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Financial Gain, Less Pain

If extra expenses are weighing you down, try these strategies to lighten the load

It was almost the end of the month, and once again Jeff and I were feeling the squeeze of a paycheck that wouldn't stretch far enough. The big Thanksgiving get-together would be at our house this year—and the grocery list was a yard long. Plus, Christmas was looming, and our kids had high hopes. Although we were both making more money than we ever had, it never seemed to go far enough. The temptation to fall back on the credit card was strong. "Where is our money going, anyway?" I wailed.

Ten Easy Ways to Save

Mary Hunt, founder and publisher of the Cheapskate Monthly newsletter, lists her top ten money tips:

  1. Only run your dishwasher when it's full—and skip the energy-gobbling speed-dry option.
  2. Unplug instant-on appliances such as coffee makers, stereos and remote-control TVs. They draw electricity even when turned off.
  3. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. They fit standard fixtures, require only a quarter of the energy of incandescent lights and last up to 14 years. They can save you up to 40 percent annually on your electricity bill.
  4. Consider dimmers, timers and motion detectors for your lights. They all can mean big savings on your electricity bill.
  5. Use lay-away instead of putting a big purchase on a credit card.
  6. Pay less by pumping your own gas.
  7. Use "800 Assistance." Before calling a company long distance, dial 800-555-1212 to see if a toll-free number is available.
  8. Do the laundry with less detergent. Depending on the hardness of your water, you may be able to use as much as 50 percent less than recommended.
  9. Wash all but the dirtiest clothes in cold water.
  10. Every load you air dry saves you $1. Invest in a clothes line, put out just two loads per week, and you can save more than $100 per year.

Second only to sex, money is a topic that can raise the most turbulent waves of emotions from married couples. In a time when the expected American norm is two cars, a split-level ranch and designer clothes, Americans are more in debt than ever before. The Time Almanac reported that consumer credit in 1998 exceeded $1,241.4 billion—more than double the figure from 1975. While recent news reports indicate that Americans are starting to pay down our consumer debt, we have more—and owe more—than ever before.

The toll of debt is measured in more than just credit card bills. According to syndicated radio's financial talk-show guru Dave Ramsey, finances are the number-one point of dispute among married couples.

"The biggest problem for married couples is they don't control their money," Ramsey says. "The subject of money is overwhelming to them. They throw up their hands and surrender."

Even if you don't feel qualified to tackle complicated investment strategies or debate the pros and cons of tax-free municipal bonds, there are still plenty of easy ways to plug some of the financial leaks in your marriage. Here are ways to get started.

Ravenous Grocery Bills

Nowhere do we spend, and waste, so much money as on food. Coupon queen Ellie Kay, author of Save, Shop and Share (Bethany), estimates the monthly grocery expenditure for a family of four can easily exceed $800—due in large part to impulse buying. Add to this the extra dollars you will spend this fall and winter on holiday party food and seasonal get-togethers, and you can easily top the $1,000 mark in November and December.

But don't despair. Kay says it's not that hard to get grocery expenses under control. She budgets about $200 per month for groceries to feed a family of seven—without spending all her time cooking from scratch or depriving her family of special treats.

Her methods are pretty simple. Resist impulse purchases by sticking to a grocery list. And when you're shopping, remember that eye-level items tend to be the most pricey. Kay suggests taking a pocket calculator to the store so you can compute the per-unit cost of the mega-size box of detergent versus the smaller size. You'll be amazed at how often the economy size actually costs more than—or the same as—a smaller package.

And don't forget to take money. Ramsey says grocery shoppers who pay with a credit card spend up to 54-percent more. Why? "When you use cash, you emotionally register the pain," he says. "If you lay down 50 bucks, it will sear into your brain."

Whining and Dining

A burger here, a latte there. For two-income couples, cooking dinner after a long day at work is the last thing either of you wants to do. But when it comes to eating out, you may find there aren't just leaks in your budget, there's a cataclysmic flood.

Often, the biggest step toward getting control of your eating-out expenses is keeping track of them. A big temptation for me is specialty coffee drinks, which often can run $3 or more. My friends and I meet several times a week at a coffee shop. When I started keeping track of the money I spent, I realized it added up to almost $50 per month.

Live Well for a Lot Less

Here are the top ten money tips from Ellie Kay, author of Shop, Save and Share (Bethany):

  1. Substitute water for soda at a restaurant and save $7 to $12 per meal.
  2. Reach for a bargain. Retailers place the most expensive items at eye-level and the bargains on the upper and lower shelves.
  3. Make a list. Consumer research shows that shoppers who carry a list spend less money. It saves time too.
  4. Don't join the crowds. The least busy times at most stores are Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Without the pressure of a crowded store, you'll spend less and face less stress.
  5. Make more than one stop and shop the "loss leaders"—advertised items designed to entice buyers into a store. Often, the store will lose money on these products—so shop them at each store if you have the time.
  6. Go online. Good sites to check out are
    www.valupage.com for local grocery store web sites,
    www.freeshop.com and
    www.supermarkets.com. If you are interested in a particular product or manufacturer's coupons, type in the name in the regular Internet format,
    www.colgate.com or

  7. Go it alone. If you have kids, leave them at home or with a friend when you shop. You'll be able to concentrate, and you won't have to listen to their demands.
  8. Shop and share. When you can get an item for pennies with a coupon or acquire a product free—share the good fortune with a food pantry or homeless shelter.
  9. Take a tax deduction. When you donate groceries to a nonprofit organization (or the church), ask for a donation receipt. You'll need to itemize deductions on your tax return, and make sure you check with a tax specialist each year to keep up to date on this deduction.
  10. Double your savings. Use your coupons to buy things already on sale. We prefer shopping at a store that offers double coupons.

Once I saw the cold, hard figures, I paced myself—sometimes still going to the shop, but ordering a plain, $1 decaf instead of an extra-large mocha. I also invested in the shop's coffee mug, which gave me an additional discount each time, and began using a "punch card" for frequent customers, which gave me free coffee two times out of five.

When my family is over budget on eating out, I get out the crock pot. The night before, I put in the ingredients for the next day's meal. In the morning, I pull it out of the refrigerator and plug it in. You won't be so likely to give in to the desire not to cook if the smell of dinner ready to eat hits you as you walk in the door after work.

Still, it's fun to eat out. So make a few adjustments to keep from breaking the bank. Kay looks for restaurants advertising special deals. Last spring, she took advantage of a "Cinco de Mayo" special. Kids ate free—no limit—so all five of her children had dinner "on the house." Kay also had a coupon from the local newspaper to "buy one, get one meal free," which took care of one adult meal. Their $35 meal came to a measly $6 after the specials and without the tip.

Buying one meal and splitting it is another way to cut costs. "It not only helps your budget, it helps your waistline," Kay says.

Repress That Impulse!

How many times have you walked into a store to buy a gift for a friend and walked out with something for yourself? According to financial experts, this is usually the result of retailers convincing us that we need "one more thing" for ourselves.

How can we thwart such crafty merchandising? It helps to carry cash, since forking over the greenbacks makes a more lasting—and painful—impression on us. If having all those dollars on hand worries you, consider using travelers checks.

Second only to sex, money is a topic that can raise the hottest waves of emotions from married couples.

When buying a gift for a loved one, squelch the urge to "add just a little bit more," especially if the motivation is guilt. Mary Hunt, founder of the Cheapskate Monthly newsletter, suggests adding a personal note thanking loved ones for the ways they enrich your life and telling them why they are so special to you. It might be their best gift ever.

And, as Hunt suggests, if you simply can't resist that impulse item, get out of the store fast. Give yourself 24 hours to decide if you want it. Most likely, the urge will pass before tomorrow.

Fun on the Cheap

Having fun and spending money seem to go together. But Gwen Ellis, author of The Big Book of Family Fun (Revell), points out that entertainment doesn't always mean dropping $50 to $100 on a night out.

For couples who enjoy music, call your local community orchestra or college music school to see what events they offer. In the college community near my home, a terrific orchestra gives free weekend concerts. A bookstore regularly hosts local jazz and folk musicians—many of whom are quite good.

Picking the times you choose for entertainment can make a huge difference in the amount you spend. Hunt and her husband, Harold, found ways to cut corners on dates without feeling deprived.

"Instead of dinner and then a movie, we go to a matinee and then go out for coffee," she says. "It makes for a wonderful date and is about half the cost of doing it the other way."

For Jeff and me, having a date can be as simple as driving to our favorite park for a long walk, then stopping somewhere for dessert or a cup of coffee. Checking out a free video at the library and microwaving a bag of popcorn provide the makings for some of our most enjoyable family nights.

If you have children who need a babysitter when you go on a date, consider trading nights a few times a month with another couple. With four dollars an hour as the norm in the area where we live, this can add up to quite a bit of savings.

Why Save?

With so much marital distress having some connection with financial tensions, it makes sense to get your spending under control. In the process, you will be able to share out of your abundance and be a blessing to others. If you take a few small steps in gaining control over your finances, before you know it the thrill of saving money—and the joy of less pressure at the end of the month—will help you tackle the bigger financial issues.

"You can feel sorry for yourself that you don't have enough money to go to the finest stores and shop," Ellis says. "Or you can see this all as a great adventure. If you learn to spend wisely throughout the year, you will have the necessary funds to enjoy a sane, fiscally sound life."

Cindy Crosby, a busy freelance writer, lives in the Chicago area with her husband, Jeff, and their two children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Budget; Debt; Marriage; Money
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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