Articles about cutting costs like to make big promises. One headline might assure readers they will save $1,300—only to repeat (for the eleventy-billionth time) that skipping your daily cold brew adds up over time. Another will feature an infuriatingly young person talking about how they saved $100,000 in a year—but the body of the article will eventually reveal that the intrepid saver has wealthy and generous parents.
What’s a budgeter to do in this sea of unhelpful hints?
The basics of finance do not change, which is part of the reason why annoying advice is so prevalent. But that doesn’t mean you’ve heard all of the truly effective budgeting hacks. The following pieces of advice can be tried easily, don’t require a major life change (or Ma and Pa Moneybags), and will make an actual difference in your finances.
Look at your food budget holistically
Restaurant dining is a common target for standard budgeting advice. And it is true that restaurant food “is consistently marked up 300%,” according to Carly Hill of DebtFreeMom.co. But that doesn’t mean you have to swear off dining out to save money.
“Look at your food budget holistically instead of in isolation based on where you spend it,” Hill advises. “Adding $20 to your grocery budget and decreasing $60 from your restaurant spending results in exactly the same amount of food.”
For example, increasing your grocery budget slightly could help you afford better quality ingredients or more conveniently packaged food. (How many times have you ordered carryout because you couldn’t face the prospect of 20 minutes of chopping vegetables?) This can help you feel more satisfied with the food you have at home.
“Do not stop eating out!” Hill says. “Just make a small shift that will have a large impact.”
Audit your bills
Recurring expenses become background noise in our financial lives, and it’s easy to forget about them. That’s why financial expert Nadia Vanderhall recommends periodically calling your service providers to see if you could lower your bills. “Do you need as much car insurance coverage as you have?” Vanderhall says. “Running a quote every few months might save you money.”
Vanderhall also suggests contacting your credit card company to get your interest rate lowered or have late fees waived. It’s amazing what you might get just by asking nicely.
Teresa Mears, CEO of Living on the Cheap , also suggests regularly auditing your subscriptions. “Are you really using all those things or can you get a cheaper plan?” Mears says.
And when it comes to auditing your subscriptions, Kara Perez, founder of Bravely Go, has an elegant hack for ensuring you don’t keep paying for something you don’t use. “Every time you sign up for a subscription, immediately add to your calendar a date for one week before it renews next year, to review and see if you still want it.”
This reminder will ensure you don’t keep paying for something just because you forget to cancel in time before it renews automatically.
Don’t deny, delay
There’s a reason they call it retail therapy: it feels great to buy things! While typical financial advice tends to shame shoppers for enjoying a little Amazonian pick-me-up, debt freedom expert Jackie Beck doesn’t believe you should stop buying fun things altogether. Instead, she suggests waiting 24 hours before making an unplanned purchase.
“Chances are 24 hours later you won’t even remember the item you’d considered buying,” Beck says.
If your inner Veruca Salt stomps her foot at the idea of having to wait, this delaying tactic may soothe her: add the impulse item to a spending file rather than buying it. Creating a file of things that caught your interest can satisfy your urge to splurge, because you know you can revisit the list periodically. If you still want it after the initial impulse has passed, you can feel more confident about spending the money.
Guard your payment information
Financial experts used to tell compulsive spenders to freeze their credit cards in a block of ice. This advice sounds quaint, considering how e-tailers and digital wallets now “helpfully” remember our payment information.
Unfortunately, the increase in digital payment methods means we all need to be more wary about where our payment information is stored. Take some time to unlink your payment information where you can so you no longer have the ability to make purchases with the click of a button.
Hacking your budget
There’s no magic trick to saving money, no matter what breathless financial headlines might promise. But making small tweaks to your habits and mindset can help you find reasonable and sustainable ways to reduce your spending—without having to give up your avocado toast.
Emily Guy Birken is a Milwaukee-based personal finance writer. Her books include The 5 Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work for You, and End Financial Stress Now.