Most Americans don't bother creating a budget, and those who do often find themselves exceeding it despite their best efforts to control spending. If you're part of the latter category, knowing what your triggers are and how to avoid them can help you spend less and save more. Here are Americans' five greatest budget-busters, according to data from Principal Financial Services, and what you can do to combat them.
1. Dining out
The allure of restaurant food is hard to ignore. There's something to be said for not only getting a delicious meal, but also not having to cook or clean up after. But know this: The typical restaurant charges a 300% markup, which means that a $50 meal could be yours for $12.50 at home.
Of course, eating at home eliminates the social and convenience factor. But if you encourage your friends to take turns hosting potluck dinners instead of meeting at restaurants all the time, you'll all save money -- and perhaps improve your cooking skills. And if you don't like the hassle of constant food prep and cleanup, cook in large batches and get on board the leftover train.
Though eating at home is far more economical than dining out all the time, it can still get expensive. But if you're smart about the way you shop for groceries, you can keep those bills to a minimum. First, get into the habit of planning meals in advance. At the same time, take inventory of the items you have at home so that when you hit the supermarket, you're only buying what you need. This will help you eliminate food waste, thereby saving money.
And be careful when buying in bulk. A case of your favorite cereal might seem like a good deal, but if it goes stale before you finish it, you'll have wasted money. Similarly, it might be tempting to buy a case of yogurt if you eat one package every day, but if you don't have the fridge space, you'll inevitably wind up throwing out something that otherwise could've been eaten in order to make room for the yogurt.
We all need clothing to function in society, but you don't need to pay top dollar for it. One good strategy to reduce costs is to buy seasonal items after their respective seasons end. That means buying a winter coat in April and swimsuits in September.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy life, and sometimes that means spending a small fortune on movies, concerts, and other such activities that aren't known to be cheap. But if you want to stay within budget, get better about seeking low-cost or free entertainment. Rather than hit the movie theater, host a movie night in your apartment. Instead of paying a premium to see a well-known band perform, see a local band at a neighborhood pub where admission is free. And don't forget about the great outdoors: You can hike through your state or region and, in many cases, not pay a dime.
5. Vehicle costs
You need a car to commute to work, get around town, and have the freedom to do what you love. But you can still take steps to minimize that expense.
It costs an average of $8,849 a year to own a car, according to the AAA, but that drops to $6,777 a year for small sedans. If you can get by with a more compact vehicle, you might save over $2,000 a year. Buying a used vehicle is another good way to keep your costs down, especially when you consider the extent to which new cars lose value the second they're driven off the lot. Finally, keep up with scheduled maintenance on whatever car you have, to help avoid costly unplanned repairs.
If you're tired of blowing your budget on the same pesky expenses, take steps to do better. With any luck, you'll ramp up your savings game and meet your ultimate financial goals.