For the past (almost) five years of my marriage, I will admit that I have shunned budgets of any kind.
There have been moments, in a burst of financial do-goodness, that we have sat down and tracked our expenses and wrote down everything we spent and vowed to do better.
But it has not lasted.
Although I am pretty good at squirreling away money, I am comfortable with our savings account, and I genuinely enjoy saving a buck or two here and there, by large, my financial strategy has been the same every month:
Close my eyes and cringe when I see our credit card bill.
Usually, I just spend and then look at what the amount has racked up to, avoiding that lump sum altogether until it comes due. I use a credit card for all of our bills–the gas, electricity, phone, etc.–and earn cash rewards (I earn about $50 every few months) while making it easy to just pay one bill. Of course, I’ve never carried a balance on my credit card, ever, so it’s not like we are spending what we don’t have, but I never try to budget my spending in any way.
But this month, that’s all about to change. A few things have happened in our lives that has deemed the shaping up of our financial health somewhat of a necessity:
1) Ben is facing an up to 9% pay cut. Although I usually count on my math teacher husband for calculations of any kind, even I can figure out that 9% is kind of huge.
2) Our insurance has gone up. Although the school is slashing teachers’ pay, they are also upping our share of the insurance payments to over $300 a month.
3) Our student loans increased. Ben’s loans have been in deferment for the past two years, as he finished up his schooling. Now that he’s done with his Masters degree, his loans are up for payment again, at a whopping $300 a month, more than I expected.
4) Our water softener just broke down. After we’ve already replaced every other major appliance in our house–washer, furnace, and water heater. Love it.
And then there are the little things, like Ada’s preschool cost, which although not a huge cost, is a new expense for us. There’s also the fact that–oh, yeah, I have to actually write the book I’ve been talking about for so long now–which means I will eventually need some help with all these kids, leading to childcare costs.
I won’t lie–part of me entertained the thought that I could stay home for a while after Jacob was born and get through the breastfeeding phase. But this weekend, after working through Ben’s income and all of our bills, our basic monthly bills, excluding groceries and living costs, waaaaay exceed his bring-home pay. Which is unfortunate and a slight obstacle in me being able to stay home.
Although I am discouraged by this bit of financial news, I have also been inspired to, for the first time in my life, set a budget for the one thing I can control: groceries.
As with budgeting, my current meal strategy looks a little something like this:
The setting: Our messy kitchen, kids naked and jumping on pillows in the background, 6:00 p.m.
Me: “What do you want for dinner?”
Ben: “I don’t know…what do you want?”
Me: “I don’t….turkey burgers?”
Me: “We’re out of buns. Oh, and turkey.”
One trip to the store and 50,000 impulse purchases later, we’ve spent a ton of money at the grocery store. And it seems like we do it once or twice a week. Always making a last-minute trip for the last-minute meal we throw together. And you and I both know that running in for milk is never running in for milk. It’s oh-diapers-are-on-sale and those brownies look good and crap, I forgot the milk.
But no more. I set a goal to spend no more than $100 a week on grocery and living purchases, like diapers and wipes. And to this end, my first task was creating a weekly meal plan.
For whatever reason, I have also avoided meal planning like the plague. In my mind, budgeting and meal planning = sucking the fun out of life. I like a little spontaneity, being able to take the fam out for ice cream after dinner, or cook up a batch of homemade pizza just because we felt like it.
But the time has come. With school starting and Ada in school for the first time and me obviously having to go back to work and writing this book, I realized I just needed to bite the bullet and give it a try. Keeping it simple for the first week, our menu looks a little something like this:
Tues: Lasagna (making double of this, as Ben’s brother and sister-in-law are expecting my niece or nephew any day now!!)
Wed: Stuffed Peppers and Dirty Rice (I’m thinking about switching up the rice for my newfound love: quinoa.)
Thurs: Shrimp Creole
Fri: Chicken Enchiladas
Armed with a shopping list, a calculator, (and I thought a minivan was embarrassing?) and 2/3 of my children, I hit the store for my first-ever budgeted trip, aiming to keep it all under $100. The result?
Under budget! Even with diapers in the cart! After high-fiving the cashier, (seriously, she was into my mission. I felt like I was on one of those coupon shows…) I floated out of the store on money-saving adrenaline high. Much to my surprise, I found this whole meal planning and budgeting thing almost fun.
Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe budgeting and meal planning won’t suck the fun out of my life, but allow me to enjoy it a little bit more. Maybe I won’t be so stressed out about where are money is disappearing to and hide from the credit card bill until it’s time to pay the piper. Maybe instead of feeling trapped by a strict meal plan and a tight budget, I can be empowered to choose where to spend my money.
And you better believe it’s going to include ice cream.