Family Finances

American Family Budget: One Year Later

My husband keeps a pile of wadded-up 20-dollar bills in a drawer in our bedroom. He says he’s saving up for our son’s Christmas gift – a LEGO set with a price tag so high that I am ashamed to share it here.

It’s nice that he is doing that, I told him. And in my brain, I recalculated the Christmas budget, making a note to update the spreadsheet later.

This is the way our life is now.

A year ago, Stewart and I embarked on a plan to wrangle our spending into a monthly budget that makes sense for us. It was a shift that had emotional and physical ramifications, and it took several months for us to get used to it. Of course there were big obstacles in the way and surprises that popped up. But looking back on all of it, I realize that it was just like changing the way you eat versus going on a diet. It’s a lifestyle change. A new way of thinking.

We make a budget at the beginning of the month that zeroes out. We eat out far less often and buy fewer things than other families we know. We use mostly cash for our expenses like groceries and clothing and entertainment. Stewart and I each get a $50 a month “allowance” – a discretionary fund that we can spend on anything we want to, no questions asked. He barely ever uses his, hence the bills in the drawer. I use up mine every month, sometimes only a day or two into it.

If a new expense comes up, we have little budget meetings, which consist mostly of one of us whining to the other “Where will we find that in the budget?” Most often, we don’t find it, and we pass on the shiny new thing. What we’re left with is a spending plan that we are sticking to, and our family is all the better for it.

For fellow numbers nerds:

Based on the way we set up our monthly budget – by averaging what we spent per month during previous years in every category – we have done pretty well. Over the last 10 months we have averaged a budget overage of $160 per month.

I know what you’re thinking. I sat down to tell you how successful we’ve been and that’s my report?! A budget overage?

Well, for a family who was going $2500 over budget every month for a year, that’s a really big improvement. If I factor in my freelance income, my husband’s extra income from his summer school teaching, and our tax refund, we will be on track to do even better in the coming year.

At the outset of this journey, we had a specific goal – to continue our current lifestyle as best we can while having me stay home with the kids. Our plans were to reduce our spending, and temporarily supplement Stewart’s monthly income with a cash infusion from savings, moving towards me getting a steady part-time job…right around now.

We have stuck with the first plan: we cut $1000 from our monthly spending by eating out less, budgeting for clothing and saving up, canceling a bunch of subscriptions, reducing some monthly bills, meal planning, and more.

We have been careful with the second part, only pulling from savings just enough to cover necessary expenses. And when that extra income arrives, we can skip the balance transfer that month or at least reduce the amount.

Along this journey we have become closer as a family and a couple. I know Stewart and I both count our lucky stars every day (the kids have to be gently reminded.) We know that hard work will continue to be required, but we’re up to it, especially after seeing these great results. Who knew that such a shift would come from paying closer attention?

Thanks for following along, Minters. May you someday have a wad of crumpled 20’s in the drawer, waiting to give your kid a holiday surprise (or whatever serves as a wad of 20’s in your life).  I hope our story has helped you feel less alone, and inspires you to share your own experience with others.

Kim Tracy Prince is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She’ll meet you for lunch, but only if you schedule in advance and it fits in the budget.