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The most common budget buster

That big-screen TV you're wanting to buy in time for the Super Bowl is probably not the worst thing you could do to your budget. Your habits may be a bigger problem.

By Jan 24, 2014 6:34PM

This post comes from Erin Baehr at partner site on MSN MoneyWhen you think about budget busters, do you think of things like vacations and big-screen TVs?  While those surely can be expensive purchases, from my experience of working with folks on their finances, I’ve found it’s the relatively smaller category of convenience food that does the most damage to our finances on a regular basis.

A shopper carrying 46” television while shopping at Best Buy © Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Life can be so hectic that many days are like a race from start to finish. When we’re running from home to work to activities and so on, hitting the drive-thru may seem like the only option to get a meal.  Even when there is time to eat at home, who wants to cook after an exhausting day?

Drive-thru orders, take-out meals, and regular dinners out can easily get out of control, shrinking our pocketbooks and expanding our waistlines. Yikes.

Facing reality

The first step in getting a handle on any area of our finances is to know what we’re dealing with. So if you suspect this is a problem area for you, go through your food expenses for the past few months, adding up in categories for groceries, meals and snacks on the go (drive-thru lunch, take-home Chinese, coffee and bagel, and so on), and meals out, to come up with a monthly average. Are you comfortable with those numbers? If not, where do you see the biggest issue? Perhaps going out to dinner is your entertainment for the month and that’s not something you want to cut, but the quickie meals are more frequent or expensive than you’d like them to be. There is no right or wrong here, just a values check. In other words, are you spending in line with what you value? If you decide to cut back somewhere, set a goal for how much and what you’ll do with the savings, using that as a motivator.

Next is evaluating what kind of time you have to invest in making a change, and who you can enlist to help.  That reality may be that you don’t have a lot of free time and need to find solutions that will not require more of an already endangered resource; or it may mean that you may be able to squeeze out an hour of quality time with your spouse on the weekend, even though it’s spent in the grocery store.  Do you have teens who might do the shopping or start dinner for you, even if it’s for an extra bonus in their allowance?

Finally, in the rush of the day, who are you? What I mean is, what are your typical, in-the-moment responses? Knowing yourself and anticipating those reactions is key. I can have a lovely, idealized vision of myself as someone who will enthusiastically come home from work at 7:30 p.m. on a late night and cook a lovely meal for my family, or I can know myself and admit that there’s no way I’m going to feel like spending an hour to cook -- I’m stopping for something on the way home. When I’m conscious of that, I can plan accordingly, and maybe I save take-out for those nights, while resisting the temptation on other less chaotic evenings.

Think out of the bag

One answer to the daily “what’s for dinner and how fast can I make it?” question may be to go out early Saturday morning to do the grocery shopping, and spend time Sunday afternoon preparing and cooking for the week so you have easy-to-prepare meals that you can pop in the microwave or the crock pot. If you have friends in the same boat, you can make it a social thing by cooking together and sharing the finished product.

On the other hand, if you’d rather have a root canal than give up your desperately needed Sunday afternoon nap, that may not be a realistic answer for you. In that case, consider planning meals a month at a time, using ingredients that can be purchased in one large shopping trip with the necessary fresh ingredients picked up in smaller, weekly trips. You might try a recipe site like that can help you choose quick-to-make meals and generate a shopping list for the week.

Those all still involve going to the store, and when you’re in a hurry, a trip to the grocery store can be pricey, too. At least it is for me!  For those too pressed for time to take a leisurely, well-planned trip to the supermarket, many stores now deliver. You might pay a delivery charge, but it certainly cuts down on impulse buying and saves you time and gas. If your local stores don’t deliver, perhaps one near your workplace does. Order just your non-perishables, or use an office fridge if available and bring perishables home in a cooler. 

Meet the delivery in the parking lot and load right into your trunk.

Have you met the dinner fairy?  I waited in vain for years for her to show up and make dinner, but she never came. Now there are companies springing up that are pretty close, though!  HelloFresh, BlueApron and others will deliver you the ingredients and a recipe card for three pretty easy to prepare meals a week. No shopping, no scratching your head about what to make; it’s all there. Of course there is a price to pay for the convenience, but you are getting healthy, freshly cooked meals (and dishes you may not have tried otherwise) instead of paying for take-out with questionable nutritional value. You can combine something like a meal delivery service with your own easy-to-make meals on the other nights to round out the week.

It’s important to leave some room in your planning and budgeting to give yourself a break on those nights that even with forethought it’s too stressful to cook, or perhaps a dinner out is a nice treat. But preparing ahead can help to keep those nights the exception rather than the norm. Your budget and your waistline will thank you.

More from

Jan 24, 2014 7:22PM
After the first year of it is complete, next year's most common budget buster will be Obamacare.
Jan 27, 2014 7:14PM

I wonder how many successful business people got there by complaining about the government and posting ridiculous insults on comment sections of financial management articles.

Jan 27, 2014 12:16PM
No doubt that eating out can be very costly over time.  My wife and I eat out one night per week.  I bring my lunch to the office every day after breakfasting on a tofu smoothie that I prepare at home.
I don't regard this habit as deliberate budgeting, more like something acquired over the years.  We can develop good habits as well as bad ones.
Jan 25, 2014 12:10AM
I am not watching the pot super bowl. I heard enough of the Richard Sherman(Stanford graduate) rage at the end of the last game. I have seen enough for now. Don't buy things that you have to use credit and pay interest for month and months. Stop trying to impress everyone with what you purchased. As soon as you left the store, the value dropped 50% at least. Have some popcorn!
Jan 28, 2014 1:59AM
cable tv, cell phones,junk food, tobacco and alcohol--these are a few of my favorite things-when the dog bites etc. from the musical " the sound of poverty"
The most common for me is my wife whipping out her credit card like a Samurai sword fast enough to cause a sonic boom.....  Has melted a few POS machines in the past.

Oh, and Obamacare.....

Jan 28, 2014 1:13PM
The best budget buster is losing your job,and not being able to find a new one.
Jan 28, 2014 11:55AM
If you're *that* busy, then I'd say there was something terribly wrong somewhere.
Jan 28, 2014 10:32AM
YES, Smeado . . . the Obama Haters/Limbaugh-Lovers/Fox-Fanatics ARE a tiresome bunch!

Jan 28, 2014 12:51PM
Although I am not overweight I am a little heavier than I want to be, but I had a baby five months ago. I realized I was heavier because I ate junk and when I ate a meal I was over eating a lot! Now I eat a small breakfast, drink lots of green tea (decaf after lunch) and have a normal dinner, but only one main portion and one scoop of veggies or side.  I eat one apple a day and that is during the week. On the weekends I eat kind of bad, but again only one portion of bad foods and call it good. So I save money because I am eating less and I don't eat fast food except maybe on weekend and I drink green tea and water only, but may have one pop a week. Losing 2 ounces everyday to every other day and I feel so much better because I am spending less money on junk food and losing weight!
Jan 28, 2014 12:03PM
if the goverment practices what msn is preaching about spending tatics we could all enjoy a  decent life. but worry about us going to a drive thru but let the goverment throw away billions upon billions in sensless programs.
Jan 28, 2014 2:55PM
The greatest lie in our nation's history: Beginning in the mid-sixties, wasting trillions in tax dollars on attempting to "educate" groups with poor genetics which only produce double digit IQs at birth. Liberals promising said groups that they "can be anything they want" and when said group fails to become doctors and engineers, because of low IQs, it's blamed on racism and hundreds of billions more is thrown at it. Meanwhile, teacher's unions go insane at the prospect of "outcome based pay". Said low IQ group will continue to fail and teachers would be forced to defend themselves with the truth: IQ CANNOT be raised. Certain genetic groups will produce MOSTLY low IQs. If they are only fit for sweepers and dish washers then stop throwing big money at them and embrace them as "pets". Stop creating make-believe, make-work government jobs for them simply to stroke their self image, and recognize that they are nothing but "pets". We feed them, we pay their vet bills, we clean up after them constantly, and we often have to cage them for long periods of time. ENOUGH!
Jan 28, 2014 3:36PM
I sometimes wonder why some people want to live... ever notice some people aren't satisfied unless we all suffer.
Jan 28, 2014 5:35PM

Obama is a huge budget buster. BTW, Obama on the death of Pete Seeger: "Seeger believed in the power of community".

Those are code words for "Seeger believed in the power of communism." For those too young to remember, Seeger was a Stalinist. He was the nastiest, old US Stalinist of the 20th century. If he had his way half of us would be in gulags now. The world is now a better place. He can give Ethel R. a big kiss when he reaches the basement of Hell. His huge hit was "If I had a hammer and sickle".

Jan 28, 2014 9:41AM
I agree with "I want to be a Clone", "Obama-Care" will be the most common budget Buster now and going forward for many years to come if it isn't busted by the next POTUS. But busting budgets is not new for Obama and he does "NOT-CARE!" Gotta get rid of this clown,
Jan 27, 2014 9:38PM
Most common budget buster, coke and whores.....  Speaking of which, next year ObamaCare will be a close second.
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