I’ll never forget what it felt like when my ex-husband sat next to me and told me that he thought I needed to go back to work so that we could pay our bills. I was holding my brand new 2-month-old baby and I wasn’t ready to leave him in daycare yet. So, I was doing everything I could to make money. I mowed lawns, babysat, and picked up any odd job I could find. We went through years and years of scraping our money together and budgeting in order to pay off our student loan debt. It was hard work, I won’t lie about that. We had to sacrifice a lot of things, we got into countless fights about money, and there were times where I felt like an indentured servant to the debt we had.
I recently did a podcast titled, “What It Feels Like To Wake Up To $170k In Student Loan Debt,” outlining a lot of that story. I got a lot of feedback from you guys about wanting specific tips about ways to budget and ways to save. So, here are my tips for budgeting, spending less, and paying off debt. Some of which I did to get out of debt, and some of which I still do.
Years ago, my ex-husband and I got our undergrad degrees, and then he went on to grad school. After he graduated, he got a great job, but we found ourselves in a $170 thousand dollar hole from student loan debt. My ex’s great job still couldn’t cover our student loan payments. We were broke, living in Washington D.C., and the cost of living was overwhelming our finances. We lived in an old apartment, and we ate into our savings each month while I wasn’t working because I had a brand new baby. And so, we started following Dave Ramsey’s program to pay off our debt.
During that time where we were flat broke, I dreamed about buying fresh produce. I longed for the day our lives would be free from this blanket of debt suffocating us. We worked hard for YEARS, paying off our smallest debt first, and throwing each extra penny at the debt.
I longed for the day our lives would be free from this blanket of debt suffocating us.
There are two things we don’t learn in school: 1. How to save money. 2. How to parent. Which is crazy, since these are two huge responsibilities we face as adults. I wish I had learned about budgeting when I was younger, but my ex was great about money, and I learned a lot from him. I remember when we started dating, he would watch me buy a soda or gum or whatever each time we stopped at the gas station. He sort of mentioned how much those small purchases add up, and I remember getting defensive about it. But he’s right, and I never thought about it. If I had saved that money from a young age instead of spending it mindlessly on small purchases, I would have made a lot more money for myself later on.
This sort of introduced me to the idea of compound interest, and the power of saving. I used to go to a compound interest calculator (here) to play around with the power of saving for retirement. For example, if you save $100 per month for 45 years at 7% interest, that’s $342 thousand dollars! You pay $54 thousand dollars, but the power of compound interest will raise that to $342 thousand because you’re gaining interest each year on the money you’re saving. Seeing those numbers is so motivating for me in the world of saving and budgeting.
Now, there are tons of apps out there to help with savings. Mint is a popular one, and Dave Ramsey has one as well, but I’m much more of a tactile person who enjoys using pen and paper or a method of my own. I use a simple Google spreadsheet. What my ex and I did was sit down and go through our transactions twice a month: once in the middle of the month, and once at the end. Doing meetings twice a month helped us to make adjustments if we were off in the middle of the month. Honestly, this caused a LOT of fights. We would argue about purchases, and we both felt judged or criticized for spending. Especially me, who did a lot of the household shopping.
To help this, we made a rule that we’d discuss big purchases with each other before making them. I think our minimum for a big purchase was $50 or $100, somewhere in there. This was hard on me at first because I felt like I was asking permission to spend money. But mostly it helped these monthly meetings so we weren’t constantly asking what certain purchases were for. It eliminated surprises and helped with respecting each other and our budget.
In our spreadsheet, we outlined our monthly and annual take home pay and our expense categories each month. We had a tab for each month at the bottom of the spreadsheet, and inside each tab was our budget for each month. I listed out each purchase we made that month, the amount, and then left comments about the purchase to help our monthly discussions about purchases. Here is the list of our categories:
While some of the categories are set, like property taxes, others are variable, like groceries. If we started creeping up on our budget for each item, we’d cut back on that item. For instance, if we were getting close to our gas budget, we’d avoid driving to extra places.
We used to be extremely strict about our budget when we were trying to get out of debt. Now, I’m not in debt and so my budget is not as strict. I try to watch how much I spend on things like Uber Eats or groceries, which I tend to overspend on. Otherwise I’m not as strict. However, I like sticking to a budget and focusing on my savings goals. Right now, I have a goal to pay off my house and become 100% debt free. This goal helps me to stick to my budget.
You don’t have to live in a budget prison while you’re trying to get out of debt, you just have to focus on moderation. You can see from my categories that we still budgeted for family activities and a trip fund while paying off our debt, we just focused on mindful purchases and moderation. We used to take a trip to fish back home in Idaho every year. We didn’t want to lose that trip, so we just made sure we budgeted for it.
For me, a budget is all about being mindful. Just like losing weight, I found that tracking money helped me to be mindful about what I was spending money on. I don’t have to do that forever, but when I was on a strict budget it was important. When I’m trying to lose weight, I work to track my calories so that I’m more mindful about what I’m eating. I don’t do that every day, but I do while I’m trying to lose weight. Each situation follows the same principal. Tracking is an eye-opener for me about the 400 calories in my latte or the $50 extra dollars on juices and chips when I grocery shop. It’s not a sexy topic, but it’s important.
In addition to tracking expenses and making a budget, here are some of the actionable tips I use to help me spend less money.
- Getting rid of payments: Payments are tempting because they help lessen the blow of big purchases, but they often cause you to spend more in the long run and purchase things you don’t really need. This leaves less money in your pocket that you can put towards your debt.
- Unfollowing sites that tempt you into spending: If you have sites or people you follow who tempt you into making purchases, unfollow them. There’s a fashion blogger on Instagram who I love called The Sister Studio and I find myself buying what she wears all the time. I know if that ever got out of hand, I’d have to unfollow her. For me, it’s best to get rid temptations like that.
- Avoiding sales: I do this all the time. Just because something is on sale, you don’t have to buy it! Make sure you’re taking part in a sale if you really need the item. Don’t make emotional purchases on sale items.
- Eating in instead of eating out: Eating out is a HUGE one! It’s not that you can’t ever go out to eat, but put it in your budget. Cooking your own meals helps you to save money and calories, so it can be helpful to try cooking at home and meal prepping.
- Cheap grocery tips:
- Eggs are an inexpensive protein source: I buy the big flat at Costco. Though free range or organic eggs are probably better for you, they aren’t necessarily healthier just because they are brown. In order to get cheaper protein, eggs are your friend.
- Protein powder is an inexpensive protein source: Compared to chicken breast or steak, protein powder is usually cheaper per gram of protein per serving. I have a protein power I sell called Back to Basics and I use it every day!
- Grabbing rice from the top or bottom shelf and cook in chicken or beef broth: The cheapest things at grocery stores are at the top or bottom shelves because businesses pay more to be at eye level. Buy the cheapest rice, and cook it in chicken or beef broth to help the flavor.
- Use grated zucchini in burgers or meatloaf to double volume and add veggies: Not only does this help add more veggie servings in your diet, it also helps your meat to go further. Some don’t like the texture, but both myself and my kids love it.
- Get cheaper spices in the Hispanic or Asian food aisles: They might be in a different language, but they are the same spices for cheaper than name brand spices in the baking aisle. Eating healthy can be boring, but spices can help make eating healthy a lot more fun and tasty without adding calories.
- Buy meat in bulk: Freezing meat that you get in bulk can really help to get more meat for cheaper.
- Check out books for a shopping fix: This may seem silly, but it really helps me when I feel the need to buy something. To help this need to shop, sometimes I put things in my Amazon shopping cart and then wait to buy what’s in there. More often than not, I never end up buying those things, it just helps give me a little shopping fix.
- Use multiple accounts and automatic deductions: I don’t keep a large balance in my checking account, just what I need to pay my bills and a little extra. The rest goes into a savings account that I don’t really look at. I also have things like retirement savings taken out of my account automatically.
Something that Dave Ramsey says that I agree with is not to worry about saving for retirement or investing while paying off debt so you can get as aggressive as possible in paying off debt. Not everyone agrees with that, and I’m not a financial expert of course, but it’s something that helped me to be as aggressive as possible in paying down my debt quickly.
When I first started budgeting, I felt embarrassed that I was in debt or that I couldn’t manage my money.
If you’re interested in more about this, I’d suggest looking into Dave Ramsey, his program, his podcast, or his YouTube channel. I’m not sponsored by him, or getting paid to say that, but it really is what we used to pay down so much of our debt. I geeked out over him so much.
Finally, I know talking about debt can bring up a lot of feelings of shame. When I first started budgeting, I felt embarrassed that I was in debt or that I couldn’t manage my money. You’re going to make mistakes or screw up when paying off debt or saving money, but that’s okay, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means you need to readjust and do better next month. It’s an ongoing process to adjust and make changes. Just remember to keep your eye on the goal. Envision what it will be like to get out of debt. It’s not fun, but focusing on your “why” is a great motivator.
I’ll leave you with this quote by Dave Ramsey,“We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”
Thanks so much for reading! If you have your own budgeting tips, I’d love to hear them!
Remember to stay motivated, and remember your goals.
P.S. If you’d rather listen to this topic rather than read it, I also talk about this on my podcast! Listen here!