My husband and I were told that it takes about 3 months to get a new budget right.
We should expect to make mistakes in the beginning, but working together, we would surely adjust. Don’t be too hard on ourselves, but don’t be too lenient either.
We plodded through, keeping that future date in our minds – the magical time when this would all be easy, and we’d be better at curtailing our spending, better at anticipating upcoming expenses, and better at getting those spreadsheet columns to zero out with less stress and sacrifice.
So now it’s been three months. How are we doing?
Suddenly, I remember being told that my newborn baby should start sleeping through the night at three months.
That didn’t happen.
And the miraculous perfection I hoped for with our budget hasn’t materialized, either!
A funny thing did happen on the way to the three-month mark, though.
I stopped worrying about it so much.
Basically, what we are striving for is behavior change. It’s a whole lifestyle change – not just a new positive habit.
There is so much involved: the emotional inspection of our priorities, budget setup, the switch to cash, the release of credit cards, the envelope system, the meticulous accounting, the mulling over every expense – it can be exhausting.
But after this much time of worrying about the budget every day, I now stress about it a lot less. I still think about it all the time, and I still screw up.
Less than before, but it’s still annoying.
To my surprise, the mental math I launch into when I contemplate even going to a store or making a purchase has become automatic.
It goes a little something like this. Imagine me at the post office last month:
I had gone in to investigate how to renew my passport. Turned out, I had everything I needed in my hands, except a new photo and a check for $110.
The wheels in my head started spinning. I’m sure the clerk wondered what the heck was going on in there when she saw the smoke coming out of my ears.
“Passport renewal” doesn’t fit into any of my family’s budget categories, and I hadn’t discussed the cost with Stewart ahead of time, because I didn’t know what the fee was until I got there.
Standing at the counter with a very long line behind me, I quickly considered that the cost for the money order and photo was a good trade for the time it would take me to go home, get a check, come back later and stand in line again.
And Stewart knew I was looking into this, so it wouldn’t be huge surprise to him.
We had agreed on a $200 trigger for discussions about major purchases, and this was well under.
Besides, I have enough money in my sinking fund for travel to cover the cost.
I would pull that amount of cash out of the “travel” savings envelope to spend on gas, one of the categories that we pay for with the debit card, so that would balance the cash vs. debit accounting snafu.
So I sprang for the photo, the money order, and the trackable postage, and the nice postal clerk packaged everything up for me and sent it off for processing.
(Incidentally, I received my new passport in only 3 weeks!)
This is what my life is like now. Every purchase is weighed carefully – either before, during, or after it’s made. We try to consider them ahead of time, but in a pinch, we can be flexible.
Over the three months, we are over budget by $288.06.
That might seem like a huge number for some, a tiny number for others, but considering that we hadn’t paid a lick of attention to our spending before we started, I’d say at least we know what we’re up against.
The one category that we continuously compromise on (read: go over budget) is “recreation,” i.e. kids’ sports.
Here’s more on the subject from my trusty sidekick, my husband Stewart:
What has been the hardest part of sticking to the budget?
Sports. Kids need the best bat. And new cleats for football. And high tops for basketball. Gotta get the best, to give them that small advantage.
What are some things you think are working really well?
Talking about money with the wife sucks. But now, we have a goal. Stick to the budget. It cannot work unless we both do it, all the time.
For the first time, we are on the same page financially, bringing us closer together.
What has been the most positive effect of the budget project?
We took a financial class recently. There were couples in there who looked just like us. Some had debt. Lots of it, and they were young. Just starting out. I really hope they can turn it around.
Somehow I think they will, and I also think I’ve made some friends for life. So, new friends, and a better relationship with the wife. Can’t argue with that.
Next on American Family Budget: The Emergency Fund in Action. Termites, estate planning, and a new stair banister, oh my! How we’re juggling some major household expenses.
Kim Tracy Prince is a Los Angeles-based writer who has a husband, two little boys, and an obsession with spreadsheets.