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Everything the Internet told you about Saving Money is wrong

How do you save more money? This is an age old question, and everyone has a different answer. You can decrease your rent, get rid of your car payment. What about increasing your income, or getting a second job? I’m to be honest with you: How do you save more money? is a terrible question to ask. What you should be asking is What is the most effective way to save more money? Because not all strategies are created equal, and the advice you’ve heard about saving money probably isn’t good either.

Not all “Saving Money” Strategies are Created Equal

We need to get this out of the way as soon as possible: not every strategy to save money is effective. In fact, some of the more mainstream advice is so ineffective that I would consider it “wasted effort.”

I got the term “wasted effort” from my college Calculus II professor. He said that “wasted effort” was when you performed an entire page of arithmetic, only to arrive at the wrong answer. He would be forced to give you no credit, because “who deserves credit for the wrong answer.”

Anyway, I want you to try and forget your preconceived notions about saving money. In fact, throw them out the window. Most of the advice you’ve received is idealistic in nature. There is nothing wrong with idealistic advice, except for the fact that it doesn’t give you actionable advice to help save money right now.

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Well, we’re going to go over a few methods that you can try this week, even today, to help you save money. And the goal will be… to save $500 this month!

Sound tough? I want you to try and save $500 this month. That’s… a lot of money. How much? $500 a month is enough to completely fund your Roth IRA. It’s enough to help pay off your high interest credit card debt. It’s enough to have a significant impact on your finances. Plus, it’s difficult.

I don’t believe in setting easy goals. So let’s do this. But first, we’ll start with what wont work, at least now.

Savings Strategies that Don’t Work

I’m going to characterize the savings strategies that don’t work as the “big ones.” Cutting these big expenses is very difficult, if not impossible. At least in the short term. Yes, you can reduce these expenses over time, but you aren’t going to make a lot of progress in a month, let alone a week or even a day.

The other thing is that these “big” strategies require you to spend money, sometimes a lot. While it might make sense to spend $5,000 to save an extra $500 per month, who actually has an extra $5,000 laying around for this purpose? Most people don’t. So we’ll go through them, and see why they are so ineffective for the average person.

“Get a cheaper apartment!”

I see this advice thrown around all the time — and I hate it. On the surface, it’s good advice. Rent is usually your biggest expense. So if you can cut your biggest expense by 10 or even 15 percent, that’s a huge gain for you.

What’s the problem? Raise your hand if you can cut your rent by 15% right now. *crickets*. The fact is that you can’t easily decrease your rent. You can go to your property manager and ask for a decrease, but they’ll tell you to pound sand.

You can also find another apartment, that should be easy, right? Just find a cheaper apartment, pay your lease termination fee, pay movers to transport your stuff, pay your security deposit, first and last month’s rent. Like I said, easy.

In the end, you’ll usually pay 2x your monthly rent to terminate your lease early (non-refundable), $500 – $1,000 to pay movers, and then about 3x your monthly rent for a security deposit/first/last month’s rent. If your old rent was $1,000 and your new rent is $800, congratulations! You’ve spent $5,400 for the privilege of saving an extra $200 per month. 

Presumably if you had an extra $5,4000 sitting around, you probably wouldn’t even have this problem to begin with.

“Get rid of your Car Payment”

Reddit is very guilty of this advice, especially those on r/personalfinance. “What, your car payment is $300? Sell it, and buy a $2,000 beater off CraigsList. What can go wrong?”

This isn’t terrible advice either. Just sell your car and get a cheaper one. What can go wrong? Ignoring the part where it’s going to take you 2-4 weeks to sell your car (at least), we have a big elephant in the room: most people are underwater on their car loans.

Being “underwater” on your loan beans you owe more than the vehicle is worth. For example, you might owe $10,000 on a car that is worth $8,000. That means if somebody buys the car from you, you need to come up with an extra $2,000 so you can give the title to the person who bought your car.

zero day finance bmw save money

Let’s say you decide to sell your underwater car to save some money. We’ll assume that you’re only underwater by $1,000. What can go wrong? Well, to sell your car, you’ll need to come up with $1,000 to pay off the loan. Then you need to purchase a cheap used car and register it. We’ll say that only costs you $3,250 ($3,000 used car price + $250 in registration / taxes).

You’ve now spent a total of $4,250 to get rid of your newer car, for the privilege to drive an old junker, and eliminate your car payment. Is this worth it? In reality, probably not. If you had $4,250 lying around, you could have used that to pay off a lot of your car loan, and could have refinanced to lower your monthly payment.

“Get Another Job”

I’m going to ignore the typical advice of “increase your salary” because that involves job hunting. Job hunting is time consuming. You should expect it to take at least a few months so you can find the right fit and salary. Instead, we’ll briefly talk about taking on a second job.

This is actually not bad advice at all. Most of us work 9-5, M-F. That leaves plenty of time during the nights and weekends to wait tables, be a bartender, or take the graveyard security shift.

This sounds exciting and worth it, right? Maybe, maybe not. The good news is you can get a second part-time job pretty easily. The bad part? You’ve now traded the majority of your personal time for an extra $500 – $1,000 per month.

Who here would trade all of their personal “alone time” to make some extra money? Honestly, there are a lot of people who would do this. If you are one of those, definitely consider getting another job. But, if you don’t want to spend your entire life working, getting another job just isn’t realistic.

Finally, Let’s Start Saving Money

We’ve gone over the traditional “advice” to help you save money. At this point, we know that advice is well meant, but it’s simply ineffective. We want actionable ways to save money now, not ways that require thousands of dollars right now to save a few hundred per month in the future.

Find the Little Expenses

I’m definitely a contrarian here, but go over your budget. Go over your spending. And find those smaller expenses. These are the expenses that we will cut to start saving money right now.

Now, everyone’s budget is different. And not even a little different, completely different. We’ll all have similar big expenses: rent, car payment, etc. But reducing those expenses is tough, so we’ll focus on the small ones. Another reason that I focus on these small expenses is they don’t require you to spend money. If you want to cut your rent, you’ve gotta spend thousands — unacceptable!

Here is a list of common small expenses that most of us will have in our monthly budget:

  1. groceries
  2. work lunches
  3. takeout / eating out
  4. coffee
  5. utilities (this is usually very hard to reduce without spending money)
  6. cable / internet
  7. gasoline (this is usually very hard to reduce, you’ve gotta drive to work)
  8. car insurance
  9. shopping
  10. entertainment (unless your entertainment budget is excessive, keep enjoying your life)
  11. cell phone bill (tough to decrease the bill without paying cancellation fees)

I could go on, but this list should be pretty comprehensive. Notice that some of these small expenses are definitely not suitable for reduction. For example, you can’t call your power company and ask for a better rate. Well, you can, but it probably wont work (you can always try).

Groceries

Most people spend a ton of money on food. Not a literal ton (2,000 pounds), but a ton ($250+ per person). I’ve talked to at least 15-20 people about their food budget, and the general consensus is that most families spend $200 – $250 per person per month on groceries.

Remember, that’s just groceries. For a a family of four, they’re going to spend $800 – $1,000 on groceries, per month. Of course your mileage may vary, but we can do better. But how?

My favorite solution to this is Meal Prep Sunday. They are a community on Reddit that will help you cheaply plan your meals for the entire week. Not only will you eat healthier, but the food will be tasty, and you’ll save a lot of money. A lot of the people who actually do Meal Prep Sunday spend closer to $100 – $150 per person per month on groceries.

zero day finance save money groceries

Work Lunches

Work lunches are a touchy subject. Eating out with your coworkers can be an effective way to get promoted. It can also be a very effective way to eat unhealthy food while spending a ton of money.

Let’s say that you eat out for lunch at work 8 times a month (twice a week). I’m guessing most work lunches are about $10. That means you are spending $80 per person per month to eat out while at work.

You can always try and tone this down to eating out once a week. Maybe you can’t because of your company culture. Regardless, this is an area where you can save $20 to $30 per person per month, and it does add up.

Takeout / Eating Out

This one hits home for me. I used to get takeout 3x a week. After spending $250 per month on my groceries. Why? Laziness, mostly. In my area, takeout is about $20 per person per meal.

If you get takeout or eat out 3x a week, you’re spending $240 per person per month to get takeout or eat out. Remember, you’re already buying groceries and going out for lunch. What I did was tone this down to 1x per week, and and made an event out of it. I would get pizza with Zero Day Fiancée on Friday, and we’d watch a movie. Win-win!

We ended up saving almost $250 a month doing this.

Coffee

Please, don’t yell at me. I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know how addicting all that caffeine is. However, I know that my dad spends $100 on coffee per month. He goes to Starbucks after lunch every day at work, and gets his fix.

I’m not trying to separate you from your coffee, but we can learn something from my mom. My mom makes ice coffee the night before, and brings it in a glass to work in the morning, then tosses it in the fridge. In the middle of the day, she drinks her ice coffee.

What does this mean? Her coffee costs more like $1 instead of $5, which means she’s spending $80 less than my dad every month. And I’m pretty sure she enjoys her coffee just as much as my dad does. Actually, that’s a lie. My dad loves coffee, so my mom will never enjoy it as much as my dad.

zero day finance save money coffee

Cable / Internet

Spending a ton of money on your cable / internet bill is really easy. But so is saving money. I used to have Comcast and paid $110 per month for a 100 Mbps connection, and 240 channels in HD with a DVR. After my deal was up, the cost shot up to $160 per month, unacceptable!

I tried calling Comcast, and they dropped my bill to $150 per month, a minor win. I then called Verizon, and got Internet only for $75 per month. Within 2 days, I had the new equipment installed, and everything was working. I cut my Internet bill by $75 with a 5 minute phone call, and 2 days waiting for hardware to ship.

Car Insurance

When was the last time you called other car insurance companies to get quotes on your vehicle? *crickets*. This is something that we hate doing, but is totally worth it.

So, I’m a 27-year-old male with a perfectly clean driving record, and I own a 3-year old car that isn’t underwater. Yes, it may be a Golf GTI (turbocharged 210 horsepower hatchback, yay!), but it isn’t crazy.

The first few insurance companies quoted me $300 per month. In fact, 5 or 6 companies quoted me that much. That’s ridiculous, in fact, it’s unacceptable. I called Geico, and my rate for the same insurance coverage was $100 per month. Cha ching! I just saved $200 a month by switching to Geico.

It really pays to shop around.

Shopping

Shopping used to be my Kryptonite. I used to have a terrible spending problem. In 2016, I spent every single dollar I earned, and most of it went to food and then shopping. A rough estimate puts my old monthly shopping expenses at $1,000 per month.

I have no idea what I was buying. Some clothing, random stuff, etc. At the end of the day, I don’t really remember what I bought. Most of it was to make me feel better. Swiping my card and getting something new made me feel happy.

I obviously don’t know what your situation is, but pick a reasonable budget for shopping, and do your best to stick to it.

zero day finance save money shopping

It’s Time to Save $500 Per Month

I hope you’ve found a few areas in your budget that you can cut, even a little bit. When I was growing up, I remember watching those Jimmy Fund commercials in the movie theatre. Their tagline was “a little bit in abundance is a lot.”

This phrase is so true. If you can identify a few areas of your budget and save $25 here, $50 there, you’ll hit $500 in monthly savings in no time.

If you know me, I love using examples. I personally think they are the best way to show how effective a strategy can be, so let’s go through an example. We have your average U.S. household: $53,000 income, and let’s say no children. They save 5% of their income (about $200 per month), and save the rest. They want to save more money, so they decided to look at their expenses.

Food

Our hypothetical family currently spends $500 per month on groceries. They decide to visit Meal Prep Sunday, and cut their monthly grocery bill to $400 (savings: $100).

They do a very good job and never eat out for lunch. Unfortunately, they go out to dinner 3x per week. They don’t go to fancy restaurants, but 12x dinners at $50 apiece is $600. They decided to cut their monthly eating out to 9x per month (savings: $150).

Cable / Internet

This family is like me, and they don’t drink coffee. However, they love watching TV. Their cable bill is $180 (this is what my mom currently pays). They decide to cut the cord, and found an Internet-only provider that costs $70 per month. But, they like TV, so they pay for Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, which costs $40 per month (savings: $70).

Car Insurance

Next, they get additional car insurance quotes for their 2 vehicles. To get their business, State Farm offers a quote that is $30 cheaper, but involves inconsequentially decreasing their coverage (savings: $30).

Shopping

They don’t really have a shopping budget, so no extra savings there. However… cell phones! Their contract with Verizon is up. They decide to switch to Sprint, dropping their cell phone bill from $120 to $60 (savings: $60).

At the end of this experiment, our family didn’t end up saving $500. They saved $360 per month. It’s a great start, but they didn’t end up hitting their goal. Now all of this was just an example, I could have added 2 children and that would easily push their savings higher.

I could have said they got rid of their shopping budget, or completely eliminated eating out. But that isn’t realistic, and I don’t want to give you worthless advice. What we have here is actionable advice that you can implement right now.

Save Money Now, and Later

Yes, your end goal should be to save as much money as possible. This means minimizing your rent (if it’s too expensive) and getting rid of your car payments (maybe pay down the loan faster?). But those take time, and I want you to start saving money right now.

The absolute best way to start saving money right now is to identify small expenses, and see how you can cut them. As you’re cutting those expenses, develop a plan to decrease your larger expenses, and you’ll be on the road to saving 25%+ of your take-home pay!

So what do you think? Are there any areas in your monthly budget that you can tone down? How much money do you think you can save? You know my story. I found $1,500 in my monthly budget that I just didn’t need to spend, so I stopped spending it. It took awhile, but I’ve had a ton of success with this method.

Once I worked hard to cut those expenses, I slowly figured out a way to decrease my rent, increase my salary, and I’m deciding if I should pay down my car loan faster to improve my cash flow. The best part is that I have the option to. Saving more money tends to do that to you. At this point, my savings rate is close to 75%, up from 25% a year ago. We’re talking about life changing money.

If you’re looking to save even more money, check out this awesome piece by my friend Emmie Martin at CNBC, she has a few tips to save you even more money. So everyone, let’s save some money!

Good Hunting,
David

18 thoughts to “Everything the Internet told you about Saving Money is wrong”

  1. I love this. I actually just wrote about how I hate when people say move to a cheap apartment or sell your house. It’s BS advice that isn’t actionable, yet every keyboard warrior out there is quick to jump at the chance to call someone else on the internet out. In addition to being a pain in the butt, it’s NOT always about the money when it comes to where you live. Yes, we could live in a shitty 1 bedroom apartment in a crappy part of town and save probably $750/mo but I’m not too keen on waking up to the sound of gunshots. So no, I will take my cushy, lovely house in the burbs and figure out another way to save money.

    If it’s not actionable, it’s useless, and most of the time telling someone to live somewhere else isn’t exactly actionable…

    But we have identified a few ways to save. We ditched our cable package and got internet-only, plus SlingTV. Estimated savings ~$50/mo.

    We’ll change cell phones once our stupid contract is up. Estimated savings there also ~$50/mo BUT we have to buy some new phones…those will pay for themselves within a year though.

    Food was a big one for us and we already scaled back on that. We’re about as cheap as I think we can get without sacrificing our health/diet.

    1. Thank you! So much of the “money saving” advice is just the Internet feeling happy that they said cut your rent by 10%. If the advice isn’t actionable, it’s worthless. Have you checked out Meal Prep Sunday? It’s definitely a ton of work (you cook all your weekly meals on Sunday, so a few hours), but they have a lot of healthy options that actually taste good. Not the beans + rice of early retirement extreme.

  2. It’s funny cause earlier today I saw someone post “get another job to increase your income” and it irked me so much. Obviously everyone is different, but I can’t picture myself working 60 hours a week and not being able to spend time with my family, even if it’s for a couple of years.

    Great article, people forget to look st what can be done with their current expenses.

    1. It also presumes that people should have to work 60 hours a week to survive. I’m probably in the minority, but I think most full-time jobs (40 hours) should provide a stable standard of living.

  3. I worked a full time job and a part time job for 9 months. 60 hours a week for 9 months made for some great paychecks, but I was also spending a ton more on coffee to get through the day and wine to wind down at night.

    When I was in college and saving for grad school, I still wanted to socialize but didn’t want to spend all my money on it.So I would eat dinner before going out to dinner with friends. Then at the restaurant I ordered a cup of soup or coffee. I still got to catch up with friends, but without the price tag. I imagine something like that might work for networking work lunches- “oh I had a late breakfast!” etc

    1. I went full on hermit with my old job. I bought a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That’s all I ate for lunch every week. 5 work lunches for $5 was awesome. I ended up spending $80 per week at lunches at my current job, until I moved in with my fiancee’s parents.

      When I was a student, the best I could do was work 20 hours and be as frugal as possible. Of course this meant “frugally” buying a 30-pack of the cheapest beer I could find.

  4. We have a budget of $150 per week for food for two of us. Now that covers 7 dinners, 7 lunches (we always take leftover dinners for lunch – no bought lunches here) 2 cooked breakfasts (weekend) and muesli for breakfast to take to work. Usually we only spend $80-100 of that $150. We very rarely eat out – maybe 3 or 4 times a year.

    Our rent is higher than I would like, but it’s on par with the city we live in so not much we can do about that as the wages are much higher here than where we can from.

    Cell phones I spend $19 a month on a pay as you go plan. I also allow myself $40 worth of Nespresso coffee and that will do me 40 days (one pod of Kazaar (their strongest coffee) each morning)

    Power is our killer. I hate our power bill so much. But houses here aren’t insulated very well so In winter we spend about $200 per month. The only way I can get it down is to not have a heater on, wear 10 layers of clothing and wrap myself in a blanket and not move the entire day. It’s just not feasible.

    Our monthly expenses are only $1200 each (two people) so I think we are doing okay. Overall we are saving about 70% of our income.

    1. Saving 70% of your income is incredible, that probably puts you in the top 95% of all savers. When I was living with my fiancee in our own apartment, we each spent about $1,750. $1,300 was for rent, and the remaining $450 was a combination of food and other. An absolutely crazy amount of money. Now that we’re living with our family, those costs have gone down to almost 0.

      1. Yeah we are both pretty frugal which helps.
        We are pretty tight on what we buy for groceries and only buy what is actually needed and I food plan each week which cuts the bill down.
        We pay about $1500 in rent a month which is more than I would like but we have a nice place & our landlord is pretty flexible on renewing our contract which is great plus she is a private landlord so no extra costs just rent and a 2 week bond.
        I don’t think we could get our monthly expenses down much more than we already have. I have a few expenses on top of that such as car insurance and travel costs to get home from work each day & gym, these costs are already pretty minimal. Saving and minimalism is definitely the way forward 🙂

  5. This list – so much truth!

    We just moved and it cost $$$$. We own so we don’t have first and last months’ rent to worry about, we instead get mortgage interest, insurance, and all the maintenance to worry about instead, plus utilities. Some landlords pay for part of your utilities, no such luck here. Plus you have to take time off to pack, move, unpack and spend time reorganizing your new place. It’s fine advice if you’re already in the market for relocating or your current lease is expiring, of COURSE you should look for more for less money, but it’s not good general advice.

    We’re always on the lookout for savings, with every policy, plan, or utility. It adds up!

    1. Yeah, all of the small things become a massive expense. Glad you were able to move into a house! Definitely a lot of expenses, I’ve heard you can expect 1-3% maintenance expenses per year. At least you’re getting some equity out of it!

      We moved out of our apartment in September. We were looking at getting an apartment, and it was going to cost us $10,000. $2,500 to terminate our lease early, $2,500 realtor fee, and $5,000 security deposit / last month’s rent. That’s when I asked if we could live with my fiancee’s parents, we’d save $10,000 now, and an additional $2,500 per month we can use towards a down payment.

  6. I love this list! I used to have a very bad shopping problem and that definitely was a huge factor of keeping me living paycheck to paycheck. I’m also still a fan of the big expenses that need to be cut/fixed over time, but I definitely get annoyed reading reddit advice suggesting what feels like an empty solution when just suggested off hand. I feel if someone wants to suggest these, they should at least offer an actual tailored implementation strategy..for those who direly need to rent somewhere cheaper or do really need a second job, responders should suggest ways to negotiate with your landlord, can you work out a sublease situation, etc. They may end up being dead ends, but shooting off an email/calling your landlord with actual action item at least feels like it’s going somewhere!

    1. If I have to read another reddit post about moving to a new apartment, I’m going to freak out. I think I need a break from r/pf, it’s such a toxic and unhelpful place.

      On a happier note, we were in a very similar situation. I spent every dollar I earned. Now what I do is pay off my CC when I’m paid, and transfer every single remaining dollar to savings. That way, I don’t waste money on useless things.

  7. WOW. Everyone one starting out trying to get better with money management should read this post. Lots of perspective all in one. I think too many of us don’t think about the extra costs that come from making financial changes. I got caught up in this when I was dealing with my cars, but have since learned my lesson. Now my motto is to minimize expenses while being happy and increase income at the same time.

    1. Glad you liked it K.P! A lot of this is actually from experience. I tried cutting some of the big stuff, but those are long-term projects and usually require a lot of money.

      But the small stuff? It’s ripe for the taking, easy to cut (if you overindulge), and rarely costs money to reduce your costs.

      1. I totally get that. The small stuff really helps out. I used to go out every weekend. Now that I’m more mindful, it’s crazy how much is spent on ubers to get to bars and all the round of drinks. Cutting down small expenses like that have made a big impact. Really should be where the focus is as you mention.

  8. Haha Dave’s keyboard warrior is a good analogy. I’ve told people to junk their cars and move back in with parents but it seems insensitive now because issues are more complicated than it seems. The smaller expenses like coffee and food can be cut down. I wouldn’t try to cut down a car to a crap mobile if you need it to get…well anywhere. So yes, not a smart move.

    1. Yeah its tough, and depends for everyone. Junking cars isn’t always reasonable, most people can’t move in with parents (but I did, hehe :))

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