Budget Lesson, Part 7

It’s been a month(again!) since I’ve written a post for the budget series, so I’ll be continuing that today.  See these posts for the history of this series.

This time, I’m looking at how to reduce my “set aside” funds.  These are the categories that don’t have specific payout amounts and happen at irregular intervals.   One of the convenient features of our set-aside funds–also a feature of our non-monthly bills–is that the money sits in our checking account, providing a buffer against overdrafts.   The buffer is big enough  that I can withdraw our entire month’s discretionary budget on the first of the month.

  • Parties  – Twice a year, we have large parties.  We have a barbecue(not necessarily low and slow, I’m in the midwest) and a Halloween party.   We also have three kids with birthdays.   Each year, we try to do something exotic at the barbecue.  One year, it was a turducken.  This year, we’ll be skipping the show-off portion of the show.    The Halloween party is never expensive.   I don’t drink much, so the bar stays well-stocked without frequent expensive shopping trips.   We throw two large parties for less than $300 combined, and our guests start RSVPing a year in advance.  We’re fun.   The kids are getting gypped this year.   I am over my addiction to expensive birthday parties for my kids.  There will be a small party for one, a sleepover for another, and a party combined with some cousins’ birthday parties for the third.    It sound horrible but all of them will have fun.
  • Gifts  – We set aside money for presents, but we don’t feel we need to spend all of the money we have set aside.   Anything left over stays here.  Eventually, it will be something nice for all of us.
  • Pet Care – We have 4 cats and a dog.  Cat litter and food are expenses that we can’t make disappear.  We don’t buy the fancy food, but we also don’t buy the stuff that uses cardboard as filler.   We have set a new limit at 3 pets, but that limit will only be reached through attrition.   There’s nothing to cut here for a few years.
  • Car Repair – This is another category with nothing to cut.   If we don’t spend it, and something catastrophic happens to a car, we’ll be covered.  If it doesn’t, we’ll have a bit more cushion in our checking account.
  • Furnace Warranty – When we bought a new furnace and air conditioner, we got the extended warranty.   This is an unlimited renewal warranty, so, in 5 years, we’ll have to buy it again to keep it.  If we keep it forever, they will eventually replace our furnace when it dies.
  • Medicine/Medical – It’s a sad fact that people get sick.   We set aside a small amount to cover our costs.   The costs rise and fall, but over any given quarter, I don’t think I’ve been off by more than $5.

I’ve taken a hard look at most of the bills over time, so there isn’t always a lot to cut.  Next time, I’ll be addressing our discretionary spending.

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5 Ways to Force Your Spouse to Get Frugal*

Communication is important in a marriage.  If you can’t communicate, how are you going to get your way?**  I’ve helpfully compiled the best possible ways to get your spouse on board with your budget plans.

  1. Don’t include her. When I absolutely, positively cannot afford to be working towards a different goal than my wife, I do my best to ignore her.  I don’t tell her how much we’ve paid off, how much we have left, or what we can afford to spend on groceries.   I think she enjoys not having to worry about the petty details like “Are we overdrawn?” or “Will we be eating Alpo next week?”   I’ll do anything to make her life easier.
  2. Nag. Nothing convinces my wife to do things my way like unending scolding.   If I just remind her, day and night, surely she’ll cooperate with my budgeting plans and ideas to save money, right?   Every body loves the attention, and, since we got a text messaging plan, I can shoot her a message every five minutes while she’s at the store.   In all seriousness, this is actually a problem and a source of friction at my house.   Reminding her every time she goes to the store is not an effective strategy.
  3. Whine. If nagging fails, I always try to take the advice of my toddlers and whine until I get my way.   “But Ho-uh-neee-eee!  Why’d you buy tha-at?”   It’s always been a big hit at my house.   My wife appreciates the effort I put into getting the third, screechy syllable into simple words, just to try to convince her to give up or see things my way.
  4. Obsess. This goes hand-in-hand with both #2 and #3.    If I never giver her the chance to forget about our goals, she can never stray from them.   A memo in the morning, hourly text reminders, and a daily summary of our account balances and month-to-date budget compliance just keeps us working together.    Everything we do can be tied back to our frugal choices and debt repayment, whether it’s a game of Sorry or a trip to a wrestling tournament.
  5. Yell. If all else fails, just turn up the volume.   If there’s a problem, I nag at level 10.   Whining loudly enough to wake the neighbors will convince her to comply with my wishes next time.  This has the added benefit of allowing my kids to receive the wisdom of my experience, even if they are in the basement playing games with their friends.

*This obviously isn’t a gender-specific article, but, as a man, I write from a man’s perspective and my pronouns match my perspective.

**Sarcasm.  Really.   Following these rules should result in divorce, NOT happy agreement.  If you are operating under this action plans, get therapy.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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Fall From Grace

When you accumulate a certain level of debt, it feels like you’re wading through an eyeball-deep pool of poo, dancing on your tiptoes just to keep breathing.   Ask me how I really feel.Tip Toe

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m in debt.  We have gone over this before.   The story isn’t one of my proudest, so I’ve never talked much about how it happened.

Our debt was entirely our fault.  We messed up and dug our own poo-pool.   There were no major medical bills, no extended unemployment, just a strong consumer urge and an apparent need for instant gratification.  Delayed gratification wasn’t a skill I’d considered learning.  The idea of it was a thoroughly foreign concept.   Why wait when every store we visited offered no payments/no interest for a year?   We didn’t give much thought to what would happen when the year was up.

We got married young.   We bought our house young.  We started our family young.   We did all of that over the course of two years, well before we were financially ready.   Twenty years old, we had excellent credit and gave our credit reports a workout.   Credit was so easy to get.    By the time I was 22, we had a total credit limit more than twice our annual income.  We fought so hard to keep up with the Joneses.   A new pickup, a remodel on our house.   Within a month of paying off the truck, I got a significant raise and rushed out to buy a new car.

Every penny that hit the table was caught in a net of lifestyle expansion.   I was bouncing on my tiptoes.

Four months into my new car payment, I was laid off.  There’s me, hoping for a snorkel.  A week later, we found out our son was going to be a big brother.   Our pool had developed a tide.

We killed the cable and cut back on everything else and…managed.   Money was tight, but we got by.  I got a new job, but had we learned any lessons?  Of course not.   We got a satellite dish, started shopping the way we always had.  Times were good, and could never be bad.  We had such short memories.

Fast forward a couple of years.   Baby #3 is on the way while baby #2 is still in diapers.   Daycare was about to double.  Daddy started to panic.   I built a rudimentary budget and realized there was no way to make ends meet.   There just wasn’t enough cash coming in to cover expenses.   That’s when I made my first frugal decision:  I quit smoking.  That cut the expenses right to the level of our income.  It was tight, but doable.

There was still one serious problem.    Neither one of us could control our impulse shopping.   For a time, I was getting packages delivered almost every day.  It was never anything expensive, but it was always something.  Little things add up quickly.

Last spring, I realized we couldn’t keep going like that.   I started looking into bankruptcy.   Somehow, we managed to toss ourselves into the deep end of the pool.  We had near-perfect credit and no way to maintain it.

While researching bankruptcy, I found our life preserver.   We put together a budget.   We cut and…it hurt.     It’s taken a year, but every bill we have is finally being tracked.   We have an emergency fund and we are working towards our savings goals.    It hasn’t been an easy year, but we are making progress.    We’ve eliminated 15% of our debt and opened out budget to include some “blow money” and an occasional date night.   We are always looking for ways to decrease our bottom line and increase the top line.   Most important, we are actually working together to keep all of our expenses under control, with no hurt feelings when we remind ourselves to stay on track.

We are finally standing flat-footed, head and shoulders above the poo.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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Delayed Gratification

I work daily to raise my kids to be more financially responsible than I have been.  One of the most difficult pieces has been to explain the benefits of delayed gratification to my children. It’s hard enough, as an adult, to take delayed gratification to heart.  For a child?   It seems to be almost impossible.

My son wants an XBox 360 Elite.   Good for him.  He wants to renegotiate the terms of his allowance to get it faster.  Currently, every other time he gets an allowance paid out, it goes into his bank account, to be mostly untouched.  The other times he can do as he pleases with his money.   We are enforcing a 50% long term savings plan. Now, with a medium-term goal in mind, he wants to keep all of his money, and only put gift money into the bank account.

Should we let him tap his bank account for a shiny new bauble?  It’s been building for a while, so it’s delayed, right?   I don’t think that would accomplish much. Like any other 10-year-old, his interests change often.

Should we let him change the terms of our agreement, speeding a medium-term goal at the expense of his long-term savings?  My wife and I haven’t had a chance to discuss this, but my initial reaction is not to allow it.   His savings has the potential to turn into a decent car in a few years, if he wants.  That would be a car he knows he earned.

Last week, when we were at the store, he asked if he could borrow some money to buy a game.   I don’t expect him to carry his money around everywhere, so I would have allowed it, if he would have had the money at home.   He didn’t.   His plan was to pay me what he did have as soon as we got home, then work his butt off for a few days to earn enough extra to pay it back.   I won’t be a credit agency for my kids, so I said no.  He was disappointed, but, by the time he had earned the money, he no longer wanted the game.   I consider that a win, but I don’t know that he learned any lesson other than “Dad’s a jerk.”

Someday, when his life launch is smooth due to a lack of debt-dependence, he’ll look back on these lessons and smile.

I hope.

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