Last fall, I wrote about one of the worst temptations facing personal finance writers like me: The overwhelming urge to write annoying little articles about how skipping your $4 latte every morning and instead investing the money adds up to something like half a million dollars after 40 years.

Lots of readers -- including me -- roll their eyes at that kind of advice, but as I said at the time, it happens to be true. The math doesn't lie. But it's also true that nobody is actually going to do it, at least not the way we've laid it out. It's just not how people behave.

I mean, would you commit to skipping a store-bought coffee drink and socking away that $4 every day for the next 40 years?

Yeah. Me neither. But this being a recession and all, lots of us will be facing some annoying (or worse) financial choices in coming months. Here are some ideas that might have led you to roll your eyes during good times, but that could be must-dos for you soon:

Start tracking your spending
No, you don't have to become one of those persnickety people who records every penny spent in a pocket notebook. But tracking all of your household's spending for a month or so gives you important information about where your money really goes. Once you have that information, not only will you see some easy and obvious ways to cut spending, you'll be able to come up with a realistic budget.

Tracking your spending for a month doesn't have to be hard, and it doesn't require one of those little notebooks and annoyingly little pencils, either. When you can, put every out-of-pocket expense (even that latte) on your debit card. If you need to spend cash, get a receipt, put it in your pocket, and transfer it to a shoebox when you get home. At the end of the month, you just take your bank statement and your shoebox to the kitchen table and put it all together -- it'll take less time than you think.

Build a realistic budget -- and stick to it
Layoffs, canceled raises and bonuses, and an urgent desire to pay down debt are forcing many folks to ratchet down their spending. Once you know your actual spending patterns -- and, trust me, if you haven't gone through the exercise of tracking them, odds are you don't -- you can put together a budget that doesn't feel like a straightjacket, but does allow you to proactively manage your spending and live well within your means. Check out this article for a full guide to creating a budget that won't make you miserable -- it's not hard, and it won't hurt.

Put off big-ticket purchases
The dishwasher's rack is broken and it gets clogged up sometimes, but the dishes mostly get clean. Can you deal with it for a while longer? I know you were hot to get a spiffy new Ford Fusion hybrid to replace the SUV, but with gas prices down (at least for the moment) and the old beast long since paid for, maybe driving it for another year isn't too painful? Maybe you can find a decent couch for the rec room via Craigslist or Freecycle? There are lots of ways to spend less without completely abandoning your current standard of living. Make a habit of pondering alternatives to spending that isn't absolutely essential.

Fill your IRA with boring stocks
Much as it makes personal finance writers cringe, we all know that IRA contributions tend to go by the boards when money is tight. One way to keep adding to your retirement savings when money's tight and the market is churning is by buying boring dividend stocks like these:


Motley Fool CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

Dividend Yield

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)



Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)



Altria (NYSE:MO)



Kellogg (NYSE:K)



Newell Rubbermaid (NYSE:NWL)






Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB)



Source: Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool CAPS. Data as of market close Dec. 8, 2008.

Kleenex, Corn Flakes, Marlboros, Band-Aids, Chicken McNuggets ... nope, there's not an exciting name in the bunch, is there? Sure, they don't have the potential for lights-out growth like a hot tech stock, but these are the kinds of products people don't tend to cut out of their monthly spending, which makes companies like these a pretty good bet right now.

If you reinvest those dividends while the market is down, you'll be adding to your positions at prices that could look very cheap several years down the road. And if the market should go down further, these stocks are less likely than most to lose tons of value.

Be careful right now
The holiday season can be a huge budget-buster for many folks. If you'd like some great ideas for getting through it in style -- but without a financial hangover in January -- check out the Holiday Shopping feature in the online exclusives section of the Fool's Rule Your Retirement service. It's a whole collection of articles and resources to help you plan, monitor, and get more from your seasonal spending -- without driving yourself to the poorhouse. Best of all, you can read it for free with a 30-day trial.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.