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Low Budget Living: Cutting the family budget…..

Well folks, hard times are here. And There. And Everywhere else too.

Not since the great depression have things looked so bad here in the States and all over the world. Many of us are facing major reductions in income – people from all walks of life – blue collar, white collar, rich, poor. Everyone seems to be getting hit one way or another. That means that people are looking for ways to cut expenses, trim the fat, and see if they can still make their mortgage/rent payments.

Having had the ‘pleasure’ of going through the sudden loss of income a few times in my life (and having spent a solid 15 years living on a college student/graduate student income), I figured it would make sense to share some of my experiences in how to make it on an income that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Thus begins an occasional series entitled “Low Budget Living”. I hope to share some of my experiences and ways that I’ve managed to cut my costs. Hopefully, someone will be able to benefit, and if not, maybe someone will get a chuckle out of it. So here goes:

Episode 1: cutting the family budget….

Cutting family budgets is a hard one. If you are living alone, are single, etc., the only one that really feels the hit is you. Believe it or not, that is a LOT easier than siting down and figuring out what you can cut from a budget that supports others. Here are some of the pitfalls to be aware of (some of these are going to seem really obvious, but I’m going to put them here anyway…)

  • Be aware that what YOU view as a luxury may be viewed as a necessity to others in your family. This sounds simple, but it is probably one of the most common problems families have re-working a budget. Buying the expensive, extra soft toilet paper may not matter to you, but may drive your significant other crazy. Be ready to learn things about your partner that you never imagined…..
  • Don’t get stuck on a single item. If your Significant Other and Kid(s) (SOK) gets stuck on a particular budget item, let it go. Chances are good that you’ll be doing this again, and you can always re-address that particular item next time.
  • Speaking of “next time”, don’t expect to get your budget right on the first pass. There are going to be items that you think you can do without, but you’ll discover that you can’t. There are going to be items that you thought were absolute “must-haves”, and you’ll find out that they really were not as important as something you dropped.
  • Accept that fact that this going to be awkward. Unless you have a truly remarkable relationship, talking about money is always tough.
  • If you have them, and they are old enough to understand, include the kids. That isn’t to say that parents shouldn’t do some planning ahead of time, but the kids are going to be effected by this, and it is important that they know what is going on. It is also a great time to teach them some skills that they’ll need in their adult life.

OK, so how do we actually do this? Surprisingly, many people have never actually done a budget – as long as the income exceeds (or at least meets) the expenses, things just chug along. So here we go. You will need:

  1. copies of your bills, expenses, etc for the last 6 months (ideally – if you don’t have 6 months, use as much as you have. The less history you have, the harder it will be). This includes checking acount records, credit card bills, receipts, etc. The more detail you can come up with, the better. (we’ll get back to this later)
  2. Paper, pencil calculator, etc – you’re going to be generating lists, adding lots of numbers, and making some plans. Get whatever you need to keep track.
  3. Patience and time. Plan to spend at least a few hours on this. You don’t have to do it all at once, but take the time to do it right. If emotions flare, take a break.

What you will do:

  1. The first step is one of the hardest. You have to figure out where your money goes. ALL of it. In detail. When you are done with this step, you should be able to add up all of your income for the time period you are evaluating, subtract the expenses and any savings, and have an exact zero sum (income minus expenses minus deposits to savings equals zero).
  2. This is hard because it needs to be detailed. Really detailed. “Groceries” doesn’t cut it, because “groceries” probably includes a lot of extra stuff – impulse buys at the grocery store, that extra whatsis you buy every time you are at the store, etc. Include everything in the list, and how much you spend on it.
  3. Once you have your list (and the amount you spend matches what you had for income), go down the list, and mark the items that simply can’t be cut. You have to pay rent/mortgage. Taxes aren’t going to go away. You still need to put gas in the car and pay for insurance. These are items that you can’t eliminate (although some of them may be reducible, it will take outsiders, so we’ll get to that later).
  4. What is left on the list is the stuff that is up for chopping. Food isn’t going to disappear from your budget, but there is probably some places that your grocery budget can be cut. Start saving the receipts form the grocery store, then go through them item by item. Did you really need that $14  pound of coffee? Maybe another brand that costs less will do.
  5. Go through the list, and talk about each item. Some of them can probably be eliminated (instead of stopping by starbux every morning, spend a couple of bucks on a nice travel cup, and make your coffee at home before you leave).
  6. Once you’ve gone through the list and eliminated/reduced what you can, its time to decide if you want to pursue the more complicated options. Can the rent/mortgage be re-negotiated? Maybe a less comprehensive auto insurance policy, reduce contributions to IRA or 401(k) (I personally consider this a last resort, but you have to decide what works…)
  7. Keep going back through things until you’ve got a balanced budget. Yes, you will probably be giving up things that you don’t want to. If that weren’t the case, you probably wouldn’t be doing this….

OK, so now you’ve got a  budget! Great, but you’re not done yet. The hard part is going to be sticking to it. Once you start cheating – even once – you’ve cracked the budget, and teh cracks will only grow. The first few weeks are the toughest. You will be breaking habits – and some of them will effect your social life, so you may have to explain why you’re not going out to lunch every day with the buddies at work. Be prepared. Once you’ve worked through the first few weeks, you’ll start settling into your new habits, and it will get easier. To help get through those weeks though, a few tricks:

  • Don’t use credit cards or checks unless you absolutely have no choice. Paying with cash hurts more, and will help you think twice.
  • Every day, sit down with SOK and go through ALL of the spending that happened that day – every penny. Use the support – but also be prepared for the angst when someone cheats. (this is important because it will help reinforce thinking twice before breaking the budget).
  • When you write your budget make sure you leave everyone a bit of discretionary money. Unless you backed up against the wall, no one is going to stick toa budget that doesn’t give them an ice cream cone now and then….
  • When the monthly credit card and checking account statements come in, go through them as a group. Track and understand where the money is going.
  • Shopping is a trap. There is a whole industry out there that is really good at making you and SOK spend money. Any time that any of you are going to the store (ANY store) make a written list before you leave. A specific list: 2 pairs of socks, a tie, and a pair of work pants. Only buy what is on the list – no matter what kind of bargain, sale, or spiffy random item you happen to find. This is one of the hardest items – our culture is an impulse-buy culture, and this is hard for everyone. If you have kids, it’s even harder. If you have teenagers, be ready for major trauma.
  • On that whole shopping list thing – before you make the list, go through the house and make sure you really need what you’re buying. Before take the kids to get new shoes, go through their closet 9or wherever it is the shoes end up), and make sure they really need another pair. If Jr. already has a pair of sneakers for basketball, he can probably wear them for track as well. No matter what your kids may think, there is NO way to justify paying $100+ for a pair of sneakers…..
  • Groceries are another trap. Try this: put a notepad on the fridge door. Every time you throw out food write down what it was, and how much. That celery that sat in the bottom of the fridge until it dissolved? write it down. The leftover pasta that you threw out because no will eat leftovers? write that down too. If you are a ‘normal’ family, you’ll dicover that you throw away about 1/4 of the food you buy. Think about what you could do with an extra 25% of the money you spend on groceries….

The final thing to keep in mind is that this process is never done. Periodically sit down and go over the whole thing all over again. Over time, you’ll realize that there is a lot that you can cut – probably without anywhere near the pain you expected.

Finally, watch out for the Holiday trap.  You would be amazed at how many people get themselves on a budget, and stick to it until some holiday comes along. Thanksgiving – suddenly you’ve got a horde of relatives coming for dinner, and your grocery budget is already spent…. Oh No! christmas is coming, and I forgot to budget for Uncle Fred!…. The list goes on and on. There are a couple of solutions: the best one is to suck it up. If family is coming for thanksgiving, make it pot-luck – or ask them to kick in to cover costs. If you didn’t budget a christmas present – spend some time and make something, send a card, whatever. Be creative, but DON’T blow the budget. Of course, the best option is to actually allow for these in your budget, and spread the costs over the year (in other words: Save up for the sudden expenses).

OK, I think that’s enough for now. Going forward, I’ll dig into my past (some of it not-so-far-past),a nd share some anecdotes about MY attempts at living on a budget…..

share and enjoy

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2 Responses

  1. This feels incredibly comprehensive.

    I think the biggest thing that I come away with whenever I start thinking about our budget (which, I’ll be honest, we don’t do like you have outlined here – we’re more of an “income is exceeding expenses” kind of family, but I think there’s some value in knowing how to KEEP it that way, but that’s another post)… ANYWAY, when I start thinking about our budget (and getting nervous), I start thinking about the extra stuff. The cookies we don’t really need. The food that gets thrown away (don’t even get me STARTED on the food that gets thrown away), and the stuff that we buy that we can make MUCH cheaper (and better). Once I start trimming back on the stuff that we don’t NEED, I find that I can rein us back in quite nicely without feeling deprived.

    It’s all pretty boggling and it can be exceedingly scary, but it’s entirely manageable after a few deep breaths.

  2. Chili, I think you hit he main message right on the head – scary, but do-able.
    Hope you never have to go through it to the extent that requires the making of The List – that is usually required for truly dire situations – 25% or more pay cuts, or people that have been avoiding doing it for too long…

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