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How to Squeeze the Most Out of Your Budget

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By Kara McGuire

RISMEDIA, Sept. 16, 2008-(MCT)-If you’re like me, every piece of bad news about the economy has you hugging your wallet tighter. We’re definitely in a psychological recession, if not a bona fide economic one. Still, you can’t expect the inhabitants of America, land of plastic and marketing pitches, to quit going out and having fun.

The average American spent $2,376 in 2006 on entertainment, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data. If your income puts you in the highest 20% of earners, your entertainment spending was probably more like $5,105 that year. Think about it. Netflix subscriptions and iPod downloads. Cable TV, pricey cell phone plans, packages of theater tickets. It all adds up and the cost typically increases each year.

Yet many of us need to tighten our belts to balance our budgets.

So what’s the solution? Perhaps embracing “budgetainment” and “freevents,” both close cousins of the “staycation.”

Public relations veteran Maria Verven introduced me to the budgetainment concept, although I’ve been a patron for years. Put simply: “Many of us want to be entertained, but have a limited budget,” she said.

You can blame the second term on me. It came to me as I took mental note of how many great free events and concerts my family missed this summer.

How do you find these events? Keep your eyes open and your in-box full. Read the paper, glance at bulletin boards, pick up free publications, listen to the radio and sign up for e-mail newsletters from your favorite venues and retailers. I recently enjoyed “The Government Inspector” at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, plus a beer and a brat, for just $25. My in-box has also been graced with $5 ticket deals from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and $10 tickets from the Minnesota Orchestra.

Let’s call another rule of thumb I use: “no happy hour, no way.” Plenty of great places to eat and drink offer specials at a certain day or time. Spending a few minutes at the computer searching “kids eat free” or “half price wine” with your city’s name could save you a lot of money. Of course, it’s cheaper not to eat out at all, but budgetainment is about finding a way to treat yourself on a budget, not how many days in a row you can stand to eat peanut-butter sandwiches at home.

Heather Johnson of Brooklyn Park, Minn., adheres to an entertainment and eating-out budget of no more than $100 per month for her family, and uses her connections to stretch those dollars further. For example, she’s purchased cheap tickets to places such as the Minnesota Zoo through work and her insurance company, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Be sure you know about discounts offered through your employer.

Reader Soren Erickson’s tip is to work where you’d spend all of your money anyway. Erickson worked at a bar during his years at Minnesota State University.

“It pays well, work is often fun, on your off days you’ll likely get a deal from friendly bartenders, and it will minimize how much money you spend at the bar since you’ll have to work nights,” wrote the 31-year-old Farmington, Minn., resident on my blog, www.startribune.com/kablog.

But be careful. Without discipline, this strategy will backfire and you’ll spend your entire paycheck before you get home.

Finally, if you feel peer pressure to spend money and want to cut back without missing out, consider having a frank conversation with your social circle about setting a spending limit.

You could also try what 29-year-old Katie Wenigmann calls an “ATM diet,” where you take a certain amount of cash out at the beginning of the week and it has to last until the next week no matter what.

For Wenigmann, who brings a bag lunch and cooks at home all week to afford eating out on the weekends and wishes her indebted friends would do the same, setting a spending limit or starting a group ATM diet might help her good habits rub off on her good friends.

© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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