a little and a lot

Monday, March 10, 2014


A year ago, we put our noses to the grindstone and started trying to be grown-ups about our money.  It was not the funnest thing I've done, but as I've established in other posts, sometimes the "not funnest things" have ended up being some of the best things ever.  (See: full marathon training, adoption process, etc.)

I thought I'd give you a "One Year Later" update on our Total Money Makeover journey.  

If you want me to tell you that we've already paid off all of our debt and we're millionaires, then I need to apologize for disappointing you.  

But I'm excited and really proud of the progress we've made so far!  In one year, we saved up our initial Emergency Fund, established (and stuck to) a regular budget, paid off THREE of our five credit cards, and had the funds to pay cash for a couple of expensive (beyond budgeted) emergencies.  Not too shabby!  

Dave talks in his book about "gazelle intensity"--it originates from the verse in Proverbs 6:4-5 that talks about "deliver[ing] yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter."  We joke around in our house about being gazelles, and Dave's whole mantra about "live like no one else so you can live like no one else."  We're not going for millionaire status here...we're just trying to get out from under the weight of debt so we can stop paying for yesterday's purchases.  Blech.  I HATE debt!  

Here are some ways we've made it this far:
(A lot of these were covered in last year's post, but there are a few newbies...)

The biggest change is that first the first time in our (at that time) 7-year-old marriage, we created a real "on paper" budget.  We used these free pdf's from Dave Ramsey's website.  We still use the "Monthly Cash Flow" pdf on our iPad to plan how we'll spend the next paycheck.  Doing a monthly budget was too overwhelming for me with bills due all month long and money coming in every other week.  Instead, we created (and still stick to) a budget for each pay period.  Every single cent of each paycheck is accounted for in its own budget.  It takes time and energy and sometimes even emotion, but it has just plain WORKED.

I know.  It's a pain.  But nothing else works as well!!  Some people call this "the envelope system."  We originally used bank envelopes for each of our categories, but we now use a small plastic filing envelope (like the kind that holds coupons).

Here is specifically how we do our budget on the cash system: After we create the budget (at this point, I reuse old budgets and tweak them for the next two weeks' plans), I highlight the line items that we will take out in cash.  There are a few things we don't use cash for: bills, gas, and occasionally gifts (if they need to be purchased online).  Then, I go through each line item and mark on an index card how many $20 bills, $10 bills, & $5 bills I need.  I double-check the total of cash I need with the bills totaled up.  I head to the bank ON PAYDAY (waiting longer than that gets me in trouble with overspending on my debit card and having to re-work my budget!), and I take the cash out.  I also take out half of our rent in cash on the pay periods we're not paying rent--I have to get it out of the account or it may make us feel like we have lots of leftover money that we can spend!  I put each amount into the different file slot in my plastic folder, and I only spend money from this folder unless I'm paying for gas on my debit card.

Here's the thing: I figured out a way to do this without taking cash out of the bank.  I had an app all set up on my phone last summer, and it simulated the envelope system and synced Nick's and my phones.  In theory, it should work just as well.  But they have done studies that PROVE that your brain actually FEELS PAIN when you have to spend cash over swiping your debit card.  It's just true at our house--using cash only saves us money!

Ok, so say you made your budget, and you're all depressed because you can't afford your life.  The truth for all of is: if you are spending more than you make (or paying for previous times when you spent more than you made), you either have to make cuts or make more money.  I'm not judging what you spend money on (and thanks for not judging me), and we all differ in which we'd more readily rather do--make cuts or make more money.  I stayed home with our 3-yr-old this year...it's something I'm good at, and I like to do it (well, you know...), and we found a way to make that work.  That's not for everyone.  I am more apt to FIRST make cuts before I look for ways to make more money.  Here are some suggestions for cuts:


You have to have electricity, gas, & water.  You you have to have insurance.  (And so on.)  Those are non-negotiable bills (you're going to have to pay them every month) that can potentially be negotiated.  Here's what we did that might work for you...
  • We bundled our MLGW (utilities) bill into a "budget saver" option.  Instead of guessing what the bill would be each month (and waiting to see whether we saved or not), we had MLGW start charging us an average of our 12 months total.  It didn't really save us money, but it helped us budget for the bill in a more efficient way.
  • We called our auto/renter's insurance provider and asked for how we could get our bill to the lowest possible amount.  We raised some deductibles, looked at the annual mileage on each car & the primary drivers, dropped certain coverages that we could cover with our Emergency Fund if need be, and we ended up with a good chunk sliced off of our bill!
  • Cable TV: don't do it!  We have an HD "smart" TV hooked up to an HD antenna.  YES, it gives us trouble sometimes (more often in the winter??  I have no idea why??), but IT IS FREE.  (We do splurge for a "grandfathered" TiVo account--$8/month finds and records everything we want to watch on network television.)
  • Internet: We looked for lots of ways around this one.  It still was most cost effective for our electronic needs for us to have broadband cable internet, so we called our provider and switched to the lowest speed (they warned us it might not stream Netflix on our TV, but it works just fine!) and negotiated the lowest price they could give us before we quit.  Make sure you get transferred to the "solutions" team representative when you're talking to your provider.  We pay $19.95/mo for internet, and we use it like crazy.
  • Mobile Phones: Oh y'all, this was a tough one that I wrestled with.  We do not have a "home" landline--we have always just had mobile phones.  When I was looking at our largest bills, our AT&T bill was competing with the other big boys.  We both have iPhone 4's...we love them...they are extensions of who we are blah blah blah.  My contract with AT&T had run out, but Nick's had not.  I realized that this was something I could sacrifice for a teensy bit of time to save us some money we needed to get our debt snowball rolling.  I looked into all different kinds of plans and all different kinds of phones.  The most cost effective solution for me ended up being to KEEP MY iPHONE!  [insert hallelujah chorus]  In the bare minimum months, I had AT&T "unlock" my phone (making it possible to use it with other carriers), and then I terminated my service with them.  I used the wifi at home and in public hotspots to surf the web, check email, pull up maps, etc.  I also used wifi to make phone calls via the Skype app on my iPhone.  Now, I'm not a big phone talker, and I did pull back even more during this period of time, but it totally worked.  Read last year's blog for how I did it.  Once we paid of a couple of credit cards, I purchased a TMobile SIM card and bought a handful of minutes $10 at a time.  Recently, I made a jump back into the world of cell phone plans with Walmart's Family Mobile plan.  Nick's contract with AT&T finally ran out, and so we picked up a family plan with Family Mobile---$39.88 for unlimited EVERYTHING (minutes, texts, data) for the first line and $34.88 for additional lines.  $75 for both of us vs $80 for just him on AT&T!  WIN!

We love food and we love eating out, so this was a tough but obvious one for us.  In the leanest months, we were spending $20 every two weeks on eating out and $100 every two weeks on groceries!  It can be done!  We are now up to $80/two weeks on restaurants (including dates) and $120/two weeks on groceries.  Rhet is eating full portion sizes at this point, and we still have leftovers for Nick's lunches--I cook about 4-5 meals per week and we snack on leftovers/extra lunch/snack items or eat out for the other days.

You may be in awe that I could shop for our family of 3 (plus one big dog--he eats too!) for $50/week or maybe that sounds normal or expensive to you.  It was a challenge for me, but it was not extremely difficult either.  We made it happen by shopping at Aldi (HUGE savings, people!), cooking & eating at home even when we didn't feel like it, cutting almost all meat & diary from most meals (more big savings with a side of health benefits), and trying to keep things simple (I usually just make one thing--no multiple dishes/courses on our table).

In the beginning, we cut things down to the bare bones.  But then we got our tax check, which gave us a good catapult into the next phase, and at various points further down this road, we've increased the budget for specific line items (cell phones, for example) or added new line items (Parents' Day Out for this school year).  As we got a little breathing room back into the budget, we gave ourselves permission to budget for for things we never had money to do before, like regular dates and baby-sitting and even a gym membership for a little while (we had to give it up once we started paying for PDO).  Before we started this whole crazy thing, we always worried about money because we always ran out of money before we got paid again--and anything remotely resembling an emergency had us scrambling for a new line of credit.  A year later, we not only have money to cover must-haves and emergencies (like that surprise $900 headlight repair in the fall!), but we can also afford a few "wants!"  We still have some major work to do, but paying off a small amount of debt has already given us a taste of the financial freedom we'll have one day!  Hooray for hard work!


Unknown said...

Great post, Jesse! Way to stick with it for a whole year!!! These are great tips. We need to get back on this...

Adopting Rhet: Click on the timeline above to read more