When I start to dial the phone number of Wendy Liebowitz, CFP and vice president of Fidelity Investments' Fort Lauderdale Investment Center, I start to feel the same combination of dread and embarrassment usually reserved for visiting the dentist knowing full well you haven't flossed since your last appointment. In an effort to recover my bank account's post-summer hangover, I decided to divulge my current financial situation to an expert in the hopes of learning a few simple and achievable saving tips that won't completely derail my lifestyle.
To paint you a picture, I'm a millennial with an entry-level job, student loans, and an overpriced Los Angeles apartment. Although I make it a point to bring my lunch to work every day and cook for myself most weeknights, my weekends typically consist of dinner and drinks out with friends, Lyft rides to avoid parking dilemmas and the responsibility of watching exactly how many cocktails I enjoy, and the occasional splurge on brunch, shopping, or a pedicure. Compared to my Instagram-famous counterparts, it seems as though live a relatively modest lifestyle, but Liebowitz is quick to point out that saving money often boils down to your standard of living.
"Are you living just to get by or are you living a little bit large," she asks.
To be completely honest, I'm not so confident that I've been living within my means as of late. Between weekend trips with my girlfriends, hosting visitors at my own home, and indulging in the merriment of summer one overpriced cocktail at a time, I've certainly overspent this summer. Fortunately, armed with the sage wisdom of a finance pro, I'm starting to get back on track (without eliminating all of my favorite pastimes). Here's exactly how I'm doing it.
Step 1: Evaluate Where I'm Spending My Money
"It doesn't hurt and it doesn't have to be a painful exercise either," Liebowitz says, somehow detecting my internal cringe at the thought of tracking my spending through the phone. Luckily, thanks to the beauty of online banking (and a number of money-saving apps), understanding exactly where you spend your money is a rather simple process. You can easily go online and take a quick scan of your transaction history over the last 90 days. Liebowitz recommends going a bit old-school and printing out your three-month statement, whipping out a highlighter, and trying to identify trends in your spending.
Look at how much money you're spending at restaurants compared to the grocery store, figure out how much you've been putting into home décor, and search for superfluous personal purchases.
If you find you've bee overspending on drinks, Liebowitz recommends playing detective and scoping out some new happy hours spots to hit instead paying full price for cocktails at a trendy new bar. If you're eating out too much, she suggests hosting more dinner parties at home. Offer to make the main dish and invite friends to bring drinks, sides, and dessert. If you find yourself splurging on home upgrades (we don't blame you), try thrifting or shopping more affordable brands.
Step 2: Identify Unnecessary Recurring Expenses
It's no secret that small day-to-day expenses really do add up over time. If you've ever so much as Googled easy ways to save money, you've likely been greeted with the tired tip of simply making coffee at home instead of spending $5 on a latte every day. Although this advice feels rather played, it leads into one of Liebowitz's biggest saving tips: identifying the recurring expenses that you can cut. Yes, a daily trip to a coffee shop may be one potentially unnecessary cost, but you can also think bigger.
Look at your monthly subscriptions and see if there are any that you really aren't getting the most out of. That means TV, movie, and music streaming subscriptions, cable costs, wine of month clubs, gym memberships, print magazines or newspapers, and the like. It's not about getting rid of all of your subscriptions, but it is about saving money by ridding yourself of monthly expenses that may not be necessary. "If you're using it and it provides value and joy to your life, you might want to continue it," Liebowitz assures me.
"By looking at the past three months of your credit card statements or your banking statements, you'll be able to identify those recurring expenses that could be cut." And with that, I'm dropping my cable bill and unsubscribing from MoviePass to start.
Step 3: Give Myself an Allowance
Although a bit rudimentary, I'm not above giving myself an allowance if it means getting my spending under control. Liebowitz recommends starting small and giving yourself a budget for what you can spend on the weekends or even during the entire week. Break it down by categories and give yourself a specific amount of money you know you can spend on going out with friends or on groceries. Once you've determined what you're comfortable spending, you'll have to fit your lifestyle into that budget, she explains.
"[Be] wise and smart with where you're spending each dollar."
That means if it's Saturday and you've already spent your allowance for going out on Friday, plan on staying in for the night instead of grabbing dinner or drinks out. Spend some much deserved time with yourself reading a book or indulging in a bit of self-care. If you're still craving time with friends or your S.O., buy a bottle of wine, order a pizza or prepare dinner on your own, and invite people over to your place. It's all about allocating your time and your resources, according to Liebowitz.
Step 4: Say No
Simple theory, difficult in practice, Liebowitz has tasked me with saying no to things that I truly can't afford. "It's okay to say no and miss out on things," she says. Although the Instagram world we live in would beg to differ, not giving into FOMO in order save isn't the end of the world; it's an opportunity to use your time wisely and really pick and choose the things you want to do and the people you want to see. "You don't have to feel obligated to go do things and that helps you save a lot—just to eliminate the sense of obligation," she says.
Step 5: Crunch the Numbers
According to Liebowitz, the main priority when saving is to build an emergency fund that holds enough money to cover six months of expenses. Although it sounds like a lofty task, she's got the saving tips to help you get there. It's a simple 50/15/5 rule, in which you spend no more than 50% of your income on the essentials (think rent and car insurance), put 15% of your income in retirement savings—yes, that 401(k) contribution really is worth it—and build your emergency fund with another 5% of your takehome pay (you'll hardly notice it's gone).
Anything that remains after you've accounted for these essentials and savings is fair game to spend on whatever makes you happy, whether that's building a vacation fund, investing, or simply going out on the town.
Of course, these are only guidelines. If you live in a city like New York, L.A. or San Francisco, you may have to pay more for the essentials, leaving less leftover for savings and fun money. However, no matter how outrageous your rent, with Liebowitz's simple saving tips, you can still stash away some extra cash and bounce back from an overindulgent summer. Trust me, it's far less painful than seeing the dentist after putting it off.