Debts, coffee and other money struggles

Recently I felt compelled to share a few things, on this corner of the web, about simple living. Specifically, I wanted to discuss how living a simpler life can help you & I save money, pretty much without realizing it.

Really, for me, it was so easy that I felt like everybody should try.

But the thing is that everybody is different. And depending on where you live, you’ll have some very specific financial struggles.

Indeed, one thing that kind of blew my mind is that, like many other things, financial struggles seems to be cultural. They depend a lot on which country you live in and on your cultural surrounding.

It may be an obvious statement if you think of 2 completely different persons with opposite life. It’s more difficult to pin point if you think of 2 people with maybe similar jobs & similar incomes, living in 2 different big cities like New York and Paris.

Indeed, the 2 financial advices that come back often and puzzled me recently are about debts and coffee! Yeah totally comparable…

Let me explain…

Getting out of debts

For Americans, the number one priority to gain financial stability is to repay their debts. From the very beginning of their adulthood, they are plagued by student loans. And it will take them years to get out of these.

You know what? It is so specific to US (and the UK to some extend) that it’s difficult to comprehend for a lot of people, including me! Yeah, I’m French!

I almost felt into this trap, when I lived in the US, without realizing what it would have lead to. I’m so so so glad, I didn’t. I can’t even tell you how glad I am! I did get a small loan later, when I was back in France, but it was a 0% loan that was repaid quickly.

Apart from that, I never had any loan. I always only bought things I could afford.

In fact, in most of Europe, people only borrow money to finance their homes and maybe a car. This may be mind blowing to you… if you are American!

European financial advise will therefore rarely focus on getting out of debt. Even for home financing, the loans you can get are very regulated and can not really exceed 30% of your income. Most people stay below this threshold and personal bankruptcy is not really a thing.

The debt crisis Americans are facing is therefore puzzling to most Europeans and the financial advise focus, on how to get out of debts, difficult to comprehend.

This leads us to one of the saving money advise that come back often…

Making coffee

A lot of articles on how to save money are written by Americans, for Americans.

How do I know? Because one of the tip, to save money, that comes back way too often is: learn to make (great) coffee at home!

And this tip gets me to raise my eyebrows! What are they talking about??

To me, of course, everybody drinks coffee at home. In the morning, before going to work (and then they brush their teeth before going out in the world!). And later during the day, at work, as every offices and other work premises have coffee machines. They actually usually have several. (I know I know, a lot of US work place have them too)

My own cultural bias make it so hard to understand this money saving tip.

And then, I remember all the TV shows where the secretary has to run out to get coffees, for the team meeting or their boss. I remember all the people walking around in the streets of New York, LA, San Francisco…. disposable cup in hand. Despite remembering this, I always thought that coffee on the go were for extraordinary mornings like out of office meetings, hangover days or just late mornings. I never imagined it to be an every day expense!

Plus who doesn’t know how to make coffee at home?! I do not know a single person in Europe who drinks coffee and doesn’t know how to make it!

Learn to make coffee as a saving tip is hilarious to me!

Considering the coffee price in regular coffee shops, it does make sense to advise people who want to save money, to make coffee at home. If such people are Americans!

Just so you know, in Western Europe, the most common advise to save money on coffee would now be to ditch the coffee capsules and adopt the French press or the Italian way of life! It is probably hard to understand for people who don’t drink coffee at home though!

Cultural financial struggles

Between the fact that Americans have to prioritize their finances to repay their debts and that to save money they should learn to make coffee at home, it became clear to me that financial struggles are highly cultural.

And this isn’t about the avocado toast!!

There are many other saving tips which seems very Americans. If you’ve read list of how to save money, then you’ve probably read the following tips several times. But the ones below seems to me very American:

  • 401(k) accounts do not exist in Europe but we do have other types of saving / retirement accounts.
  • Remembering to pay off credit cards is usually not necessary as these are debited automatically on a monthly basis (not all, but most)
  • Brown bag lunch isn’t a thing in Europe. We do pack lunch every now and then, we just don’t have brown bags!
  • Intentionally asking for generic drugs is not required. If a generic drug exist, it will be prescribed automatically. We’re reimbursed by social security anyway!
  • Cash back mechanism are rare in Continental Europe
  • Home cooking is pretty normal for everyday meals and for entertainment of family and friends. Going out for diner is a treat for most.
  • Reuse paper plate and other disposable?! Who uses paper plate at home??
  • Wait for 24 to 48 hours before buying something you think you need. Well actually, in Europe, the advice would be to wait 30 days! That will change your mind! 😉

You see, all of those common advise can therefore be sometimes difficult to understand for me and many Europeans and not applicable as such.

Building healthy spending habits

So how do you deal with money?

Drink water in restaurant, instead of wine of course!! Just kidding. That would be such a French advise!!

If financial struggles are so cultural, then what saving money tips should you follow?

Well, I think you should make your own rules. You are the only one who knows what is truly important to you.

If you think you can’t live without your morning 5$ latte or that you have to have the latest iPhone as soon as out, you probably need to explore your true needs, in a bit more depth, though.

By all means, do read all the money saving tips you can find. Some might be applicable to you or at least some might be inspiring.

But to save money, you probably mostly need to built new spending habits, habits that are aligned with your needs and values.

To built new habits takes time, but the result will be long term. It’s like changing the way you eat, compare to going on a diet.

If you are thinking of changing your spending habits, then here are my recommendations!

The first thing to do, if you want to cut your spending, is to know what your spendings are

The first thing to do, if you want to cut your spending, is to know what your spendings are seems an obvious thing! I’ve never followed a budget until fairly recently and had no clue how life-changing, tracking my expenses would be! If you’re not tracking your expenses, you really should!

There are apps for that but I use Excel. I created my own budget with my own categories and my own analysis. Something that suits me, not a generic thing.

To start with, it was just a list of expenses. After a few months, it became organized in categories. And then, it became a budget when I decided to allocate a certain amount to each categories and stick to it.

What’s important here is not how I precisely did it. The important thing is the analysis process and the change in attitude on how I spend money.

Only once you know how you spend your money, you can decide if it’s too much!

Once you know how you spend your money, tackle the biggest expenditure area first

Sure, you can start saving pennies with coupons and buy your laundry detergent in bulk, but that won’t make a big impact if your main spending area is dining out. What will make a significant impact is to reduce your dining out! Obviously!

When I looked up closely last year spending, I realized I spent way too much on clothes. I was completely shocked! I really had no idea considering I’m far from a shopaholic. Although like many women, I really have nothing to wear 😉

So I decided to take on a no buying clothes challenge. Not for one day every now and then, not for a week, not for one month… but for a full year! It’s been 8 months at the time of writing these words and I’m doing great!

The most important thing in this is 2 fold: tackle the biggest expenditures first and commit to it!

Track your progress

It’s really important to track your progress regularly and at the very least monthly. Once you’ve set a goal in a specific category of spending, you want to regularly make sure that you managed such goal. It’s super motivating to see when you did!

What to do when things didn’t work out as planned? Don’t beat yourself up and keep on! You’ve lost a battle, not the war.

Tracking progress also enable you to refine your goals in the specific category you are focusing on and more globally on your overall budget.

There are a couple areas, on my budget for this year, that aren’t working so well. I have a “various” category which needs some fine tuning. It includes gifts to family and friends, things I bought for my dad, home things like the block-out curtains I bought to survive the heatwave… It’s a bit messy but those various expenses are piling up. I will have to work on that… next year. This is not my priority for now. But tracking my expenses regularly has enabled me to identify such issue.

Don’t try to do it all at once

As you can see from the above example, I don’t think you should try to do it all at once. Tackle the most important areas, maybe 2 or 3 max & change your habits in such areas. Then once you have formed new healthy habits, move on to the next biggest expenditure area.

Of course, if your focus is like mine, to reduce your clothes budget for example, nothing prevents you from still negotiating a reduction of your phone bill. Go ahead!

But you probably shouldn’t try to handle everything at the same time. Building new healthy spending habits is like everything else, it takes time. It is marathon, not a sprint.

If you try to do it all at the same time, you’ll probably feel miserable or at least frustrated and will most likely fail.

Reward yourself!

I am not suggesting to splurge on a new handbag!! Don’t ruin your efforts by spending the money you saved.

Instead, find ways to celebrate your achievement that are free! It could be really simple like a toast to a well managed budget, every last day of the month. It could be giving yourself a break to pamper yourself… anything that pleases you and is free or almost free!

I don’t just dance in my living room to celebrate a good month, I write in my journal that I achieved my goal and put huge smileys around this statement! Then I dance… No, I don’t… OK, maybe sometimes I do 😉

Most importantly, this year, I added a personal care category to my budget. This is to remind myself that I need to take good care of my body. It’s my most prized possession after all!

I don’t buy clothes, but I do buy skincare products which go into this personal care category. I go see my osteopath as regularly as possible, to anticipate on potential issues and that goes in such category. If I had a gym membership it would go there as well actually, at least for now. But I do yoga at home instead. It just works better for me, it’s more relaxing.

This personal care category is my reward category because self-care is just super important to me. It’s also a reminder category. The last 2 years have been really tough for me. Taking care of myself, to be able to continue to take of my dad, is the only way it could work. So every time I do yoga, every time I meditate or just pamper myself, I feel rewarded for all the hard work!

It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it surely shouldn’t cost a lot of money. But you should reward yourself for your achievements!

*****

So you see, if financial struggles are somehow cultural, there is at least one way to be better with money management and that is to built healthy financial habits.

You can read my 4 unconventional ways to save money and keep a tight budget or why I think the next recession might be a good thing after all.

Building healthy spending habits to save money and live a better life

5 thoughts on “Debts, coffee and other money struggles

    • Thant’s an interesting point, Kathy. How much can TV impact our spending habits? I guess Netflix is a blessing as it makes it easier to broaden one’s horizons, at least on that front!

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