Living on What You Earn Can Make You Feel Broke, and That’s a Good Thing!

Living on what you earn can be a difficult thing.  For many, it seems like a little like a foreign language; difficult to learn to do, and backwards.  But, if you can learn it, and transform your life into one where you’re living on what you earn, it can make a whole lot of difference.  You’ve got to start somewhere, though.  I, like you, haven’t always lived on what I earned.

Almost all of my life, I’ve owed someone something.  When I was 19, I needed a car.  My parents, tired of having me call them late at night after my old, beater car had broken down—AGAIN!—, decided I should buy a new car.

I didn’t qualify for a loan yet, so my grandpa lent me the money, and I paid him back with a small amount of interest, which was less than I’d pay borrowing from the bank and more than he’d make in a safe investment.

Soon after, I went away to college and took out student loans and started running a balance on my credit cards.

By the time I finally paid off my student loans a few years ago, my husband had his own loans that we had to pay.

Can you see me, just like the proverbial hamster running on the hamster wheel?

Living on What you EarnI owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.

Until one day, I said, “Enough!”

No more.

Time to live on what we make.

Time to stop borrowing.

Time to start saving.

And that’s when the real challenge began.

Our society is built on borrowing.  Borrow for school, borrow for a car, borrow for a house, rent to own, pay in 10 easy installment plans.

I’m done living that lifestyle, but in turn, I’ve picked a much more challenging lifestyle—living on what we earn.

Cutting Until There’s No Room Left to Cut

The first thing I did was develop a frugal, written budget.  That meant taming our grocery budget from $700 to $1,000 a month to $500 a month to feed our family of 5 with gluten, dairy and corn intolerances.  It isn’t easy, but we’re doing it.

The next step was to keep a record of everything we spend.  Honestly, I hate keeping this record, so that alone is incentive to spend less.

I spend an hour or so every week, reconciling the budget and making sure we’re on track.

I also started regularly saving for irregular expenses.  Every other week, I put $120 in an account earmarked for utilities.  In the winter, our utilities fall far below that, but I still keep saving the money for the expensive summer months.  This way our utility costs are the same all year long.

Handling Unexpected Expenses

While the new budget can feel somewhat restrictive, what I find most difficult are the unexpected expenses.  Just recently, I found that two of my kids have cavities (quite a few!), and the price for fixing them is around $400.  I have money set aside in a medical fund, but filling the cavities will just about wipe that money out.

The problem is that we have many other medical expenses–$188 for my son to get new glasses and an eye exam and a pending $3,300 expense for him to get braces.  I could put his braces on an interest free payment plan, but we don’t do payment plans anymore, interest free or not.

Instead, we had to make hard decisions like canceling our trip to see family this summer.

Living on cash is definitely not easy, but I know once we get through the next couple of years, as our income increases, it will get easier.

We are, as Dave Ramsey says, “Living like no one else so later we can LIVE like no one else.”

Do you eschew debts and payment plans, or do you use them in moderation to meet your goals?

There Is No Ideal Time to Contribute to Retirement

“Do you really think you should be voluntarily putting money into your retirement account?  It just seems like there are so many other things you could be using the money for right now.  Why don’t you wait to contribute to your retirement until you get more financially stable?”

Recently, I was lamenting our financial situation to a good friend.  I just had a dental procedure at a periodontist, I was just told my 6 year old has 8 cavities (that’s another story) that will cost $400 out of pocket to fill, and that my 10.5 year old will need braces to the tune of $5,000 or so.

Add on top of that the fact that our car has 150,000 miles on it, and we refuse to borrow for a new one, and well, I’m looking at a lot of financial stress.

Still, these expenses don’t have to be paid immediately.  I’m saving money every month for a new-to-us car when our old one finally gives out.  I may be able to wait a bit to get my son braces.

I just wanted to vent a bit to my friend and express my frustration.

I was really surprised by her answer.  She simply couldn’t understand why we would contribute to our retirement when we have so many impending expenses.

Yet, as Tracy Chapman sings, “If not now, then when?”

Good Time to Contribute to RetirementThere’s no good time to save for retirement.

You could always use the money for something else.

When my husband and I were newly married 14 years ago, I made a little over $30,000 a year.  We lived in the suburbs of Chicago, which wasn’t cheap.  My husband was a graduate student and didn’t work.  We were flat out broke.

And my employer had a mandatory rule that 8% of my gross income would go to my retirement savings.

I HATED that rule.  There were so many other things that I could have used that money for, but I had no choice.

Eleven years later, when I left the job and walked away with 11 years of retirement savings at 8% of my gross salary plus an equal match by my employer, I was ecstatic that I was forced to save for retirement.

Now, my husband is working for an employer who has the same rule, and we’re happy that 8% of his gross salary goes to his retirement account.

We’ve learned our lesson so well, in fact, we are also contributing to our Roth IRA even though money right now is T-I-G-H-T.

But really, for most Americans, money is almost always tight.

I would rather scrimp and save now, while we still have many working years left before retirement than scrimp and save during retirement, constantly worrying if I had enough money to last me until the end of my life.

So, no, my well-intentioned friend, I don’t think I should stop contributing to my retirement.  In fact, there’s no better time than now to save for retirement.

If not now, then when?

Do you continue to contribute to your retirement when facing large expenses, or do you wait to contribute until your finances improve?

Are You Teaching Your Kids to Follow Your Financial Habits?

My oldest is 10, and he does chores around the house to earn an allowance.  He works hard, and we’ve taught him to set aside a percentage for investing (10%), for saving (20%), and for giving (10%).  That leaves him to spend 60% of everything he earns.

And spend he does!

He finds it extremely difficult to let his spend money sit and grow so that he can buy something bigger.  Instead, as soon as the money hits his hands, he wants to spend it even if it’s a fairly insubstantial amount and can’t buy him much.

He just can’t seem to save up for the things he wants.

Instead, he’s enticed by advertisements.  He reads the newspaper and magazines to find free catalogs to send away for, and then he wants to spend his money on any little thing.

Teaching Financial HabitsIt’s driving me crazy.

His money, his life.  I should let him spend the money and be disappointed when he has no money to spend later.

Actually, that’s already happened.  When we first moved to Arizona, he saw a 2015 calendar at Costco for $15.  This calendar had scenic landscapes of Arizona and was quite pretty.  I told him to wait because as 2014 came to a close, he could get calendars cheaper.  But he couldn’t wait, and then in December and January, he was disgusted to find how cheap calendars got.

Still, his behavior hasn’t changed.

As a parent, I wonder how much I should interfere.

You see, when I was young, I was just like my son.  I spent every Saturday at the mall, my money burning a hole in my pocket.  I HAD to buy something, even if it was just a pair of socks I didn’t need.  Every week, I walked through the same stores, buying stuff I didn’t need, just like my son buys the stuff he doesn’t need now.

However, my mom never stepped in.  She gave me a wide amount of freedom.  Whatever money I earned was mine to spend how I liked.   She didn’t even ask that I set aside a portion of it for savings.

I was a responsible kid and bought my own car, paid my insurance, paid for gas, and also bought my own clothes.  I think she figured that I was handling my money well, so it was up to me to decide what to do with the rest.

When I was a teenager, my friend and I used our money from our job to go out to eat and see a movie every Friday.  Sometimes we’d go out to eat on the weekdays, too.

What a waste!

Imagine if I had instead invested just a small portion of that in a Roth IRA.  Or if I had saved it to pay for part of my college education.  Maybe I wouldn’t have graduated with $25,000 in student loan debt.

Even now, I have a hard time saving, though I am getting much better.  I’m finally able to stick to a budget and make saving a priority.  It’s taken me 40 years to break bad spending habits that I learned in childhood.  Let’s be honest, getting a hot deal isn’t really a deal if you don’t need the item and it robs you of the ability to save.

I want to teach my son this lesson now, so he can be more financially responsible than I was for many years.  But that lesson is oh so hard to teach.

How much do you guide and interfere in the way your child chooses to spend money?