Budgeting our way through the holidays...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

This is one of those posts I've been reflecting on for a month but never seemed to will into existence. I've written and rewritten it in my head at this point... some of my best lines were created and forgotten while loading the dishwasher. Oh, well. Anyway, here goes. 

Last September Mario and I committed to a budget for the first time since we began sharing our finances 10+ years ago. I've long since come to realize we were not good financial planners. There. I said it. It is what it is. Although we were doing just fine, we didn't have an adequate emergency fund (at least 3 months worth of expenses, right?) and often failed to anticipate costs, which frequently led to us tapping into our savings. Some months we spent more than we earned but had little insight into how or why. If we wanted something, we got it. Saving for it seldom crossed our minds. It's not that we were financially irresponsible, we weren't, but delayed gratification was something we desperately needed to work on. And while I'd given up my penchant for Target clearance endcap shopping years before, and we'd already begun living with less, we had a long way to go in this department. Mario has done well and we live a comfortable existence, yet I felt like we were floundering in this one area of our lives. I was ashamed that so much money was slipping through our fingers. We are smart people... why didn't our finances reflect that? I was also stressed about money on a regular basis. Who wants to live paycheck to paycheck if they don't have to? With my student loans coming due, a major move in the works, and the possibility of private school tuition for Kiddo, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns.
Sticking to a budget has been easier than I anticipated, though I have definitely had pouty moments here and there. I've learned so much about myself in the last few months, and also come to really appreciate how well Mario and I work together when we set our minds to something. We sit down and go over our expenses every two weeks. For those few minutes, we have each others undivided attention. We plan ahead. We rejoice every time something is paid off or we have extra. All of our debts and monthly bills are written down and prioritized. We now talk about money with intention... and not because we are stretched too thin. In just a few short months we've paid off thousands of dollars in debt while maintaining our savings. (Which means the money was there all along.) We know where our money goes, pay for everyday expenses with cash, and put a lot of thought into our purchases. Most importantly, I have connected the dots between money, stuff, and the whole idea of living (more) simply in a meaningful, life-changing way. Is it a pain to go into the bank and withdraw cash twice a month? It can be. Do I enjoy paying for gas with cash rather than swiping my card, filling up, and driving away? Nope. Especially in the winter. But something had to give and I can't imagine not living this way anymore. These are minor things compared to the stress that comes with a lack of money management.

Aside from changing our habits and tweaking our spending, which quickly became second nature, there has only been one major hurdle to overcome since starting this journey: How would we navigate Christmastime on a budget when we'd never set limits before?

I had a bit of a tantrum about the commercialism of Christmas in our country.  Then I decided that while exposure to what has become an American tradition is unavoidable, it didn't have to invade my life. I could simply walk away from the lunacy. So I did. Selling it to Husband was the tough part. Which led to another revelation: Gift giving is an emotional issue and involves much more than money. We had to dig deep and get a bit uncomfortable, otherwise our behavior would go unchanged.

Mario's love language is gift giving. He shows me he loves me in so many ways, but he still feels an overwhelming need to give, give, give. More presents equals more proof of his appreciation for me. And while I am touched, many years it felt like we were one-upping each other. No, I love yoooou more. Sometimes quantity trumped quality. If I had more gifts to unwrap than he did, I felt bad. Although the issue of giving as a way of loving is a lot less ingrained in me, I fell prey to it, too. This last year we set out to change all that. We show how much the other means to us all year round, so it was unnecessary to put ourselves through the emotionally exhausting habit of proving our love through material objects. Plus, it inevitably led to a money hangover come January.

The first step was to begin saving for a cash Christmas ASAP. We devoted an envelope to our Christmas fund and put money aside for it every paycheck. We started in September, so we were a little late in the game. This year will be better. Then we decided on a set amount of money that would put us on equal footing: $100 for gifts and $20 for stockings. Kiddo got more for obvious reasons. Then it was up to us to make it work individually. If it meant one great present, then so be it. But this is where it got challenging for us. You see, we are fortunate in that Mario's company takes great care of him. His travel expenses, computer, printer, car, office supplies, etc. are all paid for. If something breaks, he gets it replaced. In my case, expenses come from the family budget. And that's where a fundamental imbalance comes into play. 
 The expensive things in his life are already covered, so I was free to buy more. He, however, ran into budget roadblocks because a new laptop, knitting classes, and camera lenses come in at a much higher price point. He felt restricted by the budget; I felt freed. But like everything else in life we made it work, and even had room left in the budget for a trip to NYC.

The other aspect to this involved family. We approached them with the idea of a gift exchange as opposed buying gifts for everyone. Draw names out of a hat and buy for one person instead of ten. Despite our assertion that we wanted to change the way we handle the holidays, a gift still showed up on our doorstep. It was a kind gesture, but I found myself wishing they could respect our desire to change our lifestyle. Our desire to find financial freedom and a way to live with less. We can't control other people, and I think of the whole experience as another life lesson. Most people were on board, so perhaps we motivated others to change their own financial future. One can hope, anyway. I expect this whole thing will get easier with time... and our new found lifestyle will seem less radical to those around us. (Most of our friends think what we are doing is great. When I whip out my "eating out" envelope at lunch it initiates a conversation about how fun budgeting can be.) Among some, I think the perception is that we must be broke, when quite the opposite is true. Why do this if you don't have to? seems to be the feeling. I imagine they are grappling with their own financial identity in some way.

In the end, this was a great adventure. I can see a future where my student loans are paid off in years, not decades. Where we take great trips and don't worry about how to fund them. Maybe one day Mario and I can take a break from work and the hustle and bustle of daily life and just live for a few months. On the ocean. In a bungalow. Drive an RV around the country. Backpack through Europe. Live in a hobbit hole in New Zealand. They feel a little less like pipe dreams these days.

More to come as insights are made and bills are paid. (Hey! That rhymes!)

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