Pop quiz: Any idea how much you spend a month on housing, food and entertainment?
22% of adults don’t know how much they’re spending on the big three: housing, food and entertainment, and the surest way to waste money is be unaware of what you’re spending.
So that’s around one in five people who don’t know.
And what I want to talk about today are some common money leaks that are draining people’s finances. First on the list is failing to track what you spend. If you don’t know where the holes are, you can’t plug the leaks! Once you understand your budget and figure out ways to save, that extra cash could be the money you need to break the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck, save more and invest for your future.
So what are we wasting our money on?
First, your smart phone. A lot of us are paying far more than we have to. The fix is to look at your usage and be sure you’re not paying for minutes and data you’re not using. When adjusting your plan, give yourself a little wiggle room to avoid expensive overage charges, and track your usage the first month or two as you adjust to the change. There’s a free app called Onavo Extend that not only tracks your usage but also compresses your data, which can help you get up to five times more out of your plan.
Here’s another common money leak: All the stuff you have collecting dust in storage. The Self Storage Association says there’s about 7 square feet of self storage for every person in the nation and that “it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing.” That’s an awful lot of cookie jars collecting dust.
Storage companies are clever too. They frequently offer the first month of storage for free, playing on your good intentions to sell or donate your extra stuff within the first thirty days. But then one month becomes three and then six and before you know it, it’s been a decade and you’ve paid $15,000 to “save” money by keeping the $700 dining set you put in storage. This “first month free” approach is the same tactic drug dealers use to lure customers.
It’s a loser’s game. Don’t get hooked on storage! Get rid of that stuff! Have a yard sale, sell it on Ebay or consign it at a local shop.
Also, remember that you can donate furniture and gently used clothing to charity for a tax write-off. You’re frequently better off renting a dumpster for a one-time $300 fee than paying through the nose for years on end to hold onto stuff that you really don’t need.
Speaking of things you don’t need, put this in your pipe and smoke it: A pack of cigarettes costs up to $14.50 in Manhattan. Not only that, but smoking can significantly increase the cost of life and health insurance. And you’ll pay more for homeowners and auto insurance. In his book, a Duke University doctor estimates the true cost of smoking at $183,000 for a 24-year-old man over a lifetime. That’s not chump change. Ditch the bad habits and put that money toward your nest egg.
And I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but I can’t mention retirement and not say it again: If your employer matches your 401(k) contributions, do your very best to make the most of that match. It’s free money and it adds up to big money over time.
Any other tips?
This last one: Energy savings. Everyone knows to turn the T.V. off when you’re not watching it and to hit the lights when you leave a room. But what about all those gadgets and gizmos that consume standby power when they’re not in use? They’re called “vampire electronics” because they’re constantly sucking up energy and draining your wallet in the process. Electronics with a clock or that operate by remote are typical culprits. Of the total energy used to run home electronics, 75% is consumed when they are actually turned off, according to the EPA. That adds up to an extra $10 billion in energy costs. Claim your piece of that $10 billion. The obvious defense is to pull the plug. You could also buy a device to do it for you, such as a Smart Power Strip—it’s $26 to $54 at smarthomeusa.com—and given the savings you’ll see, it will pay for itself within a few months.
Mellody is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News.