Shortly after Brian J. O'Connor moved from Florida to Michigan eight years ago to work as a personal finance columnist at a newspaper, the recession hit.
At the time, his wife was busy caring for her aging father in Florida, so she was unable to return to work. As a result, their home equity line was frozen—along with raises at the newspaper. Then O'Connor's insurance company informed him that his son’s speech therapy would not be covered.
After taking a serious look at their situation, O'Connor challenged himself to slash his family’s budget, so he could afford his son's treatment on top of their day-to-day living—and, like any good columnist, wrote all about it.
In "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese," he explains how he trimmed $100 a week from his spending for ten straight weeks to the tune of $1,000.
From finding services on his cell phone bill that he’d forgotten to cancel to discovering an unused email account that he’d been paying to keep, his honest-to-a-fault storytelling proves that a little work goes a long way when it comes to saving. And as you'll see from this interview, everyone can follow O'Connor's example.
LearnVest: Can you explain how the challenge started?
Brian J. O'Connor: Living in Detroit, we were at ground zero for everything happening in the country during the recession. As a journalist, I looked at the cumulative effects of changes to the auto industry: lost jobs, economic downturn ... and it occurred to me that people didn’t need to read about which credit card would give them the most frequent-flyer mile points.
So I decided to take the top 10 spending categories in my family’s budget and cut each one by $100 for a total of $1,000. I covered one spending category each week in my column, which I renamed the "Grand Experiment." When I started, I didn’t know if we’d accomplish our goal, but I knew it would be a good story either way. If we could slash $1,000 from our budget, that would be great. If we couldn’t, it would show how bad things really were during the recession.
Which spending category was the easiest to trim?
Utilities. I spent a couple of hours reviewing my bills and making just three or four phone calls, and it ended up saving us $140 per month—and that was a permanent amount of savings going forward, not just a promotional offer.
In addition to the lower price I didn't know to request from my cable company, canceling a bogus voicemail service someone (probably my son) had accidentally signed up for and switching to another bundled cable/internet package, I also received $600 in refunds, temporary price discounts and rebates.
I know people don’t think that they have time to negotiate services and rates, but if you really want to make something happen, you need to make the effort. The best thing about making a call is that you can quit and hang up—but at least try!
And what were the hardest categories to cut?
Housing and transportation. With the house, all we could really do was lower our insurance. I could have appealed my tax valuation because I was certainly paying more taxes than I should have been—but the real lesson there is to look at what you’re getting into before signing on the dotted line.
There are a lot of bad choices out there—you see more ads for credit cards and low payments than you do for budgets.
As for transportation, saving on gas was tough. Prices are a little cheaper now, so we’re getting better there—but, of course, then we had to buy another car because one of ours was too old. My wife and I carpool whenever we can, which saves us more than 100 miles per week on commuting costs, but it’s not always possible.
What makes your challenge different from others?
I used humor. There are a lot of bad choices out there—you see more ads for credit cards and low monthly payments than you do for budgets, so people are naturally going to give in, choose a couple of bad options and make mistakes. When you realize what you’ve done, you can either cry or laugh about it. What’s the most helpful way to pick yourself up and move forward? In my opinion, it’s being able to laugh at your mistake, decide to fix it and then pat yourself on the back for doing so.
It’s been a few years since you completed the challenge. What does your budget look like now?
We’re still challenged. It’s not like we have a ton of savings tucked away or are living without any financial concerns. But when we started our challenge, we were going through our savings and increasing our debt, and we’ve stopped doing both. We’re still adding to our emergency fund, still investing and still looking at ways to cut back on our grocery tab. And I’m always considering canceling my cable!
Did the challenge change any of your views on money?
Achieving my goal has helped me become more conscious about where my money is going—and less willing to spend money on things that aren’t important to me. Seeing what you can accomplish shows that you really need to be a steward of your resources. We’re constantly trading money for time, so we should be getting some value out of each dollar that we spend.
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If readers could take away one lesson from your book, what would you want it to be?
If you want to slash your budget, you don’t have to go through all of your bills and obsess over every penny you spend. Start by making a goal to review one bill each month. Look it over, see what you’re really paying for and assess if you’re getting enough value for the money you’ve spent. Eventually, reviewing your bills will change the way you think about money.
LearnVest is giving away a free copy of "The $1,000 Challenge!" To enter to win, tell us about an instance in which you successfully cut your costs—and how you did it—in the comments below.