Budget woes, blame and solutions

I think I’d like to jump right in with a topic that is always very near and dear to me: Money.  It’s a big deal to families and people everywhere.  I am fortunate to be able to work outside the home only on a part-time basis, but I only do that because I have to.  We can’t afford our nice, big house and all the stuff in it on Mike’s salary alone.  It’s kind of a shame, because Mike really does make a good salary.  But we bought our home thinking it would be no tragedy if I worked full-time for a while after we started our family and I thought I’d get to keep a lot more of what I made.  It has been a big disappointment to me that after we realized that working full-time was not a reasonable option and that it would actually be good for me to quit working altogether, we did not and do not have that option.  What has surprised me in all this is the stability of the amount I spend to work versus the amount I make.  It costs half my paycheck for me to go to work.  That sounds senseless, but the reality is that I only keep half what I make whether  I work 100% or 50%.  But that is money I don’t think we can do without.  We’ve actually been having a really tough time making things work out with only half my (half) paycheck to cover expenses every month.  I’ve been working half time now for a year, and I kept thinking it would get easier.  I kept thinking that the random expenses that come up would go away.  It’s something every month.  We needed two new car seats earlier this year.  We owed Homeowner’s Association dues, car taxes.  We took a modest vacation to celebrate a milestone anniversary and did some projects around the house.  And we pay for health care.  Not like we did last year, thank God, but even without paying for expensive testing, we still have a ton of medical expenses for every member of the family.  And I don’t think most folks would think we were really unhealthy either.  After coming up short for a few months in a row and running out of excuses as to why, I sat down and tried to figure out where we were going wrong.

I have spoken about blame in a few other posts.  I don’t know why it’s still a part of our lives, but somehow it’s still there.  It must be someone’s fault that I can’t stay home with my son.  Someone must be to blame and yes, I quite frequently came to the conclusion that the person to blame was me, or the people to blame were me and Mike.  And blame brings with it shame.  But as I think I mentioned in the housekeeping post, blame and shame are really counterproductive to solving any problem you may have.  The feeling of shame, and just of being angry with your former self for making the decisions you made in the past, is a hard one to face.  And yet  you have to face it to take control of your personal finances.  There is actually no alternative.  It makes me feel all smug inside to point out that failure is always an option, but the truth is that there are tons of situations where no, it’s not.

I think the biggest obstacle I have faced with this is paying for our health care, and watching it eat up more and more of our money and the feeling of being out of control because of it.  We try to be educated consumers of healthcare, and since paying for an upper GI, endoscopy, colonoscopy and pH probe tests last year (not all the same person) has convinced me that I will ask questions and refuse next time a doctor suggests another round of expensive testing.  But even if you can avoid things like this, health care is really expensive and the problem with it is that at some point, when you need it you just need it.  And apart from your prescription drug costs, it tends to be pretty unpredictable. When I looked at my last months’ statement, I had paid over $300.00 in a month.  Some of that was razor blades, but we just don’t buy frivolous things at Walgreen’s and the razor blades might have been $40.00 of that total.  That sucks, but now I know how much we’ve been spending for all three of us.  I can at least budget for that.

I also felt out of control about our grocery-store spending.  We spend a lot on groceries, considering how small our family is.  I think $500 per month would be a perfectly reasonable sum for us, but we can’t seem to make that.  I have a few pet theories about why this is, but suffice it to say that there is no reason to talk about any of the factors that we don’t have control over.  We don’t plan our meals reasonably and this leads to waste and also to constant trips to the grocery store.  Mike also pointed out that we are likely spending more than we have to on gas, we’re dropping by the store so much.  So we’re trying to be more realistic and more thorough in our planning.  Grocery costs are another area where I was throwing up my hands and saying I couldn’t do any better!  I work long hours two days a week and I’m not home as much as you would think on the other days.  I don’t have nearly as much time to cook as I would like to.  Also, it would save money on food costs if I cooked everything from scratch, which I don’t have time to do, you see, because I work.  Oh, and not only do I have to work, but I have to go to the grocery store all the time because we are always running out of something, or I planned to make this recipe, but I missed this one line in the list of ingredients.

The other area where I was going wrong was gas costs.  I was budgeting way less than I was spending.  I had believed I was house-poor and my problem was that the only costs in my budget that were subject to reduction were groceries and eating out.  And I didn’t feel like I could do anything to attack either of those.  So I was really surprised when I decided to actually write down every regular expense I have each month and see how much I have left over to spend on other things.  On paper, I had no problem.  I had more than $1,000 per month that wasn’t touched by groceries, gas, health care, eating out or bills.  Where was it going?  And why did we still feel so poor?

I think we were spending without thinking.  We spent money on stuff that we really didn’t have a budget category for, and we just didn’t count that money as spent.  We weren’t living lives of luxury by any means, but starting a project with no budget in mind, or no thought to the consequences of coming in over budget was really hurting us.  I always believed I could not manage zero-sum budgeting, but I have realized that it is the only way we will be able to spend our money wisely.  We are not as broke as I think I am.  There are solutions to these problems.  They are not painful.  But they require mindfulness and also cooperation and buy-in from both of us.

We are going to work on planning our meals better and more realistically.  We will buy convenience food for those days when I’m too busy and not home enough to cook.  We will both take responsibility to think about what we need around our house, what we are running out of that we really need, so that it can be put on the grocery list and taken care of in one trip or at most two per week.  We will try to limit our drug-store trips and I got Botox to help with my prescription drug costs (migraines are expensive!).  We will print down our most recent pay stubs so that we can reduce our monthly withholding (we got a huge refund in April) and talk to our satellite/DSL/phone provider about reducing our services.  And it’s not really a plan, but I do so hope that Liam has gotten over some of his food intolerances so I don’t have to buy any more formula for him.  Yeah, the formula was a big target of my blame for our financial difficulties.  I got a good deal on it on E-bay a few months ago and bought three cases at once.  Liam immediately reduced his formula intake, but seemingly without becoming better able to tolerate milk or soy.

I will update you in a month to see how it has gone and if we did better and if not then why not.  Part of my personal solution to our trouble has been to start clothes shopping at Goodwill, so if you have any tips or advice for me relating to that, I would love to hear them.  I am cautiously hopeful about this, because we need to get the stress of money off our minds and also because Mike and I are always good to rise to a challenge.  I am hoping that talking more about money will help bring us closer together. 

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