budgeting

What common expense busts our budgets?

Jan. 23, 2014 at 6:08 PM ET

When you think about budget breakers, do you think of things like vacations and big-screen TVs? While those surely can be expensive purchases, from my experience of working with folks on their finances, I’ve found it’s the relatively smaller category of convenience food that does the most damage to our finances on a regular basis.

Wondering where your money goes every month? Those drive-thru stops can add up. Start by tracking your food expenses.
SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images
Those drive-thru stops can add up and dent your budget. Try tracking your convenience food purchases to see where you can save.

Drive-thru orders, take-out meals and regular dinners out can easily get out of control, shrinking our pocketbooks and expanding our waistlines. Yikes.

The first step in getting a handle on any area of our finances is to know what we’re dealing with. So if you suspect this is a problem area, go through your food expenses for the past few months, adding up in categories for groceries, meals and snacks on the go (drive-thru lunch, take-home Chinese, coffee and bagel), and meals out, to come up with a monthly average. 

Are you comfortable with those numbers? If not, where do you see the biggest issue? Perhaps going out to dinner is your entertainment for the month and that’s not something you want to cut, but the quickie meals are more frequent or expensive than you’d like them to be. If you decide to cut back somewhere, set a goal for how much, and what you’ll do with the savings as a motivator.

Next, evaluate what kind of time you have to invest in making a change, and who you can enlist to help. You may be able to squeeze out an hour of quality time with your spouse on the weekend, even though it’s spent in the grocery store. Do you have teens who might do the shopping or start dinner for you, even if it’s for an extra bonus in their allowance?

Finally, in the rush of the day, who are you? I can have an idealized vision of myself as someone who will enthusiastically come home from work at 7:30 p.m. and cook a lovely meal for my family, or I can know myself and admit that there’s no way I’m going to feel like spending an hour to cook — I’m stopping for something on the way home. When I’m conscious of that, I can plan accordingly.

Find more meal-related budget tips here.

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