Sunday, November 7, 2010

Forcing ourselves to save

Money has been on my mind a lot in the last few months, so I figured it was about time to blog about it. Way back in January I blogged about my semi-obsession with Mint.com and its budget tools. Now that I've been using Mint for almost a year and a half to track our household spending and set realistic monthly budgets, I am happy to report the way in which this site has fundamentally changed our habits. We are saving more than ever before.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me clarify one huge point: Matt and I are saving more than ever before, even though we are currently making the same salaries we've been making for the past three years. Our district has frozen pay increases for teachers. Determined, though, to not let this dampen our financial futures, I decided to give us a "raise" by saving more each year than we did the year before.

A quick diversion...look how well our plant on the deck is doing in November! Talk about longevity.


So, in the last few months, I have been over our budget on Mint with a fine-tooth comb. I've looked at our spending trends and found areas where we were spending too much. This is where I really examined our budget dollar by dollar and decided, for example, to cut down our Netflix account from two movies at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $14/month) to one movie at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $9/month). Five dollars a month is only $60 per year, which obviously isn't going to change our lifestyle, but by examining and adjusting each budget accordingly, I have been able to triple the amount of money we save each month between 2008 and today. That's right -- right now, we're saving three times what we saved two years ago, and we didn't get raises or even cost-of-living adjustments.

It's also important to note that we would not be doing such a stellar job of saving if we did not have an automatic savings plan in place, so that almost as soon as our paychecks clear our checking account we whisk away a big chunk of money into our savings account, never to be touched.

Here's what our monthly budget looks like:

Monthly spending:
  • Mortgage -- high (in an effort to keep some things personal, I'll keep the dollar amount out here)
  • Savings -- second highest "expense," which I have automatically direct deposited into our savings account each month
  • Groceries -- $600 allocated, though we've never spent that much. In October, we spent $500.
  • Bills and utilities -- $450 allocated, average cost is around $400 for Internet, cable, cell phones, gas, electric
  • Restaurants -- $250 allocated, and we always spend this much. This is one of the main areas where we've cut down in the last year or two. Any prepared food we buy goes into this category, whether it's a sit-down meal at a nice restaurant or grabbing a sandwich from Potbelly.
  • Gas -- $175 allocated, which is almost always what we spend.
  • Homeowners Association dues -- $101, never changes.
  • Auto/home insurance -- $95, never changes.
  • Home furnishings/supplies -- $75 allocated, and I have this budget carry over from one month to the next to account for months when I spend a lot versus months when I spend little to no money on our home.
  • Clothing -- $75 allocated, and this is another budget that carries over from month to month to account for the fact that I usually buy several items of clothing at once. Take, for instance, today: I had only bought one clothing item in three months until I bought six items this afternoon!
  • Health and fitness -- $60 allocated, which includes gym memberships, pharmacy purchases, doctor's visits.
  • Pet food and supplies -- $50 allocated
  • Cosmetics/toiletries -- $25 allocated, another carry-over budget. I formed this one out of shear curiosity, not because we spend much money in this area. It's a way for me to see if I can continue to justify more expensive hair product purchases. I think I can.
  • Education -- $15 allocated for classroom supplies/books we might buy for ourselves. We try not to do this, though sometimes it's inevitable.
  • Newspapers/magazines -- $15 allocated. Matt reads a lot.
  • Movies -- $10 allocated, Netflix.
  • Coffee shops -- $10 allocated, for those times when we haven't been gifted with a Starbucks card.
Infrequent spending:
We also have budgets in place for those items we pay every other month, every three months or even  once a year. Mint calculates these items as budgets we're saving for a little every month so we don't have to tempt ourselves to draw from our savings for infrequent expenses.
  • Auto maintenance/repair -- $33/month (spend ~$100 every three months between our two cars)
  • Pet medication -- $25/month (spend $50 every other month)
  • Veterinary -- $50/month (because we spend a ridiculous amount each year that I don't even want to think about)
  • Water -- $26/month (billed every three months)
  • Heating/AC maintenance -- $23/month paid once a year to fulfill a yearly contract to service our HVAC
  • AAA membership -- $7/month, paid once a year
This exercise in meticulous budgeting has helped me maintain my sanity when I get worried about the lack of raises in our foreseeable future. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I've taken control of our finances, our savings and therefore some of our happiness as well. If you haven't tried this out with your family's budget, now would be a great time to look at your trends to get you off to a fresh start as the new year approaches!

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