Top Spending Categories to Cut When You’re Trying to Save Money

By Kim Franke-Folstad · April 15, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Top Spending Categories to Cut When You’re Trying to Save Money

If you’re trying to save some money, trimming some discretionary spending categories from your budget can be a good way to start.

But it isn’t necessarily the only or best way to save — especially if reducing or removing things like streaming services, concerts, or monthly massages from your budget makes it harder to stick to your plan.

Instead, it may make sense to track where your money is going for a few weeks and then take a look at all your spending categories to determine which cuts could have the biggest impact.

What Are Spending Categories?

Spending categories can help you group similar expenses together to better organize your budget. They can come in handy when you’re laying out your spending priorities, deciding how much money to allot toward various wants and needs, and determining whether an expense is essential or nonessential.

Many of the budgets you’ll see online use pretty much the same spending categories, such as housing, transportation, utilities, food, childcare, and entertainment. But you may find it’s more useful to track your spending for a while with a money tracker, and then create some of your own categories. You may choose to drill down to specific bills or go broader, breaking down your budget into just the basics.

By personalizing your spending categories, you may be able to put together a budget that’s more manageable — and, therefore, one you’re more likely to stay with.

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How Do Spending Categories Work?

To customize your spending categories, it can help to gather as much information as possible about where your money is actually going.

You can start by looking at old bank and credit card statements to get a good picture of past spending. Your bigger spending categories should be easier to figure out. Those bills are often due on the same day every month and are usually about the same amount. But you’ll also want to keep an eye out for expenses that come just once or a few times a year (such as taxes, vet bills, etc.). And, if you use cash frequently, you’ll want to determine where that money went, too.

A tracking app can help you grasp the hard truth about your spending as you move forward. That cute plant you bought for your windowsill? Pitching in for a co-worker’s going-away gift? Those little splurges can add up before you know it.

Once your spending picture comes into focus, you can divide your expenses into useful personal budget categories, and start thinking about what you might be able to trim or cut out altogether.

💡 Quick Tip: When you have questions about what you can and can’t afford, a spending tracker app can show you the answer. With no guilt trip or hourly fee.

Examples of Spending Categories

Although it can be effective to organize your spending categories in a way that’s unique to you, there are a few basic classifications that can work for most households when making a budget: They include:

Essential Spending

•   Housing: This category could include your rent or mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowners or renters insurance, HOA fees, etc.

•   Utilities: You could limit this to basic services like gas, electricity, and water, or you might decide to include your cell phone service, cable, and WiFi costs.

•   Food: This amount could be limited to what you spend on groceries every month, or it could include your at-home and away-from-home food costs.

•   Transportation: Your car payment could go in this category, along with fuel costs, parking fees, car maintenance, car insurance, public transportation, and DMV fees. You could also include the cost of Uber rides.

•   Childcare: If you need childcare while you work, this cost would be considered necessary spending. If it’s for a night out, you may want to move it to the entertainment or personal care category.

•   Medical Costs and Health Care: This could include your health insurance premiums, insurance co-pays and prescription costs, vision and dental care, etc.

•   Clothing: Clothing is a must-have, of course, but with limits. You may want to put impulse items in a separate category as a nonessential or discretionary expense.

Non-essential Spending

•   Travel: This category would be for any travel that isn’t work-related, whether it’s a road trip or a vacation in Paris.

•   Entertainment: You could get pretty broad in this category, but anything from streaming services and videogames to concerts and plays could go here.

•   Personal: This might be your category for things like salon visits, your gym membership, and clothes and accessories that are more of a want than a need.

•   Gifts: If you’re a generous gift-giver, you may find you need a separate category for these expenses.

Other Spending

•   Savings and investments: Though it isn’t “essential” for day-to-day life, putting money aside for long- and short-term goals is a must for most budgets.

•   Emergency fund: This will be your go-to for unexpected car repairs, home repairs, or medical bills.

•   Debt repayment: Student loan payments, credit card debt, and other balances you’re trying to pay off could fit in this category.

Pros and Cons of Spending Categories

The idea of making a budget can be daunting, particularly if you’re trying to fit your needs and wants into spending categories that aren’t suited to how you live. Here are some pros and cons to using categories for spending that might keep you motivated and help you avoid potential budgeting pitfalls.


•   More control: Creating a budget with spending categories that match your lifestyle can help you put your money toward things that really matter to you.

•   Less stress: If you’re living paycheck to paycheck even though you know your income is sufficient to cover your needs, a budget with realistic spending categories can help you see where your money is going.

•   Better planning: Whether you’re trying to save for a vacation, wedding, house, retirement, or all of the above, including those goals in your spending categories will help ensure they get your attention.


•   May feel limiting: Working with a budget can feel restrictive, especially if you’ve been winging it for a while or aren’t including enough discretionary spending.

•   Time consuming: It might take some trial and error to find a budget system that works for you. And if you’re budgeting as a couple, you’ll likely have to work out some compromises when determining your spending categories.

•   Requires maintenance: Budgeting isn’t a one and done. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you consistently track your spending to make sure you’re hitting your goals.

Common Spending Categories to Cut First

Often when you see or hear budgeting advice, it tends to focus on cutting back on small extras — $6 daily lattes at your favorite café, for example, or those weekly Happy Meals for the kids. Some other top spending categories that traditionally are among the first to hit the chopping block include:

•   Gym memberships

•   Dining out

•   Subscription services you don’t use anymore

•   Cable

•   Personal care services you can do at home for less, such as manicures and pedicures

•   Alcoholic beverages

•   Cigarettes and vaping products

•   Vacations

But it can also be useful to review, and potentially cut back on, how much you’re budgeting for basic living expenses, such as:

•   Clothing and shoes

•   Utility bills

•   Groceries

•   Insurance

•   Cars

•   Cellphones and computers

•   Rent

Tips for Customizing Your Spending Categories

As you create your spending plan, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s. If you track your expenses and use that information to create your personalized budget, you may have a better chance of building a plan you can stick with.

Here are some more steps to consider as you get started:

•   Be realistic. It may take a while to get to your goal, but doing even a little bit consistently can make a difference. Know yourself and do what you can.

•   Don’t forget irregular expenses. Bills that you pay every month can be easy to remember. (You might even put them on autopay to make things more convenient.) But infrequent expenses such as tax bills can get away from you if you don’t include them in your spending categories.

•   Avoid spending more than you have. Knowing how much you’ll have left after taxes each month is an important part of successful planning. An emergency fund can help you stay on track when unexpected expenses pop up.

•   Leave room for fun. Eliminating date nights and small splurges completely could make it much harder to stay with your plan.

•   Pay yourself. Make saving and investing goals a separate spending category.

•   Find a budgeting method that works for you. Whether it’s the popular 50/30/20 budget — which divides your after-tax income into needs, wants, and savings — or a detailed spending breakdown with multiple categories, try various budgeting methods until you find one that motivates you.

💡 Quick Tip: Income, expenses, and life circumstances can change. Consider reviewing your budget a few times a year and making any adjustments if needed.

The Takeaway

Want to save some money but know you need to make some changes? Monitoring where your money is going every month can help you create a spending plan with categories that are customized to your needs, wants, and goals. A plan that’s realistic, but not too restrictive, can give you the kind of control and motivation you need to get and stay on track financially.

Take control of your finances with SoFi. With our financial insights and credit score monitoring tools, you can view all of your accounts in one convenient dashboard. From there, you can see your various balances, spending breakdowns, and credit score. Plus you can easily set up budgets and discover valuable financial insights — all at no cost.

With SoFi, you can keep tabs on how your money comes and goes.


What are the four main categories in a budget?

The four main spending categories for most budgets are housing, food, utilities, and transportation. Once you’ve established how much you’ll need to cover these costs, you can move on to planning for other expenses.

What is the 50/30/20 rule of budgeting?

The 50/30/20 rule is a budgeting method that allocates your take-home income to three main spending categories: needs or essentials (50%), wants or nonessentials (30%), and saving or financial goals (20%).

What are the four characteristics of a successful budget?

A successful budget usually includes accurate income and spending projections, realistic and personalized spending categories, consistent and frequent check-ins, and solid savings goals.

Photo credit: iStock/mapodile

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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