Living Well (on a budget)

I’ve had a few people ask questions about our budget and our spending choices lately.  We are living on Tim’s income while also renovating a house and paying his grad school tuition out of pocket at a private university.  While we don’t have any  magic formula, here’s what we do to pay our bills, home store tabs, and university balances while still saving money each month.

1.  FOOD

The biggest thing we spend money on each month is groceries.  It’s no secret that real, fresh food is better for your health, and it’s also no secret that it’s more expensive to eat well.  Welcome to America, the junk food nation.

Our secret grocery weapon is a chest freezer we scored for $30 on craigslist in Bloomington in super condition.  We have moved it twice–so worth it.  We left the essentials in it overnight in a moving truck in the hotel parking lot, and by the time we plugged it in over 36 hours later, all the pumped milk and frozen meats were still frozen totally solid.  Amazing!

Having a deep freezer saves our bacon (har har) by allowing us to eat a mostly organic diet when we otherwise couldn’t afford to.  For vegetables, we buy organic frozen at Costco in bulk or organic when they have great sales at Kroger.  For meat, the trick is knowing the mark down schedule at your local grocery store and having the cojones/humility to buy everything they have as soon as you see the glorious orange “Manager’s Special” sticker.  Kroger stores (Payless, Ralph’s, and a dozen other names are all Kroger stores)  mark down organic meat, dairy, and bread 2 days before the use/sell by date.   We only buy humanely raised, organically or grass fed meat and we only buy it marked down (or straight from the farmer, like we did with a portion of cow this winter).  We also buy organic sandwich bread anytime we see it marked down and toss that in the freezer as well.  The same goes for uncured bacon or other meats we see on great sale.

In one trip a few months back, I bought 3 whole free range chickens, 3 pounds of grass fed ground beef, 4 loaves of whole wheat organic bread, and a few pounds of various quality cheeses at 50% off the original price (if not more).  All of it went straight to the freezer and fed us for about a month.  (Hint: If you are into weekly budgeting, consider doing a monthly budget or adding a “monthly splurge” specifically for stocking up on paper products, organic meat, toiletries, or other pricey items that aren’t weekly buys.)  We also happened across a freezer full of discontinued organic frozen pizzas at 75% off.  I bought twelve and they lasted us about five months so far.  Did I look like a crazy lady with 12 pizzas at $3 a pop?  Yeah, pretty much.  I’d do it again.  Slash I will.

Secret weapon from my Mom:  menu plan, then grocery shop for ONLY the items that complete the menu.  I tend to make the weekly menu while I shop, but be forewarned that most of the population cannot do this without impulse buying way, WAY more than they need.  I am the queen of self control at the store.  Just ask Tim.  I peruse the produce section and buy anything organic that is marked down, then I buy the must have items regardless of sale (organic apples, spinach, and the rest of the Dirty Dozen if we need them for our menu that week).  We have a freezer full of meat at any given time, so I typically only shop the produce and organic dairy section and then fill in with whatever other items we need for the menu dinners that week and get out of there.  Typically, my cart is full of mostly organic, fresh food for $40-$60 a week.  Meat is expensive–we eat it a few times a week, but not every night.  This is more to do with preference than budget, but if you’re trying to cut out some spending, increasing your meatless days is a no brainer.  We eat a lot of lentils and beans and soups in the winter (and vegetable based dinners or salads in the summertime).

2.  FUN MONEY

We don’t have expensive habits, largely by choice in this phase of life.  Tim and I both do yoga at home instead of taking classes.  We choose outdoorsy free things or other free places for fun excursions.  I get a haircut (not color) a handful of times a year in a style that will grow out without a lot of maintenance.  We don’t clothes shop unless we really need something, which is next to never.  In fact, we try to pare down our wardrobes regularly instead of adding to them.  We love craigslisting things when we need something both because it’s a good deal and because it doesn’t contribute to the carbon footprint–double win in our book.

Our splurge is going out to dinner ($20 cap–if we need to share, we do) once every week or two.  This is something we agreed we wanted to keep in the budget to feel like we aren’t penny pinching misers and to allow us an evening of no cooking or kitchen clean up.  Sometimes instead of dinner we will go out Saturday morning, especially in the summer, and get a good coffee and a bagel or pastry.  These are usually $10 dates that feel like an outing and almost always result in a good conversation and appreciation of each other and our life.

3. TECHNOLOGY

We are pretty simple creatures as far as technology is concerned.  In fact, we’d love to get rid of our cell phones someday.  We have a no contract iPhone plan for $45 a month per line (available from AT&T, T-Mobile, Net10, StraightTalk, and others).  We love having iPhones, but it isn’t worth a $200 phone bill to us.  We pay about $90 a month for our phones combined.  We also use a Roku player which streams Netflix, Hulu, and tons of free Roku channels like PBSKids, Huff Post Live, the History Channel, and thousands of others.  Tim’s parents got it for us for Christmas and it’s a one time cost deal–no monthly payment unless you subscribe to Netflix or another paid channel.

We come in at under $125 for all of our technological expenses each month now, which we are happy with.  We used to have a 6 month basic cable/internet bundle from Comcast for $50, but now we just pay $20 for our internet and use the Roku.  This is our first month with it, but so far we love it!  It has tons of options and covers all the shows that are a priority for us (ABC and PBS, mostly).  We will be subscribing to Hulu, so that will be an added cost, but still cheaper than our bundle (which was also a really good deal!).    Our favorite thing about the Roku set up? It forces you to be intentional about what you are watching.  Since it’s a fully on demand set up, you have to know what you’re looking for.  This eliminates a lot of mindless tv time that can be a trap at the end of a tired day.   Well, that and the fact that we have Thomas the Train at our fingertips instead of waiting for it to come on at 3pm everyday.

4.  AMAZON

As much as I like to support locals, we buy a lot from Amazon.  We go to Target for night time diapers and a few things here and there, but we hardly go to any non-grocery stores anymore.  Part of this is convenience (not lugging Si through the snow with my pregnant belly and twelve bags is always a perk), part of it is price (they almost always have the lowest prices, or close to it), part of it is selection since I am pretty specific about products I want, and they bring it to my door in two days for free because we have Amazon Prime.  We buy everything from toiletries to decaf espresso to pots and pans to electronics.  This is fantastic, but on our  monthly statements we see a lot of that A word and wonder what exactly we bought.  If we put numbers on it, there is a pretty consistent amount we spend each month on Amazon, and that’s just part of the budget for us.  I don’t impulse buy a bunch of darling crap at Target, so it works for us.

5.  TRANSPORTATION

We have two Subaru Outbacks that get decent gas mileage, have all wheel drive, and lots of cargo space.  We adore them.  Our ideal scenario is to only have one car payment at a time and to have a mechanic we trust implicitly.  Luckily, we’ve got both.  Our newer Subaru will be paid off in the next year, which will free up the budget as well.  We also bundled our homeowners, car and life insurances policies through State Farm in Alexandria.  Despite moving and transferring offices, we switched back to their office and haven’t looked back.  Lindsey Cuneo is the agent there now and has been really proactive in helping us figure out what kind of coverage we need and getting us the best price for the combined policies.  We have been continually impressed with that office.

 6.  STUDENT LOANS

I have student loans, but Tim doesn’t, which is lucky.  We are paying for his graduate school out of pocket, so all that’s left will be my loans from undergrad and grad school.  Have you seen the tshirt that says “I’m broke and I have the college degree to prove it”?  Well, it’s (marginally) funny because it’s true.  My student loans cost a few hundred dollars more than our mortgage, taxes, and insurance combined each month once Tim is no longer a full time student.  I had great scholarships, but I went to private schools.  In the end, I have two degrees and about $60K in debt to show for it.  Is it a good deal for what I got? Yes, it should have cost me upwards of $150,000.  Does it affect our lives negatively?  Yeah.  Jury’s still out for how we will approach higher education for our kids when the time comes.  We may do the ol’ Mom-gets-a-job-on-campus and ride out the tuition breaks.

While we’re on the topic, we don’t use credit cards.  We have a Menards card and a Lowes card with zero balances, and sometimes they will have great promotions if you use your card.  When that happens to coincide with a big or unexpected purchase, we will use it for that item, pay it off the same day, and reap the rewards of the promotion.  Beware!  They count on you putting it on the back burner, and then it becomes a very bad deal very quickly.  You have to be on your bill paying A-game and follow through.  Get rid of your credit cards.  You’ll sleep better and your whole life will feel brighter.  I swear.

7.  TIME IS MONEY

In the end, we function on the basis that time is money.  We love to get rid of things either through donation or selling things on cragslist.  This gets us a profit or a tax write off, but  more importantly in my book is the space it frees up.  I look at it like this:  the more stuff I have, the more time I spend taking care of it/fixing it/putting it away/moving it around/finding a place to store it.  Time is money, people.  If you’re spending all your time cleaning up your house that’s full of stuff you don’t use or aren’t sure why you have it, read the February: Challenge Yourself post and start getting it out of your life.  I promise you’ll have more energy to do things you like and time to spend with people who are important to you.

How about you?  Got any tricks for paring down the budget?  We’re all ears.

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2 thoughts on “Living Well (on a budget)

  1. Meg, this is a great post! For seventeen years, people have asked me how Randy and I do it to keep me home with the kids. I have caught a lot of grief for not”working” from both friends and family! And after a year of working “outside” of the home, we had a huge eye opener as to just how important it is to have me home. Your answers are right on point, but I want to add a little something…….it’s simple, people need to learn to live within their means. I chose my kids over designer clothes, electronics, and big fancy houses!! There will be a time for all that, if wanted. Right now, we want what’s best for our girls! Not taking away from those who have to work. I have complete empathy for those situations. Just not the ones that work to have the biggest and best of everything.

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