Americans waste a lot of money – and we know it.
In 2016, Hloom surveyed 2,000 Americans and found that over 80% admit to wasting money in one way or another. Dining out was the biggest culprit, with more than two-thirds of the respondents saying they spend too much at restaurants. Other major money-wasters include alcohol, entertainment, hobbies, and food eaten (or left uneaten) at home.
There are many things people admit wasting money on but still won’t change. For example, some who took the survey say they’re willing to cut out a few restaurant meals, but they won’t cut back on groceries. They’ll cut down on alcohol, but not on hobbies or entertainment.
If you have trouble sticking to a budget, this list is for you. Once you have a better idea of what your personal money-wasters are, you can figure out which expenses you’re willing to cut – and which ones are off-limits.
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Biggest Money Wasters
Americans are most likely to say they waste money on “lifestyle expenses.” Eating, drinking, and entertainment all put a big dent in our budgets. Modern conveniences – such as credit cards, cell phones, and other gadgets – round out the list of the biggest money-wasters.
Food and Drink
Food is clearly a necessity of life, but a surprising number of Americans think they spend too much on it. In fact, the top four extravagances on most people’s lists all involve food and drink.
- Dining Out. Eating out is the biggest budget-buster for most Americans. Nearly 70% of the people who took the survey say they spend too much on it. Other money-wasters differ for men and women, or for people of different age and income groups, but eating out tops the list for everyone.
- Food Waste. Nearly one-third who took the survey say they throw away money by wasting food. Respondents admitted to blowing anywhere from $180 to $285 a year on discarded leftovers from meals. They also said they spend between $215 and $360 a year on groceries that go bad.
- Groceries. Even when groceries don’t go to waste, people still regret how much they spend on them. More than one in four respondents said they waste money at the supermarket. The survey didn’t ask what type of food people think they’re overspending on, but likely culprits include pricey prepared meals and fancy ingredients.
- Drinks. Americans waste nearly as much on drinking as they do on eating. Alcohol, consumed at home or the bar, is a money-waster for more than 25% of survey respondents. Alcohol isn’t the only kind of drink we waste money on. A much smaller, but still significant number of respondents – about 11% – say they spend too much on bottled water.
Next to food, Americans spend the most unnecessary cash on amusement. Roughly 23% of respondents in the Hloom survey said they spend too much on entertainment. However, that category clearly doesn’t include all the things people do for fun, because there were separate categories for hobbies, TV service, and “tech gadgets,” which could include video game systems.
Most of these entertainment options also made the list of most wasteful expenses. Just over 23% of survey respondents said they spent too much on hobbies such as sports. About 18% each said streaming services and cable TV were among their pricey pleasures. The 23% that listed “entertainment” as a splurge were most likely referring to events they attend with friends such as concerts, movies, and plays.
There are just three more items on the Hloom list that waste money for at least 15% of the respondents. All of these are things that we rely on, in one way or another, to fuel our busy, modern lifestyles.
The three money-wasters in this category are:
- Credit Card Interest. According to CreditCards.com, about 34% of American households carry a balance on their credit cards from month to month. More than half consider the interest they pay on that debt to be wasted money.
- Cell Phones and Gadgets. Just over 17% of respondents say they waste money on their cell phones – both the phone itself and the monthly plan. Another 15% say they waste money on other “tech gadgets,” such as computers, cameras, and fitness trackers.
- Cars. Finally, about 15% of respondents claim they waste money on their cars. This includes money spent on gasoline, repairs, and insurance – as well as the payments on the car itself.
Money Wasters for Specific Groups
When Hloom did its survey, it found some interesting differences in the ways certain groups of people waste money. Here’s how the lists differ for:
- Men vs. Women. Women are much more likely than men to say they waste money on uneaten or expired food, groceries, and credit card interest. They also mention spending too much on clothes and cell phones, which don’t even make the top 10 list for men. By contrast, men are more likely than women to say they waste money on alcohol, entertainment, and hobbies. Tech gadgets and cable TV are two indulgences for men that don’t make the list for women.
- Older Americans. Although every age group wastes money eating out, Baby Boomers are less likely to do so than younger people. Only about half of them say dining out is a major expense, compared to more than 70% of Millennials. This group also spends the least on alcohol. However, it’s the only group that tends to overspend on bottled water.
- Younger Americans. Millennials, who were born after 1980, are the group least likely to waste money on credit card interest. This is probably because many of them don’t use credit cards at all. According to Bankrate, only 33% of Millennials own a credit card, compared to more than 50% of Generation X and more than 60% of Baby Boomers. Millennials are also the only age group that doesn’t admit to wasting money on cigarettes. This is surprising since a 2015 Gallup poll showed that Millennials are just as likely to smoke as older Americans. In any case, Millennials still have their indulgences. They spend more than other groups on alcohol, and they’re the only group that says it overspends on entertainment.
- Rich vs. Poor. People with incomes of at least $100,000 are more likely than other groups to waste money on eating out, groceries, and tech gadgets. By contrast, people with the lowest incomes – less than $40,000 – waste the most money on entertainment and hobbies. People in the middle waste the most money on uneaten food, TV services, alcohol, and credit card interest.
- Different Backgrounds. The amount of money people had growing up appears to affect their spending just as much as the amount they make now. People who say they grew up in the lower class are the most likely to feel they waste money on “fun” expenses, like entertainment, hobbies, and streaming services. Those who had upper-class upbringings are most concerned about the money they waste on uneaten food.
- Different Regions. Overall, people who live in New England seem to consider themselves more frugal than people in other parts of the country. Only 63% of them admit to wasting money on dining out, as compared to 77% in the East South Central region (Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky). The same patterns hold for food waste. Thrifty New Englanders estimate that they waste only $180 a year on uneaten meals, $215 on expired groceries, while those in the East South Central region waste $280 and $360 respectively.
What People Won’t Give Up
Even when people know they’re wasting money on something, they aren’t always willing to cut back on it. Out of the top 10 money-wasters in the Hloom survey, more than half were things people would not be willing to reduce their spending.
There’s no clear pattern to which things people are and aren’t willing to give up. For example, most people said they would be willing to cut back on eating out and alcohol, but they wouldn’t cut back on groceries or uneaten food. That makes it look like people are more willing to drop things they see as luxury items. A restaurant meal is a luxury, but food eaten at home seems like a necessity – even food that people know is just going to waste.
However, this pattern doesn’t hold up in other areas. For instance, most people say they are willing to reduce what they spend on heat and electricity – even though these are clearly necessities. And they’re not willing to cut their spending on hobbies, entertainment, or TV service, which are clearly luxuries.
One way to explain this is that entertainment costs are worthwhile luxuries. The work of happiness economists shows that people get more lasting pleasure out of spending money on experiences, such as a Broadway show, than on objects. It only makes sense that people don’t want to cut back on the kind of spending that makes them happy. But at the same time, they don’t think of these expenses as “necessary,” so they feel like they have to say those show tickets were a waste of money.
All this suggests that the phrase “wasted money” can be a bit misleading. Money is only really wasted if you spend it on something that isn’t worth it to you. For instance, if you eat out a lot because it’s convenient, but you don’t enjoy it, then finding ways to eat in more will save you money and make you happier. By contrast, spending $50 on concert tickets isn’t a waste if you truly feel like you got $50 worth of pleasure from the experience.
This also explains why people are willing to cut back on their utility bills. Powering your home is clearly necessary, but wasting electricity – as many people do – doesn’t add to your happiness. So if you’re using too much energy, cutting back will put money in your pocket without making you any less happy. In fact, it could make you happier, because you know you’re shrinking your carbon footprint.
Cutting the Waste
If money is only wasted when you spend it on things that you don’t care about, then the best way to cut waste is to look for things that don’t matter that much to you.
Take a look at your personal budget, and compare it to the categories in this list. Look at how much you spend in each category – eating out, alcohol, uneaten food, entertainment, and so on – and see where the biggest share of your money is going. Then, for each of these categories, ask yourself whether you’re getting value for the money you spend.
For example, Forbes relates the story of a recent college graduate who had a habit of going to Starbucks every morning before work. When a financial planner asked her how much she enjoyed these coffee runs, she admitted that she didn’t care for coffee at all. She only went because it seemed like the thing to do before work. For this person, a daily Starbucks trip was an unexpected waste of money.
Meaningless expenses like these should be the first to get cut. However, even in areas where you feel you’re getting value for your dollar, there could still be ways to save. You don’t want to cut out the things you love, but you can often find ways to enjoy them for less money.
To go back to the Starbucks example, let’s say you’re a regular coffeehouse visitor because you truly love coffee. Giving up your morning cup of Joe doesn’t make sense for you. However, if you learn to make gourmet coffee at home, you can get your coffee fix for a lot less money. By looking for little tips like this in every area, you can make sure you get your money’s worth.
Wasting Less on Food and Drink
Food and drink are the biggest money-wasters, so they’re good places to look to trim fat from your budget. Here are several ways to save money:
- Dining Out. Obviously, you can save the most money by eating out less often. According to the survey, many people are prepared to do just that. However, there are also ways to save when you choose to eat out. For example, you can visit cheaper restaurants, go out for lunch instead of dinner, split an entree, or bag your leftovers. Possible savings: If you skip one $20 restaurant meal each week and eat at home for $5, you can save $780 a year.
- Food Waste. Strangely, this is an expense a lot of people say they aren’t willing to cut back on. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to keep spending money on food they don’t even eat. Maybe they think avoiding food waste is just too difficult – but it doesn’t have to be. You can avoid having food go bad by buying smaller packages and keeping better track of what you have. You can also make it a point to use leftover food for lunches or freezer meals. Possible savings: The average person can save as much as $265 each year.
- Alcohol. One obvious way to save money is to drink less – but there are also ways to enjoy a drink and reduce the expense. For instance, mixing drinks at home is a lot cheaper than buying a round at the bar. If you’re a wine drinker, you can save by seeking out more affordable vintages that are just as good as the pricey ones. Buying wine by the case or choosing boxed wine can also cut your costs. Possible savings: If you give up one $5 cocktail per week, you’ll save $260 per year.
- Groceries. Most people in the Hloom survey say they aren’t willing to cut back on groceries. Perhaps that’s because they don’t want to give up their favorite, expensive foods. But really, there are lots of other ways to cut your grocery bill. One way is to figure out which store in your area has the best prices. You can also shop sales, use coupons and a price book, or consider joining a warehouse club. Possible savings: According to the USDA, a typical middle-class family spends about $5,990 each year on food. If that family can cut its grocery bill by just 10%, that’s a savings of nearly $600 per year.
- Bottled Water. This is another expense that most people aren’t willing to cut. Even though bottled water is much pricier than tap water (and much worse for the environment), some people are attached to it. However, even if you can’t quit your bottled water habit, you can still save by cutting down. For instance, you could drink bottled water only while on-the-go and switch to tap water at home. You can also choose a cheaper brand of water since most studies show there’s no major difference in taste. Possible savings: If you can give up just two $1 bottles of water each week, you’ll save $104 per year.
Wasting Less in Other Areas
Although food and drink are the biggest money-wasters, there are still plenty of other areas in most people’s budgets that can stand a little trimming. Here are some ideas to cut back without making any significant sacrifices:
- Entertainment. Most people don’t want to cut back on entertainment – but spending less doesn’t always mean giving up fun. You can find discounts on many types of entertainment by joining a daily deal site such as Groupon. You can also use a community calendar to find cheap or free events such as festivals and concerts. Your local library can often provide you with movie rentals, music, classes, and spoken-word engagements. If you’re a movie fan, you can save by renting a film, seeing a matinee, or visiting a second-run theater. Possible savings: If you skip a $10 movie night once a week and take home a free disc from the library instead, you can save $520 per year.
- TV Service. TV is another form of entertainment you can save on without giving it up altogether. These days, many people – especially younger people – are skipping pricey cable TV for cheaper streaming services. However, streaming services can be costly if you use too many. To keep the bills down, see if you can find all the shows you love on just one or two services. Possible savings: If you cancel a $100 monthly cable subscription and switch to an $8 streaming service, you’ll save $1,104 per year.
- Credit Card Interest. This is one expense most people would love to live without. The best way to do that is to pay off your bill each month so you never have a balance. If you already owe money, try to pay off that debt as quickly as possible. You can speed up the process by transferring your balance to the card with the lowest interest – or better still, one with no interest. Possible savings: If you have a balance of $3,000 on a card with a 15% APR, it’s costing you about $37 a month in interest. Once it’s paid off, you’ll save about $444 per year.
- Cell Phones. If you’re like most Americans, you’re not prepared to give up your cell phone. However, you can still save money by switching to a cheaper cell phone plan. If you’re not a heavy phone user, you can save by downgrading your unlimited phone plan to one with limited data. Or, look into cheaper brands that cost less than the big carriers. Possible savings: If you trade in an $80 unlimited monthly plan for a basic plan that costs only $50, you’ll save $360 a year.
- Cars. The most obvious way to save on car-related expenses is to drive less. However, this doesn’t mean you have to sit at home. You can make fewer trips by combining errands, sharing a ride with others, or walking and biking short distances. If you aren’t willing to drive less, you can still drive smarter. Maintaining your car properly and driving efficiently gives you better mileage, so you’ll spend less on gas. Being proactive about maintenance will also save money on repairs. Finally, you can cut your insurance bill by haggling with your provider or taking a defensive driving class. Possible savings: If you can find ways to save just one gallon of gas each week, you’ll save about $112 per year.
Cutting out financial waste doesn’t need to be a sacrifice. It’s just a matter of finding the items in your budget that you not only don’t need to spend money on, but don’t really want to spend money on.
In some cases, there are things you’d rather not buy at all – such as the daily Starbucks visit for someone who doesn’t necessarily like Starbucks coffee. In other cases, they’re things you’d like to buy, but are happy to buy for less, such as a $10 movie matinee instead of the $15 evening show, or a $1 daily bottle of water that tastes just as good as a $3 bottle. Either way, cutting these expenses keeps your wallet full without weighing down your spirits.
Where do you waste the most money? What could you do to cut that waste?