It's no secret that ever since I quit my job in the den of racist privilege back in October of 2011, Adam and I have not exactly been rolling in dough. For a long time, I relegated the household expenses to him, as he was the main breadwinner and I felt it would be inappropriate if I started making calls on how he spent his money.
I have always been... how did my brother put it once? Cheap. Yes, cheap. (I prefer "frugal" but I won't split semantic hairs.) That's not to say that I am not fully capable of spending a crapload of money when I want. I drive a Mini CooperS, which I bought new, and which carries a decent monthly payment. I refuse to relinquish our HBO subscription (at least until Game of Thrones ends for the season). I will spend gobs of money on our furry family members, our bipedal family members, and our beloved and amazing friends. I just don't spend money on myself. It seems silly and frivolous; if I have pants that still function as pants, I see no reason to buy more of them.
I've been wearing the same few pairs of jeans for the last five years or so. My mother must strong-arm me into purchasing new clothes for work (which, conveniently, only really means presentable shirts as we're encouraged to wear jeans to my place of employment). I will - as I always have - walk through my shoes before considering a new pair (unless Kat insists I buy some, and I can't argue with her). I buy towels and sheets and slipcovers for our dog-i-fied couches at discount stores.
Regardless of my personal proclivity for penny-pinching, Adam and I are not as financially secure as we would like to be, not by quite a long shot. We amassed some credit card debt. We had large car payments. To steal a line from Passion Pit, "we had taxes, we had bills, we had a lifestyle to fund." (That song makes me cry every damn time I hear it, but that's another issue.)
So, Adam sold his money-and-gas-guzzling toy, much to my dismay. I'm determinedly working at a mindless job to help pay the bills, and have been for quite some time, while also working hard to find a more lucrative and stimulating position. He busts his butt at work. And now we're making real cost-cutting steps. Perhaps we should have done so two years ago - indeed, I know we should have, but lifestyle changes are never easy and often need to be done incrementally. And also, I let go of access to our bank account in the vain hope that by not looking, it wouldn't hurt. Yes, very ostrich of me.
So this year, when I updated my much-in-need-of-not-sucking iPhone, I downloaded the Mint.com app and decided to make some serious changes. While none of what follows is ground-breaking, I felt it was important to share. These are the steps we've taken or are in the process of taking:
1. Assess the damage.
Mint makes this extremely easy - and puts it out there in stark black and white (or green, as the case may be). With a quick set-up, it parses out where your money goes, when it comes it, and kind of asks you what the fuck you were thinking when you spent $150 at a fancy French restaurant (it doesn't care that it was a friend's birthday), you plebeian moron. We were able to see where our money was going - and it's kind of shock to see those little bits add up here and there. Over forty dollars a week at fast food joints because we were too lazy to hit the grocery store? Yikes. Almost $700 in groceries in one month? Were we eating gold-plated manatee braised in Dom Perignon? Seriously, WTF? Hemorrhaging money left-and right isn't exactly the right analogy; it was more the thousand tiny cuts that were getting us.
We always have known our large outstanding bills. When we tabulated them, we were certain we were well within our means - and we were, if that's all we spent. But our tendency to grab Chinese instead of making something we already had, or taking up every offer a friend extended for a bite or a drink out at the local bar was killing us slowly and silently. Being able to say "Oh, our monthly bills are only $XXXX," even when we attempted to factor in lifestyle expenses, was way off the mark.
Plus, we were able to easily decide how much we actually want to spend on our bills so we could take the necessary steps to...
3. Rein it the fuck in.
Being able to assess where we've been going wrong, and setting budgets, also highlighted where bills were way higher than necessary. And it was shockingly easy to cut some luxury.
Adam called AT&T, and in one afternoon was able to trim a huge percentage off our cable, Internet, and cell phone bills. All he did was threaten to permanently downgrade our service, and now we're getting the same stuff for free for three months, whereupon he'll call and cut it out anyway. We looked hard and long at our cell plans and determined we really didn't need the huge package of talking minutes, but I had the tendency to over-use my data. With some tweaks, we're now carrying four phones (my parents are on our plan), including two smart phones, for half of what we were previously paying. It pays big to just ask for a better deal. And be polite about it.
Next, he rolled our outstanding credit card debt into a low-interest credit loan through the bank with whom he has the card. (I say "we" even though he's the current solo cardholder. We share debt just like we share everything else.) We're paying less than we were directly to the credit company before, and we've set a solid budget on paying it off so that within the year, we will be free of that debt. Then, the plan is to throw that money at my (ridiculously high interest) student loan, and finally at my (ridiculously low interest) car payment. With this, we will be debt-free in 24 months.
4. Finally paying ourselves.
We were in pretty tight circumstances at times in the past few years. We never went hungry, we never did anything unhealthy to get by. We did skate on a few payments here and there, pay a bill or two late, use the cushion I had built in to my Mini payments to skip a month or two for sending a check to BMW. We set it up from the beginning that the utilities are in my name, while the credit card is in Adam's. This way, his credit remains strong, and I can jump onto his card when it's paid off. Ta-da! instant better credit, just add water... and a shitton of money, time, and effort.
In this time, with his lay-off from a more reliable job and my "fuck you" to my last truly gainful employer, we hadn't been able to save. Anything. I rinsed my Roth IRA last year, we amassed that credit card debt, and have been making significant, if some what tardy, lifestyle changes. We also rescued two dogs, moved, and had giant changes to our personal lives. Sometimes, you can't plan for expenses regardless of what you do. And that's terrifying.
By significantly trimming our expenses, we've managed to budget out a serious savings plan in a way we never did before. Financial gurus suggest having a rainy day fun that would allows you to maintain your lifestyle with no income for a minimum of three months. Our savings account contained a few mothballs and some coins from our trip to London. Now, we're set up to put away a serious chunk of money every month and still stay under budget.
*5a. Plan like a mo' fo' (or, Budget, the Saga Continues).
I am not, as one might say, particularly domestic. I don't revel in laundry, I loathe vacuuming. Martha Stewart is my nemesis (right up there with that Paula Deen and Rachel Ray. Maybe I just hate the Food Network, I don't know). This is good on one hand, as I rarely spend a lot on cleaning products (ha ha). On the other hand, it means that every day I ask the existentially-interminable "what are we going to make for dinner?!" And usually, that means "reservations." Blargh. Stupid. Also, the delivery men know that our vociferous and assertive dogs are not to be feared (in the least). Not to cast aspersions on the kid, but I don't want that kind of familiarity with the driver from Campion's Pizza any more.
These days, it's plan, plan, plan. Weekly shopping - with coupons if I can grab them! - is always required. We mete out funds for one reasonably priced night out each week. We're not nuts, and we're not unreasonable; we both know that we are both social butterflies and we would likely end up losing our minds if we stayed in seven nights a week. But we also don't need to go out three or four nights of those seven. (Friends, if we turn down an invite, it's because we burned our night out, not because we don't love you.)
We rent my parents' old house, and it's a 40 year-old raised ranch. It was built in a time when oil was cheap, men wore polyester, and women were only just barely making cracks in that glass ceiling. This house oozes heat. We spent way more in heating fuel this year than I find remotely acceptable, and as all our friends know, we keep the place arctic (60°F or below at all times this winter, except that time we had Adam's grandmother over; I'm not cruel). We're planing to re-insulate the attic this spring, which is a lot to pay upfront, but definitely worth it if we don't have to hand whole paychecks over to the oil guy next winter. And it will cost less than an oil fill-up! We're also considering installing better water-heating equipment and running a leak test to see if/where we need to shore up additional leaks. Adam's brother is an exceptional HVAC engineer, so we have a hook-up there.
5b. DIYing to Do Better.
I've also scrounged the Internet (er... or just Pinterest, because it's like crafty crack), for money saving tips. For example, this afternoon, I made my own laundry detergent. It cost $1.08 to make a gallon of the stuff, and that's only because I bought hypo-allergenic soap. I pay $8 for less Arm & Hammer, and burn through it like it's my job.
We now cook non-stop, and in large quantities so we can get at least two meals out of it. And we buy stuff that freezes well, last a long time, or can spread itself thin. With this, I'm even able to support my expensive baking habit.
We've been unable to afford decent window treatments or decor since we moved. That shit is expensive. Even decor fabrics are steeply priced ($30/yard? Yeah, not with my paycheck) at JO-Ann Fabric. So I'm cobbling together some nifty cheap fabric and ingenuity, and hoping it'll do the trick. Maybe I'll post about that someday.
I'm in the process of getting together a garden, and while that is a decent chunk of change up front, it will afford us fresh, practically free produce, and also cut back on our carbon footprint, ensure we HAVE to plan meals with the veggies, and also, I miss playing in the dirt. Farming (on whatever scale) is cheaper than therapy and you get vegetables (or goat milk!). We just have to ensure that the raised-bed is protected, since Simon graciously un-potted my entire container garden last summer. Nary a pepper survived. Not this time, poopiedog!
If anyone is curious, yes, I do still own my Mini. We need a car for transporting the dogs that's reliable and practical. While the Mini isn't always the most practical, it does fit our needs. And, moreover, while it's a considerable amount of equity, selling it would restrict us at this point to questionably reliable cars. Not that these choices have to be defended, but it is what it is.
I don't know for certain if we will be able to fully commit to these changes, but thus far, we've been doing really well. I'm certain that my reluctance to address our finances together, in part to avoid uncomfortable or hurtful "discussions," was a failing of epic proportions on my part. We're in this together, and at some point, we'd like to be that together in the legal sense. (The truth is, it's hard to fund a wedding with the three whole figures in your checking account.) I'm vigilant and unyielding and have started making sure those discussions do happen, because they have to happen, (especially when your beloved's favorite hobby is tweaking his vehicle, which tends to be not-so-inexpensive), and when they do, you really know you're in it together.
Also, I need to write more. I'm damned rusty.