Introduction: the Spend Less Now! Checklists

We’re all creatures of habit—especially when we spend. We have no other choice. Every year, hundreds of spending decisions confront us. We can’t possibly reinvent the wheel for each new transaction. So to cope with the sheer volume of it all, we create expedient shortcuts that eventually turn into ingrained habits. These habits rule our choices. And they also provide a measure of comfort: whenever we pay for anything, we think we know what we’re doing because we’ve done it the same way dozens of times before.

Like anyone else, you have your own spending routines. But here’s the deal. These little habits shape financial futures. When you’re set in your ways and your ways are modest, you likely face a lifetime of prosperity. However, when you’re set in your ways and your ways are immodest, you likely face a lifetime of debt or, at best, a lifetime of meager savings. If you find yourself stuck in the wrong kind of spending ruts, you need to get unstuck—and the sooner the better.

This program—Spend Less Now! (SLN!)—jars you out of unfrugal spending habits fast. Into each and every transaction, SLN! introduces a new and disruptive element. Within weeks, frugal routines replace expensive practices. In the process, you save thousands and set yourself on a new course for financial success.

Since our purpose here is to destroy ingrained habits, let’s begin with a quick look at one of the most familiar routines ever conceived: the much-maligned knock-knock joke. You may have heard this upcoming one before, but that’s not important. The key is that you experience—or at least re-experience—what happens in the short time the joke takes to run its course.

“Knock-knock.”

“Who’s There?”

“Interrupting Cow.”

“Inter—”

“MOOOOOO!!!”

Did you get it? Of course you did, but maybe not right away; and that’s part of what makes this such a great gag—at least when you hear it the first time. The main pleasure, though, is that the interrupting cow takes one of the most rote pieces of shtick ever and shatters its mold completely. Now, why should you bother at all with a detour into grade school humor? As it turns out, this brash bovine has much in common with a mold-shattering method to slash household expenses.

THE NOT SO HUMBLE CHECKLIST

Imagine you’re at home relaxed in your favorite easy chair. Depending on the season, a cool or warm drink sits within easy reach. All is right with the world. Suddenly, you hear two sharp raps at your front door. At first, you think you’re about to endure another knock-knock joke. So you ask, quite tentatively, “Who’s there?” You then hear an alluring voice from your porch stoop. But instead of joking around, the voice intones the name of some highly desirable purchase—perhaps it’s a new HDTV, a trip to Cleveland, or the latest iWhatever. Before you can say “iWhatever who,” a checklist—much like our impetuous cow—springs into action and plants itself squarely between you and the door beyond which waits your latest object of desire. It interrupts forcibly. It gets in your face. It disrupts your normal spending routine, because there’s no way to reach what’s beyond the door without first getting past the checklist.

As you no doubt suspect, all this disturbance is quite deliberate.

With SLN!, checklists become your own fiscal versions of interrupting cows. They intrude to save you money when your object of desire is new and alluring. They also butt in to help you save on more familiar visitors to your porch stoop such as cable companies, insurance agents, or trash haulers. In the past, whenever an opportunity to spend came knocking, by habit you may have answered immediately and surrendered your cash, with no questions asked, not even so much as a simple “who’s there?” Until something new entered the picture, your costly routines continued uninterrupted. When you use SLN!, something new finally appears and sparks a change. Checklists disrupt your normal patterns, prompting you—MOOOOOO!!!—to take key actions to spend less. Within weeks, you see a welcome difference: a growing pile of cash in front of the door where so many dollars once exited your life.

Like grade school humor, SLN! is elementary. You make a single commitment. Whenever you’re about to pay for anything—a product, service, or monthly bill—you commit to review a checklist tailored to that specific expense. Through this repeated ritual, a checklist always reaches you just as you’re about to spend. That’s the precise moment when you’re most motivated to save and most apt to follow frugal advice. As you finish each transaction, you return SLN! to the shelf and get right back to your life—no obsession is necessary, and no radical financial changes are required.

Checklists form the basis of this program for good reason: they’re the best tools ever devised for delivering real time guidance on any task at hand. Checklists embed themselves into common routines, condense complex advice into easy-to-follow bullet points, serve as memory aids, deliver help precisely when needed, prevent costly missteps, and, most important for our purposes here, they modify behaviors efficiently. SLN! brews up enough of this sweet ambrosia so that you’ll find a checklist for almost anything on which you spend.

The checklists assume many forms. A few serve as quick references when you venture into the vast commercial wasteland and confront the likes of box stores, malls, and restaurants. Most are more detailed because you don’t use them when you’re mobile, but rather when you’re planted safe at home with the monthly bills. Some checklists are like recipes because they provide step-buy-step instructions on how to spend less. More of them, however, are like smorgasbords because they let you choose whichever strategies work best for you. Whatever form any checklist takes, its mission remains the same: to get you into the habit of living well within your means and to get you there with the least amount of time, effort, and obsession.

HOW MUCH WILL SLN! SAVE YOU?

This is, of course, the burning question. Let’s first look at how much mainstream households save, and then look at how well you can do.

When it comes to room for improvement, mainstream households enjoy rooms with very high ceilings. I envy their potential. They buy products and hire services without coherent systems for finding the best values. They pay for things they never consume (unread magazines, plastic from China, and premium TV channels). They misuse furnaces, air conditioners, and appliances, blissfully unaware of the heavy costs. They buy insurance, and pay high premiums without ever shopping their business elsewhere. They let trashcans eat their groceries and don’t give it a second thought (this nation wastes 25 percent of its food). They borrow to purchase new cars and replace them every few years. Most expensively, they live in oversized houses, and spend decades paying off the extra square footage. In short, mainstream households are decidedly unfrugal.

Mainstreamers take on so much excess that it’s easy to find them new riches. How much in new riches? Many frugal fringers know the answer to this question firsthand, because they once ran mainstream households themselves. They report that a conversion to frugality typically saves about 20 percent each year, and that these savings can be generated painlessly. Of course, if a little pain enters the picture, you can boost your savings to 50 percent or more. But for now, let’s stick with the 20 percent figure as a reasonable target that’s relatively easy to reach.

I don’t expect you or anyone else to convert to frugality on the basis of mere abstractions, so these projected savings of 20 percent need to be placed into some context. To do this, I’ll make an example of the decidedly unfrugal Jane Dough. Jane earns $50,000 annually, which is right around the national average. She wants to improve her finances, so let’s compare two surefire moneymakers: (1) working 50 more hours at her job; versus (2) investing 50 hours on the checklists. Which approach produces better results? This chart shows the fruits of Jane’s labors at her workplace:

1.  Jane Dough Works 50 More Hours at her Job

Incremental Earnings ($25 per hour x 50 hours)  $1,250
Minus Social Security Withholding ($1,250 x 6.2%) ($     77)
Minus Medicare Withholding ($1,250 x 1.45%) ($     18)
Minus Federal Tax Withholding (at 25% rate) ($   312)
Minus State Tax Withholding (at 5.04% average rate) ($     63)
Net After–Tax Earnings:  $   780

Not bad, but now let’s see what happens with the checklists. Jane spends at the national average, which is about $44,600 after taxes. Since she’s decidedly unfrugal, she can expect to save about 20 percent without torment. Let’s run the numbers:

2.  Jane Dough Works 50 Hours on the Checklists

Incremental Savings ($44,600 x 20%)  $8,920
Minus Social Security Withholding ($       0)
Minus Medicare Withholding ($       0)
Minus Federal Tax Withholding ($       0)
Minus State Tax Withholding ($       0)
Net After–Tax Savings:  $8,920

Moral of story: if you work 50 extra hours to improve your finances, it’s much better to make $8,920 than $780. It’s the difference between merely working harder and actually working smarter—in Jane’s case, more than ten times smarter.

If you’re not decidedly unfrugal, there’s no way to tell upfront how much SLN! will save you. The answer depends, in large part, upon how much you’ve dabbled in frugality before and how many checklist strategies you adopt. Even if you’re not a huge overspender, you probably have several discrete expenses on which you could save 20 percent or more. Your cell phone is one such possibility. If you switch from a monthly plan to a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) phone, that’s a decision you make just once, but it echoes in savings for years to come. You might be skeptical about ditching your current cell plan. Fair enough. But hidden among your expenses lurk other opportunities to save that you are likely to find acceptable. Once adopted, these turn into “savings annuities” that grow your nest egg year after year without you ever lifting another finger (again, you work smarter, not harder).

Here’s a list of savings annuities that I’ve found among my own expenses. Some I discovered long ago. Others, I discovered more recently. Spend some time looking the list over. Note the percentage I saved on each line item—usually, it exceeds 20 percent. More importantly, notice how many dollars were preserved for future use.

Moose’s Savings Annuities

Line Item Savings Tactic(s) [Year First Adopted] Cost Before Cost After % Saved DecadeSavings
Pro baseball Drop season’s pass [2003] $  2,600 $       60 98% $25,400
Health policy Increase deductible [2004] $  5,040 $ 3,333 39% $17,068
Cell phones PAYG, not monthly [2008] $  1,800 $    200 89% $16,000
Skiing Nordic, not downhill [1990] $  1,620 $     180 89% $14,400
Dining out Adopt various changes  [2007] $  3,200 $ 2,000 37% $12,000
Gasoline Switch to a hybrid [2009] $  2,625 $  1,470 44% $11,550
Parking Use pre–tax dollars [2003] $  1,800 $ 1,080 40% $  7,200
Health club Workouts at home [2002] $     540 $         0 100% $  5,400
Gas/electric Adopt various changes [2009] $  1,930 $  1,470 24% $  4,600
Books Buy most used [1999] $     450 $       35 92% $  4,150
Golf Buy discount pass [2008] $     800 $    400 50% $  4,000
Bank fees Cancel cards with fees [2005] $     302 $         0 100% $  3,020
Trash pickup Switch to PAYG [2009] $     250 $       34 86% $  2,160
Alcohol Switch to box wine [2010] $     618 $     407 34% $  2,110
Property tax Challenge assessor [2005] $  2,200 $ 2,000 9% $  2,000
Long distance Use calling cards [2002] $     200 $       20 90% $  1,800
Auto policy Pay annually [2009] $  1,429 $  1,290 9.7% $  1,390
Newspaper Subscribe on web [2005] $     164 $       45 73% $  1,190
Movies Use Redbox.com [2007] $     125 $       25 80% $  1,000
Dry cleaning Use home kits [1999] $       90 $         5 94% $     850
Eye care Visit Costco doctor [2008] $     150 $     100 33% $     500
Landline Negotiate lower rate [2011] $     327 $     293 10% $     340
Totals $28,260 $14,407 49% $ 138,083

As the list shows, a few savings annuities can produce a huge nest egg in a single decade. This gives plenty of breathing room to combat the financial stresses that hit most mainstream households. But there’s more good news. If you double the years involved and throw in compounded gains on investments, the nest egg grows large enough to fund major goals like college educations, mortgage payoffs, and retirements. And there’s even more good news: while I scrounged for years to find my own annuities, the checklists help you find all of yours right now.

THE REALLY NOT SO HUMBLE CHECKLIST

Checklists have modest enough uses—laundry lists, to-do lists, grocery lists—but they can also perform vital roles. NASA uses them for rocket launches, pilots for takeoffs, and doctors for surgeries. In each case, checklists keep smart people from failing to perform basic and even obvious steps, which, if overlooked, could trigger disaster. These unassuming tools also get the job done when it comes to spending less. As proof, here’s a checklist that brags nonstop about how well this format eases you into a frugal lifestyle.

  Checklists Skip the Sermons
Most frugality programs begin with ample doses of fire and brimstone. The purpose is to change your attitudes about the evils of overspending. With SLN!, however, you don’t focus on changing your attitudes, you focus on changing your behaviors. You jump right in, you see the fast results, and sooner or later your attitudes change all on their own. In other words, you convert to frugality by doing frugality. So whatever the state of your current finances, SLN! doesn’t waste time scolding you about them. As the late great Johnny Cochran might have said: “even if you’re feckless, you can still grab a checklist!”

  Checklists Are Habit Forming
SLN!’s main premise is that our habits control the way we spend. According to experts, habits involve three basic steps. First, you experience a triggering event that signals your brain to take action (for example, each morning, the “trigger” might be finishing breakfast). Second, prompted by the trigger, you perform a routine behavior (you go to the bathroom, reach for the toothpaste, and brush your teeth). Third, you receive rewards that make you repeat the same loop next time around (in the short run, you enjoy clean teeth; in the long run, you avoid dentures). SLN! employs these same three steps—trigger, routine, and rewards—to transform you from a mainstream consumer to a frugal fringer. Anytime you’re about to spend (the trigger), you work through a checklist (the routine). In return, you receive instant savings and, over the long haul, a massive nest egg (the rewards). Bottom line: if you brush your teeth every day, you can easily pick up the habit of spending less.

  Checklists Have Impeccable Timing
The world resounds with savings tips, but the advice rarely arrives at the precise moment you need it. You see something on TV six weeks before you shop for new tires, but by the time you reach the store the details are more than hazy. You run across a great website six weeks after you rent a car, and, of course, that help arrives much too late. With SLN!, however, you develop a routine of accessing tightfisted strategies precisely when you’re most likely to use them: at the point of purchase. No matter what the transaction, a checklist’s timing is perfect. All you have to do is to train yourself to reach for one whenever you spend—and that’s as easy to remember as a great knock-knock joke (consider that cow a mnemoonic device).

  Checklists Stop Impulse Purchases
At times, we’ve all spent first and regretted it later. SLN! prompts you to think through each expenditure beforehand. This increases the time that passes between first deciding to spend and finally letting the dollars drift out your door—a slight delay that makes impulsive purchases impossible. When you slow down the spending process, you make better decisions, fewer mistakes, and, best of all, your savings increase dramatically.

  Checklists Are Portable
Copy the ones you need and take them along in your purse or on your person. If you’re at a restaurant, take a peek at tactics that cut dining costs (Appendix 3). If you’re at a gas station, look over strategies that save you at the pump (Appendix 6). There’s even a good checklist that covers drinks out (Chapter 14). Just make sure to work through it before you start slamming shots.

  Checklists Are Customizable
Treat the checklists as frameworks. They’re like new homes in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Built in a hurry to meet the post-WWII housing crunch, these affordable houses all looked the same. But as decades passed, owners added garages, porches, and landscaping. Like a Levittown tract house, the checklists are something you own. Renovate. Cross out what doesn’t work for you and add in whatever does. In a few weeks—not years—the checklists will fit better, and you’ll get better results.

  Checklists Work With Your Programming
People prefer instant fixes to drawn-out solutions. Sellers know this, so they design stores and websites that exploit everyone’s trigger-happy tendencies to the fullest extent possible. SLN! works with your programming—and not against it—by embedding checklists into every transaction you make. As you embark upon your latest opportunity to spend, a checklist infuses your decision with a healthy dose of frugality. Buying a small office copier and don’t want to get duped in the process? For quick advice, consult the products buying checklist (Appendix 1)—it’s all very gratifying in an instant sort of way.

  Checklists Combat Forgetfulness
You could plod through a book of 5,001 savings tips, but come next fall, how would you possibly remember the fine idea on page 197 that saves $65 on contact lenses? With SLN!, the only thing you need to remember is to pull out the appropriate checklist whenever you’re about to spend. It does the heavy lifting while your memory stays free for other uses. Now, if only someone could build a checklist that shows where the car keys are . . . .

  Checklists Sidestep Obsessions
Like many on the frugal fringe, I invest untold hours to achieve small financial victories—in other words, I obsess. But you don’t have to fuss with this as much as I have. Each checklist condenses what I spent years figuring out and delivers it to you in the most efficient form possible. In the end, you enjoy Moose-like savings without ever becoming much like Moose.

  Checklists Bring Joy
By necessity, you spend on things that don’t provide much excitement: taxes, insurance, and utilities, for instance. These are essential expenses, of course, but only the dullest of the dull would claim they impart much zest. Other expenses deliver far greater bliss: pets, recreation, charities—and you could name many more. You would love to increase your spending on euphoria, but where can you find the dollars? Checklists provide an answer. They not only grow your nest egg, they provide extra breathing room to fund whatever matters most to you. And when you do spend on bliss, you spend smarter—the $100 it once took to buy happiness now costs much less, and this itself generates joy (as well as savings).

  Checklists Are Systematic
Vast forces are arrayed to make us cough up as much cash as possible. Every day, they carpet bomb our brains with temptations to spend: clever ads, bright stores, tasty restaurants, handy websites, and, even in these tough times, relatively easy credit. The media celebrates lifestyles of free-spending celebrities and reality stars. Even our government treats us more like consumers than citizens. As Burgess Meredith once rasped to Sylvester Stallone, “Whatcha need Rock . . . is a manager.” Checklists are in your corner. They help you spot savings opportunities you might otherwise miss. They erase unfrugal habits. They cut through all the noise and provide a reliable, coherent system for a saner financial life.

  Checklists Postpone Bean Counting
Most approaches to spending less demand that you track every dollar made and spent. That’s sensible advice, but let’s get real. Few of us are born bean counters. Were it otherwise, this world would be filled with CPAs and there would be no poets whatsoever. With SLN!, you choose the Homeric over the numeric by reaching for checklists instead of ledgers or spreadsheets. As savings mount, you might be inspired to count your gains—at least on a trial basis. But you get to convince yourself of this gradually and without making any big commitment upfront.

ONE LAST THING

Savings await, but don’t rush headlong into this just yet. Before you begin to tackle checklists, it’s important first to review some mechanics about how SLN! works. That’s covered next.

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