new and improved bank account.
Consider your high and low points. A quick review of where you went wrong—and right—over the last couple months will help pinpoint your weaknesses. Did you end up spending twice as much as usual on plane tickets because you waited too long to buy them? Or did you buy overly expensive gifts? Don’t just beat yourself up; consider the good decisions you made, too, whether it was comparing prices before buying a new television or cooking more homemade meals.
Take the spending diary challenge. Write down every single thing you spend money on for two weeks, along with notes on why and how it made you feel. You might be surprised to discover the real leaks in your budget. Instead of lunches out and cab rides, you might be wasting money on coffee and happy hours. After the two weeks is up, review the list and see what jumps out at you.
Decide on your new priorities. Most people’s budgets revolve around three costs: Food, housing, and transportation. After you’ve budgeted for those expenses, which probably take up between half to two-thirds of your take-home pay, and factor in any debt payments, then you can decide how to prioritize savings, household expenses, professional expenses, and entertainment. Writing down a list of those priorities, and their order of importance, can help keep your spending on track. For example, perhaps you want to change jobs this year. If that’s the case, then you might want to reserve some money for a new interview suit, a career coach, or a certification course.
Avoid temptation. If you were on a diet, would you stare at chocolate chip cookies all day? Of course not. So why do we torture ourselves by allowing catalogues full of shiny, new kitchen gadgets or tempting electronics to come through our mails slot every day? Cancel them. The website catalogchoice.org makes it easy to inform retailers of your desire to unsubscribe. Don’t forget to unsubscribe to e-mail blasts either; this increasingly common form on advertising targets online shoppers. Just click on “unsubscribe” at the bottom of the e-mails.
[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]
Reward yourself. Diets that force people to expunge almost everything tasty from their meals never seem to have much success. That principle applies to money, too. Denying ourselves every material pleasure turns money into a sad subject, instead of an empowering one. After all, you work hard for your money, so it should bring you some pleasure. Decide on small indulgences that will go a long way in helping you enjoy life. Possibilities include a monthly date night with your spouse, an annual vacation, or high-end coffee for weekend mornings. It might be as simple as taking an extra vacation day each month to spend more time with your family.
In addition to improving your finances, these five steps can help you enjoy the year—and avoid any more shocking credit card statements.
Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.