I hate budgeting as much as the next person. Or perhaps more than the next person.
I teeter back and forth between this old-school system where I’m logging everything I spend ever in a Google Sheets document, to having a busy, fun weekend where I don’t pay close enough attention and spend more than I intend to.
Feeling confident about how well I understand my finances is one of the biggest challenges. My ex loved to tell me how bad I was at money. And I truthfully didn’t do much with our budgeting, while I was married. After I finally left him, I was terrified of handling my personal finances on my own. That was part of our dynamic, you see. Me being too scared to leave, do stuff on my own.
When I look back at my first year out of being divorced, I wish I had made better decisions about what I bought, how I lived. My pampering and general recovery from such a bad time in my life sometimes ventured into mindless spending. Was a white, faux fur robe really necessary for my newly single lady lifestyle? Not really. What about a soda streaming water machine? Nope. I walk around my apartment sometimes and shake my head whenever I see some of the things I purchased.
But I needed some self-indulgent spending to bring me back to life, and I don’t regret it. Taking a solo trip to Tulum, for example, did wonders for my mind, body and spirit, and was one of the most relaxing, beautiful vacations I’d ever had. I try not to beat myself up too much about it, but rather, like a lot of situations with my divorce, accept what happened and keep growing.
Getting creative with debt
It’s been a long journey, but I’ve made a lot of progress toward financial freedom, doing everything from negotiating lower utility bills to setting up a system to pay off lingering debt from my divorce in a manageable way. I’ve started taking ownership of the reckless things I do with my spending, and correcting them by being more informed.
Becoming braver and more confident about money has been a huge part of this process. My favorite way to tackle my budget is to tap into one of my greatest strengths: being creative. Weaving little everyday ways of affordability into my life, so it becomes more about how I take pleasure in my day and combine saving money with activities I already love and less about being trapped in the unknown.
Here are a few simple things I’ve started doing that are working for me:
I walk everywhere and work out all the time
I love D.C. because you don’t need a car. In fact, I ditched my car when I moved here. And while I could brave the public transit (See #UnsuckMetro for context), I prefer to walk whenever I can. It’s an incredible way to experience the city while doing some mindful exercise. I also use my gym membership like crazy. Although working out isn’t exactly the same thing as hitting happy hours with friends, it definitely helps me burn off some stress and relax after a crazy week. I convince myself I’m getting the most out of my monthly gym membership by using it five to six times a week, making it feel like a bargain. But the real payoff is looking and feeling better than I have in a while. I have biceps again. I know I can take care of myself physically, something that’s important as I age.
I combine and multi-task my goals
Time is money, right? One thing I’ve learned is my money goes a lot farther when I combine my time I dedicate to reaching a goal into shared experiences, so I’m reaching several goals at once. For example, by being a regular at my gym, I’m doing the following things:
- Not spending money on cocktails somewhere
- Hopefully preventing myself from spending money on medical expenses down the road, by getting healthier
- Getting pumped up on endorphins (or, depending on when I work out, winding down after a stressful day) so that I can focus on other things, like tackling a difficult project at work, working on a passion project at home, etc. Basically, putting myself in a productive state to manage my stress and get ready to take on the world.
I also apply combining goals and success factors to social situations. I love to cook, and I love my friends. Going out to eat in D.C. can be really expensive. Going out with my friends can be really expensive, too. I can make an amazing dinner for them that will cost me less than what we might spend on dinner somewhere, while also getting quality time with them at my place. Having them over also inevitably means I’ll straighten up my apartment, declutter it, helping me also reach a goal of staying more on top of household clutter. Combining all these experiences at once, doing something I love (hosting dinner parties!) is a win. Which leads me to …
I’ve mastered how to roast a chicken
If you follow my blog, you already know cooking is a big deal to me and something I love. I try to roast a chicken every Sunday, following Thomas Keller’s recipe. Once the bird is ready, I pull off all the meat, saving half of the meat for salads and other meals I want to make throughout the week and freezing the other half for soups and other recipes I might make on a whim down the road. THEN I’ll throw the carcass into a pot with some water, a diced onion, a bay leaf and, if I have fresh herbs, some parsley or thyme, and simmer everything for a few hours while I’m cleaning up my apartment. The result? Homemade chicken stock that is to die for! I can’t say enough about how great homemade chicken stock is. It makes the most boring soup recipe incredible. This all probably sounds very Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I won’t lie, cooking a chicken and doing these steps is a lot of work. But the broth and juicy chicken meat are so, so good. They can be used in a bunch of different delicious meals that are affordable and versatile, helping you use up what you have in your fridge so you’re getting the most out of your groceries. For anyone who is vegetarian and reading this, I’ve also learned how to soak and prep beans, another great way to meal prep protein.
I use coupons to buy expensive household and drugstore items
I used to get annoyed with coupons because they felt like spam, relentlessly advertising deals for random products I don’t want. Then I learned how to use them strategically to buy pricey items I have to buy occasionally, specifically the coupons that are for a certain percentage off a purchase. I don’t know if other cities are like this, but in D.C. I probably get a Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon for 20 percent every other week in my mailbox. Did you know you can buy Brita filters at Bed, Bath and Beyond? By using their coupons, the Brita filters are usually cheaper than what I’d pay for on Amazon. And then there’s CVS … I have a CVS card and when I get one of those special 30 percent off coupons, I’ll use it to buy some skincare product I love that’s usually more expensive than your usual over-the-counter drugstore items, like Vichy, LiftActiv Vitamin C Brightening Skin Corrector. It makes me feel like I’m investing in my skin care without blowing the bank. You can read more about my self-care hacks in “How to Create a Beautiful Life on a Budget.”
I cancelled almost all of my streaming services for TV
This suggestion will probably result in some negative feedback, but in January, when I revised my budget and looked for places to shrink my expenses, I made a decision to get rid of almost all my TV. I did this for a variety of reasons, everything from making it less likely for me to waste time watching shows and movies, to saving a little bit of money each month. I try to replace this TV time with reading and writing time. Exercise time. Friend time. And while watching TV at the end of our days or on the weekends can help us relax, I’d rather go to a yoga class or make some new art, volunteer or work on my writing on here.
I’m reading up on personal finance
I like to tackle new things the same way I did in school — by reading up on them, finding people whose ideas really resonate with me. Lately, I’m really appreciating Matthew Kent’s posts here on Medium. I haven’t quite mastered all the great things he suggests, but I’m working on them. Check him out if you have time, he’s good. This is one of my favorite posts he wrote.
What are you doing to stay on top of your finances so it feels less like a burden and more like an interesting creative challenge?