Last year, Jimmie and I decided to get our finances under control.
Mind you, we were doing ok. We’d pretty much stopped using credit cards (other than the Lowe’s and Old Navy cards), we paid for big purchases out of the Pure Romance fund, and I hadn’t overdrawn my checking account in like 3 years. That in itself was a win.
But, while we were doing ok, we weren’t doing great. We had some savings, and we were making ends meet, and we weren’t eating only beans and rice and Ramen. Well, ok, I was eating Ramen, but that’s because I really like Ramen (the creamy chicken kind…yum). We were able to take small trips, do some fun things, and more or less bought what we wanted…within reason…but money was a constant source of anxiety. We were living paycheck to paycheck, and we felt it. We fought about money, or about not having enough, a lot. And I was getting physically ill every time I thought about our debt.
I’d read every financial article I could get my hands on. I had spreadsheets and formulas and handwritten scribbles. I subscribed to LearnVest. I was familiar with the snowball principle. And yet, I paid the minimum on my credit card bills, balanced my checkbook in my head, and didn’t budget. If I wanted something, I bought it, and if it meant there wasn’t enough for groceries later…well…it didn’t get that bad, but I was getting a little sick of having to keep a running total in my head. All the while living with the fear that I’d forgotten something or the car was going to break or the dog was going to get sick.
Years and years ago, a coworker told me about Dave Ramsey and his Financial Peace University. At the time, I thought it was interesting, but wasn’t interested in spending 90 bucks on learning how to manage my finances. Throughout the years, I kept it in mind, but kept coming back to the same thing: I knew what to do, I could figure it out, and there was no need to spend money on it.
Except…that never happened.
We’d talk about budgeting, we’d talk about finances, and we’d talk about making smart purchases. And we’d make small changes. We were both more cognizant of what we bought. And then we wouldn’t be.
Then, another coworker, one my age and in a similar financial situation, took Dave’s class. She loved it, and said it was well worth the money. So, Jimmie and I talked about it. I found a class starting a month later, within walking distance of our house. I wanted to try it….I was familiar enough with the concepts to know it wasn’t new information, but I thought the act of going to class every week would keep us accountable. Keep me accountable. And I’ll be honest…I wanted to be one of those success stories. You know, the ones you hear about….”we paid off $8000 in debt in 9 weeks!”
Let me tell you, those people are either selling kidneys or children. It doesn’t work that way for normal people.
But back on track. So Jimmie agreed to go with me, and we gave it a shot.
I’m not going to go into detail about all the classes or the program or the information. It’s all readily available online – just Google Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. Because that’s what FPU is all about…the 7 baby steps. Step 1, emergency fund. We already had that. Step 2, get out of debt. The reason most people (including us) take the class in the first place. Step 3, bigger emergency fund, and so forth. Here’s a hint: we’re still in step 2. I don’t agree with everything Dave teaches, and we don’t follow all his advice. In fact, we didn’t even finish the class because the rest of it wasn’t relevant to us, at least right now. But did we get our $90 worth? Hell yes. And then some.
It’s not rocket science. It’s really not. But….my gosh, a budget?? Who ever taught me how to budget? I sure as hell didn’t learn in school, and my mother sure as hell doesn’t budget….so…there I was. Numbers, what? I majored in Communication for a reason, people.
We learned about money, and about budgeting, and about making sense of all of it. We learned about attitudes about money, and about how to “Live like no one else so we can live like no one else.” We learned about zero-balance budgets and irregular income budgets and the value of the “spending money” category. And even more exciting, we learned that we actually pretty much see eye to eye on finances, one of the most argued-about topics in relationships.
When we started the class, I didn’t know I’d be blogging about it a year later, so I didn’t meticulously keep track of everything. Though really, who am I kidding…I wouldn’t have anyway. That’s just not my style.
So I don’t know exactly how much we’ve paid off in debt. I don’t know exactly how long it took to build up a cushion in the checking account. I don’t know exactly how long it took for us to figure out how to get the budget right.
Because that’s one thing Dave tells you up front…it takes a while to get it right. Heck yeah it does. We still screw it up sometimes. But that’s why we started budgeting less than our paycheck. Every pay period we round down in $50 increments, so there’s always a cushion in the account. Otherwise, we budget every penny.
And man, has it worked. While I don’t remember WHEN it was, I remember exactly how it felt to look at my checking account the day before payday and see a balance over $100. I called Jimmie, just to tell him, I was so excited. THE DAY BEFORE PAYDAY I HAD $100 AND IT WAS AMAZING. For the first time, I felt in control. I didn’t feel like we were barely scraping by, like we were waiting for the next big catastrophe.
Budgeting didn’t give us more money. Absolutely not. What it did do was give us control over our money, and the knowledge of where it was going. That first budget…well, it sucked. It really sucked. It took us 6 hours over 2 days. I cried, we screamed, I cried some more. I don’t think I can get across how horrible it was to make that first budget. Jimmie, to his credit, was a trooper and relentlessly explained it OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN to my math-dumb brain. But when we (I) finally got it….when we finally had that zero balance, and I could SEE where everything was going…wow. Talk about a weight off my shoulders. The second one was better, and eventually it came together.
Now, we budget every pay period. We don’t always do a good job, and we don’t always use the cash envelope system. There are good things and bad things about that. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to absolutely use cash when you’re first starting to budget and track your money. Sure, pay your bills online or whatever, but otherwise, cash only. Seeing it in front of you makes a huge difference. And believe me, the nice bank tellers don’t mind and don’t at all think it’s strange when you roll up requesting $476 in a weird combination of bills. After about two months they’ll come to expect you, so just go with it.
Do you have to take the Financial Peace class to learn how to budget? No, absolutely not. Plenty of people do just fine with never having taken the class. Some of us need a little more hand-holding than others. If that’s you, shell out the 90 bucks and go. It’s worth it. Or find a similar class. I’m not saying FPU is the be-all, end-all…like I said, I don’t agree with all of it. But it is pretty readily available (at least in my area), and it’s pretty digestible material.
While I don’t have numbers – and really, I’m not sure I’d share them even if I did have them – I CAN give you our experience. A year ago, I had no idea this is where we’d be. And no idea that something so simple could have such an impact.
- We paid cash for all four of our dogs’ vet visits, including heartworm tests, vaccines, annual checkups, and bloodwork
- We paid cash for our summer vacation, which consisted of a camping trip and a cabin rental
- Starting in August, we saved for Christmas, and got through the holidays without putting anything on credit cards
- We paid cash for Luka’s heartworm treatment
- My car needed new tires unexpectedly – a full set – and we had the money to do it
- Our septic tank needed a major, costly repair…and we paid for that in cash
- At one point, my checking account had a slush fund GREATER than one of my paychecks (we used it to pay off a small debt)
- We replaced our patio doors by…you guessed it…paying cash
- We did not cancel our internet or stop eating out or stop buying fun stuff or anything crazy like that
Let me say this again. BUDGETING DID NOT GIVE US MORE MONEY. Everything we did, we did because we were in control of our finances – and not the other way around. Have we paid off as much debt as we’d have liked? No. We’ve chosen to go on vacation and spend a little more on Christmas and house projects and other things that make our days more enjoyable. The debt is going down, and it’ll be gone eventually. We’re ok with that.
Though at the time I didn’t realize it, that class was a huge step in the Fearless Creative direction. It meant taking action, taking control, struggling, and succeeding. It meant changing something I was deeply unhappy about, and it meant hard work. And it paid off.
Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Are we closer than we were a year ago? Without a doubt. Was it worth it? No question.
If you have more questions about our experience, I’m happy to answer them, or share with you any of the spreadsheets I developed for our use. Good luck on your own financial journey!