College Connect: Eight steps to managing your frivolous expenses

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My budget is usually thwarted by my unrelenting cravings for meals that I can’t make for myself. These meals most often involve Mexican cuisine. One day last week, I spent the majority of the afternoon pacing around my house, resisting the nagging urge to get on Yelp and research Miami’s greatest fish tacos. I eventually gave into this urge, because my love for fish tacos is vast and my quest for the perfect fish taco is never-ending. I found a place kind-of near my house, and ventured out into rush-hour traffic on Biscayne Boulevard.

I became skeptical when I discovered that the restaurant was in one of those open-air malls—like the Plaza in Kansas City; the kind with a Sports Authority, Applebee’s and Forever 21 directly next to each other. Restaurants in those settings seem to be a bit more contrived and less supportive of local economies. Miami is culturally rich, and there are a ton of authentic Mexican and Cuban places to frequent—why short yourself with Chipotle? That’s ultimately what I did, anyway. And it was way overpriced. Eight bucks for two small tacos with little more than individual pieces of Tilapia the size of my pinky finger and a thin sliver of avocado inside. Ridiculous. I left feeling once more like a deflated blow-up Homer Simpson yard fixture.

The same craving consumed me on Sunday. This time, however, it was for huevos rancheros. Real huevos rancheros. I extensively researched for about 45 minutes and eventually—almost reluctantly, since I’d already been burned once—decided on a hole-in-the-wall place in Little Havana about 20 minutes from my place. I left at once. And it’s the best decision I’ve made since I got here. I devoured a generous plate of fried eggs, beans, cheese and salsa. Then I sopped up the leftovers with hot corn tortillas. The best part? All of that for $4.95. I will most certainly be back.

I think cravings are the crux of the budgets for any human being under the age of 25. It’s not talked about nearly enough in personal finance. Sure, we talk a lot about refinancing mortgages, Roth IRAs, restructuring debt and paying the interest off before the principal—but does all of that really apply to me right now? No. Managing my insatiable appetite via my budget does, though. So does learning when to skip a night out on the town, and how to avoid buying things like funny t-shirts and disposable cameras and gallons of Haagen-Dazs mango sorbet.

And I think these eight steps can help most effectively in all of those situations (and a lot of others, too):

No. 1: Define the decision. What are you trying to accomplish? State it clearly.

On Sunday, I was trying to scarf down the largest, most authentic plate of huevos rancheros in the Miami metropolitan area.

No. 2: What’s the need or want behind the decision? Why do you feel you have to make this decision now?

The want behind this decision was the massive craving that haunted me while I was sleeping and essentially woke me up at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. I had to make the decision because I knew that, if I didn’t, it would bother me for the remainder of the day.

No. 3: What’s non-negotiable? What things are you not willing to compromise on if you decide to take action on this decision?

I absolutely was not willing to drive more than 30 minutes and pay more than $8.

No. 4: Have you carefully considered all the options?

Yes. I did not have beans, cheese nor salsa. I was not willing to drive to the grocery store to buy these things. Plus I don’t know how to properly prepare huevos rancheros, and I was not willing to take the time to learn.

No. 5: Assess the various alternatives. Examine each carefully.

See above.

No. 6: What’s the cost and can you afford it? 

The cost was $4.95. I could afford it.

No. 7: Take a step back. Give yourself time to think about the decision. Be patient!

I did think about it for a while. At least 15 minutes. That’s a while to try to decide whether you want to buy some breakfast. I paced the whole time.

No. 8: Make a decision. If you can say with certainty that you have followed the first seven steps, then proceed with confidence knowing you did all you could. Then, don’t look back with regret.

So I went and bought a delicious plate of huevos rancheros.

I know it sounds silly, but what the thought process really gets at is: “Do I really need this?” If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. I’m not saying I needed huevos rancheros, but it was cheap and worth it. And I won’t be going every week.

No one is recommending the memorization of these eight steps. But I personally believe the steps are fluid, and actually just get you to take more time to think and consider before you buy something.

–Madeline O’Leary is a senior majoring in print journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a business intern at the Miami Herald.

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