If you're struggling to keep yourself financially afloat, it probably isn't because you made a couple of big splurges. Rather, you're probably making a bunch of small spending mistakes on a regular basis, and these bad habits are adding up in a big way.
And as is the case with many bad habits, you probably won't even realize it's a problem until you come home one night to find that your friends are staging an intervention. So, consider this an intervention: You're doing a lot of stupid things with your money, and it's time to make some changes before you completely drain your bank account.
This being the week of July Fourth, let's compose a new declaration of independence: You're going break free from whichever spending habits are killing your wallet. While everyone's has their own unique catalog of transgressions, here are a few common money blunders that you might be making on a regular basis.
Getting Delivery or Dining Out Too Often
You eat at least three meals a day, which adds up to about a hundred opportunities a month to overspend. Too many people seize those opportunities by going out to eat or ordering delivery.
Take lunch, for instance. No, really -- take lunch. Because if you're going to Au Bon Pain or Cosi or another sandwich chain instead of packing your own sandwich, you're likely paying around $8 instead of the $3 or so it would cost to make own in your own kitchen. If you're getting food delivered to the office, you're paying even more -- most of the restaurants on Seamless.com have a delivery minimum of $10 to $15, plus the tip you should be giving the guy delivering it.
Going out to dinner is even worse. Entrees will run you at least $15 each, appetizers and alcohol will jack up the price even further, and then you've got a tip of around 20 percent.
Even breakfast is a budget-killer. Buy a box of cereal at the beginning of the week, and each bowl will cost less than a dollar. Go out for a croissant or breakfast sandwich every morning, and you're easily spending twice that.
Liberate yourself from high dining costs: Do more of your own cooking.
Deceiving Yourself with Daily Deals
There are a lot of ways daily deal sites can eat into your finances. You might buy a bad deal that turns out not to offer the savings it promised. Maybe you've purchased a deal and forgotten to redeem it. Or perhaps you bought a bunch of Groupon stock after the IPO and then watched in dismay as it tanked.
But there's another way that daily deals can cost you -- simply by enticing you to buy a bunch of deals you don't need.
Retailers have always lured shoppers by promising discounts that will disappear if you don't act soon. Daily-deal sites take that technique up a notch by pumping up the discounts (most Groupon ads promise something in the vicinity of 50 percent off) while constraining most of the deals to last 24 hours or less.
If you're using these sites to save on something you were already going to buy, don't worry about it. But if you find yourself constantly buying restaurant coupons and teeth-whitening services, you're probably spending too much.
Seeing Movies in Theaters
There was a time when going to the movies was defensible. Back then, movies tickets were relatively cheap, and if you wanted to watch a movie at home, you were paying to rent a VHS and watch it on a standard-definition TV.
But now ticket prices have run amok, while at-home entertainment options have improved by leaps and bounds. Prices for HD TVs are better than ever now that demand has bottomed out, and you can instantly access thousands of movies by subscribing to Netflix, Amazon or another streaming service. For the cost of one movie ticket, you can get two months of Netflix and watch a new movie every night.
It's not always easy to skip the theater when there's a new release out that you really want to see. But if you can wait for it to show up in Redbox, you can save more than 90% over the ticket price (and skip the concession mark-up, too).
Chasing Rewards points
If your credit is good enough to qualify for a no-fee rewards card, and you're not using one for your purchases, you're leaving money on the table.
But it's also possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and get completely out-of-control in the pursuit of credit card rewards points. If one of your 5 percent bonus categories is restaurants, that doesn't mean you need to run out and max out the category with $1,500 in restaurant in spending just to get $75 back. You wouldn't spend hundreds of dollars at a department store just to get a 5 percent discount; why would you do it to get rewards points?
That's not to say that you should never change your spending habits to chase rewards points. If you can get a really significant sign-up bonus for spending a lot of money in the first few months -- say, $400 cash-back for spending $3,000 in the first three months -- then it makes sense to shift your spending onto that card and maybe even loosen the purse strings a bit to get to that threshold.
And you can also max out your categories through creative spending. Let's say you go to Starbucks a lot, and it's a 5 percent category this quarter. If you don't expect you're going to reach your limit over the course of a quarter, you can use that rewards card to buy a Starbucks gift card, get the points, and then use the gift card to buy your coffee once the bonus expires.
But as a general rule, you want to be very careful that the promise of cash-back doesn't make you cash-poor.
Getting Lazy About Recurring Bills
Many American joined gyms back in January as part of their New Year's resolutions to get healthy. And if you were one of them, there's a pretty good chance your visits to the gym probably dwindled until you're hardly going at all. You may even have stopped going altogether.
But unless you went ahead and canceled your membership, your gym is probably continuing to charge your card every month for a service you no longer you use. Maybe you'd forgotten about this recurring charge, or maybe you just convinced yourself that you should leave it be, so as not to resign yourself to the fact that you've ditched your New Year's Resolution.
This is the worst kind of spending habit: the kind that persists through inaction and inertia. And it's not limited to gym memberships: subscription services like Netflix likewise use automatic billing, because they know you're more likely to cancel your membership if you have to sit down and assess things every month when it comes time to re-up.
Our tip: Go through your budget and give serious thought to whether each recurring charge is something you really need. You might even find yourself canceling big charges like your cable if you realize you've stopped watching.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
Take the first steps to building your portfolio.View Course »