Although Robert P. Miller made a good salary as a health care professional, he still found himself short by $600 to $800 at the end of every month.
Miller was in debt to the tune of more than $200,000, including his mortgage. "I didn't have enough money at the end of the month to pay the small bills," said the 44-year-old Columbia man. "I was robbing one bill to pay off another."
His wasn't a simple case of overspending. Two heart attacks, one at age 36 and a second at age 41, kept him out of work temporarily. Then, the onset of diabetes cost him additional wages last year. Miller had to file personal bankruptcy.
"I was spending a lot, but I was making a lot," he said. "But then I got sick and I couldn't keep up."
In July, Miller sought help from the Maryland Cooperative Extension program, which offers counseling in personal finances. Miller learned to track his expenses and stay within a budget. He also cut back on impulse buying, cable service, and paid down his credit-card debt.
So far, Miller has slashed his debt by $35,000 and even been able to increase his contribution to his 401(k) fund.
"When someone does make a turnaround, they have to make a major life change," said Dian Rowe, a family and consumer science educator with the statewide program that helped Miller -- a program administered through the University of Maryland, College Park. "There's no magic pill."
Glen J. Buco, senior vice president of West Financial Services Inc., in Annandale, Va., said that by doing some simple budget trimming, many of his clients can significantly reduce spending and not feel deprived.
"Most people can save 10 percent of their living expenses and hardly notice the difference," Buco said. "Anything above that gets a lot more difficult."
Many of the clients he sees spend large amounts of money on dining out. "I see people coming in with $8,000 or $9,000 worth of eating out a year," he said. "Unless you eat at home a lot, you're not going to save $1,000, but it won't be hard to save $500 or so," he said.
Small lifestyle changes are going to make the biggest difference, Buco said. "There are a few things you can do right off the bat to save some big amounts, but mostly it's going to be adding up the nickels."
Several financial planners recommend these tips to save money:
Pack a bag lunch. That can save an average of $1,000 a year.
Put aside pocket change and add $1 each day. By the end of each month you will have saved between $50 and $100.
Seek credit cards with lower interest rates.
Look upon eating out as a special treat rather than a regular occurrence.
Shop at yard sales and secondhand shops.
Consider mortgage refinancing. Ask to eliminate private mortgage insurance that may no longer be necessary because of appreciation of equity and pay down. Savings could be $25 or $30 a month.
Eliminate unnecessary cable channels, health club memberships and mobile phones that generate monthly bills whether they are used or not. Cutting out a mobile phone with an average cost of $35.37 a month can save $420 a year.
Don't buy extended warranties since they often go unused.
Don't buy premium grades of gasoline. The difference between premium and regular can add up to $125 a year.
Restructure insurance coverage so that it falls under one carrier to obtain a discount.
Join a wholesale warehouse to shop in bulk. Have the first cup of coffee of the day at home. That can save about $160 a year.