A couple who spent $30,000 eating out last year highlight a critical money lesson

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Do you know how much you spend on subscriptions and memberships each year? What about bars and restaurants?

If you don't regularly track your expenses, the numbers may be surprising.

They certainly were for one couple, who reviewed their credit card statements only to find that they spent $30,000 eating out in 2016, according to Frugal Rules blogger John Schmoll. That's more than $82 a day for their three-person family.

To make things worse, they also realized they were spending $200 a month, or $2,400 a year, for two separate gym memberships that they never use. Despite making good money, by living up to their means, the couple doesn't have much left over each month to put towards retirement.

They're just one example of the millions of Americans who are failing to pay themselves first, and consequently, are unprepared for retirement. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), nearly half of families have zero retirement savings.

Retirement in America is changing rapidly
Retirement in America is changing rapidly

"What most people do when they earn a dollar is pay everyone else first. They pay the landlord, the credit card company, the telephone company, the government ..." writes financial adviser David Bach in "The Automatic Millionaire," and at the end of the day, they pay themselves whatever is left over. Oftentimes, that's not much.

The first thing you should do when your paycheck clears is pay yourself. Most experts recommend setting aside at least 10 percent of your pretax income in a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) plan, Roth IRA, or traditional IRA.

The easiest way to do that is to make the transfer automatic — meaning, have your contributions automatically taken out of your paycheck and sent straight to your retirement account. That way, you won't even see the money, so you won't be tempted to blow it on a trip to the Caribbean or a new pair of Jimmy Choo's.

Next, you'll want to get in the habit of increasing your contributions consistently, either every six months, at the end of the year, or when you get a bonus or a raise.

If you already find yourself behind when it comes to retirement savings, don't let that discourage you from saving and investing. Start by looking at your credit card statements and evaluating your spending habits — you may find a $30,000 category that you can cut back on.

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