So far our low-spend month has been a mix of frustration and adventure — and mostly successful. Here's a little update nearly two weeks in.
I know this is long, so I've added subheads so you can skip around to what interests you. See, I'm giving things out for free even though we're saving at home!
The joy of a scoreI was really thirsty walking down the beach and wishing I could stop in somewhere for a cold drink. I steeled myself to wait till I got home and could have some (ugh) water. When before my eyes, what should I see but a father and little girl coming toward me with Fuze juice bottles in their hands? Full, and large, and I was immediately thinking, I bet a father wouldn't buy a separate bottle of expensive juice drink like that for such a young kid.
My eyes scanned ahead. Aha! There it was: There were testers giving out full-size, free bottles of Fuze from coolers to everyone who walked by! Score!
I had my ice-cold drink, and I hadn't spent a cent.
That's the kind of thing that makes you feel good during a low-spend month or any personal economic downturn.
Warehouse shopping for cheapskatesWe went to Costco, and it ended up being the perfect low-spend outing. Seems strange since it's a warehouse store and all, but all I needed was floss and birthday gifts for the twins' birthday party we were attending the next day. If they didn't have something appropriate and affordable there, I would have to go elsewhere, but I was hoping, and I found some cute books + activity kits for both of them.
Meanwhile, we hit up all the sample stands. I got half a sandwich on pretzel bread (oh, my gosh, delicious) with Wholly Guacamole (that's what they were actually sampling, which I love), ham, and cheese. That's like half a lunch right there!
Mikko ate some ravioli, which pleasantly surprised me, because he's usually wary of pasta that has anything more than butter going on.
Alrik couldn't get enough of the whole foods juice (spinach plus fruits) that the blender company had made. He ended up crumpling the paper cup to try to squeeze out the last drops. I almost went back for another round, but frankly, I was tired of trying not to spill green liquid on my mei tai.
On our way to checkout, we passed through the candy aisle, and there was a sample person handing out fun-size candy bars from a variety pack. Some were from a forbidden brand, but I figured that was allowed since they were free so we were actually costing the company something. (Wink, wink.) Mikko couldn't decide which flavor, and the lady gave him one of each — just kept piling them into his hands! I couldn't believe it. It was like Halloween squared. I love when you get free things like that when you're trying not to spend money, because it makes the treat that much sweeter. Don't worry — we didn't eat them all right then and there; I tucked them away to dole out and share later on.
Then we ate dinner there, which was a fun treat. Hot dog plus drink is $1.50, the same price (inexpensive at the time, too) as when Costco first opened in the early 1980s at the very location we shop at. I was reading the photo captions on the wall, and when Costco first opened, they asked all the employees to please park near the door so people would think it was popular. That one made me chuckle.
The only low-spend fail was that Mikko begged and pleaded for a vanilla frozen yogurt, which comes in a huuuge serving for some reason, for $1.35 — not a big deal, but he had a few bites and decided he didn't like it. I didn't really want it, either, so it melted in the car and we threw it away when we got home. Well, another potential fail was that we dropped our hot dog on the ground before we ate it (and by "we dropped," I mean a certain five-year-old), but fortunately the people behind the counter gave us a fresh one without a murmur.
There were two nice guys sharing the table with us who were in these padded overalls that sort of looked like fisherman overalls but much thicker. Mikko wanted to know what they did for a living, so I had to screw up my courage to ask. Turns out they work in the freezer storage! So that was interesting to learn and would be right up Mikko's alley — his favorite place to visit at Costco is the freezer room where the milk is kept. I found out later Mikko thought they might be astronauts.
Other than the food, I was pleased I resisted all of Costco's allures. I didn't even bother browsing the tables full of adorable Carter's outfits, and I didn't grab the enormo-bag of barbecue Kettle chips. (That took some momentary willpower.) I was glad I didn't feel the need to decide if we should stock up on more sunscreen, or bandages, or frozen foods, or whatever, and just wheel on by it all without a glance.
But what killed me — killed me — to leave behind was this human anatomy kit. I saw it when I was looking for presents for the girls. Well, there were two of them actually, one for about $10 and one for about $50. They were human anatomy lessons and figures. The smaller one had cards with each part of the body on a see-through film. I thought that would be perfect for our unschooling with Mikko, because he's been so interested in skeletons and nervous, circulatory, and digestive systems and so on, so to see them each labeled and be able to lay them on top of each other in a tangible way would be excellent. I took a picture and hope they'll be around after this month is over. The $50 one looked even cooler (of course), because it had an actual plastic figure inside a bubble, and then was a huge book around it. I didn't look too closely at it, because I was trying not to get too excited… But it also showed the different internal parts of the body and looked so dang cool. Sigh. (I think it's this one although it was cheaper at Costco; Amazon also has a smaller version by the same author as well as this squishy one that looks fun. Clearly I like dream shopping.) Costco also had large laminated maps of the U.S. and the world that would be perfect for Mikko's room, since he's fascinated with geography right now as well.
That said, once I told myself firmly, "No, you're not allowed to get that, because it's low-spend month," it was kind of a relief because I was off the hook for deciding, and because I knew I'd feel guilty if I spent the money "just this once" and "for a good cause." It would be a slippery slope, I was sure.
Hello? Who may I say is calling?My cell phone died. It's been finicky for over a year, but it stopped turning on, which is a problem. Despite low-spend month, I knew I needed to get it replaced.
It's funny, because I've been watching Downton Abbey, and there's a scene where one of the girls hasn't come home in time for dinner and they're all worried sick. I was thinking idly, "She should really give them a call on her cell." The thing is, I don't need to go back far to remember a time in my own history when I didn't have a personal phone on me at all times!
But now that we do have them and rely on them, and since I'm regularly out (or home) alone with two little kids, I really want to have my own phone, for safety's sake. (We don't have a landline.)
I'd figured out that the phone was under warranty because I'd been talked into the plan when we bought it. So we all took a trip to the mall, and the guy at T-Mobile ordered us a replacement phone to be delivered in two days. Easy as that!
Well, almost. I have to pay the $5 service charge. Plus, since the screen is cracked, he said they would consider that damage "out of warranty" and charge me $64. Add to that the fact that I've already spent $96 on this warranty over the two years. That's $165. However, it's for a smartphone that's familiar to me and has the features I need, and buying one used off craigslist might bring its own set of troubles. Since the $96 is already spent, I know it would be hard to find a comparable phone for $69! (P.S. Don't let them talk you into that stupid warranty.)
(P.P.S. My copy editor heart can't bear not to point out that it is indeed "Who" and not "Whom" that is correct in my subheading there. Thank you.)
The toll of budgeting on kidsBeing at the mall was troubling for Mikko. At first he enjoyed the food court samples and the free play room as usual, but he didn't like that we wouldn't get him exactly what he wanted for lunch since it wasn't what the rest of us wanted. We needed to find something we could share as a family to pool our limited lunch budget.
I'm afraid he got quite annoyed, and I got quite annoyed with him. It's a hard change, going from having all your wants magically met to being told you can't have certain things that seem like they would be trivial for your parents to buy you. We've always had things we haven't bought him that he hasn't argued about — giant stuffed bears, battery-operated ride-in cars, a camper (!) — things he understands that we can't afford or choose not to purchase (well, ok, there's been plenty of back-and-forth about the camper, but not whining).
But, mall-wise for instance, when we used to go there, he could choose whatever he wanted to eat, so to switch that rule on him has hit him hard. And it happens everywhere. Every day, he wants to go out and spend money on something food-related and we have to turn him down or curtail what he would otherwise get. They're not big things, so before we would have thrown them in without a thought, but they add up on our meager budget. He's not liking the compromises.
On the one hand, I have sympathy for him. We're trying to explain it as best we can — telling him what taxes are, why we might have twenty-dollar bills in our wallet but that they're designated for something else, going over what we've spent so far that day and how much we have left as a family, reminding him he can spend his allowance on a treat if he wishes. I'm trying to be patient as he absorbs it … but patience isn't my strong suit, I'm afraid. It grates on me to have him complain everywhere we go that he wants something we can't afford.
So, on the other hand, I'm hoping eventually this will make him (us all) less entitled and more aware when it comes to money.
Water is for camelsI have not been drinking as much water as I probably should. It makes me pee constantly, so I try to cut back, and then I feel dehydrated. Boo.
A fair outing on a fantastic budgetWe went to the Evergreen State Fair this week and wondered if we could do it on a tight budget. Fairs are notorious for being places to overspend. I'm happy to report we managed it very well and had a good time besides!
The most expensive cost by far was parking: $8. There didn't seem to be any other options besides the official lots. We usually go to the Puyallup Fair and park in an enterprising neighbor's lot for $5, but there were no residential neighborhoods near this fair. Anyway, chalk that up as part of the admission price.
The tickets themselves were cheap: $2 per adult, kids 5 and under free (woo! Mikko's hardly ever free anymore), because it was Twosday Tuesday. So glad someone in our Meetup group had clued us in. That saved us $10 right there.
We tanked up on food at home before we left and drank in the car on the way so we wouldn't be starving as we walked past all the vendors, and it worked! We did get thirsty pretty quickly, though, and should have brought our own water with us. A bottle of soda was $3 and bottled water was $2, so we soldiered on.
Mikko wanted to go on the rides, so we avoided that whole section of the fairgrounds. We knew from experience that the tickets are ridiculous. Usually the "cheapest" option is a $25 unlimited ride wristband, because individual tickets would cost more after 3 or so rides. But that would leave Sam and Alrik and me standing around for hours ensuring Mikko got full use out of that dang wristband! Plus, we wouldn't have been able to go on any of the rides with him, as he'd enjoy. So we just told him we couldn't afford the rides and powered through his complaints. Which eventually stopped. Eventually. (I did have some pangs that I was depriving my poor child, but maybe next year we can afford it, and he'll survive sitting out one carnival!)
We tried to make the day fun in other ways. We visited all the animals on display. We got to pet an alpaca (soft!) and learn fun facts about the fleece. Apparently it doesn't have lanolin so isn't greasy like sheep's wool (not that I think of wool as "greasy," but suffice it to say, alpaca wool is super soft and fluffy). I asked how they avoid getting wet in the rain, then, and the lady spinning told me their fur lies so closely together that the rain rolls off. Neat!
We also got to see that alpacas have only lower teeth. They pull up the grass with their front teeth then break it off and chew it. Their top gums are very hard, like a dental plate.
We found a few places perfect for kids:
- A tent where you could play farmer by digging potatoes, picking apples off a wooden tree, pulling eggs from under fabric hens, and even milking a pretend cow (real water squirted out into the bucket when I gave it a go — I figure I'm a natural after all the hand expression I've done!).
- A beekepeer's tent with coloring pages and a free honey stick for Mikko.
- The BECU (credit union) wagon, with tons of swag for Mikko (he slept in his backpack that night with all the brochures and pens and stickers tucked inside), where we opened savings accounts for both boys (BECU funded the $5 starting cash for each!).
- Toward the entrance, and exit, a place kids could pedal little ride-on tractors. On our way in, we saw the raffle price by accident and thought rides were $1 each; on our way out, we realized they were actually free, so Mikko had probably the most fun there for a good half-hour before we finally convinced him to hand over his tractor to another little kid and leave. (There hadn't been a line until then.)
We spent money at the Smith Brothers Dairy Farms kiosk: a whole 50 cents for two half-pints of chocolate milk. Well worth it! Then we scored free soup samples at a blender demonstration, and a large bowl of pasta and sauteed farm-fresh veggies at a cooking demo. I filled out a survey to get a Chevy water bottle; then we just had to wander a bit till we found a bathroom with a cold water tap. (The first one had just hot, and there were no drinking fountains.) On our way out, as a reward for our frugality, we treated ourselves to a shared scone with jam for $1.25.
Then we ignored the lure of more interesting eateries and shared a Subway sandwich meal down the road before heading on the long drive home: $5 footlong BLT (only spinach instead of L, and all the other veggies) plus a side and a drink with free refills (woot!). I let Mikko pick Cheetos for the side even though I really wanted a chocolate chip cookie (because who wouldn't?). The girl behind the register was really promoting the fact that if you fill out the survey on the receipt, you can get a code for a free cookie. I'd done it before but had problems at the last Subway I tried it at (they're franchises), with the manager there telling me I had to print a coupon out at home (which is not true; yes, I'm still bitter). Feeling slightly sheepish, I asked the girl if I could turn it in on this visit, and she said yes. So I got my cookie after all!
Why do I let myself see the sale notices?I really want these socks:
I've lost one of each pair. Replacing the set would be so much easier than figuring out where two little baby socks got off to!
(Is anyone else imagining that one dinosaur was in love with one stripey and they've run off together? No?)
And they're on clearance, for $2.50. Which means they'll be gone soon. Wah.
(Do you hear the world's tiniest violins playing?)
Other budgety bitsWe've been remembering to use gift cards that have been languishing in our wallets, and we went to places where we have points and rewards saved up to cash them in for new gift cards. We have some for groceries and some for restaurants we like to go to, so that those can be options when we go out with friends.
We've also been better at using up produce, thankfully, including the garden bounty. Hooray for carrots in everything!
I've been wondering if I should start doing all the make-money-whichever-way things I used to do when we were very poor, like paid focus groups and surveys and selling things from the thrift store or (ahem) Dumpster on craigslist. I'm hoping I can make more money writing than in those ways at this point, but I'm not really sure.
Hospitality, friends, and frugalitySpeaking of friends, when our friend Rachel visited from California, we pretty much threw our plan out the window for the weekend. We did spend less than if we hadn't been doing this plan, but we ate out and went on excursions. We chose low-cost activities, which she welcomed, too, since she's a student. (Enough said about her relative wealth, yes?)
We've wrestled, though, with how to work hospitality and socializing into a long-term restricted budget, if we continue this plan past a month, as it seems we'll need to do. A group of people from our church go out every week for lunch, and they seem to always choose restaurants that stick our family with a bill around $60. That's over half our weekly budget in one meal! Since we're not the ones organizing the lunch excursions (and most of the other attendees are singles without a whole family to feed), we'll just have to bow out. But that means the friendships we were making through these outings might also falter. (I will take this opportunity to point out that we go to church only once a month at most, and we don't always eat with this group when we do go but usually try to eat with at least some other person or family.) We might have to start inviting people over — but even that will hurt our weekly food budget.
We also do a lot of outings with people around here, or on our own for unschooling, and there's been eating out involved in that as well. I'm a little bummed to have our usual habits broken, but hopefully people will understand when we picnic instead of heading for a restaurant.
In the past, we've given ourselves a hospitality budget separate from our regular food budget. I think we'll have to do something similar once we work out what our budgets should be. And perhaps also an unschooling budget for the year and then broken down by month after memberships to museums and the like are budgeted for.
Rachel left us with a bag of avocados picked from the tree in her yard, so we've been feasting like kings on guacamole and other delights. So that was a budgetary score as well as delicious!
Green is leanI was walking past the personal-care aisles in our grocery store and was so happy to think that we didn't need to go down it for much of anything. I have my reusable menstrual products; we use a cloth diaper service; I'm still doing family cloth; we've started using rags and hankies more than paper towels and tissues. It was gratifying to realize all these green changes had set us up well for limiting our spending.
The effect on weight and eating habitsSam and I have had no weight-related intentions, but interestingly, I've lost weight so far this month and he's gained a little. I feel like I'm not eating as much in general because I'm never sure what we'll be able to afford. I'm certainly not snacking as much, because we can't buy snacks, and we're often splitting meal portions among all four of us when we're out.
In contrast, Sam (who has inadvertently lost his appetite and a lot of weight this past year) has been eating more per meal on this plan because he's worried it's his only chance for food. He's been stuffing himself, in other words, out of a psychological fear that it's now or never.
For us personally, this just means that I need to be more conscious about eating reasonably to satisfy my hunger needs and that Sam needs to tune in again to his satiety cues and remind himself there's food for later if he's still hungry.
But on a bigger level, it's interesting to see reflected in us the two outcomes that food insecurity can produce. Naturally, given enough restrictions on food availability, people will lose weight and be hungry. But in a Western culture like ours, often food insecurity can actually lead to overweight as people choose foods that are cheaper and higher in calories, and as we horde what food we can score. We've been to one potluck and one party in this month so far, and both times I had the impulse to eat as much as I could while it was free.
I hesitate to speak about weight and calories, because I mean them entirely neutrally, and I know other people hear those words with value connotations attached. For instance, I don't consider my weight loss good and Sam's weight gain bad. I just think it's interesting to observe, and I know it will likely settle out back to stasis.
Shopping conundrum: Price vs. qualityThese budget restrictions have certainly affected our shopping list. So far we've held out with continuing to buy organic dairy and eggs — but I have to admit it's so tempting to buy the conventional products that can cost something like a third of the price and are usually glaringly on sale. We've been straying over to mostly non-organic produce for that reason, and we couldn't bring ourselves to buy the teensy portion of grass-fed beef when a giant tube of regular ground beef, which would last us four times as long, was the same price. (Beef is one of our go-to foods for Mikko; it's hard enough to find things he'll eat without putting monetary restrictions on what we can buy for him. The cheap store-brand hamburger buns we bought to go along were a bust, because he didn't like the whole wheat taste. He's been living off meatballs the past week.)
We've talked about (but not done anything about) the idea of meal planning in advance and then planning out our grocery shopping ahead of time as well. I think that's the wisest course when shopping on a budget; otherwise, you don't know whether you can afford to stock up on something when it's on sale, or whether it's all right this week to buy a replacement for something that gets used up infrequently (like spices or coffee). As I said, we haven't yet taken the wise course! We're muddling along with a general daily budget for food, but we'll frequently dip into the next day's if we need to and then scrimp the day after.
The good thing is, this has allowed us to buy a few grocery items every other day or so, plus get a few treats out when we want to. That way, we're spending far less than we used to on eating out, but we don't feel overly deprived. (Well, except for Mikko, poor soul.)
I know some people wouldn't eat out at all, or much less often, but I don't personally see anything wrong with families choosing how to allocate their budgets. This seems to be working pretty well for us right now, and we're spending less, which is the point.
Reader responsesSo there we are, at about the halfway point. Well, halfway for this initial month — I foresee that we'll be doing low-spend for quite some time into the future.
Ideas sparked by the comments on my first post:
- Mollyandollie said...
We went cash only in our house a few years ago. Now, we fall off the wagon often enough that I don't necessarily think we've been wholey successful but it has helped. We also use 100 dollars a week for all household needs-food, toilet paper etc. we gave ourselves $20 a week each for spending money. For liitle things like drinks etc. that really helped. Anything else we have to talk about. It's hard but well worth the effort!!!
I love the idea of cash only but don't think we'd follow through. Plus, we buy so much online that it's kind of a moot point, but for groceries, it could be a good idea. I do really like the spending money idea for Sam and me, so that we can have our own fun money within reason.
- bitt said...
This is basically my life for awhile since I'm unable to work due to being ill. […]
Wish more people would do this. So important not to be wasteful as you never know when something could happen and you could be stuck without a job or income.
Very sobering thought, and very true.
- Fresh and Feisty said...
Congratulations. At the very least, you'll learn something even if it's that you don't really need to worry about things ;) […]
This one cheered me up.
- Kara said...
We have been doing something similar, budget-wise, for the last 5 weeks. Since we are apart most of the day, we've been using an old school journaling system to log our spending and make sure we stay under our agreed upon budget. Saving receipts and physically writing the purchases down has made us both feel more accountable and led to much more dialogue about spending, as well as second and third guessing purchases that we would have previously made without batting an eye.
It's true. Something about writing things down or seeing it in black and white on a receipt makes it more real. Even just having a specific amount we can't go over helps, because otherwise it's a nebulous "Try to spend less," without any structure to it.
- Melissa said...
This is how we live our life, for the most part. We live in expensive Massachusetts, so budgeting is pretty much an absolute necessity, as my husband and I both abhor debt. The most practical part of it is that we do some pretty hard core couponing, and stock up on things when we can get them super cheap or free, so we never run out of basics or are forced to run to the store to buy them for full price. When you mentioned running out of floss it occurred to me that couponing has really helped us with our budgeting. For example, I have about 10 floss containers in my bathroom closet that I have gotten absolutely free. When I run out there's another one right there. Last week I got 3 Dove shampoos and 2 Dove conditioners for $0.20 each. Yes, that's right, 20 cents each. So, yeah. [… She talks here about other ways she budgets. …] We make our coffee at home, pack lunches for work, make home cooked meals 90% of the time. It took us a few years to get good at this, but it has helped tremendously in the budget department, and now we're pretty good at it. I don't feel deprived. If I need new clothes I get them. I don't feel guilty about it because I buy clothes so rarely, and hardly ever spend frivolously that buying something new once in a while (on sale, of course, and with a coupon preferably, haha) is no big deal. Smart budgeting means that we can buy a new washer when ours breaks without breaking the bank. It means that we can build a new fence in our backyard without sweating the cost. It means that my 16 month old has almost $5000 in her college account because we can afford to add to it monthly. It makes sense (and cents) and it's easy and you get used to it. Good luck!
Couponing: I need a show about Reasonable Couponing, because the extreme thing is too extreme for me. I do like the idea of using more coupons, but (a) I don't want it to be my hobby, and (b) we hardly ever buy brand-name anything and store brand is usually on sale. Does anyone know a resource for low-key couponing?
In regard to making budgeting a way of life: I used to be 100% behind this, and it makes so much sense/cents, as Melissa puts it. But I will say that we had a window of time where money was coming in and we didn't have to worry about it (we thought…), and it was so much fun. And it sort of ruptured my whole constructed idea that being poor was better in some way; because being not poor was … a lot of fun. Really, just so much better in every way. We never went overboard on spending (as in, we never went yacht shopping or browsed Tiffany's or the like), but I loved not caring about the little things, or how much we were spending on groceries, or things like that. And going back to caring about the nickel-and-dime stuff kind of stinks. There, I said it. I can understand the appeal of assuming frugality is morally superior, because most of us don't have a lot of money. Of course we want to think highly of ourselves! And there's no use in telling people, "Be rich. It's much better." (But it is. Ah, well.)
Please note that these thoughts were just springboarded by Melissa's comment and not in any way reflective of her. I would love to have saved that much for our kids' futures. (Sorry, boys!)
- Sheila said...
[…] An important thing for budgeting is to plan for treats. It's easy to not buy treats at the store because we're feeling frugal and virtuous ... and then end up caving and buying them at the drive-thru because you find you really really want them after all. Make or buy at the store things like drinks you enjoy, snack bars, desserts, ice cream, so that when you're tempted to splurge on something while you're out, you can think "ah, but I have my favorite flavor of ice cream already in the freezer and I can eat it when we get home." And keep a few drinks and snacks in the car -- a bottle of Arizona green tea is my favorite drink, and you can actually buy a case of it at the store for pretty cheap. Or do what I do -- make your own with tea bags and honey. You can freeze your favorite drinks and take them with you ... you won't be sweating if you are sipping on a slushy drink that melts as your day goes on. […]
Very good point about treats. I do have a few cheap favorites that I use as my fall-back now, and we're going to try to make more at home. I like the idea of on-the-go slushies, too.
- Emily said...
This is so inspiring! I'm the frugal one in our family, with my husband the spender. I try to curb his spending, but I haven't been successful. We're fortunate that his salary allows for breathing room, but I'd much rather have a larger amount in savings than dinner out or a new shirt! How can I get him onboard with that?!
Any ideas for Emily?
What's your budget looking like? Want to join us in our last two weeks of low-spending (and perhaps into the future)? Have any further tips for us as we refine our goals and continue to cut down our budget?