In the aftermath of New Year's resolutions, you may be trying to get a handle on your finances for the first time. One of the first parts of getting your finances under control is coming up with a budget of your income and expenses. Yet it seems that no matter how much you make, it's a big challenge to find areas for cutting back. A recent article from Money Magazine tells the story of a family of six that is struggling to make ends meet even though they have a household income of $150,000, putting them well above the average for American households. For many who face the challenge of putting food on their family's table every day, the difficulties faced by a family that owns two rental properties and a horse may seem somewhat trivial.
One family, however, seems to have living below its means down to a science. Annette and Steve Economides, who have been dubbed America's Cheapest Family, have managed to support themselves and their five kids on an average income that hasn't come close to $150,000. While the steps that this family has taken to stick to a budget may seem over the top, they provide a good checklist for identifying areas where you can find ways to cut back on your expenses.
One thing that the Economides family has in common with many other people who live below their means is a reluctance to incur debt. For instance, Steve and Annette not only bought their first house but also paid it off in just nine years, despite the fact that they made an average of just $35,000 each year during that period. They don't have any credit cards, and instead of buying new cars and using car loans for financing, they buy older used vehicles and pay cash.
Keeping yourself from incurring unnecessary debt is a valuable lesson that everyone can learn. Debt prevents you from starting each month or pay period from scratch; because you'll have to make payments on your debt, you start every month in a deficit position. Every time you get a paycheck, you have to earmark money toward your debt payments rather than spending it on other things, such as regular living expenses or establishing a savings plan. With many credit cards charging sky-high interest rates, it can be hard to escape from debt after you've run up a considerable balance.
Another tactic the Economides family uses is to hold their regular living expenses under tight control. Steve and Annette manage to feed their family spending just $350 each month, which is less than half of what the typical family of four spends on groceries. One of the ways that they hold grocery costs down is to visit the grocery store only once a month. Also, before going to the store, they review weekly ads and plan purchases that take advantage of any special deals. They plan out a menu of meals for the entire month. They clip, save, and use coupons whenever they can, and buying in bulk helps them save over those who buy smaller quantities. To get even better deals, they visit bakery outlets and look for bargains on discontinued items. They also have a large freezer to help them store perishables for extended periods of time.
Similarly, the Economides family also minimizes other costs. By visiting thrift stores, they've succeeded in buying clothes for their kids at just a fraction of their retail cost. When it comes to spending money for the holiday, the family uses eBay to find bargains, makes their own decorations, and gets free entertainment from holiday programs presented by local schools and churches.
Can you do it?
Regardless of whether your income is $35,000 or $350,000, you can take control of many of your expenses. Even if you have a substantial income, you don't have to spend everything you make. Simply by keeping your basic living expenses fairly constant over time, you can improve your budget situation as your income rises throughout your career. After all, as fellow Fool Dayana Yochim points out, failing to keep your expenses under control can be just as damaging to your budget whether you shop at a bulk sales store like Costco or Wal-Mart's Sam's Club or at more expensive retailers. Furthermore, if you suffer a job setback or other loss of income, having kept a tight rein on your expenses will make it easier for you to make it through rough times until your financial situation improves.
Where you draw the line on expenses depends on your own personal goals. Many of the people who post on the Fool's discussion boards on early retirement save huge percentages of their overall income, keeping expenses to a bare minimum while putting aside the bulk of their income toward investing for retirement. On the other hand, if you plan to work until a normal retirement age, you won't have to set aside nearly as much of your income toward savings and can therefore allow your expenses to rise gradually with your earnings.
While you may not decide to cut your expenses enough to qualify as America's cheapest family, sticking to a budget that keeps expenses under control is a great first step toward achieving financial security and independence. No matter what your particular plan looks like, reducing expenses can not only improve your financial situation but also can give you confidence in knowing that you've taken responsibility for your own success.
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No matter how much you make or spend, our personal-finance service, Motley Fool GreenLight, can help you in your efforts to take control of your finances. With advice on budgeting and reducing expenses as well as saving and investing, Green Light can point you in the direction of big improvements in your financial situation. Take a look for 30 days with our free trial.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger isn't America's cheapest person, but he certainly gives it a run for his money. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value selection. eBay and Costco are Stock Advisor picks. The Fool's disclosure policy is always cost-effective.