Cutting the pool club membership is what broke me.
We live in a suburb of Los Angeles, in a town where the temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees in the summer.
The pool club around the corner has been my saving grace, the place I go to get out of the house with our two active little boys. We socialize there, and we exercise. It’s good for us.
“But we can’t afford it,” said my husband, as we pushed the marked-up expense list back and forth across the table to each other.
Stewart and I were in the midst of creating our first zero-based budget. We had been spending $2,500 more per month than we brought in.
At first the trimming seemed okay, even easy.
We made quick slashes together: no more automatic saving transfers, fewer cash donations to charity, and no more unnecessary newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
Dining out? No big deal, we cut that way down to $50 per month.
And how many of you have spent way too much cash and had no idea where it went?
That was us, to the tune of over $200 per month. On the new budget, we limited ourselves to $50 each of “blow money.”
Stewart was having fun. After all, it was math, and he’s an engineer. The closer we got to zero, however slowly, the happier he became.
But with each new category we considered, I grew more and more uncomfortable.
Cut spending on gifts? But I like giving presents to people on their birthdays, or if they’re feeling down, or to celebrate accomplishments.
And what about all the birthday and holiday parties our children attend?
Be Careful What You Wish For
Because I’ve been doing the bills and household accounting alone all these years, I bristled at Stewart’s new attention to the details.
Every time I protested over an expense that I thought I couldn’t trim, he reminded me that our financial makeover was my idea.
But now I was beginning to suspect that I should have been careful what I wished for.
Then when he looked at me gravely and suggested we cut out the neighborhood pool membership, I finally started to lose my carefully maintained sense of calm.
I knew he was right. The pool fee is $650 a year. It’s not a need, it’s a want.
As I faced this reality, it felt so much worse. I didn’t mind slashing the restaurant spending, fancy hair care products, even new clothes for myself.
But the pool…as I contemplated a hot summer without the relief – from both the heat and my kids’ pent-up energy – of the neighborhood pool, I started to cry.
Yes. I had created a monster.
It All Comes Down to the Numbers
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to have a partner in this seemingly gargantuan task.
Before, whenever I felt a nagging worry about money, I shared it with Stewart but I never truly believed that he felt it, too. After all, I always made the numbers work out on my own.
For him, trimming our budgeted expenses to match our income is all about math.
He used the pool more than the kids and I did last summer, but he’s more excited about getting on track financially than knowing he can just walk around the corner to do his 30 laps.
(At least that’s how he feels in November.)
It’s the same with all of our other spending categories, too.
Stewart looks at the numbers and sees obvious places we can reduce the outflow, while I see fewer visits with friends, more restrictions on our activity, and an increased demand for “creative” solutions to gift-giving and meal-planning.
Our zero-based budget was not created on one night. We discussed the changes over the next few days, and little by little I conceded.
Yes, the pool fee had to be cut. We can visit our friends with pools more often during the summer. We can use the local park’s splash pad, which the kids are still young enough to enjoy.
We can go to the beach. At least we have a beach nearby, which is more than most people can say.
The Unexpected Silver Lining
Mulling over every little expense is exhausting, especially when I’ve gone along spending money without worry for so long.
I thought it was enough to be thrifty and modest with our purchases, always getting the best deal, always shopping around, never indulging in things I considered extravagant.
This intense scrutiny makes us question every purchase, and completely rethink our “wants” versus our “needs.”
Something kind of wonderful came out of this mental struggle, though.
Stewart and I were truly communicating about our financial choices, and in doing so we were really discussing our priorities for our family.
And even though it was uncomfortable for me to have someone looking over my shoulder, it was also refreshingly comforting to have my partner share the burden of this knowledge.
Yes, I had created a monster. But he was exactly what I needed.
Next time on American Family Budget: How we closed the gap. Still $1,500 per month over budget, our intrepid couple finds creative solutions to live within their means. Sort of.
Kim Tracy Prince is a Los Angeles-based writer who has a husband, two little boys, and a slightly unhealthy obsession with spreadsheets. Her work appears at Notre Dame Magazine, Girl Body Pride, CBS Los Angeles, and her blog, kimtracyprince.com.