The phrase "nickeled and dimed to death" is an apt description for how many of us, even if we budget for the big expenses, can end up with a flat wallet, thanks to the many smaller, unplanned-for expenses. These "sneaky" expenses are also areas where, with a little attention, we can carve out some money each month to put away for a rainy day.
Here are 10 examples of sneaky expenses.
There's a tip jar at my local Chipotle's, at every coffee shop I visit, even at the freakin' gas station cum convenience store. The expectation of a tip has not only spread far beyond those who provide significant personal service, it has also crept up in price. A recent New York Post story found that those who live in New York City pay as much as $3,333.79 a year on tips.
Of course, NYC residents probably eat out and go clubbing more than most of us, but the breakdown is illuminating. Those who get spiffed include wait staff (of course), delivery people, doorpeople, building supers, nannies, hairdressers, salon staff and others. The average NYCer is a generous soul, too, forking over an average 18%.
Those of us in flyover American aren't immune to this sneaky budget-buster, either. Paperboys (actually, papermen and women, now), mail deliverers, maids, may only get 15% or a gift in lieu of cash, but the dollars add up. Yet few of us remember to budget for tips, and end up scratching our heads at the end of the week when our wallets are flat. How much do you spend a year on tips?
2. Dog/cat care
Many of us have little restraint when it comes to loving our pets, but how many of us budget the expense? That love isn't cheap. According to the ASPCA, the cost to see a medium-sized dog through its puppy year is $1,843. This includes many one-time expenses such as a carrying case, collar, home crate, spaying or neutering, and vaccinations, but some expenses are ongoing.
Food, for example, will set you back at least $120. Vet checkups can run $100 and up. Do you board your pooch or kitty during vacations? My local boarding kennel charges $17 a day for a medium-size dog. Full-day doggie day care at a local kennel is $20 a day. And don't forget replacement toys, new bed linings and a Christmas present. If you were to budget for your pet, $500 a year wouldn't be out of line.
Have a lawn service? Then you're probably paying between $25-$30 every time it's cut, depending on the size of your lawn. You could also require 30 or more cuts per years, so an annual cost just for mowing will run you $750-$900 a year. And you're not done paying. A feed-and-weed service like TruGreen will cost you $150 or more a year for five treatments. Then there's the occasional dethaching and reseeding. Hire out all of these services and you're into serious money: over $1,000 a year.
But you do it yourself? I just bought a new mower for $350, which will probably last me six years, or $58 a year. Gas will set me back another $25. Fertilizers, weed killers, and insecticides run another $50. A spreader is at least $50, but lasts for years, so add another $5 for that. And what's the value of 30-40 hours of my time?
I love the appearance of a well-tended, weed-free lawn, but I also pay the price, as do most Americans -- between $200 and $1,000 a year.
4. Vitamins and supplements
Vitamin D. Antioxidants. Iron pills. Colloidal silver (WTH?). A stroll through the dietary supplements and medicines section of your grocery story demonstrates both the degree to which Americans toss down pills and their willingness to pay big bucks to supposedly improve their health prospects. Twin Labs multivitamins with minerals lists for $43.95 for 180, about $88 for a year's supply. Ferro-Sequels High Potency Iron Supplement Tablets are $20.51 for 100 on Amazon, or $75 a year. Vigor-Designer anti-oxidant pills list for $243 a year. All told, we spent over $10 billion in 2008 on such products, according to the Nutrition Business Journal as quoted by Consumer Reports.
Yet the same article quotes Paul M. Coates, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as saying "Almost all of us get or can get the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet." If Americans eat a rounded diet (as in varied, not as in round hamburger buns) those without special nutritional needs can get what they need from the food they eat. And save hundreds of dollars a year.
5. Driving costs
I have an addiction problem. I rarely go a day without buying at least one large Americano at my local coffee shop, and yes, the $2.30 a day this costs me does add up. The sneaky cost, however, isn't in the drink; it's in the driving. According to a recent American Automobile Association study, drivers of mid-sized sedans who travel 15,000 a year pay an average of $0.562 per mile. Four-wheel drive SUVs average $0.739 a mile, while drivers of minivans (me) pay $0.62 a mile.
So if I drive only three miles a day for my fix, I'm still running up an annual driving tab of $226.30. I can subtract a little from this total for the electricity I use to power my laptop while at the shop, but still I'm in the hole a significant amount. Add in the cost of the coffee, and my habit runs over a thousand dollars a year. A very nice French press and a fresh bag of premium coffee beans every couple of weeks would only set me back about $300 a year, so I'm paying a sneaky $700 a year for the coffeehouse experience.
6. Paying bills
I pay a dozen or so bills a month, which represent our largest household expenses, food excepted. I don't mind paying for sweet, sweet electricity or natural gas or even cable, but it does irk me that I have to pay to pay. I used to pay through the mail.
If I was still doing that, stamps alone would run me $63.36 a year. Instead, I pay $4.95 a month to bank online, a wonderful convenience for which I pay $59.40. I know there are other options, such as Quicken and MyCheckFree.com, but I believe using my own bank's system is more secure, and I hope that it will stand behind the system should it go kablooey.
My wife and I keep several bird feeders full year-round to give our cats something to watch from the security of their fenced-in porch. The colorful goldfinches, cardinals, purple finches, and hummingbirds are charming, but not free. The goldfinches' favorite, thistle seed, is $3 a pound or more. Black sunflower seeds for the cardinals run 75 cents a pound, while songbird mix can run $30 for a 17.9 lb. bag. We usually replace one feeder every other year, a $40 expense, and a birdbath bowl every time a 15 lb. raccoon decides to have a soak. All in all, our bird watching costs us at least $100 a year.
8. HBO, etc.
I'm paying $15 a month for HBO to watch a few series that it produces. I'm a fool.
For less money, I could join Netflix, which would allow me to stream movies to my PC and, if I bought the right equipment, my TV. I could also watch as many movies as I could shuffle through the mail.
I could also use the $15 to rent 15 Redbox flicks, including the most recent and popular. While I never get tire of watching The Fifth Element over and over and over (sheesh, HBO -- enough already), I'm thinking my money is better spent elsewhere. I could probably even trim $5 a month from my budget while expanding my options. And who couldn't use an extra $60 a year?
You married women -- look at your engagement ring under a magnifying glass. You may well be appalled at how bent the prongs holding your stone in place are, or how thin they are on top. Are you a fan of the flat gold chain? Those kinks aren't attractive. And how about those broken bracelets, pendents, and earrings sans posts accumulating in your jewelry box?
Jewelry is a consumable, and devotees know that maintenance is necessary. Even the best yellow-gold diamond ring that is prong-set will need retipped every so often, at $15-$25 a prong or more. Broken chains need soldering ($15 and up), rings need sizing (usually up, $30 a size or more), earrings need new posts ($15 or more). As we age and the ratio between our knuckle diameter and that of our finger changes, we might even need a special shank that will keep the ring from spinning (hundreds of dollars).
A jewelry lover who cares about keeping his or her jewelry in the proper wardrobe rotation should expect to pay a sneaky $100 or more each year to keep those rings, pendants, earrings, toe rings and various piercing studs in first-class condition.
My friends have expensive tastes in birthday cards; they have to be funny, a little tasteless and make sounds. This means that we can't buy the cheapo bundles from Amazon or the leftover, picked-over cards at Walgreens. Birthday cards in my circle are closer to $5 than $1. And with my wife's enormous circle of friends, this can add up quickly. And no, no, no, an e-card does not work. An e-card says "I'm not concerned about the chance that I'm sending you a virus."
Now, I'm of the feeling that one card passed back and forth, year after year, suffices; my significant other is appalled at the idea. So I don't expect to be able to trim any money from that tradition.
Add to the card and stamps the cost of cakes, ice cream, candles and the occasional present, and birthdays can easily add a couple of hundred dollars of sneaky expense to the annual budget. And don't get me started on anniversaries.
You can't cut back on some of these expenses, but you can predict them and include them in your budget planning. That way, you might avoid that sinking feeling when your bank account balance sneaks from the black to the red.
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