I HAD SOME DEBT in my early twenties and remember how foreboding it was, reading monthly bank statements, numbers that would never go down fast enough, even though I was buying secondhand flip-flops and all my travel / restaurant / fun money was being funneled to that cause. I didn’t square the debt overnight, but I learned how to tackle it without becoming a hermit or selling my plasma.
1. Track your expenses.
Set aside a solid couple of hours and write out every purchase made in the past month, including bills. If possible, save all receipts for a couple of weeks so every last coffee and tank of gas is accounted for.
Initially, this will lay out where all the money’s going, and make you more conscious of those “just this once” purchases that so easily add up. Keep up this habit. Save receipts, file credit card bills, use a money tracking app, or carry a notebook to scribble down daily purchases. In the face of small or impulsive purchases, having to record these indulgences can discipline you into not spending recklessly. Discipline, or shame. Either way, there’s money in your wallet.
Before mapping my budget, I hadn’t realized just how often I buy overpriced milk or eggs at the mini-mart in my building, just because I don’t feel like walking four blocks to the market. Lazy.
2. Get a gig on the side.
“I didn’t go to college for four years just to answer phones for a suburban moving company,” cry the wayward graduates of the 21st century. That may be so, but don’t turn your nose up at a paycheque. If you’re unemployed, don’t be too precious about what job you get. It’s easy to keep looking for something better.
If you are employed, but still floating in debt, pick up some work on the side, even if it means going back to the same movie theatre where you worked in high school.
Babysit, walk dogs, tutor a kid in math. Get some gigs through elance, sell your skills on fiverr, or publish your sickest travel journals on sites like Matador. Drop resumes at cafes and retailers. Don’t be too good for shift work. Plenty of awesome people have bussed tables and folded T-shirts in their day. Funnel all that side-gig cash directly into paying off your loan.
3. Don’t just spend less, buy less.
A $30 coat will never keep you warm. The cheapest hummus will always taste like stale hot dogs. The cheapest tea will taste like nothing. Dollar store band-aids never stick for long.
It took me years (and a lot of wasted money) for this lesson to sink in.
It’s easy to get lured into discount store prices. It’s tempting to rationalize that you’ll save tons of money buying jeans on the H&M sale racks, or household necessities at Dollarama. But cheap things aren’t cheap anymore when they’re so breakable and poorly made that they need constant replacing.
If a necessary purchase comes along, like a winter coat or, you know, food, take some time to weigh the cost vs quality. Buying one solid pair of running shoes will be a wiser investment than a cheap pair that needs replacing every time it rains.
4. Get help.
You might curse the banks for those monthly statements in judgement-red ink, but they can help your cause. Many banks offer free financial consulting and planning services to customers.
For years I avoided my bank’s customer services. I’d heard stories of young folk getting the fire and brimstone talk about retirement plans and why you needed to start yours 10 years ago.
Last month I bit the bullet and met with a consultant, who was young, hilarious, and removed some outdated fees on my account that I didn’t know about. Banks aren’t that scary, gang.
Public libraries and university career centers also offer free financial consulting. They’re handy resources for the anti-bank, and for those wanting a second or third opinion.
5. Reassess your bills.
I recently spent six hours on the phone with a certain Canadian cable provider, trying to cobble together a basic TV and internet package. We were paying for a lot of junky add-ons (2 gajillion movie channels, all playing Predator) packaged with the stuff we really want (Al Jazeera and the History Channel). After spending half the day on hold, I was able to trim my monthy bill by getting rid of the services I don’t use.
It’s time-consuming, but man is it worth it to figure out the cheapest and most efficient packages for phone, cable, and internet. If your provider isn’t helpful, shop around.
On the topic of bills, anyone on a budget should limit their plastic. Pare down to one credit card, and research the heck out of interest rates before signing on. Any other incentives like airmiles or Dunkin Donuts coupons are secondary.
6. Trim the luxuries.
I’m not just talking about weekend ski trips and mani-pedis. It’s time to get real with the budget. Really real. Take that shopping list and a fat red pen, and slash as much as you can. Quit drinking. Quit smoking. Stop eating meat. Brew your own lattes. Bake your own power bars. Stop, oh please stop, buying bottled water if your tax dollars already help make local water potable.
Does that sound joyless? Monastic? Impossible? Perhaps, but the costs of these things do add up hugely.
If you can’t go cold turkey on all the indulgences, carve out a little monthly budget for them. Or, if you’re so inclined, bum cigarettes, suck up to baristas, and get dudes to buy you drinks. I don’t recommend this option, but oh, it’s been done.
7. Split your costs.
It should be a no-brainer that your sewing / yoga / food photography room can be rented out and bring in some cash for the monthly rent. But, if you don’t have the space for a roommate, there are still ways to share expenses. Ask your neighbors to share a wifi account and split the bill. Share one Netflix account with a buddy or two. Get a family cellphone plan with a group of friends. You text each other constantly anyway.
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Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.