The Budget

So I haven’t written much about my budget lately.

That is because I’ve been doing a pretty piss poor job of sticking to it.

I have been doing better. I have been making positive changes. But I’m not meeting my goals of staying within my budget or even tracking my spending accurately. As far as my budget goes, I’m failing pretty miserably.

But I am making better financial decisions. I’m not buying as much stuff and I’m saving a little each month. These are definitely improvements. Still, it feels a lot like I’m the kid who’s really bad at math, the one who has failed every semester for her entire academic career. Sure, one month she may turn in all her assignments, but some of them are only partially completed, and she’s going to get an F on the test anyway.

I taught a “remedial” math class a couple of years ago; I know what it’s like for those kids. They are so far behind, they have missed so much, and they just don’t get it. Some of them are never going to catch up. Many of them are never going to pass out of Algebra. (Did you know that not passing Algebra is the number one reason California high schools students don’t graduate or pass the high school exit exam?!)

I watched so many kids try really hard to dig themselves out of the hole they were in that year in math class. Some made truly valiant efforts but in the end the result was a 58% F instead of a 33% F. Sometimes it feels like I’m making improvements, but I’m still failing, I’m just not failing so exceptionally.

I keep telling myself that while I have a long way to go, I’m taking steps in the right direction. We all know what a journey of a thousand steps starts with.

The thing is, I can’t keep failing at this. Our financial future is at stake. My family’s security hangs in the balance. I owe it to my children to figure this out. It’s so, so, sooooo important.

And unlike a lot of other really important things that I feel I fail at (ahem, offering my kids consistently well balanced meals) this is measurable. My progress can be tracked in very real terms, with actual numbers. Hence the failing math student analogy.

Like so many things in my life, the first few months I did a really good job. Then I fell off the wagon. Spectacularly. One thing I will always do is fall off the wagon spectacularly.

I know the answer is to get back on. I KNOW this. I’m doing it. I’ve thrown one leg over the edge of the back. I’m struggling mightily to haul myself back on. I’ve told myself that I WILL start tracking my spending again. I’ve told myself that I WILL stick to my budget. I’ve set up incentives. I’ve talked to my husband. I’ve tried really hard to make it happen, to make it work.

I’m realizing that restricting my spending is a lot like other areas of my life, I’d do a lot better if I just stopped cold turkey. Moderation is NOT something I excel at. I’m pretty good at unwaveringly denying myself, but letting myself enjoy a little something here and there? That never works. I always fall down the slippery slope into absolute excess.

I didn’t want to go the cold turkey no-shopping route because I knew it wasn’t sustainable and I didn’t think it would teach me the skills of shopping in moderation that I will clearly need. Now I realize that I need to start with some cold turkey no spending rules or I’m never really going to get started. It’s like the juice cleanse before a major dietary overhaul. It helps with the sugar and carb addiction that’s gotten out of control. After I’ve exercised my “no spending” muscles I can try to really flex them by making harder choices about what I actually can buy, and when.

So this summer I’m not buying anything non-consumable. The only things I’m allowed to buy are those we go through and then throw away like food or TP or laundry detergent or, well you get the idea. The reality is I have enough of that kind of stuff bought in bulk that I probably won’t have to buy anything except food, and I want to put some pretty strict regulations on those kinds of purchases too.

The one thing I’m letting myself get are some things for the back yard (I really need to work out there this summer–that is another area of my life I haven’t shared because, well, the back yard = yet another FAIL). I will create a spending limit for that project and when I hit it I WILL STOP. (I’m writing that in capital letters to remind myself of my own determination.)

I’m reading some blogs about frugal spending. Some of these people are saving 70% of what they make! One woman hasn’t purchased one piece of clothing (used or new) in 18 months! Their frugality is impressive, to be sure, and the message is very much that once you make the habit, it’s easy to stick with it.

Except she is clearly someone who has felt stressed out spending money and so always did so sparingly. As someone who has ALWAYS had a spending problem, since the moment I clutched my first hard won quarters in my grubby little hand, I narrow my eyes at her assurance that it will become second nature. She seems a lot like the kid who is really good at math, who just gets it and doesn’t even need to try. Sure she puts in the work and gets the homework done, but she can do that because she understands what is being asked of her. It takes her a fraction of the time to get the job done, and she can do it well. The kid who isn’t as good at math couldn’t get three problems done in the same amount of time, and she wouldn’t know how to do them anyway.

I’ll keep reading the frugal living blogs, because it’s inspiring to see how others can live happily spending less, but I know I’m never going to be like those people. I’m never going to go 18 months without buying a single scrap of clothing. I’m never going to save 70% of what I make. Part of the reason is I don’t have a financial goal that drives me like they do (more on this later), but part of it that I’m just not the kind of person who will ever be able to live like that. And that’s okay. I can still make sound financial decisions, spend less and save money without living so frugally. And it’s going to start this summer, with a shopping ban. Wish me luck.

How would you like to change the way you spend money?


  1. I agree completely that the people writing those blogs are not people who naturally spent a lot and it DOES seem to come so easy for them. I actually went 5 months without buying a single piece of clothing for myself (which was the longest in my whole life, I think!) but then did deliberately spend some birthday money my parents give me (yes, I’m nearly 40 but my parents give me birthday money, and I’ll take it!). It was actually really easy not to buy stuff if I a) unsuscribed from every single store email and 2) didn’t go into a clothing store. I just walked a different direction so I wasn’t tempted to “pop in”.
    As for spending tracking, we also did really good and then completely fell of the wagon this spring and are struggling to go back and fill in the blanks. We decided to start fresh with zeroed out budgets in June and we’ll see how things go. I was doing better with subconscious spending—when I had to enter it into the app, and see the “available $” in that category go down, I questioned every purchase.
    You can do this. I have read your words for years (!) and I know you can do this.

    1. I am inspired by your recent clothing ban, seeing you do it makes me believe I could do it too. I am more panicked about starting this summer shopping ban than I let on in my post, which is all the more reason why I need to do it. Nine weeks of not buying anything should NOT be a big deal, but I really do engage in a fair amount of retail therapy and the thought of not having that outlet is hard for me. I’m sure it will be easier than I think, but I’m definitely anxious to get started.

  2. You might want to dig into the archives of Get Rich Slowly, starting with the earliest posts. JD used to have a spending problem, then went way overboard in the other direction, then learned limits. It’s a compelling story. There are a lot of other blogs from 5+ years ago that were like that as well, people starting out as debt bloggers and then getting a handle on things, but I’m not thinking of which ones they were off the top of my head and don’t even know if they’re around anymore. The always-frugal early-retirement bloggers are more of a recent trend (Early Retirement Extreme was the big one 5 years ago, but MMM has a more tempting lifestyle, and the recession is over, so I think fads have changed). But I used to read them like crack, so there are people who went from spending tons of stuff, especially on clothing, to spending next to nothing, to more moderate spending after paying off their high interest debt. One thing to look for is side-bar counters for tracking debt reduction progress.

    1. I will definitely dig into those archives. I’m slowly adding finance blogs to my reader and it’s definitely helping me think more about money and how I spend it. It’s good to know there are other kinds of blogs out there too, more varied than just the super-frugal spend-nothing folks. I think it’s valuable to read their stories but it’s also important to read about other approaches.

      1. The thing about successful debt bloggers is that they either disappear or they become boring monetized sites after they’ve eliminated their debts (or saved for a down payment etc.). The extreme frugality ones seem to have longer sticking power because they don’t have to change their message. The GRS forums also have a section for people’s debt reduction/savings stories that you can read for motivation too, which is fun.

        Another challenge that was popular maybe 10 years ago is something called “The Compact” where people vow to buy nothing new for a set amount of time, only used stuff. I’ve always found those to be really great reading as well, especially for people who do it because they have had a shopping addiction.

        The book Willpower is a good read and might give you some insight into your spending personality (available from the library!).

  3. “I’m realizing that restricting my spending is a lot like other areas of my life, I’d do a lot better if I just stopped cold turkey. Moderation is NOT something I excel at. I’m pretty good at unwaveringly denying myself, but letting myself enjoy a little something here and there? That never works. I always fall down the slippery slope into absolute excess.” <— It's like you're in my head lately. This, this this. Finances, drinking, eating, exercising — I fall down the rabbit hole of excess in everything I do, and I don't know how to change that. It's a problem. And I feel so stuck in it. Best of luck to you in the spending freeze this summer… I might have to do something like this as well…

    1. Ah, I have been meaning to write about this for drinking. I used to have a real issue with drinking. I either didn’t drink at all, or I got way too wasted. I abstained completely from drinking alcohol for the long years we were trying, and then pregnant, and then nursing, and then the whole thing again. And after all that abstaining I just felt sick when I tried to drink even a little. Now my husband is into making cocktails (which I LOVE) and I’m having to figure out how much is okay to drink. Two drinks is all I can take in a night–without feeling bad the next morning–and it’s so fun to get a little tipsy and hang out on a Saturday, but is it okay to do that every weekend night? That is 4-5 drinks a week! That seems like a lot to someone who has never had alcohol on the reg (my problem was never frequent drinking but drinking to excess when I did drink). So yeah, I’m trying to figure out an okay moderation on drinking and it’s been hard. I’ll write a proper post about it soon.

      1. ooh, please do write about this. something I’ve written and deleted and written and deleted multiple times because…not sure why but it seemed so personal.

  4. I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s “Better Than Before” book. You hit on so much of what she writes about abstainers vs moderators, and how much harder it is to climb on the reform the second time after falling off the first, and loopholes, and….. Well. LIBRARY Request.
    The book is normalizing about variations in people. I read Habits and Willpower and this is worth reading as well, different perspective.
    Unfortunately I also remembered my friend from years ago who used to tell me (when I was wrapped around my own axle) “Understanding is the booby prize.” But she wasn’t totally right because: for me, when I understand, I can change my actions.
    SO, Support and Strength and Encouragement. PROGRESS not Perfection is the goal! You ARE making progress.
    With frugality it helps to make it a game and self challenge. Creative not punitive. The Compact@yahoogroups on line isn’t very active these days but I heard it may be more active on Fbk but do not know. The Non-Consumer Advocate has historical roots in the Compact.

    1. I just put Better than Before on hold, along with Will Power. Better than Before looks like it could be really helpful for me. Thanks for the reco!

      I also find that if I understand why something is hard or what is at play when I struggle with something, I am better at making progress. The Power of Habit was really eye opening and helped me to understand why it’s so hard to break a habit and how to better create good habits. Of course most of the habits I want to break are not habitual, daily things but are more elusive (like not shopping). I look forward to reading that book.

  5. Reading finance blogs definitely helps me to stay on track. It makes me more aware of finances, the financial trade-offs we make in life, and long-term financial planning. Of course I do find all that stuff rather interesting so it’s not hard for me to get into it. I don’t think I can go cold turkey on spending but I have gone for long periods of time without buying clothes.

    My desire to keep the house un-cluttered is my main motivation for spending less. (of course, don’t look inside our garage!)

    I use the library now because I don’t want to own a stack of books.

    I keep a list of clothing/shoes I want/need so that I don’t buy something I don’t need (like yet another sweater when I sometimes don’t even wear all my winter clothing…).

    Whenever I think my spending is getting out of control, I take myself off of email lists and clear my browsing history so that I don’t get enticing pop-up ads.

    I am trying my best to repurpose stuff we already own or re-use stuff before going out to buy, buy, buy!

    Even though I don’t consider myself a big spender, being frugal is still an ongoing process for me.

  6. I have no idea how to spend normally yet but I’m hoping we can develop some good habits once we have income. Not spending money on things isn’t the hard part for me, it’s spending it on food and music (concerts and albums). I’m not sure if moving to the middle of nowhere with two restaurants within an hour and exactly zero places to go to a concert will be helpful or if we’ll wind up spending lots more on travel and things while we’re in town. We are making a list of things to replace or buy and they’re all big things (starting with movers to haul the stuff we have out to the middle of nowhere) so that’s a chance to save for something tangible we need. I think that saving for tangible things like a vacation helps me the most to focus on it.

    1. You have been living on so little for so long, I’m sure you’ll have no problem saving once you start working. I can’t wait to see how all this works out!

  7. We all fall off the wagon now & then. The important thing is to get back on, and it sounds like you’re doing that with your moratorium on non-consumables. Re: the frugal living gurus, I admire them, but I think it would take an awful lot of time & effort to like some of them do. I think there has to be a happy medium somewhere. On the other hand, I have cut back on my spending in some areas since being laid off last year, and I’ve found it does get easier over time to resist bringing out the wallet. We’ve been tracking too, and knowing I need to “report” my spending to dh (who keeps the tracker) certainly makes me think twice about some of the things I want to buy. 😉

    1. The truth is I’ve never really gotten on this wagon. At the most I’ve had my legs dangling off the back, but I’ve never solidly been on it. I’m hoping that these steps help me arrive firmly on this financially responsible wagon and that I don’t ever fall off it once I’m on.

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