Not long ago, I joined a popular weight management program to help me shed some post-baby pounds. (No comment on the fact that my “babies” were almost entering their double-digit years!) As I started learning techniques for shedding extra weight, I noticed something interesting. As my weight went down, my husband’s and my savings balance started to ratchet up. Without really thinking about it, I had started applying my weight-loss lessons to my family’s budget.
I’m not the only person to make the connection between weight management and money management. Alice Wood of Naperville, Ill., joined the same weight-loss program I did to drop the extra 11 pounds that had crept slowly over her middle-aged body during a stressful time in her life. As the numbers on her scale went down, she noticed that her overwhelming credit card debt slimmed down, too. Wood even went on to write an interesting book, Wealth Watchers, based on her experience saving money.
The good news that both Alice and I learned: You can apply classic weight-loss techniques to your financial waste. Here are some examples:
- It works for losing weight: Maintain daily and weekly goals of how much you can eat in order to lose weight. Stay accountable.
- It works for saving money: Keep weekly or even daily goals for how much you can afford to spend in key budget categories. The big lesson here: Tracking your budget just once a month—particularly at the end of the month—is not enough.
In our family, we’ve broken our key spending categories (groceries, eating out, and so on) into weekly, instead of monthly, dollar goals. We review them every weekend (and periodically during the week when we’re thinking of making a purchase) to be sure we’re on track. We use a desktop version of Quicken software to manage our family budget, but other options include Mint.com, Mvelopes.com, and YouNeedaBudget.com. As you get more comfortable keeping a detailed budget, you’ll start to see places you can cut expenses. Extra money can go to savings, paying off debt, or other ways to boost your credit.
- It works for losing weight: If you bite it, write it. Keep a daily food journal.
- It works for saving money: If you spend it, write it. For several months, as you work on getting your family budget in line, keep an ongoing daily log of your spending. Just keep a little notebook in your purse or use the notes function on your smartphone. This simple practice helps you pay attention to how you’re using—or wasting—your money.
- It works for losing weight: You can eat almost anything you want, as long as you budget the calories into your food plan.
- It works for saving money: You can still buy your family’s favorite things, as long as you budget for them. Don’t be tempted to go cold turkey and cut out all fun spending. You and your spouse will end up feeling dissatisfied, which can lead to binge spending later.
Also, keep in mind that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all family budget. No one can or should tell you how to spend your own money. If you love your morning coffee from the corner espresso shop, you don’t have to give it up—no matter what money experts suggest. Instead, save money on something that’s less important to you than coffee. Take your lunch to work a few times a week instead of eating out daily. Or cut back a little on your coffee and lunches out if you’d rather pay for a haircut and coloring at a nice salon. It’s your call.
- It works for losing weight: Spontaneity is out, at least for a while. Plan ahead when you eat away from home, deciding in advance how many calories or what food you’ll eat.
- It works for saving money: Same deal: Spontaneous consumption of money (a.k.a. spending) is not your friend when you’re tuning up your budget.
Eating out is actually is a perfect example. Many weight-loss programs suggest checking the menu of your favorite restaurant and deciding in advance what you’ll eat so you can estimate calories. Our family has started doing the same thing. However, instead of just checking calories on a restaurant’s menu, we check prices. Then we estimate what our family might spend on meal, and decide if we can afford that particular dinner spot on our weekly budget.
We might also do a quick advance search for online coupons (a great place to check is Restaurant.com) for the restaurant we’re considering. We often give this Internet search task to our kids—they’re getting good at it! Finally, we decide in advance on some strategic cuts: If we all skip ordering sodas, we have room in our budget for dessert or pricier entrees. To be honest, it’s taking our kids a while to warm up to this part of our approach, but they’re learning.
What about your family? Are there any dieting techniques you could adapt to your family budget or debt-cutting plan? Share your ideas with us.