Reading survey data can be a lot of fun, if for no other reason than to see whether you're in the majority in your preference for dogs over cats, or to find out how many other people also think Katie Couric is "smart" and "perky."
For a lot of people with good financial intentions, a new Pew Research Center poll might strike close to home. Their survey found that 77% of people say they're always looking for ways to save money, but 63% acknowledge that they don't save enough.
Sound familiar? Sometimes the road to saving seems paved with lots of great plans, but less-than-perfect follow-through. Many of us say we're following the right path. The survey found that people have difficulties saving across virtually all demographic groups -- men and women, black and white, married and single, employed and unemployed, college grads and high school grads. (People age 65 and older, on the other hand, seemed to have learned something about saving that the rest of us haven't!)
Interestingly, the survey also points out that we have a pretty good idea of where we're going wrong. When asked about the kinds of things they splurge on, people named three items that can take a big chunk out of the budget when left unchecked:
1. Food and dining out
2. Entertainment and recreation
3. Shopping and personal items
These can often be the most fun things to spend money on, so it's no wonder that we like to splurge on a nice dinner out, a fancy new fishing rod, or a fabulous pair of shoes. But if you really want to pump up your savings, it's worth taking a closer look at your spending in these three categories. It can sometimes be a lot easier to save more by trimming optional expenses instead of trying to cut your housing or utility costs.
Consider some of these ideas for squeezing a few extra dollars of saving out of your budget by attacking those three spending categories:
- How often do you eat out just because you're on the run or there's nothing in the house? Make it a habit to do a little meal planning and regular grocery shopping to stem the weeknight runs to your favorite taco joint. This will have the added benefit of being better for your health, too.
- Go out less often, but make dining out a big deal. You may get the same satisfaction from visiting your favorite restaurants less often but anticipating it more. Go only on special occasions, or set a date with friends or a special someone. Increase the adventure by trying a new restaurant.
- Ask yourself whether you're getting your money's worth from your entertainment budget. It's easy to see a lot of money disappear each month when you add up your spending on premium cable television, TiVo, satellite radio, movie rentals, and movie tickets. There's no point in keeping the premium channels if, every time you turn them on, you lament the fact that there's nothing to watch. Cancel anything you're not using regularly and enjoying.
- Reconsider your expensive hobbies. Do you have all the latest GPS tracking equipment, an all-season tent, and a pair of $300 hiking boots, but you can't remember the last time you actually set foot on a trail? Then it's time to rethink whether you love the activity or you love the gadgetry. Put your money into the things you love to do, not the things you tell yourself you'll spend time doing when you get the right equipment.
- If shopping is your downfall, stay out of the mall. Stop surfing the online stores, too. Recycle the catalogs before you're tempted to purchase something. Cancel all those sale notices and advertisements that get sent automatically into your email inbox every day. The more you peruse the offerings, the easier it is to convince yourself you can't live without this week's hot new thing.
See if you can't redirect some of this money toward your savings goals. The next time those pollsters call, you can say you're always looking for ways to save -- and you're saving!
Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple would sooner live on ramen noodles than give up her satellite radio. She welcomes your feedback.