Simple Budget Hacks

I love to travel.  I’ve gotten in the habit of taking big, low-budget trips.  The plane ticket is usually the biggest expense, so it makes sense to me to spend as much time away as I possibly can.  You know, to make the most of the money I spent on the ticket.  Even though I’m a pretty no-frills traveler, I wouldn’t be able to get away at all if I weren’t mindful of my spending habits.

This year I’m planning a trip to India.  I was originally planning to take about three months and go to Thailand first, which meant I needed to be extra careful about what I’m spending between now and then.  My plans have shifted a little bit, but I still think a lot about easy ways to work saving money into my daily routine.

First things first, set up a budget.

I think I’m pretty good about not spending money, even if I don’t have a written budget.  Right now, though, I’m trying to spend less than $300/month on food, and if I weren’t carefully tracking my spending, I would end up spending more.  For example, tonight is one of my friends birthdays.  He’s invited everyone out to a restaurant, followed by drinks at two different bars.  If I didn’t have my specific budget in mind, I’d probably do both.  I know, however, that I am a little bit ahead of myself this month, so I decided to skip the dinner.  I’ll probably end up spending around $15-20 instead of $30-40.

I had tried setting up a budget before, but nothing I tried (Quicken, excel) really helped me that much.  Then I found mint, and I love it.  You set your budgets, it tracks your spending.  It’s so simple.  If budgeting is something that has felt out of your reach before, I highly recommend heading over to mint.com to check it out.

Find a way to earn gift cards.

I use two services for this: Swagbucks and Smartypig.

Swagbucks is a search engine that offers you rewards for using it.   They run a few more ads than google, but they give back some of the revenue the ads generate in the form of points.  I usually redeem my points for $5 Amazon gift cards. I can usually earn 1-2 per month.  All you have to do is create an account and start using swagbucks any time you would normally use google.  If you click on my link to sign up, I get some points for referring you, which would be awesome.

Smartypig is a combination high-interest savings account and social network (which allows people to make contributions to your goals, if you’re into that kind of thing).  Moreover, it’s designed to discourage credit card use by providing some of the benefits of rewards programs for saving rather than spending.  Basically, you create specific savings goals.  Once you reach your goal, you can either withdraw the money from your account, or you can buy gift cards from various retailers.  If you go the gift card route, smartypig reimburses you up to 14% of the cost, depending on the retailer.  It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Use gift cards only for things you’d buy anyway, and take the money spent out of your budget.

This, I think, is how I save the most money.  Any time I use a gift card, I take the full value of the gift card out of the appropriate category in my budget.  I got a number of gift cards for Christmas this year, including an American Express card (which I used for groceries and gas), Barnes and Noble/Borders cards (used to buy gifts), and cards for local restaurants, movie theaters, Starbucks, and Target.  Each time I use one of these gift cards, I add a transaction to mint and it comes out of my budget.  It’s sort of like rounding up to the nearest dollar and saving the change, but on a grander scale.

I do the same thing with gift cards I get from swagbucks, groupon, living social, and smartypig.  I record the full amount I spend on the gift card as a transaction, even if the total amount I spent to acquire the card was significantly less.  It’s simple, and it works.

One last thing.

I recently joined the Travel Hacking Cartel.  For $15 a month, I get access to a huge frequent flyer knowledge base.  So far, it’s been very helpful- I may even be able to buy my flight to India with my miles, which would be huge!  I plan to keep my membership as long as I feel I’m getting my money’s worth, and so far it’s been great.  If this sounds interesting or intriguing, click on the link to find out more.  It is also a referral link, so I get a few miles if you sign up.

I hope these ideas help you out.  They’ve worked very well for me over the past year, and since I’m in super-saving mode right now, I felt compelled to share my tactics.

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