Do you wish you could travel more, but your paycheck seems to be gone at the end of every month? You’re not alone. Especially in the past couple of years, most of us consider ourselves lucky if we even have a job, let alone have seen a raise that has kept us even with the cost of inflation. If the only thing standing between you and more travel is money, then you’ll want to read on. Because if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s the Saving Game.
I like treating the money-saving process as a “game” rather than a “spending diet” because diets invoke an image of deprivation and sacrifice. Whereas a game is fun! The more money I save, the more fun I have playing the game because I’m “winning” (and not in the Charlie Sheen sense). And really, there’s very little sacrifice involved here, it’s just a rearrangement of priorities.
One of the advantages of being raised by Depression-era grandparents is that I learned how to make do with what I have, and I haven’t always had a lot. But I have also made my priorities happen for me: My family couldn’t afford to send me to college, so I put myself through via scholarships, loans, work study, and two jobs. My first job out of college only paid $13,000, but I still managed to pay off my student loans early (while paying rent on a 1 bedroom apartment). I bought my condo in the suburbs 10 years after college, when I was only making $29,000 a year. And I’ve managed to travel to several countries and all over the US as well.
Does this sound like a game you’d like to play? Great. I’ll teach you how.
How is the Saving Game played?
Your goal is to have a financial priority (travel, for instance) that you work toward. If you reach your goal, you win. Your obstacles are many, but you aren’t competing against other players.
The Rules are Situational
How the Saving Game is played depends on your priority. My goal has been to travel comfortably as much as I can while keeping my full-time job (with its oh-so-useful health benefits) and my home. So I’ve been playing the game a bit differently than (for instance) round-the-world travelers do. If your only goal is to travel, and you don’t care how you do it, you could save money while traveling by couchsurfing, staying in hostel dorms, traveling overland by bus rather than plane, etc.
How I Play the Game
Because it’s my vacation from work, travel is my reward to myself. I like to splurge a bit. In order to do that, I save money upfront by being frugal in my everyday life–money that I can later spend during my trips. Here are some of the things I’ve done to save money over the years, things you could do too if you have a similar goal:
Make more money. If you can’t convince your boss to give you a raise or get a higher paying job, you can try to work more than one job or start a small business with low overhead on the side. I put myself through college working two jobs in addition to work-study. I’ve owned a small side business in the past and currently, I’m earning money selling advertising on this website. It’s not enough to live on, but it helps pay for my trips.
Pay attention to what you’re spending money on and how much you’re spending. I’m one of the country’s last holdouts when it comes to automatic bill-paying. I like writing checks and balancing my checkbook. That way, I’m very aware of where my money is going and how much I have at all times. I am starting to move some bills to automatic bill pay, just to avoid the monthly service fee. But when my credit card bill comes in, I read it line by line.
Stop spending on discretionary items. Unless your shoes have holes in them, you don’t need to buy a new pair. Unless your cell phone died, you don’t need to upgrade. To avoid the temptation to spend on “wants” rather than “needs”, stay away from retail stores, even online. (Unless of course, you work in one.)
Go car-less. I lived for 17 years (as a working adult) without a car. I either walked or took public transportation everywhere. I was able to save thousands of dollars a year this way.
Learn to cook from scratch. Food, while a necessity, is also one of the most flexible budget items. Trust me, if I can learn to cook, anyone can. Practice makes perfect (or at least, edible). Not only is it cheaper, but it’s a lot healthier than eating out or eating prepackaged foods.
Eliminate non-essential bills. A year and a half ago, I canceled my landline telephone, which I never used, and just use my cell phone now. Savings? $56/month. Last summer, I did the same with my cable TV. Now, when I want to watch a show, I do it on my laptop via Hulu.com. Savings? $71/month. Total savings per year by making these two changes? $1,524. Depending on your destination and travel style, that might cover your whole trip!
Entertain yourself cheaply. Obviously, we all have friendships to maintain and you do want to have some fun in the here-and-now, but who says social interaction has to cost money? Why not just get together with a friend and go for a walk or hike somewhere scenic, where you can chat and catch up while getting some exercise? Or dare I say it? Have friends over to play cards or a board game.
Learn to love pre-owned items. Growing up wearing hand-me-downs taught me that there’s nothing wrong with pre-owned items, so long as they’re in good condition and serve their purpose. I’ve lived with hand-me-down clothes, furniture, electronics, kitchenware, you name it.
Pay off your credit cards every month. If you let the balance roll over, you’re wasting your money by having to pay interest. If your credit card bill is too high to pay off at the end of the month, then you know you’re using it too much. Don’t charge anything unless you know you have the money in the bank to back it up.
If you still suck at saving money, force the savings. If your employer offers direct deposit, you should be using it. Another way I force myself to save is by not adjusting my withholding during the year from my paycheck. I always get a killer refund every year. People keep telling me to stop giving Uncle Sam the interest-free loan, but for me, it’s a great way to not spend it throughout the year. When it arrives, I see it as my “vacation fund”.
I do have my limits as to how I’ll save money. I won’t keep my house at 58 degrees all winter. I won’t rummage through my neighbors’ recycling bins looking for returnable bottles. I will never again eat tuna fish sandwiches every day for lunch just to save money. And I won’t move in with my parents. Everything else in my life gets routine scrutiny.
How are you doing at the Saving Game? What are your favorite ways of saving money?