budget · household organization · planning

Keeping it together

Living on a budget

Well friends, yesterday you got a little glimpse of the crazy journey that is my life. Seriously. In one post I covered the plight of low-wage workers, the need for humanity in even our most minute interactions, the depths of despair that come with budgetary woes, and wrapped it all in a bow with a slow-cooker recipe. Is that like a woman, or what?

Well, I’m not finished yet. I told you earlier this week that I’d mention a little something around how I keep our family of six operating on a budget, and today’s the day. Before you ask- I’ve never done Dave Ramsey’s studies, I’ve never gone to an extreme coupon class, and I don’t use any fancy-schmancy high-tech apps to keep track of our finances. Having said all that, I do have a simple method for keeping our family from over-spending the budget we set for ourselves, and allowing us to save enough to plan for our future. To really appreciate the method though, you have to know how I got there. Insert sappy Cinderella story here:

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When I became a wife and mom at 18, aside from being the smartest woman on the planet with absolutely nothing to learn about life (right?), I had an incredibly unrealistic view of what being a wife and mother actually looked like. So my spending habits reflected what culturally a wife would do. I bought things for our house, made sure my baby had cute things, and that we did the culturally acceptable things like 1st birthday parties and pictures and hairstyles and on and on into insanity (see how many times I said things?). And, since all this was happening in the early 2000s, it’s fair to say I did all of this on a credit card. I like to think a fair portion of that economic bubble came from my neck of the woods. And I was in college. So of course I was working multiple jobs trying to pay towards those credit cards. I was also racking up student loans of which I had no real understanding, nor had I given any thought to how I’d pay them back, or what those payments would do to my financial standing. And to compress 5 years into a quick story, I found myself divorced, with 2 kids, an entry-level job, and a mountain of debt from student loans and credit cards. Those were dark days, friends. I remember laying in my bed awake many nights, wondering how in the world I would ever get out of that hole. Some of it was my fault, and some of it was my circumstances. Life’s complicated like that.

Funny story. They offered Dave Ramsey’s course at my church. And guess what? It cost $130. And when you’re bouncing the check for your rent, $130 for someone to tell you to get out of debt is more than a little ironic. So I didn’t take it. Instead, I sat down and wrote a plan for myself that I’d actually use- one that was simple, that used the resources I actually had in front of me, and I started making changes. I’m pretty sure I did this while crying hysterically over a beer and watching Return of the Jedi for the hundred thousandth time. But I did it. And I still use that plan now. So here it is:

  1. I pulled out a calendar and a notebook. On the calendar I marked every single paycheck I’d receive. On the notebook, I wrote out 31 days in list form, and on the dates I’d get paid, I wrote those amounts.
  2. Then I pulled out my online banking app. I looked back over the previous month and wrote out every single bill I paid, next to the day of the month.
  3. I loaded up my calendar with bills and expenses, so I could visualize exactly when money was coming into and leaving my bank account. And I totaled those debits and credits so I knew how much I had (or didn’t have) left over at the end of each pay cycle.
  4. Then I grabbed some highlighters. I highlighted the bills I HAD to pay (my fixed bills like my mortgage and my car payment, but also my electricity and my gas bill) in one color, and my flexible bills (or where I saw wiggle-room, like groceries, gas, and entertainment) in another color. Then I highlighted the superfluous nonsense in another color.

I did this for a few previous months, to see what I saw. And guess what- I didn’t have a lot of superfluous nonsense. Don’t get me wrong- there were some foolish things I was wasting money on- but most of my expenses were just me trying to survive as a single mom. So then I looked back at my list. I re-evaluated what my “have-to-pays” and my “flexibles” were. I found that I could live cheaper if I bought a house vs. renting one. If I moved closer to where I worked, I wouldn’t spend so much on gas. I cut off our cable and just paid for internet and netflix, and switched my cell phone provider. I negotiated new rates for my student loans based on financial hardship. The usual things that you do when you have to dig to find resources. Living simply on a budgetBut here’s the thing. I still didn’t have enough. I kept getting surprised at the end of each pay cycle. So I did my little plan again. This time, I’d highlighted a bunch of superfluous spending. And then I realized it. Friends, we are living in a material world. And I am a material girl. No sense in denying it. Why is it that we always live within or slightly above our means? It’s a bummer- because it causes more stress than it’s worth, am I right? So I did something a little crazy. Like, super Type A. I actually created an iCalendar specifically for my bills. And I still use it. Every upcoming bill shows up on my calendar, so each week, I can look at a glance and see what’s coming. So when I pull up my checking account in my app and think I can make it rain on somebody, I look in the calendar and decide to be a little more modest with the checkbook. That way I don’t get blindsided by that quarterly HOA fee that hits me like a ton of bricks if I’m not careful. And it’s a shared calendar- so the hubs and I can both anticipate what’s happening with our money.

You were expecting something bigger weren’t you? I don’t have it. I can tell you this- I still don’t have cable, we drive completely unremarkable cars, and we are probably the last people you’ll see on a five-star vacation brochure. But we can say with near-certainty that we’ll be able to send our kids to college, pay our house off before our mortgage expires, and provide all the necessary care for Miss Celia for the rest of her life. It’s ironic. When I started this whole momming thing, I thought it was more about what we got- the cute SUV, the kids in private school, the fun mom groups, and the fancy date nights with my fella. But I’ve never felt more mommish than when I gave up on all those things to have freedom from the fear that comes with being fiscally uncertain.

Here’s hoping we can all let go of what weighs us down, to find the simple solutions that are right in front of us.

xoxo~ LWH

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