My mom loves finding a good deal.
As a kid, we’d frequently shop at Marshall’s to find deals on clothing. I didn’t know, or care, that Marshall’s was a discount clothing store. My mom enjoyed it because we found high-quality clothing without paying high-quality prices! For her, it was like a treasure hunt where you were almost guaranteed to find something good.
Frugality is one of the traits she passed down to me. I love finding a good deal, and sometimes I’ll foolishly spend way too much time looking for one.
But sometimes you don’t have a choice. You go to a concert and soft drinks cost $8 or more. You go to the airport and forget to bring a snack for your flight … so you spend five dollars on a bag of trail mix. While avoidable, those are rare situations with relatively small dollar amounts.
Fortunately, as my time has gotten scarcer, I’m more discerning in how I spend my deal-hunting time.
Today, I’m excited to share five areas in your spending where making a few changes can have a big impact.
1. Airline tickets
These days, there are so many resources that can help you save on airline tickets. You want to use these tools when searching for fares, but what matters most is when and how you use the tools.
The best way to help save money on airline tickets is to plan ahead and be flexible with your schedule. If you must travel during peak travel times, you may not get the best prices. If you’re traveling with a child and would rather take a direct flight, you may pay more for that convenience too. In those cases, you’re making a clear tradeoff.
Every year, we host Thanksgiving. My parents drive in from New York and my sister and her family fly from Boston. But we don’t celebrate it during Thanksgiving weekend. We pick the weekend before or the weekend after. By shifting it one week, my sister saves hundreds of dollars on her flights. This year, they’re going to save over $500 across their four tickets.
Another way to help save money on your flights is to spend time planning and monitoring flights for several weeks before purchasing them. My sister does this every single year, and, since one of the weekends is usually cheaper, that’s how we pick when to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Sometimes they get lucky and see fare sales, too. My last tip is to book the flights at least two weeks in advance. Many airlines increase the prices in those last two weeks.
2. Weekly groceries
We go to the grocery store every week. Sometimes several times a week. It’s an area where you might not spend a lot, but little trips here and there can add up to a lot in grocery shopping. There’s just something about having a nice, big shopping cart that tempts you to throw in items you don’t need … perhaps some freshly baked cookies? Or maybe a bag of chips?
If you want to save money at the grocery store, you must go with a plan and stick with it.
It’s best if you create a meal plan for the week, then build a shopping list based on that plan. It’s fun to look for recipes online. There are so many recipe blogs with gorgeous photos and well-written instructions.
When you build a meal plan at home, you can check your pantry for ingredients. If you decide at the store that you want to do Taco Tuesday, it’s hard to remember if you still have taco shells at home. Or salsa. Or a green pepper.
If you stick to the list and avoid the extras, you have a greater chance of checking out without spending more than you intended.
Extra tip: Don’t shop on an empty stomach!
3. Your first home
Buying your first home is an exciting and possibly overwhelming time in your life. And, while you’re touring homes and looking for “the one,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting a home that’s more than you can afford.
Unlike an expensive trip to the grocery store, overspending on your home has a much bigger impact on your finances. A bigger monthly payment could mean you have less to save for other needs, like retirement. Even if a bank approved you for a larger loan amount, don’t view that as how much you should spend but how much you can spend. You still want to buy a home where you feel comfortable with the monthly payments.
For that reason, it’s important to go into homeownership with an open mind and a clear idea of your budget. You might not get everything you want in your first home, and the finishes might not be as high end as you’d like. However, it’s more important to start in a home that’s easily affordable for you and focus on your long-term financial success.
To help you understand how much a mortgage payment can impact your life, “practice” paying your future mortgage. Take what you might spend on a monthly mortgage payment, deduct your current rent, and save the difference into your savings account.
For example, if you’re tempted to buy a home with a $1,500 mortgage and you currently pay $1,000 in rent, save an extra $500 in a separate savings account. This will give you a sense of the impact that the larger mortgage payment will have on your finances and then you can use those added savings for your down payment! Also, Ally has a cool Mortgage Payment Calculator that you may find helpful.
With a story about Marshall’s, you know I had to put clothing on this list!
Everyone values different things — for some, being well-dressed is important. In some professions, it’s important to project success and that often means wearing nice clothes.
But being well-dressed doesn’t have to be expensive. There are ways to dress for success without overspending. Even the highest-end designers have sample and clearance sales, and there’s a growing market for high-quality secondhand clothing. Those two alone can help cut your clothing budget significantly.
When you shop matters, too. Clothing is seasonal, and you can usually find deeply discounted clothes at the end of a season. Lastly, don’t forget about discount stores like Marshall’s or TJ Maxx! They offer brand new clothing and accessories in a variety of seasons and styles at discounted prices.
Furniture is another category where it’s easy to overspend. Furniture stores know how to play with financing to encourage you to buy more. Focusing on the smaller monthly price makes it easy to miss the much larger total price!
This may feel counter-intuitive but think of furniture as more of a want than a need. (Although it is nice to have a comfy couch to sit on when you’re watching your favorite shows!)
The best way to save money on furniture is to buy pieces one by one. Your style and tastes will change over time. You’ll also have different needs as your family grows and changes.
There might be opportunities to buy furniture secondhand or your parents may want to give you furniture when they downsize. Sometimes, you won’t have much of a choice!
Our guest room features my parents’ bedroom set from when I was a kid. It’s not our style (or this generation’s style) but it’s a guest room, the furniture is free, and the only piece that matters (the mattress!) is new.
Lastly, and this is my mom’s favorite bartering power move — cash talks. If you end up buying from a store, remember to negotiate. Sometimes paying in full, with cash, is how you get the best deal.
It’s easy to overspend both on everyday purchases and large investments. Whether you head through the drive-through or sign up for a financial advisor without realizing they have high fees, the opportunities to overspend are everywhere.
If you’re focused on your long-term financial success, think through your purchases. Make sure you’ve considered if you need the item or service you’re about to buy, and then take the extra step to shop around and price compare. If you do these things, you’ll be on the right track to not overspending.
Jim Wang is the founder of personal finance blog Wallet Hacks. He uses his engineering background to demystify complicated financial topics to help you achieve your goals. Jim has been featured in The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur magazine, and more. He lives in Maryland with his lovely wife and three children.