Curbing lifestyle creep with per mensem

Over the 10+ years we’ve been married, the Missus and I have gone through some very lean times financially. We started off making $40k annually with a $200k mortgage, which put us in the ballpark of a 37.5% housing ratio. For the uninitiated, the perhaps antiquated measure suggests one’s housing-payment-to-pre-tax-income ratio should be less than 25%, 28%, or 30%, depending on who you listen to. Regardless, we were spending way more than our budget permitted.

Now that I’ve switched jobs a few times within the tech industry, my salary is significantly higher. At the same time, our current mortgage isn’t much more than that of our original, not-so-starter home. Our housing ratio is somewhere around 12% now, affording us significantly more financial flexibility.

In our almost 15 years of marriage, we’ve tried a number of ways to manage finances either to keep our heads above water or to long-term plan appropriately. The easiest and possibly most effective has been our per mensem.

Early on, with precious little spare cash, we tried all sorts of things to make life a little less financially squeezing, ranging from the Missus doing daycare to us meticulously planning our grocery shopping at Aldi to borrowing cash from family when things got really tight.

The easiest pitfall was to review our budget and complain about how much the other was spending on this or that. Being a cheapskate, it was usually me being an asshole.

Me: Why do we need to spend $120/month on cable TV? We can cancel it altogether since it’s shit anyway.
Missus: Because it keeps me sane when I’m at home all day with the baby.
Me: Okay, can we drop it down to basic cable, at least?

One year, I brokered a deal to carpool with a coworker who needed some study time. He paid for gas and I picked him up and dropped him off at his door — increasing my commute by quite a bit but saving on gas money.

Later, I even started looking into getting a second job, though the cost-benefit calculus just didn’t play out.

Of all the things we’ve tried, one of the most beneficial tools we added to our tool belt, however, was a discretionary “fun money” line-item to our budget — a per mensem. Like a per diem — a daily allowance from your employer for living expenses, usually when you’re on a business trip — our per mensem was an allowance we gave ourselves that was free of questions. That is to say, nothing purchased with that money could be criticized for any reason. In exchange, certain nonessential items were banned from the household budget: coffee shops, manicures, whiskey, and so on.

Easier budget and marital bliss all wrapped up in one.

mensem is the singular accusative of Latin mēnsis, for “month”

Initially, it was a paltry $50 each. At the beginning of the month, one of us would make a withdrawal from an ATM. When the money ran out, you were out of luck until the next month began.

Over time, we would adjust the dollar figure appropriately. When times were very lean, we’d cut back to $20 per person. With kids old enough to need a snack when Mom went out, she got a little extra in her per mensem to buy the kids something — $150 for her and the kids, $100 for me.

This arrangement has worked out incredibly well. Whenever we find we’re spending entirely too much money on coffee, for example, we return to this very useful tool to curb our indulgences without resentment or blame.

Ultimately, as a west coast software engineer, my salary has climbed to a point where we no longer have to eat cat food to subsist. And frankly, being in the top 2% of income earners, I’m doing very well. But whether you’re just eeking by or are very comfortable, a per mensem may be to you as useful a tool it has been to us.

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