You can’t predict stock prices or how much you’ll end up with in your IRA when it’s time for you to retire. But could you predict how much money you spend on small day-to-day expenses and household costs each week — those little expenditures like groceries, gas, movie tickets and drugstore runs?
Considering how variable these expenses can be, we decided to launch an experiment: We asked three people to channel their psychic powers and estimate how much they spent on food, entertainment and similar non-fixed costs each week. Then we had our psychics track how much they actually shelled out. Here’s who had decent cash ESP and who failed at reading the tea leaves.
Ben Rogers, 37
As a father of five, much of this traveling technology consultant’s income goes to keeping his kids fed and entertained. “Food is always an uncertain variable,” he jokes. “Some weeks we eat out three times and sometimes not at all.” Something as seemingly low-budget as going to the movies or filling the minivan with gas can constitute a major expenditure that isn’t easy to plan for.
The Prediction: $350
Eating out: $90
The Reality: $255
Eating out: $19
Ben says: “Gas must still be cheap enough that I actually overestimated how much I would spend on an overnight drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Atlanta, Georgia,” says Ben, who chalks up his overestimation on his personality. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about my ability to budget … usually my pessimism is justified.”
Entertaining his large brood proved to be more costly than he thought, but he found a way to cut back. “Taking myself, three kids and some nieces to [a movie] is expensive, even with kids’ priced tickets — I saved my budget by being the mean dad who didn’t buy anyone popcorn.”
Amanda Griffith, 39
“I’m part of a dual-income family with three young children and a dog,” says Amanda. “I have more debt than I would like, and since my children are a little older, I’m working as a media relations and content creation consultant full-time.” Going back to work means daycare and after-school care costs, which are high. “We are also spending more as our children get busier,” she says. “From travel ice hockey costs to two daughters starting the orthodontist process, life is only getting more expensive.”
The Prediction: $1,030
Household goods: $150
Eating out/Gas: $300
The Reality: $1,573
Household goods: $357
Eating out/Gas: $54
Kids clothes: $143
Nail care: $40
Date night: $56
Amanda says: Having three kids during a particularly stressful week threw her numbers way off. “Add to that an unexpected vet bill because our golden retriever clearly ate some treat he shouldn’t have, and this week got expensive,” says Amanda. “I guess I’m not good at budgeting or predicting.”
Amanda says her not-so-great money psychic abilities showed her that she needs to keep closer tabs on unnecessary spending. “It’s hard, but I’m saying no more to my children when they want random snacks or toys,” she says. “This is helping me get a better handle on my finances and teaching my children to better appreciate things. Ultimately, I’d like to keep finding ways to recoup or save money so that I can get out of debt and then start an emergency fund.”
Sarah Kennedy, 26
New York, New York
As a recent graduate of NYU’s School of Social Work, Sarah works with adults with disabilities and moonlights as a babysitter once or twice a week to earn extra spending money.
“The majority of my spending goes toward eating out, drinks with friends, thrift-store shopping and the occasional museum, though there are many free events in the city.” One of the most challenging aspects of life in the Big Apple is managing her temptation to eat out all the time or order food every night, which gets pricey.
The Prediction: $500
Eating out/Drinks: $200
The Reality: $291
Eating out/Drinks: $100
Household goods: $25
Sarah says: She underestimated her expenses because she was traveling to Oregon to visit family and spent less than she would have in New York City. “I ate meals with my relatives and ate in more than I usually do,” says Sarah. “Also, Oregon has no sales tax. That was a nice change compared to New York state’s tax upwards of 8%.”
Sarah says that overall, playing psychic definitely made her more mindful of where she spends money. “I wouldn’t say I’ve curbed my weekly spending, but it did make me consider cost-of-living expenses and the cost of shopping and eating out in a city other than New York and seeing how my dollar could go further in Portland.”
As our three psychics can attest, it’s not easy to calculate day-to-day spending. But since these costs account for a sizable part of your budget, knowing how much you lay out and where it goes is all part of smart budgeting. One way to get a handle on it is to know your flex spending number, which is a component of the one-number budgeting strategy, a LearnVest financial principle.