If you’re like the typical American, you have no idea where last month’s paycheck went. Technically, you saw the deposit land in your bank account. You were hoping your money would stay safe for a few weeks, but a quick glance today shows that it made like Houdini and vanished, without so much as a proper goodbye. WTF did it all go?! You were determined to start putting more money away for retirement or save up to replace your rusting car, and now you don’t even have enough money to cover a potential emergency.
It’s a well known fact that most Americans won’t win a prize for their savings habits anytime soon, but it’s time to stop the shame game. Feeling bad about your failure to save money might scare you into putting a few more dollars away, but for long-term success it needs to be more about redefining how you think about money in the first place. “I don’t believe that frugality is very sustainable for a lot of people. Yes, maybe we’ll stop buying those lattes (or whatever), but something else will take its place. In my opinion, unless there’s a fundamental mindset from a young age, it’s hard to change the I-want-it-now habits,” writes Ramit Sethi, author of the book I Will Teach You to Be Rich (along with a blog of the same name).
Instead, Sethi said that it’s important to start making conscious decisions about what we spend our money on. You might love that $5 Starbucks latte every morning. If that’s what you choose to spend your money on, and build it into your budget, so be it. But if you haven’t stopped to save for the basics (and yes, retirement is a “basic,” if you want to afford groceries when you’re 70), that’s an issue. And if you’re shelling out that cash without giving it a second thought, your lattes — along with your haircuts, your cab rides, your drink tab, and your other discretionary spending — can snowball quickly.
Based on recent surveys from RetailMeNot and Personal Capital, you’re not alone if you aren’t sure where all your money goes each month. Both companies took a look at how much money people spend on “extras” each month, to give us a better picture of our own spending habits. Take a look to see how your own spending compares — and use the information to craft a better budgeting process, if you realize it’s necessary.
Discretionary spending: How much do we spend?
To produce its State of Spending report, Personal Capital analyzed the spending categories of anonymous users of their wealth management tools. Overall, they took a look at more than 148 million transactions from last year. RetailMeNot completed a survey in conjunction with Kelton to discover their averages — most of which are in line with the Personal Capital findings. Here are some of the main categories.
- Groceries: $115/week ($5,980 per year)
- Eating out: $58/week ($3,016 per year)
- Meal delivery: $42.44/week ($2206.88 per year)
Food isn’t “discretionary,” per se, but how we choose to spend our food money varies greatly. Groceries are undoubtedly the most expensive food category for most Americans, but smart choices in the supermarket can make a difference. Millennials spend roughly 60% of their food budgets eating out at restaurants, Personal Capital reports, more than any other age group. Still, older generations do spend about half of their food budgets dining away from their own kitchens. Meal delivery services like Seamless and Blue Apron haven’t taken over the market yet, but are definitely on the rise.
- Car: $725/month (Includes car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, etc.)
- Uber/Lyft: $45/week ($2,340 per year)
Typically, you’ll either own a car or use ride-sharing apps to get from point A to B — not spend money on both. However, if you own a car and are using Uber on the regular, you might want to rethink your habits. Other public transportation options are often cheaper, though you should still be tracking how much you’re spending for subway or bus fare while you’re making a budget. Just don’t get in those yellow cabs — Personal Capital reports they’re still $7 more expensive than Uber for an average fare.
- Coffee: $18/week ($936 per year)
- Beer: $50/week ($600 per year)
- Wine: $50/week (600 per year)
Coffee is one of the few things RetailMeNot and Personal Capital disagreed on. RetailMeNot reports the above figure, while Personal Capital puts the average at about $17 per month for Starbucks — by far the most popular coffee purchase for American consumers. In that case, it’s probably only a once a week type of splurge, as many commenters said they spend far more than that for their caffeine habit.
Alcohol is another story. It seems you’re spending quite a bit of cash each year whether your prefer the brews or the vino. Millennials spend an average of $75 per week on beer, according to RetailMeNot, which adds up to $900 per year. Maybe that’s because they’re still moving away from their college years, or perhaps they simply favor craft brews. Either way, it’s hard to tell if that’s something younger people will grow out of, or if they’ll need a bigger alcohol budget to maintain that moving forward.
- Manicures/pedicures: $1,471.08/year
- Hair cuts and styling: $1,457.56/year
There’s a price to looking like you just stepped from the pages of a shampoo advertisement. Not everyone is spending this kind of money on their nails or their hairdo, but as Sethi pointed out, that money is likely going somewhere else instead. Maybe it’s your grooming products, your waxes, or even the razors you use. This also isn’t counting the items we consider non-negotiable, like $3 for toothpaste, $5 for body wash, $10 for foundation or mascara, and so on. Take a hard look at the stuff in your bathroom alone, and you’ll probably realize how much you’ve spent without realizing it.
Pets, shopping, and entertainment
- Owning a dog: $221/month ($2,652 per year)
- Owning a cat: $192/month ($2,304 per year)
- Shopping: $42-83/month
- Entertainment: $2,842/year
Owning a pet, getting your shopping fix, and otherwise entertaining yourself can have hefty price tags. Dog ownership is typically more expensive than having a pet of the feline variety, RetailMeNot points out. Shopping expenditures for clothing and other items varies by store location, but is still often hundreds of dollars each year.
“Entertainment” can mean catching a movie, attending a concert, or going to the festivals your city hosts each year, but either way it’s often a hefty chunk of your income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average was $2,842 a year in 2015, which works out to about $237 each month. That’s up 4.2% from the year before, and the rate has continued to rise since the recession.
How to save money
Chances are, you spend money in a number of these categories each week, and that can add up. What’s important is to start keeping track of where it’s going, and make a plan from there. It doesn’t mean giving up everything you love — but it might mean getting rid of the purchases you make that you just do out of habit, not necessarily because they mean something to you.
Of course, a little bit of humor can go a long way into making this a less stressful conversation. RetailMeNot teamed up with comediennes Erin and Sara Foster, of VH1’s Barely Famous, to talk about “creative” ways to save money. (Their video is above.) Hint: You might not actually want to steal a friend’s clothes, but it might make you laugh as you think about which areas of spending you might be going overboard with. Chances are there’s some room for improvement. After all, the categories listed above add up to more than $23,500 a year. Can you see why it’s possible your money is disappearing? Wallet, meet budget.