You go to work every day and bring home a regular paycheck—but by the end of the month, it feels like all your hard-earned money has disappeared. Have you ever found yourself wondering, “Where is my money going?”
If you pour water into a bucket with holes in it, the water will only leak out, making you work harder in your attempts to fill the bucket. Maybe you feel this way about your bank account too. If so, you may have a spending leak. What is a spending leak? Basically, it is any money you spend without accounting for it or even being aware of it.
Everyone has spending leaks—they’re totally normal and nothing to be ashamed of. A splurge here and there is just fine (and can even be good for you). But if you have savings goals and want a brighter financial future, the best way to get there is by keeping track of all your spending.
Why is it important to know where your money goes? Tightening up your spending habits will give you more money to put into your emergency savings or into saving for a goal such as a down payment on a house or new car. If you’re wondering, “How do I find out where my money is going?”, take a look at these common spending leaks—and how you can fix them.
The grocery store is a necessary part of your weekly errands. You and your family cannot go without food—your grocery shopping is a necessary part of your budget. But is every expense a smart one, or are you accidentally spending more money than you need?
Spending leaks in your grocery trips could look like:
- Impulse buys
- Making multiple trips to the grocery store in one week
- Getting more than you need
- Food spoiling before you eat it
- Buying brand-name products
To tighten up your grocery spending, commit to one trip per week, and plan out your meals before you shop. Buy what you need—don’t grab a carton of on-sale strawberries if your family can’t eat them all before they go bad—and choose store brands. Don’t buy anything that isn’t on your list.
2. Bank and ATM Fees
The bank is another necessary part of life—but if you aren’t careful about your spending and aware of your balance, you can be hit with unexpected fees. Using an ATM at a competing bank will lead to a fee, as will spending more than you have in your account or making late payments.
Save your hard-earned money by avoiding bank fees. Make all your bill and credit card payments on time. When you need cash, plan to drop by your bank—and only use ATMs from your bank. Never use a credit card to withdraw cash from an ATM, and check your balance regularly before making a payment to avoid overdraft fees.
3. Credit Card Fees
Using a credit card is an important piece of your financial health. Carrying some debt is fine, but do your best to pay off your card’s balance every month to avoid paying interest. Over time, interest fees can pile up.
When you do carry a balance on your card, make your payments on time every month to avoid late fees. And if your credit card debt is starting to feel overwhelming, start making plans to get out of debt so you can stop paying extra money in interest.
4. Gas Station
The gas station is another necessary regular stop. You need transportation to your job, and depending on where you live, public transportation may be expensive or impractical. Still, watching the price at the pump tick up to $30-plus per fillup can be cringeworthy.
Are you spending more than you need to at the gas station? If you step inside for a snack or a drink or buy a car wash at the pump, you may be leaking more money than you’d want. Don’t go inside. Pay at the pump, and skip the wash—you can do it at home or look around for better prices. Pick the lowest octane gas your car can handle.
Work on your driving habits, too: carpool, combine trips, keep your car well-maintained, and slow down.
Eating out is a great way to celebrate special occasions, try some great food, and give yourself a break from cooking. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional treat—but a regular takeout habit can significantly break your budget. You start seeing spending leaks in this area if you’re in the habit of grabbing takeout at your favorite spot several times per week. Costs pile up even more if you’re in the habit of adding appetizers and dessert to your order, along with drinks.
To cut down restaurant costs, there’s no need to stop eating out completely. Instead, be more purposeful: pick one night per week for takeout, and save the classier restaurants for special occasions like your anniversary.
Otherwise, cook at home—it’s healthier for you anyway—and say no to meal add-ons. Look for low-cost, simple recipes, and find online tutorials to help with the basics of cooking.
Everyone needs a break once in a while. Movies, plays, books, and music are all great things to spend your money on—as long as you are careful. Movie tickets add up, as do multiple streaming services.
To fix spending leaks in this department, make simple adjustments like these:
- Save the movie theater for big names you’re excited about.
- Pick community theater and school productions.
- Always skip the concessions.
- If you’re a bookworm, check your local library for books or audiobooks first.
- Review your cable bill and cut fees where possible.
- Switch to streaming services—you can even split costs with family members in different households.
Stopping for coffee on the way to work can feel like a necessity on rough days. And going to the bar with friends or picking up drinks for a nice dinner at home can definitely be fun. Costs at the bar can add up fast, especially if you’re in the habit of buying rounds for friends and paying cover charges.
To start making cuts, try making your coffee at home or at the office instead of picking it up on your commute. At the bar, never pay cover charges. Go at happy hour, and stick with simple, inexpensive drinks. Pace your drinking, and take sips of water between each one. Regularly volunteer to be the designated driver.
Utility bills—gas, water, electricity, even the internet—are necessary expenses in any household. But they are expenses that happen in the background of our lives, so if we aren’t paying attention, our bills may be higher than they need to be.
There’s no need to read by candlelight or go without AC. But you can keep your filters clean and vents clear and adjust the thermostat throughout the day based on changing temps outside and when most people are home.
Fans are cheaper to run than the air conditioning, and blankets and sweaters can keep you warm and toasty with the heater on low. Wash full loads of laundry once per week, later in the day, and if you can afford it, upgrade to energy-efficient appliances.
Once a luxury, smartphones are a fixture in everyday life that keep you connected to family, coworkers, clients, and friends. With apps for everything these days, phones also provide entertainment, exercise, news, music, and more. Paid apps and subscriptions are usually not expensive—until they start adding up.
Take an inventory of your phone: check for any apps or subscriptions you don’t use. Try to find free alternatives when you want to purchase an app. When the latest version of your favorite phone comes out, hold off on upgrading until your current phone needs to be replaced. Also, keep an eye on your phone bill to stay aware of how much you’re spending, and consider shopping around for better rates or getting on a family plan to save money.
Fitness and exercise are important and should be a part of your regular routine. But be honest: do you actually use your gym membership enough to justify the monthly cost? Spending money each month on a gym membership you aren’t using is a spending leak.
To fix it, you have a few options. You could always cancel it and work out at home or outside. Or downgrade your membership to the most basic offering. You could put it on hold for a bit to see if you miss it, or shop around for a gym with a cheaper membership. If you want access to a gym but struggle making it regularly, a gym with pay-per-visit options might be best.
You can’t get around it—clothes are a necessity. You need clothes that fit and make you feel comfortable. You need to dress appropriately for work and keep your growing kid in pants that fit. But if you find yourself losing track of how much you spend on clothes, this essential category has some spending leaks for sure.
To tighten up your clothing spending, try this: unsubscribe to all your marketing emails from clothing stores. Don’t buy something just because it is on sale. Only go shopping when you need a new item. Avoid brand names—the occasional meaningful splurge is OK, but see if you can find what you need with cheaper brands or even secondhand options.
Start with this list to help you identify your spending leaks and make goals to address them. Your next step is making a budget. A budget will help you find—and fix—even more leaks.