[This is a guest post by my good friend Kelly Gurnett (a.k.a. Cordelia) of Cordelia Calls It Quits. Think you’ve got what it takes to be a guest poster? Contact Em at em [at] blondeandbalanced [dot] com to learn more about becoming a guest poster yourself!]
My husband and I never exactly lived a life of luxury.
I’m into couponing, eating every leftover in my fridge, and all the other frugal tricks I’ve learned from PF bloggers like Em, because (as I wrote for Em’s predecessor), I’ve realized that money really does equal happiness. Getting myself into a ton of credit card debt straight out of college was one of the stupidest moves I’ve ever made, because it tied me to a 9-to-5 I hated because it was the only way to earn enough money to pay my creditors. As soon as I realized that smart finances meant more freedom, you’d better believe I hopped aboard the PF train as fast as my little legs could jump.
That said? We were still your typical middle-class American couple. We ate out every weekend (usually a few times a weekend) because we’d worked hard all week (at jobs we hated), and dammit, we deserved to treat ourselves. We bought movie and concert tickets and clothes we didn’t really need, under the same justification. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor; we were just “getting by” like too many American households do—managing to get the bills paid on time each month, slowly paying down our debt, but with not too much left over at month’s end.
Then my husband’s health issues put him on permanent disability. We had a feeling it might happen eventually, but not for many, many (many) years. And just like that—with no warning, as I was days away from finally quitting my job to pursue my dream of freelancing—half our income was gone.
Talk about a financial wakeup call.
What We’ve Learned from Our “Bare Bones” New Budget
Somehow, in the haze of shock and panic that was the following week, we went into financial crisis mode and managed to slash our budget fully in half over the course of a few days.
We sold my car, because there was no point in having a second car when my husband was no longer working, and used the proceeds to pay off my remaining credit card debt and the balance on my husband’s car. I campaigned my little heart out for more freelance work and put in 60 hour weeks between that and the day job. We slashed the hell out of our budget.
And the things I learned in doing this—and in living with our new “extreme” budget afterwards—were huge eye openers. Namely:
You really don’t need half the things you think you do. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly a member of the YOLO spending philosophy. I already thought I had our budget down pretty tight before disaster struck. But when disaster did strike, we realized—and fast—just how unimportant some of the things we thought of as “necessities” were.
We were paying premium prices for a cable package that got us 3 or 4 extra channels we liked—as well as dozens of others we never, ever watched. We were going to see movies in the theater that we just as easily could have rented for a dollar through Redbox, saving on ludicrous ticket and concession prices (as well as annoying fellow theatergoers). My husband had a Sirius radio subscription for his car, again largely for a few stations while all the rest went unlistened to.
Even the things that seemed less frivolous weren’t necessarily must-haves. We dramatically decreased our grocery budget, and you know what? It’s got me buying healthier, fresher food and taking the extra few minutes to actually make myself a meal rather than nuking a pre-made frozen one. I’m actually glad we were forced to pare down on some things, because it’s got us making smarter choices.
When you’re living a life you really love, “stuff” doesn’t matter so much. When I was schlepping away at a job I hated for 40 hours a week, I felt like those dinners out, new outfits, etc. were necessary to keep my sanity and motivation up. But the only reason I needed them was because I was in a job I hated—it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once I started liking my life on a day-to-day basis, all that extra “stuff” just didn’t matter anymore.
Now that I’m focusing on the writing I love (yes, I actually did manage to quit in spite of our income setback!), I couldn’t care less if we spend a whole month of weekends eating in or if I never buy a new piece of clothing again. Because I’m happy just living my life. I have more time, I have more freedom, I’m more at peace—and if the price I have to pay for that is waiting to see Iron Man 3 until it comes out on DVD, that seems like a non-price to pay.
Lifestyle inflation can be reversed. Part of our problem was that we fell into the lifestyle inflation trap—with every raise I or my husband got, we bumped up our standard of living. Sure, we started paying more towards our cards, but we also gave ourselves a few extra treats. (Again, we’d earned it, right?) But after a while, an extra dinner each week stops feeling special. You get used to new “treats” awfully fast, and then you get bored with them.
Contrast that to now, when we allow ourselves a very modest (think: “Denny’s $2, $4, $6 menu”) meal out each week, and that’s it. When my husband found a coupon recently that got us Buy One Get One subs at Subway, he came home delighted at the fact that to get the deal, he had to buy a drink. Normally, if we hit up Subway, we bring the food home and don’t spring for drinks. But he’d actually gotten to order a take-home pop! We also love taking sandwiches to the local park to have a picnic lunch (cost: the gas it takes to drive a few miles)—and just sitting there in the sun watching the birds float on the water is infinitely more satisfying than any $50 dinner with drinks we ever had.
All those crazy minimalists out there are onto something. Not only is less sometimes more—but, when you have less, you sometimes begin to find much more in terms of appreciation, gratefulness, and joy than you would have ever thought possible.
Could you realistically live on half your current budget? How would you do it? What do you think you’d learn about your own spending?
Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.
photo credit: Tax Credits