How to Develop the Habit of Spending Less Than You Make

If I could write just one thing about achieving financial freedom, it would be this–spend less than you make.

Like all habits that lead to financial freedom, spending less than you make is simple to understand, but hard to follow. For some reason, we always want more. At times in my life I’ve made very little, and other times I’ve made a lot, but at all times I’ve wanted just a wee bit more. I find it just as difficult to live below my means today as I did 15 years ago making about one-third of what I make today.

The problem isn’t about how much we make. We are the problem. And this is critical to understand because until you identify the problem, you can’t fix it. If you think the problem is your income, you’ll spend your energy trying to make more money. While there is obviously nothing wrong with making more money, I speak from experience when I say that making more money will not make spending less than you make any easier. So what will?

Before I attempt to answer that question, a word of caution. Spending less than you make is the single most important financial habit to develop. And as fate would have it, it is also the hardest. Consistently living below your means is the hardest thing to do in the world of personal finance.

As they say, if it were easy, everybody would do it. However, like any habit, once you start spending less than you make consistently, it does get easier. And with some determination, you can do it. So here are some tips to develop the habit of spending less than you make:

  • Distinguish between your wants and your needs: Let’s make this simple. Basic food, shelter and clothing represent your needs; everything else is a want. We’ve convinced ourselves that two cars, cable TV and eating out three times a week are, if not strictly speaking a need, essential to our way of living. They certainly have become standard for many in America. So has spending more than we make. I told you this wasn’t easy. To really distinguish between wants and needs, take a look at My Doomsday Fund. Imagining what you’d do in a real sustained financial crisis will help sort out the needs from the wants.
  • Understand what truly brings meaning to your life: When I was a teenager, my family didn’t have much money (you can read about my childhood here). And at one point our TV broke, and my parents couldn’t afford to get it fixed or replace it. Oh the misery. I literally went through withdraw symptoms for a week. I didn’t know what to do with myself. But after that first week without a TV, I didn’t miss it at all. I spent more time reading or outside and went to bed earlier. I ate less junk food, too. What I thought was so important in my life turned out not to be that important after all. We went a year without a TV and why we eventually replaced it I’ll never know. Living below your means is not just about distinguishing between wants and needs. It’s also about distinguishing between wants that really bring us fulfillment, and those that don’t. Learn the difference and you’ll spend less money.
  • Use trial periods to evaluate “what ifs”: What if you didn’t have a TV? What if you didn’t have a second (or third) car? What if you ate out just once a week? What if you took your lunch to work everyday? I’m a big fan of the trial period. Go without TV for a week or (God forbid!) a month to see if you really miss it. If it turns out that TV is not as important to you as you once believed, cancel the cable and sell the TV. Or don’t use your second car for a week. This will undoubtedly be inconvenient for many if not most of us, but is the second car really worth the payment, gas, insurance and repair bills? Trial periods are a great way to figure out what works for you, and they can be an effective way to convince a spouse to give something a try.
  • Learn how to fight with your spouse over money: If you share your finances with somebody, how they spend money is as important as how you spend money. Working together is critical. If you’re having some difficulty seeing eye to eye on money, maybe you need to learn how to fight with them over money.
  • Focus on your weaknesses: We all have spending weaknesses. For many it’s eating out or impulse buying. Whatever your weakness is, you need to identify it and address it. Monthly expenses fall into many categories that can seem overwhelming at times. But most of those categories don’t need to be monitored. They are either fixed expenses like the mortgage payment, or they are for something that’s not causing you to spend more than you make like the heating bill. Focus your effort and energy on those areas that are out of control.
  • Make mountains out of a molehills: In finances, everything counts, even the small stuff. One of the biggest mistakes made is ignoring the small expenses. This is one of the reasons I’ve started the “Buying the B Share” campaign here at The Dough Roller. Small expenses (or income) will add up to substantial sums given enough time. You don’t want to ignore the big expenses, to be sure, but keep an eye on the small expenses, too.
  • Get radical: If credit cards are causing the problem, either get rid of them or give them to somebody you trust to hold them for you. You need to remove temptation from your life. What matters most is results. Self-discipline and control will come later.

In two follow-up articles I’ll look at practical tips to lower your spending and some tools and resources to help you along the way. Until then, if you’ve tried other approaches to controlling your spending, please leave a comment so that we can all benefit from what’s worked for you.

Published or Updated: May 24, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. I really like the points you make. It’s so true that no matter how much you earn, you always wish for a little bit more! I think my biggest tip in this regard is that your mortgage or rent payment should be relatively small – for example, my husband and I bought our house right after we were married, but we’ve both gotten quite a few raises since. We’re not talking about moving, though, instead directing our additional income towards savings and paying off my student loans.

  2. The Dog says:

    Distinguishing between wants and needs is easy. Why it is so hard for Americans to understand the difference is unfathomable.

    There are only three true needs…Food, Shelter, and clothing.

    Everything else is a want.

    Without using credit and pre-paying for everything with cash, everybody can spend less than they make. It’s that simple.

    It’s not really rocket science. And it’s not like learning to live within your means and develop the “habit of spending less” is in the same league as quitting a heroin habit cold-turkey.

  3. Pinyo says:

    Great post. Although I wouldn’t word it as “fight with your spouse” since I’ll never win. I like to say “negotiate a diplomatic compromise.”

  4. Damn TVs says:

    Great post!

    I went from being the worst student in my school at the age of 12, to graduating with over a 4.0 in high school.

    The transformation began one day when my TV broke and I had nothing better to do than look at the pictures in my history book. Well, after looking at all the pictures, I started reading the stories that went along with them. To my surprise, the next day I knew all the answers to my teacherís questions. My teacher was blown away by my 180 degree change. Seeing that I could be a top performer opened my true potential. Mind numbing TV is worthless (except for a few educational programs).

    I live in the US, but was once told that Germanís call TVs ďthe stupid box.Ē I think they are on to something here.

  5. FourPillars says:

    Great post – I wish we could cut a few things from our lives but it’s tough to do sometimes.

    Mike

  6. Frank says:

    Nice post. I’ve recently learned to spend less than I earn, but the problem I am finding now is that I still spend too much. I need to create a bigger gap between spending and earning and that is where it is really getting tough for me.

  7. wealthy_1 says:

    One of the things I try to do now before I make a purchase is sleep on it. I give myself at least 24 hours to think about and to evaluate whether it is a need or a want.

  8. Minimum Wage says:

    My monthly (net) income is a little less than $900, I have student loan debt plus debt resulting from an extended uninsured illness and hospitalization, and I’m paying (below market) more than half my income on rent, plus I have an aggressive creditor who wants $250 a month. I’ve been selling off a smal;l coin collection to keep the creditor happy but now I’m out of coins.

    Dunno how to spend less than I earn given the above constraints.

  9. Jan says:

    $900 a month is not a lot of money in today’s society–why do you earn so little? Unless you’re a student (or disabled), you should really be earning more. Spending less than you make is not only about spending less, but also making more than you spend. If that means you need to get more education or work more than 40 hours a week, then that’s what it takes–“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

  10. debtbuster says:

    I love the tips you have given. I particularly struggle with the needs vs wants debates. It is so easy to persuade myself that wants are needs. Sounds easy to do but when you add in sales and credit cards. Bad mixture. I like wealthy_1’s idea. If you can live without it for a day or say a week. You probably don’t have to have it.

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  13. DIY Investor says:

    Great tips! I believe that a high school economics curriculum should teach kids that they are about to enter a world where some of the smartest most energetic people in the economy are going to come at them full force to create wants they have no idea they want. They will be bombarded 24/7 everywhere they turn (especially today with social media) with products and services to buy along with seemingly friendly, easy way to pay for the stuff. In effect it’s a war and it isn’t easy to fight back for many people until they have dug themselves into a huge hole.
    At the same time students should be taught the difference between getting their money to work for them rather than against them. Learn this and they can set themselves up for a nice retirement and money won’t be a worry over the years. Otherwise, worrying about money can consume a person’s life.

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