Our budget is…

Our budget is looking a bit sad.

Not for the house, surprisingly enough -- we're still within what I'm going to call the outer limit of our renovation budget. When the house is done, shelter will be taken care of, but unfortunately, we still need to feed and clothe the children. Otherwise, the nice people from child services will come and take the munchkins away, so let us try to avoid that eventuality, shall we? We are quite fond of the monkeys, especially now that they mostly sleep through the night.

No, it's our basic annual budget that's the issue, the one based on our joint income. For the last three years, we went significantly over on that, digging into savings, and we can't keep that up. Admittedly, we were a little indulgent with the discretionary spending in the last few years -- we were so frayed with new baby and three moves and house uncertainty and sleeplessness. Ordering pizza, buying books and toys, and watching a lot of tv helped us all cope. Fair enough. But it's not a sustainable pattern going forward.

Mostly, I think it's the move from being DINKs (double income, no kids) to having kids. Childcare + food + clothing + toys have pretty much replaced all the money we used to spend on fun travel + computer games + books + eating out + etc and so on. I wouldn't go back, since we've traded one set of pleasures for another, but it's definitely a financial adjustment, and somehow I haven't made the mental shift yet.

Some of this year's costs are one-time expenses, hopefully. I lost 30 pounds and went down 2-3 clothing sizes last year; basically, nothing I owned fit. Not even shoes, because I gained a permanent half a shoe size with each pregnancy. (Disconcerting, having your feet get bigger! I didn't know your bones could spread like that.) So I had to buy pretty close to a complete new wardrobe, to keep my pants from falling down in the middle of teaching. I'm not expecting that to happen again; while I'd like to lose a few more pounds, I suspect I'm pretty close to my base weight going forward.

But in general, we're trying to cut back on everyday things. We're still very comfortably upper middle-class; all of our necessities are in budget. It's the little luxuries that are going. For example, we're now saying goodbye to:

  • coloring my hair (although if I keep it short, I'll need to add some haircuts into the budget)
  • shopping through PeaPod and at Whole Foods (hello Jewel and Dominicks! nice to see you again!)
  • cafe chais on the days I teach (make a travel mug of tea and bring it in)
  • buying lunch on campus (instead we're packing it and bringing it in)
  • ordering pizza once a week (maybe once a month?)
  • buying clothes (unless absolutely necessary due to serious raggedy-ness or growing-out-of)
  • buying books (good thing the library is close by, although we need to be better about returning things on time, or the fines will be as bad as buying books!)
  • cable tv (we're going to see how we do with just Hulu and Netflix)
  • fun travel (unless someone else is paying for it; we can still manage to visit each set of relatives once a year, especially if we drive out, but that's probably it)
  • most of the hobby budget (beer-making and knitting and stained glass -- although I'll probably do one more stained glass class at least to just finish off the house projects we'd planned on. Luckily, I have enough yarn stashed that I can probably knit / crochet for a few years on just that. :-)
All of those cuts are relatively easy and clear. They're probably not enough, especially not if we want to pay for music classes and soccer uniforms going forward. And some of our other indulgences, I'm having harder time saying goodbye to. For years, I've bought fresh flowers at the grocery store every week. It's only $10 / week -- but that adds up to $500 / year, which is significant. They make me so happy -- do they need to go? I don't know. See my little daffodils? Aren't they pretty? If I buy plants in pots, repot them, and water them consistently, I can usually get two at least weeks out of them instead of just one. So shift to just having flowering houseplants instead of cut flowers? Hmm...that'd help, at least. But is it enough?

And what about the car? Our parking at UIC is expensive -- something like $2000 a year. Gas cost is pretty equivalent to train fare, and we're certainly in range for the subway. But Chicago is bitterly cold for much of the school year. Am I willing to give up driving into campus, when it'll either eat up an extra hour a day in transit time (for taking the train the long way, Green to Blue line), and/or involve an extra hour a day of walking (to the Blue line)? (The latter option has the benefit of getting my daily exercise in, but so cold.) It'd help a ton with the budget, but it'd be hard. I hate the cold SO MUCH. And it's something we have to just decide at the start of the school year -- are we buying a parking pass or not? And then live with that decision.

Oh, and the garden. Our yard is a barren wasteland still, and is desperately in need of some shrubs. But those are not free. And we'd hoped to grow vegetables (which will help a little with the grocery budget, but probably not as much as they cost to grow). We've never started a yard from scratch -- how much is a realistic garden budget? I don't know.

Part of the problem is also that while I still sort of expect to sell more books in the future, possibly even books I have already written, I have NO IDEA when / if that will happen, or for how much. Could be $5,000 next year, or $50,000, or $0. Nada, zip, zilch. So we can't count on writing income in the budget at all, which is deeply frustrating and sometimes makes me question the whole idea that I can call still myself a real writer. But that's sort of a separate, if related, issue. Argh.

I don't expect y'all to solve any of these problems for us. :-) Just thinking aloud about which domestic economies are easy, and which are hard. Have you guys been cutting things this year? What little luxuries would you find easy to give up? What would be hard? Any tips on easy ways to save money? (Other than, y'know, NOT taking on a massive renovation and addition project, 'cause that ship has most definitely sailed. :-)

14 thoughts on “Our budget is…”

  1. Gardens are expensive. One thing that helped me when I started putting in plants was looking locally. Hillstead has a spring garden event, in May, where they have all kinds of local vendors come in, selling plants and other stuff…

    I’ve also found great starter plants at the farmers market.

    For shrubs, don’t get large shrubs, get the ‘starter’ ones, they will cost less. The yard won’t look as ‘finished’ for a number of years, until they grow more.

    For food, look at getting a CSA. Its an initial chunk of cash, but when I’ve done CSAs, I haven’t needed to shop for veggies, just the protein, coffee, and milk…. you might even get some plants and flowers with the CSA, depending on which one it is…

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hmm…we’ve had a CSA before, but we had trouble finishing things some months. Week after week of lettuces, you know? But maybe it’d be better now, with the kids to eat too. 🙂

  3. Some CSAs are better than others. As much as I like Urban Oaks, in New Britain, I love the one I’m signed up for this summer. Its one where you get to pick and choose among the produce that day, so they’ll have an assortment of lettuces, of tomatoes, of squashes… and then they have pick-your-own flowers and various veggies and fruits.

    So early in the season it is strawberries, then later it is raspberries… you pick your own cherry tomatoes…

    I know the feeling about the deluge of CSA veg, though…

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hmm…we should research what’s available around here now. It’s been a while since we did ours; things may have changed.

    I’m sure you’re right about the starter-size shrubs, but oh, I am not patient. Perhaps I should learn. 🙂

  5. I find being patient and letting the smaller plants grow and fill in (instead of buying the bigger ones from the start) really satisfying, as I feel I *did* more to earn the right to call it *my* garden. To be fair, I’ve never done it with bigger stuff like shrubs; I imagine those would take some time.

    Get a good compost going in the corner of your yard. Not sure how long it takes, but that stuff is great fertilizer and will save you money in the long run.

    Also, you can take clipping and dip them in some sort of cloning stuff (from a garden store) to get them to start roots. I haven’t done this, but I have friends who wandered Berkeley taking clippings and ended up with a LOT of cool plants this way!

  6. We’re thisclose to cancelling our membership at the Y, just because we don’t have a chance to use it that much. I should probably also do some research to see if there’s a less expensive cell plan that would work for us.

    One of our biggest expenses is medical stuff–two little kids with glasses and constantly changing prescriptions means lots of optho visits and lots of new glasses, which is costly even with a decent insurance plan. But my husband’s employer just started offering an HSA program that seems pretty good and should allow us to cut some healthcare costs (at least at tax time).

    As for gardening, I’ve had good luck buying at the end of the season, like Sept or Oct. The plants in the nurseries are starting to go dormant, and people don’t want to buy brown plants. But about 10 years ago, I bought a bunch of brown, droopy perennials for $1 each. The lady in front of me in line said snidely, “Those plants are DEAD.” I planted them, and they came right back the following spring–and now they are HUGE. Take that, snide lady!

    You should also ask around to see if anyone is dividing or cutting back perennials and will just give some to you.

  7. Yeah, ask around on Freecycle/equivalent to see if anyone’s just getting rid of garden stuff. I’ve seen flowers, shrubs, even small trees (“you dig and haul away”) posted on my local list.

  8. $2000/yr for one car? And you have two cars that can park there? So you pay $4k a year for parking at UIC? I think you have your answer. Cut down to 1. If its 2k for 2 cars, cut down to 1 as well and see how it goes. It will be a pain in the neck but you’ll work it out.

    I think you should take your in house flower budget and put it toward your yard. buy a couple of houseplants and forget the flowers. Get your kids to draw you pictures instead and buy flowers only when they are very pretty or unusual.

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heather, that’s a good point about it feeling more mine (and feeling more like a real gardener :-). I will try to think of the small plants that way; I think it will help! We do plan on composting, if we can find a way to do it that is non-stinky.

    I love the idea of wandering around and harvesting to clone, but I suspect my neighbors would get upset! Maybe I can ask them while they’re out gardening? Is that gauche? I don’t really know what’s appropriate good-neighbor etiquette on this.

    Julie, I’m still using my Y membership; I figure as long as I use it once a week, it’s worthwhile. Probably. We haven’t converted it to a family membership yet; maybe when the kids are ready to start swimming. (We tried taking Kavi for swimming lessons once — she HATED it. Sigh. My child was the only one howling every week…)

    Good point re: dividing or cutting back perennials — I did ask last fall a bit, and apparently could have gotten enough orange tiger lilies to fill my whole yard. That was the only thing going then. 🙂 I also love buying shrubs and things at the end of the season — I did some of that already when we bought the house. More in the fall, if we’re not completely out of money then. 🙂

    Eliza, I had totally forgotten about Freecycle — I’m going to go sign up again for it right now. We used it when we were living in the Bay Area, but I never signed up in Chicago. Oh, yay! That may be a big help with all the rooms that will otherwise have no furniture for years…

    Jen, we only have one car that we share. It works out reasonably well, in part because we’re often either going in different days (this semester, I’m T/Th, Kev is MWF), or just carpooling in. At some point when the kids are older and needing to be shuttled around, we might get a second car, but we’re going to hold off on that as long as we can. And even then, I think we’d just use the parking tag on one car.

    I’m already figuring I can pretty much cut the flower budget in half once we’re in the house, because I can cut flowers from the yard. 🙂 But there’s still six months of miserably grey Chicago winter to survive, and flowers help a lot.

  10. Is there any sort of middle ground about the car/ parking? Can you drive in just on really bad days, and maybe once a week? I found that if I really lightened the amount of stuff I carry (stash food/ books/ clothes at work), then I was a lot happier walking and even running. Once you can move faster, you’ll generate a lot more heat, and the exercise will be something to look forward to, even in winter if you can do it in the daytime. vitamin D.

    I’ve been home coloring my hair for a decade, you get better at it and each box can actually cover me 2-3 times. I color every 3-4 weeks when I’m being consistent, which gets it to $40/year? There’s also the salon-school method of getting cheap hair care, which I never researched.

    I don’t know what kinds of connections you have, but I haven’t bought a theater subscription but go out twice a week; most places have pay-what-you-can nights and shows where they’ll give free tickets to poor, art aficionados if you’re on the right email list. Of course, Chicago has family days and those museum cards that you can borrow from the library, as well as Grant Park and Ravinia.

    My other comment is that I feel your pain, my parents made a similar choice to live very frugally in order to buy a house in much better nbhd. The huge plus was that their house gained in value and held value in the downturn, which would have been less true in the poorer nbhd we moved from, so you may be able to divert some retirement savings because of that. The downside for me was exactly your point, that I felt like I couldn’t fit in with my richer peers, I didn’t have the money for music lessons and uniforms much less ski trips and cashmere sweaters. In my case, I don’t think the educational opportunity was that great, the poor nbhd had a magnet school that I would have been bussed to. At least music lessons you can do cheaply online now. But the upside is that if even one book sells, that should cover a lot of these sorts of expenses, most of which won’t show up for a few years at least.

  11. Well, you did ask, but I’m worried this will sound snarky. It’s kind of difficult to read your posts about being frugal and also the posts about magazine holders. When you bought cutesy wall hooks (anthropologie? animals? maybe?) that seemed like your buying for the long-term. But magazine holders are something you can buy if/ when the book money arrives, right? And even magazine subscriptions – isn’t that all available on line? Shouldn’t soccer uniforms (and vacations) rate higher? I’m really, really not trying to be snarky, and I know I’m lucky to have the opposite problem – I grew up frugal and have to train myself to spend money. But my principle would be education/ experiences over objects in general. Services, things that give you time to spend on the kids and the writing? You can get a good digital pictureframe and fill it with a revolving set of flowers and artwork; it’s not “the same” I grant, but in some ways the process of filling the picture frame might be fun too. If pretty objects really make that much difference in your happiness quotient, I’m sorry, but maybe if you see that as the choice?

  12. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oh, JMO, it’s okay not to find me consistent. I’m definitely *not* consistent on finances; it’s one of my big failings. The magazine holders were something I felt guilty about, and I probably shouldn’t have bought them. Sigh.

    But I do care very much about the pretty, and the silly little magazine holders do bring me great pleasure, in part because I also care a lot about a well-ordered space, and the magazines flopping over were driving me crazy. Ah well. It’s funny, because I don’t normally subscribe to magazines — this year was an exception, and I probably won’t renew most of those subscriptions. But now that I have the issues, I can’t bring myself to just throw them out.

    It’s a good question, re: middle ground about the car / parking. Hmm…I should actually figure out how much the pay-as-you-go lots are. They’re clearly way more expensive if you’re parking daily than the yearly pass. But if it’s just 2-3 days a week, the worst three months of the year? Worth running the numbers.

    I did do home coloring mostly — salon four times a year, interspersed with home coloring every three weeks, because my hair grows fast. But every three weeks * 7 is still a significant amount of money. I think it’s worth trying to just skip it, and see if I like the grey. If I hate it, ah well. Box color it is.

    I think we’ll be okay peer-wise in Oak Park; it’s a very mixed-income neighborhood. So lots of my kids’ classmates will be coming from the apartment buildings and condos next door, as well as from the fancier houses and such a few blocks up. There are other suburbs we could have lived in that are more solidly upper-upper-middle-class, but I was looking for economic diversity. And thankfully, our schools really are good, and there’s no guarantee our kids would have gotten into the magnet school in the city.

    I don’t want to cry poor here! Our house is huge and beautiful, and we can afford music lessons and soccer equipment and occasional dinner parties and even magazine holders and flowers. We just can’t afford nearly as many of the luxuries as we used to be able to. It’s an adjustment. But we’re still far better off financially than most of the world, and I haven’t forgotten that.

  13. I can talk to you about where/how to get cheaper plants and when not to sometime. Even better, I can tell you a lot of ways to waste money in a garden 🙂 I’m an expert.

    One quick comment now: you should try to buy flowering plants that grow from bulbs. This time of year it’s tulips and daffodils and crocuses (croci?) and hyacinths, etc. Later on, it’s lilies. I have 2 pretty pots which take your standard small rectangular pot (5×3? 6×2?) and your standard small 4 inch pot. Buy one plant, put it in your pretty pot and when it is done flowering, plant it in your yard. We’ve been doing this for 4 years and the amount of our yard covered by originally-inside bulbs is now substantial.

    Note that all bulbs are not created equal. Daffodils and crocuses tend to naturalize and last forever. Tulips usually only last 2-3 years before they need to be replanted. We’ve had problems with hyacinths, but I think that’s just because they grow poorly in Seattle in general.

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