Let’s be honest — sticking to a household budget is hard work. Tracking every penny, setting goals, kicking the credit card to the curb and saying “no” to all the little extras takes grit and determination.
Our family (oddly enough, the Penney family) consists of myself, my husband and our 7-year-old son. We follow a somewhat unconventional style of budgeting. First, we pay all of our core bills (mortgage, utilities, and childcare) and then we dole out “allowances.”
Allowances are set-asides for specific purposes. We allocate $100 a week for groceries and $100 a week for household goods. My husband and I each get an allowance as well, $40 a week, for all non-essential personal expenses such as entertainment. If my husband wants to have drinks with the guys, he uses his allowance. If I want to have brunch with the ladies, I use my allowance. If we don’t have enough, we save up until we do.
Anything left over goes straight into savings.
Debit and credit cards are verboten, so we only use cash. We keep the cash in labeled envelopes on the kitchen table. This gives us a visual of how much we’ve spent and what we have left and makes our money far more real than a virtual balance on a computer screen. It also means we make smarter buying decisions. For example, if we only have $5 left in the household envelope, we have to decide between dish soap or toothpaste (for the record, we usually choose the toothpaste — dishes can wait, fresh breath cannot.)
Our spending money rolls over from week to week, so we are able to save up for higher-priced items; say, a new blender or new shoes. The caveat is we have to discuss these purchases as a family. These meetings are carried out a bit like a Mad Men style pitch, where we present our case complete with an emotional narrative and clear call to action. For example, “I’ve been wearing these same worn out shoes to work for four years now. Purchasing these Italian leather peep-toe pumps at Nordstrom will be an investment in my career.”
I’m exaggerating. A little. But the premise is that bringing another person into the decision-making process is an effective check and balance. Which is why, prior to marriage, I blew most of my money on Italian leather peep-toe pumps at Nordstrom.
The benefits of budgeting are clear, though not always immediate. Paying off debt, plumping up savings, financing college and taking a long-awaited vacation are real, attainable results. But through our experience, we’ve found there are several hidden benefits of pinching pennies that help keep our momentum going during tight times.
1. Indulgences actually feel indulgent. Dining out, going to the movies or getting a pedicure are all simple pleasures that disappear when we’re trying to save a buck. But saving up to splurge on these luxuries once in a while makes them feel more special.
2. Stress dissipates. Much of the stress we face in life is caused by the decision-making process, not the action itself. With certain expenditures off limits, the decision of whether to buy and whether we can afford it is already made for us (no and no). No dilemma means no anxiety.
3. Family time becomes more meaningful. With costly movies and amusement parks off the table, we spend more time playing board games, reading books and doing crafts. This fosters quality family time, not to mention creativity. Last night, for example, we cut Star Wars figures out of an old cardboard box and had an epic battle between the light and dark sides on the living room floor.
4. Health and fitness improve. We live in the heart of California’s Central Valley, so fresh fruits and vegetables are much more affordable than processed junk. In addition, watching the grocery budget naturally leads to smaller portion sizes and less waste. We also forgo calorie-laden takeout and spend more time riding bikes, taking walks and throwing the ball around in the backyard
5. Teaches important lessons. Instant gratification is part of our society. But we want our son to learn the value of working hard and saving for what he wants. We assign him age-appropriate chores that earn him a quarter here and a quarter there. The sense of pride he feels when he plunks down a jar full of quarters on a store counter in exchange for a new toy is priceless.
6. Best of all, budgeting can be fun! Seriously. My husband and I make a game of it. We get competitive, seeing who can save the most money or find the best deals. I thought the $3.99 bottle of wine my husband spotted on the clearance rack at Target was the winner, until this week when I found a pair of boys pants at Old Navy for $1.49.