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How to Get Your Finances Back on Track by January 1st

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How to Get Your Finances Back on Track by January 1st

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Ask my mother, best friend, college roommate or anyone else close to me: I've never liked summer. Sure, sitting on the beach with a book and a lemonade sounds appealing, but I'm usually over the heat and humidity and longing for a chilly night by the fire after about an hour. Summers, to me, are best spent hopping around the city trying to find the best AC, whether that be in the library or at the movie theater.

But somehow, even I'm prone to seasonal "fear of missing out," or FOMO, over-spending in the summer. It's something that gets even the best of us — that feeling that we must take advantage of the season, lest we miss out on all the fun everyone else seems to be having. (Instagram does not help with this.)

Seasonal FOMO gets even the best of us — that feeling that we must take advantage of the season, lest we miss out on all the fun everyone else seems to be having.

Between several road trips and great shows, I managed to have a lot of fun this summer. But, of course, it was all at the expense of my bank account. After checking in with my Mint account, I found out that, since May, I've spent the following:

  • Entertainment (movie, theater, concert and amusement park tickets): $627
  • Travel (airplane/train tickets, rental cars, taxis/ride shares): $728
  • Shopping (clothes/household items): $290
  • Total: $1,645

I feel better knowing some of the travel and entertainment spending here has been for things that haven't happened yet (e.g. a flight home in October, tickets to Sweeney Todd for my boyfriend's birthday). Besides a couple of overpriced taxis to and from the airport, I can't say I regret any of this spending.

But seeing the total I've spent on fun in one season — $1,645?! — is a real wakeup call. I still have several money goals I want to hit by the end of the year, including fleshing out my emergency fund and contributing as much as I can to my retirement account. And while I've still managed to set money aside in my savings accounts this summer, I'm not quite where I want to be.

Here are 5 active ways I'm going to get back on track by the end of this year:

1. Meal plan

I'll be honest — I've never been into the idea of meal prep. I have several friends who do it (successfully!), but I don't relish spending two-plus hours of my Sunday cooking food that I'm not going to start eating until the next day. I do love cooking at home, and I'm proud to say I've gotten really good at always having and eating leftovers so I don't have to buy lunches out — but I can do better.

Whenever it's my turn to cook dinner, I decide on a recipe, then go to the store and get everything I need. Since I live in a city and don't have a car, it's a lot easier to make a few short trips to the grocery each week rather than try and carry everything in one trip. But, unfortunately, I think this lack of planning is costing me money. Sometimes I end up with produce that goes bad, because I never got a chance to use all of it up. Other times, I end up making multiple meals in one week that use different meats, to try and change things up, which gets to be expensive.

But even with multiple weekly shopping trips, I can still do a better job of meal planning. One thing I've started doing is planning out dinners that use overlapping ingredients. This is really easy to do when you reference the same cookbook or blog for multiple recipes (my personal favorite is Budget Bytes), because often the writer will use the same set of ingredients several times over to illustrate all the different things you can do with them. By planning ahead and using up all my ingredients, I'm hoping to cut down my grocery spending by $10-15 a week.

2. Limit going to restaurants and bars to once a week

My boyfriend and I love going out to eat or grabbing a drink at a bar in our neighborhood — the downfall of many otherwise-frugal people, especially when you live somewhere as expensive as Manhattan. And this summer, we really haven't been cutting back. I don't want to cut out these nights altogether, but I do think we should make them less regular. Because even though we almost never go to "fancy" restaurants, it's too easy to spend $30+ on an entree and a drink or two. That's more than I spent making a one-pot pasta and an apple pie to feed four people last weekend (plus leftovers).

Right now, we typically go out to a restaurant twice a week, plus another night or two at a bar. Cutting this back to once a week should easily save me $100+ each month.

3. Find a new side gig

Unless you're already earning a six-figure salary, the easiest way to increase your savings is to increase your income. I currently spend about two-thirds of my work week as the managing editor of The Financial Diet, and the other third working on side projects (all of which are somehow writing/editing related). I'm very lucky in that I've been in a full-time freelancer for several years now, so I know how to find more work if I need to.

I typically find clients via freelancing platforms like Upwork or PeoplePerHour, and I've also had some luck on LinkedIn. I'm not looking to overwork myself, but adding an extra client is totally feasible with my current schedule. Hopefully I'll be able to add an extra income source in the next few weeks, and then direct all of those extra earnings to my savings. If your line of work doesn't lend itself to remote freelancing, I'd still definitely recommend finding a side hustle, like adding a part-time seasonal job for a temporary income boost.

4. Participate in a reading challenge

I am hardly the first person to tell you that reading is one of the best hobbies out there for saving money (especially if you're a slow reader, like I am). Even if you buy your books, you can spend hours entertaining yourself at home, in a coffee shop or in a park rather than out spending money elsewhere.

I'm challenging myself to do two things: read at least one book per week and buy no new books in order to do so.

That being said, I have too many books I've just never read. I love having a full bookcase and owning books I love — but that doesn't justify buying new books before I've even read all the ones on my shelves. So for the rest of this year, I'm challenging myself to do two things: read at least one book per week, and buy no new books in order to do so. (Library books are allowed!) This should help me spend a lot more time reading, and a lot less time spending money I'm trying not to elsewhere.

5. Walk (almost) everywhere

Finally, I definitely need to cut down on my transportation costs. I'm proud of how much I've been able to save on public transportation in the past year or so, after I finally stopped buying an unlimited monthly pass for the subway. I used to spend $120 a month for the unlimited pass, and now I spend only around $80 a month by paying only for individual rides. Since I work mostly remotely and typically don't have a commute, this makes total sense for me.

However, I also feel like I've given myself more license to take cabs or use ride-share apps whenever it's convenient. If I'm spending less on the subway, it's okay to spend more on other transportation, right? Wrong — I've definitely spent more on cabs this year than any other year in my adult life. I used to go completely without them, and it's time I get back to that. So, while it's still warm enough out, I'm going to start walking everywhere it makes sense. If it's not raining and I can get there in less than 45 minutes, I'm walking. Otherwise, subway it is!

If there's one thing each of these tactics has in common, it's planning ahead. I'm not saying there'll be no room in my life for spontaneity, but it'll be less frequent — and that way, it'll be even more special.

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