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At the beginning of this year, I decided to pay off my credit card and stick to a serious monthly budget. I was excited to pursue this goal, but I was also nervous. After all, we all want to spend less money, right? But the problem is that finding new ways to save money is usually much harder than finding ways to spend money.

For example, you might decide to pass up a Starbucks latte on your way to work in the morning and then later that evening you indulge in a nice meal at your favorite restaurant. Which can easily make it feel like your efforts to live frugally are not amounting to much. However, I’ve found that the most effective way to cut your spending is to focus on those things that you pay for each month.

If you can reduce the cost of your monthly fixed expenses, you will find your budgeting is much more successful and you’ll have less stress about saving money. With that in mind, here are 5 simple ways to cut your monthly expenses:

1. Reduce Your Food Bill

Easier said than done, right? Well, yes. But the “food” category is often the one with the most potential for reduction. When I finally took a hard look at my own budget, I realized one of the places where money was leaking out was in my spending on food. I was eating out everyday at lunch because I never took the time to make lunch at home. At the same time, I was having dinner at restaurants almost every weekend, and I was not closely monitoring how much I paid for groceries.

Once you closely track your own spending, you might find that you are in a similar situation — if so, here’s what to do. First, come up with 3-4 easy lunches you can make at home and plan for how you’ll add time to your daily or weekly routine to prepare these lunches. Some people prefer to do cooking on Sunday and put enough veggies, meat, fruit, etc. into tupperware to last all week. Others like using leftovers from dinner each night to create lunch for the following day. Whatever you prefer, make it your habit and make sure you add enough ingredients to your shopping list to account for this increased cooking.

At the same time, find tricks to make weekend cooking more enjoyable. Whether it’s listening to the radio or doing some “team cooking” with your significant other, focus on having fun with the entire process of making a meal (rather than feeling the urge to visit a restaurant). You might find you have more fun with a leisurely meal at home than at a restaurant anyway!

2. Cut the Car Payment

One of the major components of your monthly budget may be your car payment. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – however, if you are working on cutting expenses (in pursuit of a goal such as: getting out of debt, buying a house, early retirement, etc.) then the car payment might be excessive.

Consider this: if you have $3,000 to $5,000 saved up, or if you can get out of your current auto loan or lease and sell your vehicle for around that much, then you can get a functional car that you can rely on to get you where you need to go, with no monthly payments. Now, you won’t be riding in luxury, and it may take some getting used to. But if you can find an older model car like a Toyota or Honda that tend to be quite durable and reliable, the reward is a big-time savings in your monthly cashflow. Depending on what your current car payment is, you could save up to $400 per month!

3. Take Advantage of Free Entertainment

Do you know how much you pay for all your entertainment in one whole month? Adding up your spending on cable TV, Internet, movie subscriptions like Netflix, concerts or sporting events you attend, happy hours with friends, etc., you may see that your entertainment spending is hundreds of dollars per month.

I won’t tell you to cut off your Internet access, but beyond that, think about how much of this entertainment spending you really need. A Netflix account and premium cable channels may be redundant. Do a quick audit of your costs and decide what you can cut. More importantly, make a commitment to focus on free ways to have fun — such as picnics in the park or local events that are open to the public like summer concerts sponsored by the city. I’ve often been surprised at how satisfying free entertainment like hosting a board game night with friends can be compared to more costly activities.

4. Don’t Pay (Much) for a Gym Membership

It’s always good to exercise, but these days a lot of gyms cost a hundred dollars per month or more. The reality is, for most people, effective exercise can be done at home with light weights and resistance bands. If you’re someone who appreciates exercising in the gym, you can still do it in a frugal way if you find a good deal. There are lots of gyms that advertise discounts online, and one prominent nationwide gym has a very cheap discount available for anyone who shops at Costco (or who has a friend that does). With one of these options, you can still get your workout while reducing your monthly expenses.

5. Remember That Fashion is Fleeting But Clothes Are Not

How much do you spend on clothes per month? One quick way to find out is to tally up all your clothing purchases over the last 6 months and then divide the total amount by six. That average will tell you what to expect on a monthly basis. Then think long and hard about whether you really need any new clothes. It’s one thing to replace a pair of worn-out jeans that you’ve worn for years. But it’s another thing to buy a new pair of jeans every couple of months. Remember, you’re not going to save money unless you focus your spending on things you need, not just things you want.

Hopefully these ideas will help you get on your way to reducing your monthly expenses. You can also check out ReadyforZero’s Credit Card Debt and Student Loans resource centers for advice on getting out of debt. I know it’s hard because I’ve spent 2012 trying to follow this same prescription, but I also know that when you start making progress and feeling more confident about your financial position, it’s totally worth it.

Image: Ivy Dawned, via Flickr

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