Last month, when our credit card bill arrived with a loud clang in my inbox, (OK, so it didn't really arrive with a clang, but in my head that's always what it sounds like when I see it), I did what I do every month and braced for the number. Spoiler alert: It wasn't a pretty number at all. With four kids, we've had to be smart with our money, but to be honest, I've never put myself on a budget before. After I looked at the number on the bill, I was shocked. How much were we overspending? Was it time for a budget? Was this all my fault?
Somehow, and without any real awareness on my part, my husband and I had spent $2,000 more than our take-home pay for the month on essentially nothing. Grocery shopping, which included clothes for the kids, toiletries, and all the miscellaneous household purchases that always seem to pop up, like those matching hat and glove baskets for the kids I just had to have to survive the winter, took up the biggest part of our budget. But even with spending so much on our groceries, we'd also managed to spend a couple hundred on going out to eat as well.
Even though I should have seen it coming, like every month, I was totally blindsided. Looking at the number on our statement, I felt a little sick. How had we spent so much? Where was all my hard-earned money going? Is this really the best we could do? Spend away and hope for the best, holding my breath every time a new credit card cycles rolled around?
The truth is, I've gone 29 years of my life without using an actual budget. I agree with the idea of a budget, I think they're the responsible, beneficial, and thoroughly adult move, but for some reason, I can never actually seem to follow through on adhering to one.
After a long talk (and an even longer, cringe-worthy look at our finances), my husband and I decided enough was enough. It was time to to start a real, budget. Our spending had just clearly gotten out of control, and we needed to make a change in a big, huge way. The only possible option? A budget that kept our spending down and our savings up. We decided it was time and put ourselves on a super strict budget over a three-month period. We wanted to be able to get out of debt and set aside a decent chunk for all our future plans.
The Goal: Getting Out Of Debt
I'm a person who thrives on goal setting and reaching those goals, so in order to "trick" myself mentally into starting a budget, I decided to set a few financial goals for the year as an incentive. After paying off one of our student loans (yes!), it felt so good that I decided to squash the rest of our debt.
Although we've never had credit card debt, we've had a lot of other debt, from graduate school student loans for both my husband and I to a car loan for a car that, frankly, was way too expensive for us. We financed it because we wanted it, but it was a huge strain on our finances.
So we decided to set a pretty lofty goal of completely paying off our remaining student loan and car debt — over $16,000 — by the end of our three-month experiment to save enough to pay for the dream honeymoon to Hawaii we never got to take because we were 21 and pregnant when we got married. (Read: completely broke.) All together, we were looking at coming up with approximately $20,000. Did I mention my husband makes about $30,000 a year as a public school teacher? Totally doable, right? Ha.
It wasn't that I needed my husband to take care of this or that I wasn't responsible enough to take it on myself. Instead, I needed a partner to help me through, and cutting back in such a major way meant that we both needed to lean on each other to make this work.
We decided to trim absolutely everything out of our monthly expenses that we didn't absolutely need, so that meant cutting off my phone insurance ($20 a month that we will never, ever use), canceling my Hulu subscription (sob), and zero fun money for the first month (goodbye Starbucks). I also clipped coupons and signed up for all the online rewards at our grocery stores that I could and my husband and I both took on extra, random jobs to bring in more money. I gave a few speeches locally for my book and he took on some work at his dad's farm and got hired for a few woodworking projects. I implemented a few "zero spend" weeks, which left me literally scrounging in our cupboards for food, but essentially, we aimed to slash our expenses in any way possible and increase our income at the same time to put all of our income towards debt.
Phase #1: Living By A Budget
Although I normally handle all of our family's finances and my husband generally can't even remember the password to our bank account, he completely took the reigns on actually setting our budget. Seeing him take an interest for the first time in our marriage really made me believe me that we could do this. It wasn't that I needed my husband to take care of this or that I wasn't responsible enough to take it on myself. Instead, I needed a partner to help me through, and cutting back in such a major way meant that we both needed to lean on each other to make this work. We were actually working as a team and he was completely on board with me, finance-wise. He wrote down every single thing we spend money on every month:
- Car Insurance
- Homeowners' Insurance
- Phone and Internet
- Heat and electricity
It sounds ridiculous, but before this, we'd never actually taken the time to write down all of our expenses, and once we did, it was completely disappointing. Together, we have a lot of bills, and add in our four kids and we've got a lot more. In fact, even our "non-negotiable" bills added up to way more than my husband brought home.
I'd heard over and over from people who budgeted how "freeing" it is to be the one in control of your money, and when you build in "fun" money, it actually works out wonderfully, but quite frankly, I just felt even more out of control than before.
I've always worked, but I admit that deep down, I've though of my income as supplementing his as the "main" income since I'm the stay-at-home parent. It was sobering and a bit humbling for both of us to realize that in reality, me working is not some cutesy side gig. I actually have to work for us to even pay our very basic bills, let alone do anything frivolous like buy clothes for the kids. While those numbers were hard to see in cold, hard ink, it also strangely made me feel a little bit better about myself and our marriage in general, because if we both have to work (and I genuinely enjoy working), then we can be a team in every single way possible, including tackling childcare, grocery shopping, and housework too.
Once our bare bones budget was done, we then added a few categories for unexpected expenses and some "fun money," like entertainment or going out to eat, so we didn't totally hate ourselves by the end of our budgeting experience. We had about $200 in wiggle room to work with for the month, which meant that we'd have to budget the money in per week — and stick to what we had to work with.
Our biggest expense, by far, was groceries, and we decided, rather ambitiously, to slash that expense completely in half to make the biggest dent in our budget. This was not easy, but basically, it boiled down to figuring out how much I could spend every week (about $150) and then literally adding up my cart every week to not go a penny over. I've always meal-planned (feeding six people requires a plan, people!), but meal-planning is non-negotiable with a budget and instead of focusing on healthy, elaborate meals, I kept it simple and reasoned it was just temporary. I was totally on board with our plan, but let me ask you something: have you ever tried grocery shopping with four kids while also adding up every single thing you add to your cart? It is not easy, my friends, it is not easy.
The first time I went on our modified budget, I took my husband with me, who kept a running tally on his phone and by the end of the whole trip, I was so exhausted I never wanted to go shopping ever again. But of course, we had to. Week after week, I went shopping with only one goal in mind: spend as little as possible.
In doing so, I quickly realized how much I genuinely enjoy spending money. The occasional Starbucks, picking up new clothes for my kids when they need them, cooking delicious dinners — these are things that, in my pre-budget mindset, I really wouldn't have thought twice about. But in new budget world, there was absolutely no room for the occasional Starbucks-after-school treat, the kids went around with pants that were a tad too short, and dinners became whatever we had that I didn't have to buy any fresh ingredients for. I totally resented how much work went into every day when we were on a strict budget, but it was humbling to know that we were doing this because we wanted to, not because it was the only choice we had If someone invited us for a playdate? We packed a lunch. If my mom wanted to have dinner out? We suggested dinner at home instead. If the planets aligned and a babysitter was available for Saturday night? We opted for a date on the couch instead. Even on those occasions when the baby was up all night and I desperately needed a little Starbucks-fueled pick me up, I said no in the name of saving money.
Here's the thing: I'd heard over and over from people who budgeted how "freeing" it is to be the one in control of your money, and when you build in "fun" money, it actually works out wonderfully, but quite frankly, I just felt even more out of control than before. The goal of this experiment was to get rid of the debt that was holding us back, and yet all throughout this experiment I felt the exact opposite.
After I handed that check over, I didn't feel euphoric or giddy or even proud. I felt a tad disappointed, like I had worked so hard and been so focused on crunching numbers and depriving us all of the things that made our lives so fun for what?
Working so tirelessly on budgeting and accounting for every single penny made me feel like life was one big long bill and there was no point in working so hard if I couldn't even enjoy spending what I'd worked so hard to earn. Even more strangely, my life revolved around money now more than it ever had.
What I Learned: Budgeting Kind Of Sucks
We did it! Kind of. After working so incredibly hard to get rid of our debt (taking on odd jobs when and where we could, cutting back on spending, using a strict "fun" budget, and basically cutting the fun out of our day to day), I was able to write that $16,000 check for our car loan. But our vacation fund did not see any action, so for now, it will remain a dream trip — one firmly at home in our dreams. Writing that check was supposed to be the most amazing, incredible feeling in the world, one that would allow me to float away on a cloud of debt-free happiness, but I felt absolutely nothing.
After I handed that check over, I didn't feel euphoric or giddy or even proud. I felt a tad disappointed, like I had worked so hard and been so focused on crunching numbers and depriving us all of the things that made our lives so fun for what? To write a check to a stranger and then really have nothing to show for it?
More than anyone, I'd love to tell you how glad I am that I started keeping a budget and how proud and relieved I am that we're debt-free, but really, I just learned that I kind of hate budgeting and I'm still not 100 percent sure what vital lessons I learned.
I do know that I learned that budgeting is necessary and that I tend to sometimes use spending money on unnecessary crap as a bit of an emotional high when I'm avoiding going home with four kids alone (drive-thru, anyone?), and that in some ways, there needs to be a balance between dreading saving money with enjoying the money we work so hard to make.
So now that our extraneous debt is out of the way, I feel relieved knowing I can breathe a bit again. I've bought a few coffees just to celebrate, but instead of swiping my credit card without a second thought, I only hit up that shop with my favorite green mug on it if I happened to have cash on hand.