Tag Archives: spending

The beauty of a monthly budget

budgetingWhen our no spend summer ended in August, I told myself we weren’t going to go overboard. I told myself we were going to keep our budget just as tight. I was wrong.

Just as I feared, we went a little overboard for the past month. So overboard that it’s only the 23rd and we’ve already spent all of our food budget. Oops.

But you know what I love about a monthly budget? I love that we only have to scrimp for the next 7 days, and then it’s a whole new month. I love having a clean slate at the beginning of every month. Last month’s mistakes don’t matter, because all that matters now is this month’s budget. I can start all over again.

Here’s how I get back on track:

Don’t wait until next month.

As soon as you realize you’re overspending, stop. We stopped a little too late this month, but we’re doing what we can now to control the damage and start fresh next month.

Make some changes to this month’s budget.

If you’ve overspent in one category, see if you can cut discretionary spending in another category to make up for it. I’m cutting down on entertainment and household expenses spending for the next week to make up for a little bit of our overspending in food.

Forgive yourself and move on.

Beating yourself up doesn’t change the fact that you overspent. It just makes you feel bad. Everyone makes mistakes. When you make a spending mistake, the important thing is to stop the bleeding, control the damage, and ride it out until next month when you can have a fresh start.

That’s what I love about monthly budgeting: you’re never more than a month away from a clean slate!

Photo by spiderpop

Sales tax increases are another reason to be frugal

Last week, the state where I live (North Carolina) increased its sales tax from 4.5% to 5.5%. With local taxes, that means our total sales tax has increased from 6.75% to 7.75%. A 1% increase may not seem like a lot, but it can add up for big purchases. On a $1000 purchase, that’s an extra $10 tacked onto your total cost.

I’m not sweating it, though. Paying less money in sales tax is just another perk of frugality. Here’s why:

I don’t buy a lot of stuff.

Since we live frugally, we just don’t make a lot of purchases that are subject to sales tax. Most of our expendable income goes to groceries, which is subject to a 2% sales tax in North Carolina. Our budget only includes about $100 a month for entertainment and household expenses like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. That means at most we’ll be paying an extra $1 a month with the increase.

Secondhand items are usually subject to 0% sales tax.

When a friend or family member gives you a piece of furniture or other item, guess how much sales tax you pay? 0%. The same is true if you shop at garage sales or Craigslist. In some states, you don’t even pay sales tax at thrift stores, particularly if they’re affiliated with a church.

If you’re worried about sales tax increases, think about ways you can live more frugally overall. After all, the less you spend, the less you pay in taxes.

Overseas transaction fees give me a headache

credit cardsWe’re not going to start booking until January at the earliest, but right now we’re doing a lot of research for our trip to Europe in May. That means we’re tracking airfare, putting together a loose itinerary, and researching the logistical aspects of traveling to another country.

One of the biggest headaches of traveling to another country is money. The last thing we want to do is carry all of our money in cash. A lost or stolen bag could be catastrophic. Taking cash out of an ATM is expensive, so we also don’t want to withdraw a daily cash allowance. Traveler’s checks seem like a hassle, but using a debit card or credit card will result in wasteful overseas transaction fees.

We’ve determined that the best way for us to handle money will be to carry a small amount of cash in the local currency, and then use a credit or debit card for the rest of purchases. We’ll have cash saved for the trip, so we’ll pay off the credit card immediately when we get home, but we don’t want to be stuck with ridiculous overseas transaction fees.

What are overseas transaction fees?

Here’s how it works: If you use a debit or credit card in another country or with an international company, you pay a transaction fee of 2-3% to the bank. On top of that, you’ll pay another 1-2% transaction fee to the credit card company backing your card (Visa or Mastercard for example). These fees are in addition to any applicable sales tax on your purchase.

Check out this CreditCards.com article for current transaction fees on popular credit cards as of June. Here’s what we’d pay for cards we currently hold:

  • American Express: 2.7%
  • Bank of America: 3%
  • Wachovia debit card: 3%

If we spend $4000 total on hotels, food, and other expenses overseas, we’d be paying a total of $108 to use the American Express card. American Express is only accepted on a limited basis, so we might end up having to use our Visa Bank of America card or Wachovia debit card, which would cost $120 in fees. That may not sound like a lot, but we could do a lot with that money in terms of food or entertainment. If there’s a way to avoid paying it in fees, I’d like to try.

If we withdraw cash every day, we’ll pay $5 per ATM transaction plus 2.7%-3% for purchases we have to charge, like hotels. That’s $60 in ATM fees over 12 days, plus a fee to the bank that owns the ATM for each withdrawal (usually $2-$3) for a total of $96 minimum. It’s also likely that we’d pay $2 per transaction to Wachovia, bringing the total to $120.

How can we avoid fees all together?

Capital One is the only company that doesn’t currently charge overseas transaction fees. Capital One doesn’t charge a fee, and they even waive the fee imposed by Visa or Mastercard. We don’t have a Capital One card, so we’d have to apply and open a new account just for this trip.

So I’m torn. We’d pay off the balance immediately when we return home, but still. I don’t know how I feel about opening another credit card for this trip. Is it worth it to save a little over $100? When I think about spending $5000 on a vacation, $100 seems like chump change, but then I think about what we could do with that money in Europe. On a frugal vacation budget, $100 can do a lot.

My other concern is with the changes happening in credit card companies, it’s possible that Capital One will suddenly start imposing overseas transaction fees.

Like I said, we won’t be booking anything until January, which means we have a few months to wait and decide. But even if we apply for the card and book our hotel in January, that doesn’t mean Capital One won’t suddenly start imposing a fee before May. Then we’ll have a new credit card for nothing.

What do you think? Is opening a new credit card worth possibly saving $108-$120, or should we just suck it up, use one of the cards we have, and factor the fees into our budget?

Photo by andresrueda

Things to consider when making a big purchase

canon-xsLast weekend, I made a huge purchase. I bought a camera that cost almost a whole paycheck. Yikes.

We’ve been thinking about it and saving for months. I planned to wait until we saved enough, but I realized that I could buy it now with the money I’ve earned from this here blog (thanks for reading!) in addition to my savings. We felt ready to make the purchase. We thought it through, researched, and decided to finally take the leap.

Despite all of this, I still woke up last night in a cold sweat. We spent $750 on a camera. Holy cow. I thought about all of the things we could do with that money, especially since we’re still saving for our emergency fund and Europe and moving and eventually a house.

I calmed down when I reminded myself of all the steps we took to ensure this was a good purchase:

Ask yourself why you want it and what it will add to your life.

If you don’t need the item, then think about why you want it. I love to take photos, and they’ll be even more important when we have a baby. We have a point-and-shoot camera, but I want more control over my pictures. Photography is a hobby I’ve always wanted to pursue, but my lack of proper equipment was holding me back. This camera will allow me to pursue photography as a hobby and take high quality pictures of our memories.

On the flip side, several months ago we considered buying a TV. We have an old TV that works fine, but we considered getting an HDTV. We decided that it wouldn’t add enough to our lives to justify the cost. Our TV works, and we don’t care about the difference in picture quality that much, so a new TV wasn’t worth the money.

Do your homework.

Before making a major purchase, make sure what you’re buying will last and perform the functions you want. I thought about the type of photos I like to take, made a list of functions I needed, talked to some photographers I know, and read forums to determine which camera would be best.

I decided I needed a digital SLR camera to get the speed and control I want and a telephoto lens for the portraits and close-up shots that I like to take.

I chose the Canon Rebel XS. There are newer, pricier models, but the XS is suitable for me, so upgrading to a newer model isn’t worth the money.

Start making price comparisons.

I looked at used cameras, but resale value is so high that buying used in good condition would only save me about $50.

I could get the camera and an 18-55mm lens on Amazon for $500 without the telephoto lens. Adding a Canon brand telephoto lens added another $250, bringing the total cost to $750.

I found an amazing deal on eBay for the camera, three lenses (including a Tamron 28-80mm and a Canon 75-300mm) and a ton of equipment like memory cards, carrying case, digital card reader, tripods and other things that I don’t really need but may use as I learn more about photography. The total cost is $750.

I considered buying the camera with the 18-55mm lens for $500 and getting the telephoto lens later, so I broke it down by value. I needed a high capacity memory card ($25-$30) and camera case to protect the camera ($30). Ignoring all the other extras, that brings the cost of the lenses alone to under $200. There’s no way I’ll find two digital lenses, especially not a Canon telephoto, for under $200. Considering the huge list of extras in addition to the lenses, it was best to spend the extra $250 now. If I don’t use all of the extra equipment, I can always resell it to get some of my money back.

Don’t choose a bargain over quality.

For major purchases, it’s almost always worth it to spend a little more for the best possible quality. I hope to have this camera for years to come, which means the additional cost will be worth it in the long run.

I can’t wait to share my photos with you!

Menu Plan: 5/30-6/5

Our first cash grocery trip was a success! We put together a list, and then based on previous shopping trips and current sales I estimated the cost to be sure we were in the right range. I kept track of my individual price estimates for each item on the grocery list, and as we filled our cart I replaced my estimate with the correct price. I was only off for a couple of items, so my estimate was pretty close.

We ended up spending $9 under our $60 budget for a total cost of $51.63. That money will be put aside in our envelope to cover us in future weeks if we have to go over budget or hopefully it will make it to the end of the summer so we can use it for something fun!

I was definitely more mindful of our spending during this shopping trip than I usually am, but I don’t know if that’s because I was using cash or because I’m making an effort to spend less. I had an extra $30 in my pocket for entertainment and household expenses, so I can’t attribute our mindful spending to fear of spending more than we had. But I think knowing that we can’t just swipe our debit cards is making it easier for us to avoid overspending, since we know that this $90 is it for the week.

Kacie brought up a good point when I asked for advice on cash budgeting last week. She said cash budgeting made tracking expenses more difficult for her. Since I use Mint.com to automatically track my spending and budget, this is also an issue for me. My solution is simple: Mint.com allows you to split transactions and categorize them separately. Each week, I’ll save my receipts until our ATM transaction shows up on Mint, then I’ll split that cash withdrawal and categorize it according to our receipts. Whatever doesn’t get spent will remain “Uncategorized,” which means it won’t go into our normal budget. The only problem will be accounting for that extra cash when I spend it later. I’ll let you know if I come up with a solution to add that into our budget. It will only be a problem if I don’t spend it in the same month I withdraw it.

Here’s my $50 lower-carb menu plan for the week:

Saturday: BLT Salad
Sunday: Pork chops and green beans
Monday: Greek chicken salad
Tuesday: Chicken fajita tortilla soup (minus the chicken and tortillas to limit carbs and conserve chicken)
Wednesday: Mexican chicken skillet (Like a Mexican stirfry with peppers, corn, tomatoes, and chicken)
Thursday: Scrambled eggs and bacon (I’m not a big fan of breakfast for dinner, but it sure does save money!)
Friday: Barbecued chicken with corn on the cob

For more menu plans, visit OrgJunkie.

Our “no spend summer” starts this weekend

Last week, I wrote about the steps we’re taking to make sure we can get through the summer on my income alone. Throughout the year, Tony is paid to teach undergraduate classes at his university. Now that it’s summer, he won’t be receiving a paycheck. We knew this was coming all year, so we saved enough to cover his income through the summer without using our emergency fund. But now we want to try to hang on to that money, too.

We’ve come up with a new plan to ensure that we don’t overspend and we’re able to save. It’s something we’ve never tried before, but we’re excited about the challenge. Beginning this weekend and continuing through the months of June, July, and August, we’ll not only be limiting our spending, but we’ll be living on a cash budget.

Here’s how it works:

I added up our total income for the summer without Tony’s paychecks. Then I divided that number by three months to determine our total monthly income. I added up all of our fixed expenses — rent, utilities, and other bills — and subtracted that total from our monthly income. After paying all of our fixed expenses, we’ll have $370 left each month. That means we can only spend $90 a week on groceries, entertainment, and other expenses. This is only a little less than what we would spend anyway, but lately we’ve been more and more complacent. I really want to make sure we’re not tempted to go over.

Each week before we head to the grocery store, we’ll withdrawal $90 in cash from our bank account. This will be our only spending money for the entire week. We’ll have to work extra hard to stay within our grocery budget, and if we go over, it’ll reduce the amount we have for entertainment and other expenses. I’m anticipating that we’ll spend $60 or less each week on groceries, $20 on household expenses, and $10 on entertainment.

Our idea for a cash budget for the summer was inspired by Small Notebook’s “no spend month.” It’s essentially the same concept, only we’re not limiting our spending quite as much as her family does so we can maintain it over three months instead of just one.

As an incentive to hang on to as much cash as we can, we’ve decided that whatever cash is left at the end of the summer will go to something fun. We’ll see how much is left before we go making any plans with it. :)

I initially decided to pause saving for the summer, but based on this budget, we’ll be able to save $250 a month (about half of what we normally save). At the end of the summer, we’ll be able to put the $2,000 we saved to supplement our summer income into our regular savings.

I’m a little nervous because I’ve struggled with cash spending in the past. But we’re really excited to take on this new challenge! I think it’ll be a good exercise to get us back on track. For the past few months, we’ve been a little too comfortable. Each month, we go a little more over budget on things like food and shopping. Hopefully this summer will get us back on track.

Our no spend summer begins this weekend. Any tips on how to make a cash budget work?

Surviving the summer without spending our savings

Tony’s summer vacation has officially started. He won’t be teaching or taking classes again until the end of August. Unfortunately, this means we’re losing a third of our income for the months of June and July.

We’ve been anticipating this temporary loss of income all year, so we prepared by putting aside most of the money we’ll need to cover Tony’s salary without using our emergency fund. But now I’m looking at that money, a pretty hefty chunk of change for us, and thinking about all the things we could do with it if we could save it.

Our original plan was for Tony to find a part-time job. Any extra money he made would go toward replenishing that savings. We’re not giving up on that plan yet, but it’s tough out there. He’s applied for about 20 part-time jobs so far with no returned phone calls. When he follows up, he’s told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

It’s frustrating, but this is exactly why we saved the money. We knew it might be difficult for him to find a part-time job this summer, especially since we share a car and he’s limited to jobs that are accessible through walking or our city’s limited public transportation. So the money is there if we get into trouble, but even if he doesn’t find a job, we’re challenging ourselves to spend as little as possible for the next three months.

Here’s what we’re doing:

We’re temporarily halting savings.

It seems silly to take money out of savings only to put it right back in. We currently save about 60% of Tony’s income every month including retirement. For the months of June and July, we won’t be putting the full amount into savings. It seems counter-productive, but the point is to live only from our income without dipping into our savings. If we can make it through the summer without spending it, then we’ll be able to double what we would have normally saved in two months.

We’re participating in a no spend month.

I’m intrigued by the idea of a “No Spend Month,” from SmallNotebook.org. We’ve never tried a cash budget system, but we’re going to give it a shot one month this summer. We’ll probably wait until August when our finances are likely to be tightest.

We’re working from a three-month budget.

Every month I set a zero-based budget based on our expenses and income. This summer, since our monthly income is reduced, I’ll be setting a zero-based budget for three months instead of one.

Here’s why: Because I’m paid every other week, there are two months out of the year when I get three paychecks in a month instead of two. July is one of these months. Because I base our budget on our total monthly income instead of my yearly salary, this feels like “extra money.” When it’s split up over the course of three months, it helps cover some of the gaps of our lost income. So I added up all of the paychecks I’ll receive over the next three months, divided them by three, and set a monthly budget based on that.

We’re cutting our overall expenses — slightly.

After adding up our total income over the next three months and cutting out savings for two of those months, we come surprisingly close to our normal monthly income without moving money from savings. We’ll make a few adjustments to spending to cover the remaining gaps. I’m hoping that the no spend month at the end of the summer will help us increase our savings by even more.

Anything extra will go straight to savings.

If Tony does find a part-time job, it won’t change our plans. We want to save as much as possible this summer, and any extra income will go directly toward savings. We’re still hoping he’ll find something, because this will help us save so much more!

If all goes according to plan, we should be able to double the amount we would have put into savings this summer. Here’s hoping we can do it!

How do we measure up to national averages?

One of the main concepts of frugality is that life isn’t a competition when it comes to finances. I try to avoid comparing myself to other people, because we inevitably fall short in terms of material possessions.

Just for fun, though, I took a look at some national averages to see where we fall on the spectrum. I was actually surprised to discover that in some ways we’re right on target. I had hoped we’d be considerably more frugal than the national average, but it turns out we’re pretty average.


I couldn’t find any hard and fast statistics newer than 2004. As of 2004, the average American spent 21% of their income on housing costs. But that was 5 years ago, and so much has changed since then. According to CNN Money, mortgage costs should equal no more than 28% of your income. Our rent is about 26% of our monthly income, so it looks like we’re pretty average in that respect.


This is my favorite category. :) As of February, the national personal savings rate reached 4.2%. We save a minimum of 21.5% of our after-tax income every month. Yay us!


I’m sort of bummed about where we fall here. According to the USDA food plans, families of 2 living on a “thrifty” food plan spend $82.10 a week on food. Doesn’t sound too thrifty to me. We typically spend $60 a week at the grocery store, but our monthly food costs are closer to $400 total, or $100 a week.

We’ve become increasingly lazy about monitoring food costs, and those extra trips to the grocery store and occasional meals out really do add up. So we’re closer to the “low-cost” food plan, which is about $104.60 a week (again, that doesn’t really sound “low-cost” to me). We’ve always struggled with food spending, and this little comparison exercise has really opened my eyes. We need to crack down.


The average American owes $8,329 to credit card companies. We owe $0 to credit card companies. Woo hoo! When it comes to student loan debt, we fall above the national average, though. The average American student graduates with about $21,900 in debt (that’s $43,800 per couple). We owe about $60,000 to student lenders, or about $30,000 each. That’s about 37% more than the average. :(


Again I struggled to find recent statistics for what the average American saves for retirement on a monthly or even yearly basis. I guess there are too many factors. But a number that gets tossed around a lot as a “recommended savings amount” is 15% of your income. We’re just getting started on retirement savings, and we made the decision to start slow for now at a 3.5%. Not so good, but our plan is to ramp up our retirement savings when we finish paying down our debt and get our liquid savings where we want it to be.

This was an eye-opening exercise that really showed me where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We should be able to easily cut our food costs, netting us about $160 a month for savings and debt repayment. We just renewed our lease, so there’s not a lot we can do about our housing costs until we move, but when we move we’ll try to get below the national average. I’d like to fall on the lower end of the scale in all of these categories (except savings and retirement, of course).

How does your budget compare to national averages?

Comfort & complacency – frugality’s worst enemies

A year ago, our situation was drastically different than it is today. Our savings was depleted after months of bringing in less than we needed to make ends meet. We had a little money in the bank, but not enough to sustain us for very long.

We were living frugally out of necessity. Though our spending was cut to the absolute minimum, I estimated that our savings would last only a few more months. I could count the number of restaurant meals we’d had in a year on one hand, and we never spent money on anything but necessities. We were in frugal survivor mode.

A month later we were married, enjoyed a frugal honeymoon in Washington D.C. that we’d saved all year to take, and came home with a little nest egg from generous friends and family who had attended our wedding. I wanted to save the money, but I feared that our situation would force us to spend it to continue paying our bills in a few months when the rest of our savings ran out.

Thankfully, I was hired at my job a week later. The additional income helped us start saving again, pay down our remaining credit card debt quickly, and turn our financial situation around.

Eleven months later we have no credit card debt, 60 percent of our emergency fund in the bank, and we’re on our way to paying cash for a vacation in Europe all on the equivalent of one full-time salary. We’re considerably more comfortable and nowhere near as stressed about money. And yet, we’re still in danger.

The more comfortable we become, the easier it gets to edge toward the lifestyle we’ve fought so hard to resist. When I look at our bank balances, I feel calm instead of stressed. But that makes me more likely to forgo cooking dinner for a meal out. We can afford it now, right? When I see a good deal on clothing or books, I’m tempted to drop the cash. I deserve a little treat for my hard work, don’t I?

Comfort breeds complacency, and while I’m okay with being a little more lax about our spending than we used to be, I don’t ever want to be complacent. I always want to be mindful of our spending to ensure that every penny we spend is for good reason. I’d rather go out to dinner to spend a date night with my husband than head to a restaurant because I’m too tired to cook. I’d rather save our money for one memorable experience than fritter it away on a thousand little things I won’t remember a week later.

Now that we have more income and more savings, our finances are less stressful, but our impulses are harder to control. When I see a big screen television on sale or browse a bookstore, I’m no longer resisting because I can’t afford it. After all, the money is right there. I could easily withdraw it from our savings account and buy any number of things. The more comfortable we become, the harder we have to work to fight it.

Lately I’ve felt complacency creeping in, replacing the desperation to keep our heads above water that we felt last year. I’m aware of just how much money we’ve saved and so tempted to spend it. The struggle to pay our bills has been replaced with the struggle against our culture and our spendthrift natures.

Every day I remind myself that our goals are more important than frivolity. It’s a constant battle, but it’s one that I’m willing to fight. The reward of accomplishing our financial goals is much greater than the brief satisfaction we’d get from instant gratification.