American Family Budget: What It’s Really Like Living On a Budget (For Me)

Financial Planning

It’s all fine and dandy that my husband and I have created our family’s monthly budget. It’s great that we have a goal – to spend less and keep track of our money.

But what does it really mean to live within a budget? What does that look like in real life?

Detail: It means that the spreadsheet rules all.

It may seem ridiculous that after my husband spends $20.04 on an oil change for his car, he comes home, hands me the receipt, and I boot up the computer, open up my spreadsheet, and plug that amount in under the category “Car Repair and Service.”

But we have to keep track of what we spend in order to make this work. It’s not enough for me to rely on the Quicken categories now – I need to feel like I’m in control, and my spreadsheet is my crutch.

Not everyone does it this way, but this is what works for me so far.

Minutiae: It means that when I have to drive across town for a meeting or an event, I calculate the miles and how much gas it will take, so I know there will be enough money in the gas category to last the rest of the month.

Impatience: It means I want the month to end sooner, please, before all the money is gone.

After our first month, we had $20 left in the grocery category, a minor miracle. But in this second month, we’re close to running out of grocery money before the month is over.

Meals from the pantry and freezer are going to come in handy.

Mistakes: It means that shopping for Christmas gifts makes us go over budget in the drastically reduced gift category.

My husband is the one who insisted on this cut, but now he’s the one who wants to buy one of our kids a new bike. “But that’s not in the budget,” I remind him.

It’s a sentence I have uttered at least eleventy thousand times since November 1, the day our budget began.

Frustration: It means I’m sick of words like category, budget, envelope and spreadsheet.

Eye-openers: It means that the paltry sum we budgeted for “school supplies” disappears in a nanosecond because every time we turn around there is a field trip fee to pay or a poster board to buy or a book fair or a fundraising event.

Flexibility:  It means we must be flexible. Unexpected (or forgotten) costs pop up all the time, requiring us to adjust. Here is a conversation from last Sunday:

Him: Do you have the envelope for the church basket?

Me: No, because that’s not in the budget.

Him; I thought we had a category for charity.

Me: We do but we limited it to the kids’ school donation, remember?

(We live in California, that beleaguered state, and our school’s PTA pays for almost everything besides the teachers, the building, and the books. Don’t get me started.)

Him: But we can’t go to church without a donation.

Me: We’re Catholic, darling. The church has plenty of money. They can wait until we work this out.

Him: Can’t we just bring five dollars?

Me: (Sigh.) Okay, but I’ll have to take it out of “Household.” That means less money for gardening supplies.

Him: Fine.

Perception: This might be the hardest part of our new budget life – sharing this new paradigm with other people.

When friends and family hear that we are on a budget, they have two different kinds of reactions.

In the first camp are the “good for you!” people. They say they always wanted to have a budget, but could never make it work.

They ask a lot of questions. They express their envy and admiration for our diligence and determination.

In the other corner are the naysayers. “Budgets don’t work,” they say, which certainly isn’t helpful to hear when you’re just starting out.

Or they express pity, offering to buy us lunch or drinks, sad for us that we don’t have any money.

These are the conversations I loathe the most, because living on a budget doesn’t mean we don’t have any money.

It means that we’re being more intentional about the the way we spend the money we have.

Satisfaction: When we do go out to eat, we know we have set aside money for it, and we’re not sacrificing something else to fund our frivolous outing.

At the end of our first month, we hadn’t spent a dime of our “restaurant” money, so Stewart and I enjoyed a nice lunch together on a breezy Sunday – with free babysitting to boot, because my parents were visiting.

We stayed within the dollar amount we had allocated for the month ($50) and even had ten bucks leftover to use in the future!

Since we just started, living on a budget takes a lot of work. We’re still clunky and awkward about it, like baby deer getting used to our legs. We mess up, but we try to adjust.

The true test of our budget’s success will come in a few more months.

By then, with continued diligence and cooperation, we will have gotten better at it. Hopefully it will be a smoother process, and it won’t occupy so much of our thoughts and conversations.

It will be, simply, our new way of living.

Next on American Family Budget: Switching to cash: why feeling our actual paper and coin money helps us spend less.

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,


Leave a Reply