Controlling Expenses From the Top Down


top downIn an attempt to get control over finances, we’ll usually start with an assault on the smallest expenses; because they’re the smallest, cutting them will produce the least amount of disruption in our lifestyles. But it’s equally true that cutting small expenses also produces the lowest savings. No amount of coupon clipping, turning out unused lights or canceling subscriptions will offset a crippling house payment or an outsized car payment.

If we’re serious about controlling our financesâ”and I mean really serious–nothing will have greater impact than lowering expenses from the top down, meaning the Big Stuff. I’m talking about four expenses in particularâ”housing, cars, health insurance and entertainment.

Let’s consider each and the impact it has on our finances. At the end, we’ll discuss why this is even more important for a Christian.

Housing

Many or even most other expenses in your budget will be determined by how much you spend on housing. A house is the single biggest driver of lifestyle inflation! Where you live and the size of the home affects what you pay for utilities, repairs and maintenance, furniture, insurance and even entertainment and the car you park in your driveway. It’s never just about being able to afford a particular house payment–bigger houses seem to demand higher outlays for everything else.

For this reason it’s critical to be conservative in your choice of housing. For decades we were told to buy the biggest house we could afford, and our finances would grow into it; do we believe that anymore? Should we?

Here’s something else: once you close on your home and sign the mortgage papers there’s no way to lower your monthly house payment should it become necessary! This is especially true today since the ability to refinance is no longer assured. And while the principal and interest portion of your payment will be stable for the life of your loan (on a fixed rate), taxes and insurance can and usually do rise over time.

Consider these facts when buying a home, or even if you’re currently struggling to maintain your payment. It’s better to buy beneath your means when it comes to housing.

Cars

High car expense isn’t nearly as long term in scope as housing, but it can still do a lot of damage in the short run. Much like housing, other expenses tend to rise the more you pay for a car. Like housing, there’s a strong argument for buying less car than you can afford.

If you’re struggling with an uncomfortably high house payment you may want to consider buying no more car than you can afford to pay cash for. A car payment on top of a large house payment can be the tripwire into financial oblivionâ”most of us can afford to carry some debt but we can’t have it coming at us from all directions.

Health insurance

There’s a strong case to be made that this is quite possibly the most important expense we have in the modern world, but even if that’s true it still has limits. Many people want their health insurance plan to cover as much as possibleâ”the fewer checks they have to write the better. The problem with this goal, from a financial standpoint, is that it’s also very expensive.

A substantial part of the cost of health insurance is coverage over first dollar expenses. What this means is that the lower your co-payments, deductibles and co-insurance provisions, the more you’ll pay for your premiums.

If you’re in generally good health, it can be more cost effective to trade higher co-payments, deductibles and coinsurance provisions for lower monthly premiums. You can also offset these by maintaining an emergency fund balance large enough to cover your maximum deductible and coinsurance provision in any one year. You’ll be covered in the event the worst happens, and if it doesn’t you’ll be ahead through lower monthly premiums.

Entertainment

Not so long ago entertainment was a fringe expense, something we paid for with what was left after all the bills were paid and some money was socked away in the bank. No longer. Today entertainment has a far stronger claim on our first fruits, so much so that many go into debt to be able to afford it.

The problem with this lifestyle is that it’s expensive! Theme parks, travel, restaurant meals and professional sporting events are expensive, and even old stand-by’s, like movie theaters, are no longer cheap. If you’re entertaining yourself with these on a regular basis it’s a solid bet that entertainment is eating up a much larger slice of your finances than you might assume.

I have a theoryâ”stay with me for a momentâ”I think formal entertainment has grown with the decline of families and communities. The less interaction we have with people, the more we’re willing to pay to find recreation and contentment in more formal venues.

Spend more time with peopleâ”they’re more fun than formal entertainment, and a lot less expensive. Be purposeful about getting together with family and friends on simple activities like potluck suppers, outings or at home movie nights.

If boredom is an issue, try volunteering to help the less fortunate, exercising to improve your health or starting a side business to earn extra money.

What’s the payoff?

I’m of the opinion that as Christians we need to travel light❠in life. That starts with keeping control of the biggest expenses. By doing so we have more money free for other purposes; some examples:

Mobility. God sometimes calls us to stop what we’re doing and to go in a different direction. Mission work is an example; a career or geographic move are a couple of others. It’s not so easy to heed such a call when we’re weighed down with expensive possessions, large debts or a high cost lifestyle. We need to be ready because we can never know when such a call might come.

Peace of mind. Possessions have a way of controlling our thinking. The more possessions we have, and the more money we have tied up in them, the more we obsess on them. While we’re obsessing, we’re stressing, to at least some degree, and almost certainly neglecting other pursuits we’re charged with, including prayer and Bible study, fellowship and volunteering.

Liquidity. I believe that as Christians, we have an implied command to stay liquidâ”that is to have money, time and resources to contribute to our churches and to help others. Having income available and at least some discretionary savings will enable us to either deal with a personal crisis, or to help others with theirs. None of that can happen if our income and savings are maxed out in possessions or a lifestyle that’s at or just beyond our reach.

Giving. The less money we spend on our basic cost of livingâ”in other words, the money we spend on usâ”the more we’ll have to store up treasures in heaven❠( Matthew 6:20) by helping others.

Time. It’s become almost axiomatic in our culture that we never have enough time; how much of this owes to the fact that we strive to acquire and maintain a certain lifestyle? Time is probably a more valuable commodity than money because it represents our very lives, and not just our money. The more of it that we have that’s free, the more we have to do everything else we should be doing as followers of Jesus Christ. Our witnesses are driven more by how we use our time than by how we use our money. But in the Catch-22 that life can be, how we use our money has a major effect on how we use our time as well.

We can free up both our money and time for Kingdom purposes by controlling all kinds of expenses. But by tackling the biggest onesâ”by controlling our expenses from the top downâ”we can do even more!

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Written by Kevin

With backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry, Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of OutOfYourRut.com, a website about careers, business ideas, money and more. A committed Christian, he lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids.

Kevin

With backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry, Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of OutOfYourRut.com, a website about careers, business ideas, money and more. A committed Christian, he lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids.

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