We're Getting Our Financial Act Together in 2021— Step 1: Trimming Expenses
The writer and her husband found ways to lower spending by $12,800 over a year
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series by Andrea King Collier about how she and her husband are finding ways to manage their money better before turning 65 later this year.
My husband, Darnay, and I turned 64 at the end of 2020. He's an elementary school teacher; I'm a freelance writer. It occurred to me that we should be doing some serious financial planning before we hit 65.
Once we started digging in, it became clear that this was going to be harder than we thought.
We have a pretty good handle on our future pensions and our retirement savings. But we've been pretty clueless about our current and future day-to-day expenses, health expenses (including Medicare) and how we'd get our three-floor, 80-year-old Michigan home ready for us to age in place.
So, we're embarking on a four-step plan to get our financial acts together. In this article, I'll tell you how we're taking Step 1: trimming our expenses. Based on our conversations with a financial adviser and some fairly simple strategies, I think we just might be able to cut our spending by about $12,800 this year.
My husband and I knew that we weren't ready to retire at 65. But we thought we might want to scale back, so we'd have an easier time once we do stop working full-time.
In January, we gave ourselves three months to do a deep dive on all of our "fluid" expenses to see what we could pare down for the long haul. Once we started digging in, it became clear that this was going to be harder than we thought.
That's when I called a financial and budgeting coach to guide us and act as a referee, if we needed it.
She told us to "get out all your financial statements" for the past 18 months, so we could see where our money was going. That meant poring over our checking accounts, debit and credit card statements and cash apps like Paypal.
Darnay and I decided we'd set ourselves a goal of shaving at least $1,000 off our combined monthly expenses, or $12,000 a year. Our adviser challenged us to dig deeper.
'You can always scale back," she said.
We began by looking at our automobile expenses, since cars are typically a big-ticket spending item.
We're essentially a two-car family (we recently sold a third car that was sitting in the garage and didn't get driven). One of our cars is my husband's BMW; he drives it to work when he is teaching in person, and to the golf course. We've had it for 15 years and it's probably on its last legs, but this car is fully paid for. I drive a 2018 Mercedes Benz C300 and have just a few payments left. Once it's paid off, that will add $500 to the money that won't be going out each month.
We both need our own wheels, so getting rid of one car and the associated costs wasn't an option for us.
AAA estimates it costs about $8,500 a year to maintain a car you drive 15,000 miles or less, including gas and routine maintenance, tires and insurance. During the lockdown, we've been driving a lot less than that.
We went from spending $100 a week for both cars to $100 every two-to-three weeks, since we're both working from home more. That means we're saving $200 a month or more, which would add up to $2,400 over 12 months. I realize this savings might shrink some when things go back to normal, probably in the fall.
All told, we went from spending $350 a month on car insurance to $150 a month.
At some point in the next 12 months, we'll probably buy a used car to replace our older one. But when we do, we'll pay cash out of our savings to avoid car loan payments.
To save on our car insurance, we raised our deductibles (the money paid out-of-pocket before coverage kicks in). And we dropped the insurance on the garaged car when we sold that one. All told, we went from spending $350 a month on car insurance to $150 a month. That adds up to a savings of $2,400 a year.
Like many families, we spend a lot on food. We always have. And the pandemic didn't help. Although we saved some money by not eating out in restaurants, much of that ended up going to pay for the carry-out we bought for three or four meals a week.
Also, during the lockdown, going to the grocery store was my one guilty pleasure. But along with it came big bills.
In 2019, we had averaged about $500 per month in groceries, not including the cost of laundry and cleaning supplies. Around April 2020, however, our monthly supermarket tab had jumped to $800+. Part of that was our spending a ton on sugary soft drinks every week.
Fortunately, in the first quarter of 2021, we spent $100 to $150 a month less. The reason: Last year, we'd apparently been buying more wine than we could drink (don't pandemic judge me), but since we went into 2021 with so much stockpile, I haven't bought a single bottle this year.
Darnay and I agreed to set a goal of going back to $500 per month on groceries and seeing how it goes. If we can do it, we'll be saving $400 a month or about $4,800 over a year.
You'd think things like paying for broadband and cable and streaming services would be among the easiest places to trim the fat. Over the years, our monthly cable bill has grown constantly, and it's really ballooned with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney + and Hulu.
Internet, Cable and Streaming
And during the pandemic, when my husband and I were working from home and our eight-year-old grandson was doing his virtual schooling here, we boosted our bandwidth to its maximums.
All in all, we've been spending $350 a month on internet and cable. Since we couldn't agree on how to cut this cost, our money pro suggested we revisit our cable bill in a few months. But she also suggested we call our cable and internet provider to see if there were any promotional deals. We plan to do that in May when it's time to renegotiate our package.
Our goal: saving $100 a month or $1,200 a year.
Cell Phone Bills
To be honest, our cell phone bills have been out of control.
So much of my business as a journalist revolves around my ability to be connected and always on. So, between unlimited data for two phones, a mobile hotspot fee, IPad charges and the purchase of two top-of-the-line smartphones with souped up memory, we've been paying — gulp — $350 a month.
We printed out all our monthly cell phone bills and I sent a copy to our financial expert to go over with me. We went over everything line by line. To my surprise, we found that Darnay and I were actually paying for things we didn't use or need anymore.
"Those five-dollar and ten-dollar shots to your money add up fast."
So, I disconnected my tablet from my cell phone plan and instead connected it to our internet at no extra charge. I cancelled my mobile hotspot at $20 a month, too, as well as the extra SIM card that was storing my data but costing me $20 a month.
We also decided we didn't really need to replace our phones every 12 months, as we've been doing, and then rolling the cost into our cell bills.
All of these changes add up to a savings of $150 a month, or $1,800 over the next 12 months.
Memberships and Subscriptions
Finally, our adviser said, we needed to come up with a list of all our subscriptions, memberships and monthly fees for apps. This was a hard one for me.
I have a lot of subscriptions to magazines, newspapers and satellite radio. Most are tied to my work. So, we decided to table these cuts until 2022.
But when we do tackle this knotty area next year, we'll probably be trimming several hundred dollars a month.
"You have to look at each one of those fees and subscriptions as a part of the whole," our budget coach advised. "Those five-dollar and ten-dollar shots to your money add up fast."
She's right. I stopped adding up potential savings when I got to $400 a month.
Our financial adviser also suggested we try an app called TrueBill, to manage subscriptions and renewal dates. I immediately signed us up.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line: If we stick to our plans, these cuts and adjustments could save us approximately $12,800, which is $800 more than the original goal we'd set with our money coach.
Darnay and I are very excited. Frankly, I thought it would be harder to get rid of things we thought we were sure we needed. And we were both surprised that we could come to agreement on what would stay and what would go.
"You two did great work and this is probably something you want to review every six months for the next year or two," our adviser told us.
And I look forward to the next three months, when we'll be tackling money decisions about everything related to our home — paying off the mortgage, repairs, replacements and remodeling, We'll also be scrutinizing our maintenance costs, both inside and outside. I can't wait to get that financial house in order.