Thursday, July 6

Money and Me

At the beginning of this year I wrote down one single goal that I wanted to work on: be more financially stable. I spent all of December researching money management techniques, defining how this was going to look on a day to day basis, and how I was going to measure "stable". This post is the halfway checkup for myself. This is me reporting back to share what I've learned in the last 6 months (accountability!). I realize that this isn't my usual milieu, and I'm embarrassingly aware of how unqualified I am to talk about money. Money is such a vulnerability bomb that I'm genuinely nervous to share this! But in my research I found it most helpful when real people opened up to their real challenges. So here I am living my truth and stepping into the arena (that's a Daring Greatly reference; do yourself a favor and read it).

A massive catalyst for me was reading Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before. She talks about habits and how different personality types respond to making and breaking them. Gretchen writes to my soul; I identify a lot with her. Plus I love her qualitative and quantitative approach to social issues. Reading her book helped me realize that I had inadvertently created many habits that happened to have unhealthy ramifications for our finances. As a strict Upholder (her term, not mine), I bend over backwards to meet both internal and external expectations but instead of having a realistic approach to expectations, I counter it with keeping my expectations low to minimize loss or failure on my part. This means that while I do avoid feeling like a failure, I also don't remember feeling the triumph of meeting a goal often. It's about as sucky as it sounds. But that helps explain why I avoided creating a budget for a long time; I didn't want to set myself up to fail, so I just didn't make one. I didn't want to be reminded of my failings, so I just ignored as best as I could. Or bought into the idea that things would never get better so what was the point of trying.

Better Than Before also helped me recognize many methods I can use to maintain a habit. I realized I personally do better by fully abstaining (no baby steps for me!). I learned how to use the power of convenience to my benefit, how to make safeguards for myself by anticipating or minimizing temptations (ie: failing small, or having planned exceptions), how to avoid finding loopholes to my goals, like setting up false choices such as "I can't run because it's raining", or "I can't cook tonight cuz it's been a bad day". I learned that rewards undercut habits because forming the habit should be the reward, and that treats are things we don't need to justify or earn, but that we need to make sure they're truly treats; no guilt attached to them.

From the book I realized that I'm an overbuyer, a simplicity & familiarity lover, an "opener" (I prefer to start rather than finish things), and promotion motivated. In terms of finances that means that I hate, hate running out of something, so I stock up on things that we may not even need. I love the feeling of opening something new, instead of finishing something old, which means I end up wasting a good deal. I don't actually need to go anywhere exotic since I love familiarity, which freed me from the social guilt of feeling like I should go on vacations or trips and actually enjoy them (that ends up saving us money because I don't overspend in an attempt to enjoy the vacation). I also like simplicity which explained why I still felt unhappy despite having a house full of things.

With all of that in mind, I looked at our finances and faced it head on. It's a little daunting. We are paying off student loans and have really cool things that we want to do with our lives. So we looked at our options:

  • Option A was to make more money. We felt really good about Kyle taking the job he currently has because the career opportunities are unparalleled, even though he could be making more elsewhere. We can't deny that we know this job is right for him, so that's not the solution. So we looked if I should get a job and every time we entertained the idea, the answer was a resounding NO. We both know that my job is at home with the kids right now. I am acutely aware that flies in the face of the dominant feminist rhetoric. It does pain me occasionally, especially living in Utah where it seems like most women have a side-gig (a whole other story!). So option A wasn't really an option.
  • Option B was to learn to use what we have better. It was the obvious choice. In our house, I am the gateway of the money. I'm the one who meal plans, buys groceries, stays on top of household needs, and pays the bills. It's natural for us that I adopt the role as "Keeper of the Budget". It was helpful for me to think of this as an actual job. In my mind, it makes it more cool haha.

January came and we set our budget. We use Dave Ramsey's EveryDollar app and I'm in love with it. I also use an app call Level Money that helps me track how much I spend at one store, and gives me quick access to averages over the year. Level Money served as the basis for our budget, and EveryDollar helps me stick to the budget. Monitoring is a key step in habit formation; this is how we choose to monitor our finances. I've since made a habit to check both apps over breakfast each morning. I think that simple 5 minute check has been the most helpful habit I've gained.

I quickly realized that our grocery budget was the area I had the most direct control over. It's also the area that fluctuated a lot depending on my mood or physical state. Pregnant? Food bill goes up. Tired? Bill goes up. Cranky? Bill goes up. For me, the bill was a poignant example of false choices. "I'm pregnant; I can't cook". "The kids were grumpy and exhausting today. I can't cook". "I can't make this meal perfectly; I shouldn't cook it". This is the bill I decided to wrestle with for the month of June.

For June I did a no-eating out challenge. It was inspired by my renewed efforts of budgeting that had fallen to the side between having a baby and moving. I calculated how much we spent on food (both groceries and eating out) for the month of May and it was not good. As in around $1000 not good. Like, kick you in the stomach not good. So, no-eating out it was. Because I'm an Abstainer, this meant literally NO EATING OUT. No loopholes, no exceptions, etc. It's far too easy for me to find the loophole, so I can't create one for myself. This meant no french fries, no diet coke run to McDonald's, no quick bites after splash pad dates, no ice cream runs, no Little Caesar's, no late night candy runs, etc.

And guess what. I did it. WE DID IT. It's embarrassing how hard it ended up being. I don't know if people are used to just never eating out, but if you're one of those people, hats off man. I think I may do a later post about the mechanics of how we did that, but here I wanted to share what I've learned about money both from that challenge and from the past 6 months:
  1. We cut our grocery bill in half, which was my goal. That works out to about $1.50/meal/person. You can't buy most single ingredients for that price. I can never use the idea that "it's almost the same price if we eat here versus make something", because that's simply not true. Also, I've lost 10 pounds which was a nice side benefit.
  2. Learning to be frugal in ONE AREA bleeds into all other areas. Because I was hyperfocused on how much we were spending on food, I ended up being hyperfocused on money in general. It was much easier for me to say no to online sales, the Target $1 bin, and garage sale sites because I knew how much $5 went in food. I accidently left a bag with bacon and sausage in the hot car for 24+ hours and I nearly cried when I had to throw it out because that was $10 worth of food. Before the challenge, I wouldn't have cared.
  3. Most people who I consider wealthy do NOT live like they are. They're in the habit of doing things for themselves, making do with what they have, and finding clever solutions. Just because they HAVE money doesn't mean it's their first solution. Case in point, I spent a full day fixing our clothes washer because I really didn't want to have to buy a new one. I'm still riding a triumphant high from that one. 
  4. It dawned on me how much I was spending because of social pressure. There is nothing wrong with wanting to buy things, but the problem arises when you get addicted to that feeling. I really had to evaluate why I wanted eyelashes, a new drink tumbler, shoes for the kids, a Sodalicious drink. Did I truly want those items? Or did I want the perceived social status those things could give me? Was I after an unreachable lifestyle?
  5. Living paycheck to paycheck is the norm, but it doesn't have to be.
  6. I also realized how many people must be in serious debt. I don't say this to pass judgement at all. But I'm an intelligent woman and can accurately estimate salaries based on careers, housing market prices, car down payments, grocery bills per household size, utility estimates, prices of boats, vacations, highlights, and manicures. All I can say is that there's NO WAY on this earth that so many people can afford the lifestyle they're living. The math simply doesn't add up. Realizing that made me feel much better, but also kinda made me feel dumb for even wanting/trying to live like that in the first place.
  7. You can have a perfect credit score even if you never use a credit card. Our financial planner said he opened up 3 lines of credit, shredded the card, and has had a perfect score for a few years now.
  8. The only consistent thing you should budget for is an emergency. Honestly, have a section in your budget labeled "emergency" and put $100 in it because I guarantee you, you will need it every month.
  9. I think the most eye-opening realization I've had is that there will never be enough money if you don't have good habits in place. People will spend what they have, no matter how much they have, if they haven't created healthy money habits. It doesn't matter if it's $1000 or $100,000,000.
  10. The trite saying "the best things in life are free" is actually true. I honestly hated that because the first thing I thought of was, "yeah, but have you BEEN to dinner and the movies?" I'm in the process of refocusing my sight on the things that are truly important. My kids almost always have more fun with a bucket, water, and a hose than going to a theme park. It's me who wants to go to the park. Sitting on the couch with a massive bowl of popcorn, watching Iron Chef with Kyle is how I choose to spend my evenings, regardless of what is in our bank account. It's not that spending money is evil or unnecessary. It just won't bring joy if you don't have it inside you already.
  11. Money is less about behavior and more about attitude. You aren't saying "no" to things. You're saying "yes" to a better future, or to goals you actually want to meet.
  12. This is directly from Dave Ramsey: "You have to live like no one else, so you can live like no one else".
  13. If the social pressure is too hard, unfollow people who make you feel jealous or who inspire you to live outside your means. I think it's great if people have the internal discipline to do this automatically. But I don't, so I unfollowed quite a few people. The flipside of this is to follow accounts and people that help you stay true to your budget goals! I love following Dave on Instagram because of the quick quotes he posts. I recite them to myself as I scroll through Old Navy's website during their sales.
  14. Money issues make us feel vulnerable. One of the best ways to combat and move past the issue is by doing the hardest thing of all: TALKING ABOUT IT. When your kids ask to go to McDonald's, do you snap at them for being ungrateful, when you know you're just stressed cuz you don't have the money for it? Just tell them it's not in the budget. Do you feel embarrassed or cancel plans because you don't have money for that outing? Don't make excuses (car broke down, kids are sick, emergency happened), just own it and say, "it's not in the budget". Yes, I've done all of these things before and handled it in both ways. Most people respect hearing "it's not in the budget". If they don't respect it, they're not in the arena with me and not worth my time.
  15. Just because you have the money in your account to buy something doesn't mean you can actually afford it.
  16. Having a budget has made me more grateful for the things that I do have. It's very easy to lose track of what you have when you're looking at what you don't have all the time. Having a budget and realizing how many things we are blessed to have helps me cultivate a grateful heart.
  17. Learning to be frugal made me evaluate the true value of items. Is a shirt really worth $10? $15? It's made me pickier about what I spend my money on. If it's not exactly what I want, why buy it?
  18. I started thinking in terms of good, better, best. What are the best ways I can be spending my money? If those things are met, then what are the better things? At some points in life, the best thing may be a family vacation to Disneyland. At other times, it may be helping out young man in the ward pay for his mission. The beauty is that we're all free to make those good, better, best choices for ourselves, but we're only free to make those choices if we're being wise with our money. You don't have the freedom of being able to help others if you're not financially stable yourself.
  19. I started asking myself, "how many hours of work would I have to do in order to buy this?" and that helped curb a lot of spending.
  20. God makes up our efforts. I may lose some people here, but hear me out. We are doing our very best to be wise with the things that we have been given. There are sacrifices that we've made that have been hard but we've made them because we felt like we needed to. For example, our income could be a good deal more if I were working. When, after all that Kyle and I can do, if we're still tight, a miracle happens and things work out. A bill gets reduced, a deposit comes back unexpectedly, the gas tank stays full longer than anticipated, what have you. These miracles aren't our backup plan in any way, but they happen and it keeps us motivated to stay the course.
I wish I'd known these lessons sooner in life but I'm thankful I'm learning them now, even if it's hard. I'm sure there are people who will read this and think "well, yeah; nothing groundbreaking here", and honestly they're probably right! But it is a bit groundbreaking for me and I hope that this helps anyone who needs a bit of motivation. Money stress is one of the worst kinds of stress. It makes people act irrationally because it's so easy to equate money with worth. And that's simply not true. Money is not a direct correlation to how good people are! I think this results in the cultural consensus that money is something we simply don't discuss and when we don't discuss it, people can't learn from the mistakes or successes of others. So even, and especially when it's hard, learn to talk about money. It's only going to get better if we're willing to shine a flashlight on this area that we'd prefer to keep hidden.


  1. This was a great article Jessica! We're working on our finances too. We actually just finished the LDS Church's self-reliance Personal Finance class. My husband and I took it together and it was AWESOME! I don't know if they have it in your stake, but I'd highly recommend it. I also fixed our dryer and our garbage disposal. It's so fulfilling!

  2. This was such a great post!! I loved your reasoning behind everything and the deeper look at spending. Thanks!! Also, gimme all Dem recipes!

  3. LOVE this! Especially #15 is one I'm learning on a daily basis. For me I pay all my bills and then just have the leftover money to do "whatever" but that simply wasn't working for us. Now that we're building a house I've had to take a more serious look and weigh each dollar so I'm really loving this whole post and we're trying a version of this to decrease eating out in July! Also want a logistics post about that please thank you you're awesome