Budget hacks for when you're "broke as a joke"

September 30 | Guest post by Shelly G
Money Hand
By: David NeubertCC BY 2.0

I recently left a job that was making me miserable in favor of going to school to pursue my lifelong dream. The result has cut my family's income by about 50%. With the life hacks we had in place, paired with new life hacks, we are keeping our heads above water and still keeping the smiles on our faces.

Here's what we're doing to help cut spending and save money:

Organize

We have a calendar that lists paydays (and estimated amount), when bills are due (ideally, we pay the bills the payday prior to due, but companies do appreciate a call saying "I won't make the due date, but I can pay it that Friday"), and any other info (gigs, date night, work, etc). It makes things less scary for me when I know what to expect.

Divide up your income by percentages

When I was first out on my own, my father told me to put no more than 30% of my income towards rent. I took that to heart. I bought a house and was working a job where the mortgage was 16% of my income — if I had been renting, that extra 14% would have gone into savings, but it went into paying the house off (which I did, earlier this year).

For us, we have to put away 5% of every paycheck for wood in the winter (we rely on a wood burning stove to heat our home) and 5% for propane (we have a gas stove and gas water heater).

We put 1% into a fund to handle the septic tank (for those of you who have never dealt with this issue, it's a rare need, but absolutely needed when it arises).

And we put 4% into a "rainy day fund." From there, we discern what the bill need, grocery need, and gas need is, and allot appropriately.

If you have any big purchases coming up, then shift some of those percentages towards that. Even if you're looking at a house, some money is better than no money when going into it.

Plan your meals

The Thursday before payday, I take inventory of what we have as far as meal preparation. I then plan two weeks worth of meals to a T — breakfasts, lunches, dinners — using what we have and ultimately minimizing what we have to buy. I'm not comfortable letting many veggies sit around for more than a week, so I will tuck away the cash for those in a pocket in my wallet so that I can get them for the next week the next Friday.

Whenever possible, we buy what we need in bulk — it's cheaper, it freezes or stores well, and gives us options. I also take those circulars — you know, the annoying grocery store ads — and find what I need at the best deal. I'm fortunate that our main grocery stores are within walking distance of each other.

Determine what you need, what you want, and what you can live without

We need power, water, wood, and propane. We have the internet (definite need as it's supporting school, job opportunities for me, my husband's job, and basic entertainment). We have cell phones (definite need because my husband's job requires it). But live TV? We don't need it. We can find what we want through Netflix and Hulu, when we want it. Without cable, our bills decreased significantly.

We have begun making our own meals at home. Do we need to go out to eat? No. Is it nice? Yes, but even nicer when we've budgeted right and can afford it.

Do It Yourself whenever possible

A quick search can give you quick and easy meals and even recipes for going ShamPHree and making your own cleaning supplies. My mother (I know, I know) makes my window and mirror cleaner in recycled milk jugs, and it works better than… well, I forget the name of the other stuff.

It takes a bit to cut out old habits, but once you're there, it's amazing! The homemade meals have really brought my family together — we always eat together and often cook together. The planning ahead has taken a lot of stress off of us; at least we know the bills are paid up and we will have food to eat. Living on a tight budget isn't always easy, but with the money we put away and the habits we are instilling, it gets easier and easier.


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  1. Budgets are one of my favorite things to do ๐Ÿ™‚

    I've learned that Husband and I suuuck at saving, so I use the envelope system for saving. Each paycheck, a little cash gets tucked into envelopes labelled "Doctor," "Vet," "Clothes," "Vacation," etc. Then when we need clothes or the doctor, we have some set aside for that purpose. It's much better for us than a Savings Account.

    8 agree
    • Envelopes work like a charm. Come to think of it, ever since my bank failed to cover me after a card fraud losing my trust forever and made me forego debit cards in favor of cash it has been a blessing in disguise. Well, I'm still in the financial dumps, but it gives me the feeling I have more control. Just need to start keeping better track of expenses. Especially the ones I get ashamed of.

      1 agrees
    • This is a fantastic idea! I mean, if you have the resolve to not go "well, I REALLY don't feel like cooking, and that envelope won't really miss $60…" I don't have self control to speak of. I tried, and any cash laying around would be gone before I knew it. It helped us to have an account we physically have to go to the bank to access (though we do use a credit union, which has given me less hell than any of the actual banks I've tried). Truth is, we have a pre-paid debit that we use to pay bills, and anything else, we have to physically go and get it. Because if my husband and I had a million dollars, it would be gone in a week (perhaps, as a spender, I shouldn't have married a spender, but I love him, damn it).

      5 agree
    • Keeping large amounts of money in envelopes sounds kinda dangerous to me. I understand that dividing it up helps with budgeting, but bank accounts really are much safer and you make at least a little interest. Could you keep a document with how much in a savings account is for each of these purposes, and how much is available for general purposes? That would be similar to the envelopes, but without the risk of robbery, fires or other disasters taking or destroying your money.

      3 agree
      • You Need a Budget, Mint, etc etc etc all do this too. Mint for instance, automatically loads bank transactions, and you can set budgets for each category – so when you go to Costco and Mint receives notification of that, and you have a "grocery" budget set, it notifies you if you go over your "grocery" budget.

        4 agree
  2. These are all great ideas. The spouse and I have been doing some of this for quite awhile, but we just started writing down what we earn each check and subtracting bills, etc. Really made us wonder where our money was going before this, because it certainly wasn't going into savings before! Yikes.

    1 agrees
    • When I actually did our budget, I was shocked to see how much we spent on booze. Seriously. We cut down on entertaining after that, lol.

      4 agree
  3. This is BALLER! We've been really good about cutting out unnecessary expenses (I've NEVER had cable as an adult) but the percentages is really awesome, especially with savings and putting aside for big expenses.

    3 agree
    • Thank you! The whole budgeting by percentages thing took some time and planning (I've lived in the house six years and know that, at the worst, I need to fill up the propane every 4 months, empty the septic tank every 4 years, and 2-3 cords of wood will get us through winter). So it's just a matter of estimating price of all of those things and anticipating what the need will be – always best to over-estimate. Plus, now we have "guys" – we have a wood guy who always gives us a bit over a cord and delivers and we always tip him well, we know that the propane company lowers their prices in late April/early May and late September/early October. Septic pump, we just plan for every three years and plan for over what it cost us three years ago (it likely hadn't been pumped in about 6 years, but it's always better to be prepared).

      3 agree
      • There's a really great TV show in Canada called "Til Debt Do Us Part" where a financial advisor named Gail visits couples who are struggling financially and helps them turn things around. The first thing she does in every episode is take away debit and credit cards and have the couple use cash that she puts in jars subdivided by percentages. She has a really great pie chart on her blog of approximately what percentage of your income you should put towards housing, transportation, savings, so on. My husband and I love it!
        http://gailvazoxlade.com/blog/archives/604

        4 agree
    • I do it slightly differently, but percentages is something I'd never really thought about. I'm going to be going back to part-time work soon (fibromyalgia sucks balls) so I will have time (not to mention *need*) to spend a bit more time looking at our budget, this will be really handy to think about.

      This is also a really nice, consice "back-to-basics" article. Thanks!

    • If you like percentages you should check out Elizabeth Warren's book "All Your Worth" which is a really great, user-friendly and EASY percentage system for setting up a household budget.

  4. Meal plans are amazing! I've been trying to plan out our meals for a few weeks now, mostly to insure that those leftovers we often have actually GET EATEN, and it works like a charm!

    • I have an issue with portion control. My only solace is that the husband is in a band with three bachelors and they are happy to consume left-overs (I loathe throwing away food, I pretty much just see dollar signs in the trash).

      3 agree
      • I will not pretend to be good at portion control. My husband and I make a big batch of something and determine "this is 3 meals for both of us." So we take our portions and don't go back for seconds because that will mess up the meal plan. And then we will have to make another trip to the store and cook another meal, so really laziness is my portion control.

        2 agree
        • Love it! I have absolutely never considered the concept of planning the leftovers as well as planning the meals!

          2 agree
          • I can definitely recommend it, it has helped us so much. Before this we'd often have leftovers in tupperware containers in the fridge for a week or more, before throwing it out after all. A waste of food AND energy. Now they actually get eaten. Another pro is that it's way cheaper to make one BIG pan of one meal than two medium sized different meals.

            I also took a second job a few months ago that requires me to work evenings two to three times a week, which means I eat dinner at 3 pm. I often don't feel like cooking that early, but I also don't want to throw a frozen pizza in the oven every time, you know? Ensuring I have leftovers for those days (and/or leftovers for my husband when he gets home from work) makes my life way easier.

          • Planning for leftovers is one of my strong suits.

            Leftover roasted veggies + Leftover mashed potatoes + freshly thawed pound of ground meat + leftover french onion soup (for the gravy) = shepherd's pie

            Leftover rib roast + leftover french bread + leftover french onion soup = french dips

            Once I made red beans and rice for dinner one day, and stuffed peppers (with ground beef, fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and cheddar cheese). Those had one serving each of leftovers, so I layered them with tortilla chips and voila! Casserole. Sure it meant I had tex-mex three times in a week, but that's OK. As long as I don't have to eat reheated same-thing-I-had-last-night for dinner, I'm fine with it.

            4 agree
  5. I made soup with my 2-y.o. son for the first time the other day – he helped me wash and "sort" the veggies and then we put everything in the big stock pot and cooked. It was awesome for so many reasons:
    1. We got to spend time together, mom and son
    2. He is learning that his action can make great food
    3. He was engaged 100%
    4. We used up all the old veggies that were about to turn and gave them new life
    5. We had this meal in diff't variations for about half a week
    6. All those meals we ate "in" meant we weren't eating "out"
    7. I felt good six times (see above) b/c we saved money and didn't waste food.

    Cooking with a toddler can be tough but so worth it in the end ๐Ÿ™‚

    7 agree
    • And your kiddo is learning fantastic lessons about quality time and quality food! Another big deal with cooking together, in my experience, is kids tend to be less scared of food when they've played a role in cooking it.

      6 agree
      • Its also amazing how much wholemeal, good for them food they will eat if it contains chocolate chips ๐Ÿ™‚

        1 agrees
  6. Also try growing some of your own veges and herbs- that way you can have 'gourmet' style meals with loads of taste for a fraction of the price. Explore second hand clothing shops- the only things I buy new for the kids are shoes and underwear. I do buy fabric and make them special clothes but even that can be sourced secondhand/ spare and works out cheaper. I average out our power bill too as its quarterly and a little bit of money each pay goes into it. It always comes in in credit so it reduces the stress of a big bill coming in.

    5 agree
    • Great ideas!

      As people live in a mountainous region of what is considered by most to be a desert state, we have struggled with growing food… until (too late this year, sigh) we found a woman who runs a gardening store geared towards our area. She gave us a TON of insight into what grows well here, what can grow well with a bit of a soil makeover, and what will likely never work in this climate. So seek out people who know your area when deciding a garden (I advise against big chain stores, as we were led astray too many times by people in that setting) – we look forward to having something edible next year!

      3 agree
      • Maybe your next submission could be about climate-specific gardening on a budget ๐Ÿ™‚

        2 agree
          • Okay, I attempted a broad idea of this on my blog and feel it really fell short. What kind of altitude/arid climate are we talking (if you're in Colorado, I can give you some great ideas but if you're in Finland, I am at a loss). I suppose if you could just contact me, we can bounce ideas back and forth?

    • Okay, I'm loving this idea! I have purchased this, and am anxiously awaiting it's arrival! But I want to know – what did you find most useful about this book? I mean more specific than cooking and cleaning ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Most useful for me was honestly the cooking (inexpensive, easy foods to store and cook at home, but recipes and hints for using them; exactly which pots/pans/ etc are essential) and the explicit formulas for making your own window cleaner, floor cleaner, room deodorizer, etc from basic household products.

        There are super helpful sections on heathcare, education, and what happens when you declare bankruptcy, though much of this is aimed at US readers and may or may not apply elsewhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Meal planning changed my life! We just purchased our first home, and while we knew we would be shocked at first by all the related expenses on top of mortgage repayments (rates, water, electricity, gas, home + contents insurance etc) we were still not prepared to be AS shocked as we currently are! So I started meal planning again and we are saving so much money on food, my fiance is finally eating wholesome meals for lunch instead of buying junk food (love repurposing leftovers!) and we are wasting way less food.
    Also I stopped using all the chemical cleaners (window cleaner, floor cleaner, dunny cleaner, shower cleaner) and have been using pretty much vinegar and bicarb soda for everything. It saves so much money – and so much hassle trying to find the bottle for each specific thing you need to clean!

    3 agree
  8. Meal planning is one of the most useful things you can do when on a budget, my partner and I use a version of this peek at the week sheet we got from an offbeat home and life post here: http://offbeathome.com/2013/05/family-meetings

    We print it out, fill it out and do the shopping for the week's meal on the weekend. The list is then displayed on the fridge so each evening we come home from work look up what we are having and get the stuff out of the fridge to cook it. This helps hugely with the willpower thing, because no one has willpower if you arrive home from work not having planned what to eat and already hungry. You can't actually think or make decisions well when you are hungry, your brain is part of your body remember! Make it easy for yourself to stick to what you planned so have the recipe book or your own written recipe there to follow and do not deviate! A quick small snack before you start (some nuts, a banana, etc) will meet the immediate hunger pangs which are trying to force you to order takeout.

    The tip about planning leftovers works really well too, but I know I can't handle eating the same thing several days in a row so I plan leftovers I can freeze. These are great for those days when you know you will get back later than normal and be in even more danger of caving in to getting take out. Quickly microwaving last week's frozen casserole/lasagne/whatever (get it out of the freezer before you leave for work that morning)is a lifesaver. But plan it in by checking the freezer when you do the weeks foodplanning or else you'll just end up with a freezer full of stuff.

    I try not to do big batch cooking on weekdays unless I have an early finish, weekdays evening meals are simple and quick. Weekend cooking can be a bit more involved and this the time to make double or triple portions to use on busy weekdays as above. If you are not sure about how much to make find a recipe and even if not following exactly, use it as a guide for amounts. Better yet compare recipes and even though they vary you'll start to see patterns emerging. You'll then need to fine tune this by trying the amounts and seeing how they work for your family. Cooking and portioning are things you learn through trial and error and by practice but don't do this practice on stressed busy weeknights.

    Having your left overs in a different form to how you had the original dish is great for keeping it exciting and therefore not seeming like a less enticing option than ringing for takeout. Things like, chili you had with rice reheated and had in wraps with cheese and salsa, more or less any casserole reheated and used as pancake filling (dollop on ready made pancake, roll up and place in dish and grill/broil with cheese sprinkled on top) or curry you had with rice reheated and eaten with naan/chapaptti instead. There are also million different leftover things you can put in an omelette, I can make this into a full meal by serving with a hefty slice of wholemeal toast and a salad.

    • Great tips! Also wanted to add that you can make the meals that use fresh veggies in the beginning of the week, and meals that use frozen veggies later in the week. It depends how far you have to travel to your grocery store.

      1 agrees
      • I wanted to make the exact same comment! I've read that that is even a better nutritional choice, since fresh veggies have lost a fair amount of nutrients by day 3, while frozen veggies stay close to their original nutrient rich state.

        1 agrees
  9. Don't suppose you could talk your Mum into doing a post about her window cleaner?

    4 agree
    • Wow, look at me getting back to comments many months later! I tried, but she said "yeah, when I'm done with my NaNoWriMo." I think I might have gotten that wrong. At any rate, now she's still working on her novel and working and her time is stretched kinda thin. I'll keep bugging her.

  10. You all have inspired me to get back into meal planning. I was doing SO WELL there for awhile, making weekly menus, making sure I used all the food I bought. Then, well, shit happened and I fell off the wagon. I'm going to try and get back to doing it ASAP, it really makes a difference and makes my life easier!

    One thing that helps me save every payday is setting my bank account to auto save X amount. I bank online, mostly, and it takes about 2 minutes to get up. It automatically moves the money into the savings account, I don't see it, I can't spend it, I don't miss it. I LOVE the fact that my bank offers this feature.

    Sometimes, I wish there was more I could save on. Both of our cars are paid for, we don't have cable, we don't subscribe to any magazines, we buy most of our stuff at yard sales and thrift stores, we both make lunches to take to work and seldom eat out, we bought a house below our price range so our mortgage payment is less than our apartment rent, I grocery shop at Aldi, I shop locally….I don't know what else to do! My frugal self wishes there was some magical thing I could do that would save me $$$ each month, but I can't think of anything!

    2 agree
    • Out of curiosity, do you have something specific that you are saving for?

      I only ask because, for me, one big goal was owning the house outright, so I took what I WOULD be spending and put it toward paying the house off (though that might not be an option because I know some places have penalties for paying off too quickly). Now I'm saving loads, because no mortgage!

  11. I know you guys are friends with APW and all…and I went there because I know offbeat doesn't always mean low-budget, but practical does, doesn't it? I'm about to call off my wedding all together because the LOWEST budget I saw on APW went over $10k. I have student loan debt, I don't own a house, and I'll probably need to buy a new car soon, and I'd like to have children within the next 5 years so the prices I'm getting are just very discouraging.
    What is happening that I'm obviously out of tune with? Am I just able to live off of much less than everyone else? Do I not save well enough? Are my ideas of what's worth spending money on just different from the rest of the world? Is applying for credit cards and going into crazy debt normal? I would love to HAVE $30,000 but I wouldn't be caught dead spending it on a party rather than a down payment on a house. I can't handle it anymore. I already let one wedding date pass by because the planning was too overwhelming for me. I'm determined not to do that again and even though my sister is doing about 90% of the work, I still have a mental breakdown by the end of the day. I think I'm having one right now, actually so forgive me for the raw nature of my post, it's coming straight from emotion. I just wrote an email to my mom, dad, and sister and I'm ready to call off the whole thing. If it can't be nice without treating it like a commercial holiday, then I don't want it at all. It's impossible to find vendors who share my opinion, obviously because that's their business so I'm almost certain that a nice wedding for less than $5k is impossible. I don't even want to spend $2k, to be honest. I want a big princess wedding, to be truly honest, I thought I was that type of girl but I'm starting to feel like I'm just not good enough or being slapped with the harsh reality that maybe I am, in fact, lower class…and my kind of people just don't get to have big pretty weddings. :'(

    1 agrees
    • Honestly, we were able to put together a nice wedding (with 50 guests) for $3,000. The trick to weddings (also the trick to life in general) is to not lament what you are unable to do. Make your wedding yours, and a part of that is working within your budget. Don't think about what you would do IF you had some magic number budget, think what you CAN do within your means. Perhaps it was BECAUSE we had a small budget, we were encouraged to think more offbeat, so to speak, and it made our wedding deeply personal to us because we didn't have the option to run with every whim we may have had. If your wedding planning is getting away from you, for the love of sanity, get away from the planning for a bit!

      Also, no shame in being lower class! My husband and I were both under-employed, a bounced paycheck away from being without food or power when we got married. Now our house is paid off, we have a great daughter, and through planning, money saving hacks, and saving every available penny, I'm able to go back to school to pursue my degree. Just remember that the wedding is not the be all end all – it's simply the start of the marriage.

      5 agree
    • I know you guys are friends with APW and allโ€ฆand I went there because I know offbeat doesn't always mean low-budget, but practical does, doesn't it? I'm about to call off my wedding all together because the LOWEST budget I saw on APW went over $10k.

      The readerships of the Offbeat Empire and APW have diverged over the past couple years, so this doesn't totally surprise me. If you're looking for uber low-budget inspiration, here are some links for you:
      $500: http://offbeatbride.com/2010/01/ohio-cave-wedding
      $600: http://offbeatbride.com/2007/12/rainas-library-wedding
      $1000: http://offbeatbride.com/2008/07/wedding-under-1000-dollar
      $2000: http://offbeatbride.com/2009/06/2000-dollar-wedding

      1 agrees
    • I think we spent maybe two grand on our wedding including venue and reception. I don't know much about you or where you live, but my recommendation is talk to your friends. We had members of the wedding party putting together reception decor, my mom (an amateur photographer trying to get into professional photography at the time) did both the video recording and the pictures for the wedding at no cost to us other than permission to use the photos in her portfolio (I would have paid her something had she asked lol). I made my wedding cake and frosting because where I live just a tasting was fifty bucks. And my cake was better quality if not presentation (it didn't look bad, just we had a park reception and it was rustic to go with that theme) because I was on a restricted diet at the time do I made simple cake recipes and found a frosting that worked for my palate (I cannot stand the powder sugar flavor of buttercream). You don't have to do it yourself, but you can once again ask someone you know who bakes if they would do it for a reasonable price. I found a perfect wedding dress for me at a chain boutique which happened to be on clearance do was about 200 dollars cheaper than we expected and fit like a dream. I think the most expensive article of clothing was my spouse's kilt shipped over from Scotland. The venue we lucked out on, I had my heart set on it, but when I heard what she charged for it, I messaged her back and politely told her it was sadly out of our price range, sorry to waste her time. She called me and asked what our budget was and if we would be willing to have it on a Sunday instead of a Saturday. We're talking a 3000ish dollar venue, I think we paid 500 (possibly less) all thanks to a kind soul and being flexible and remembering my manners. My bridesmaids and the groomsmen bought/rented their own clothing. Our reception was potluck (that's just our style) and I even had a reception dress I found for about 40 dollars at JCPenny. I did my own hair and makeup (I had sort hair and didn't need a lot of styling). It was a fairytale wedding for me in the crisp fall air with the leaves changing colors in a gorgeous stone and glass chapel.

      Ok. So for the short of it: don't be afraid to ask people you know if they would mind lending their skills, and be curious to everyone you deal with and don't be afraid to ask if they have a discounted day (venue), section (dresses). Always be upfront with what your budget is too. I didn't waste any time looking at dresses out of our price range, we went in and said this is the most we will spend on a dress. Aaand, have priorities. Venue the most important thing to you? Plan to offer up more of your budget on that and save money on something that isn't as important to you. Good luck!

  12. I was struggling with meal planning until I found Plan To Eat, an online meal planning site with a phone app. They have a free 30-day trial, and I subscribed before the trial was even finished. I cruise my favorite food/recipe blogs and the app makes it easy to upload the recipes (and photos, if you want). The shopping list is the best part! I never leave my list at home anymore, because I can access it on my phone. I plan meals out where I can use leftovers for other meals later in the week…and I use the pantry feature to use up stuff before it goes bad. Check it out…and no, I'm not paid by them or anything, I just love their app.

    • I love these types of apps! I'm definitely going to have to check this out, especially if there's a "pantry" option!

  13. MayPea, my wedding was featured on APW, and it was around $6700 total. It could have been a lot less, but I really wanted beautiful photos, and to feed everyone. The photography was over 25% of my cost, and the food was about 15%. I think the area where you live plays a big part in cost. I'm in Georgia, so things outside the metro area aren't all ridiculously expensive, though finding our venue took some detective work. And we gave up things we wanted but couldn't afford, like booze. Now, nearly three years later, I wouldn't change a thing from the day.

  14. The main thing I have with the percentages philosophy is that, while having your housing expense cost no more than 30% of your income is ideal, it's just not always feasible depending on where you live. We live in San Francisco, which is becoming more and more affordable, and with my husband as a teacher and I as a freelance musician and temp, our rent, which really isn't that bad for SF standards is probably close to half of our income. I always mean to try meal planning, but I never seem to be able to keep it together long.

    1 agrees
    • I live in the Vancouver area and it's not uncommon among the people I know for housing to take up 60-80% of their monthly income.

    • I guess when I wrote this, I should have stated that my particular percentages do not necessarily reflect that of everywhere.

      As an update, I have fallen off the meal planning horse (we have since gotten divorced, have 50/50 custody, and it is HARD for me to make meals for one when my kiddo isn't around). In San Francisco, it might be easier to plan a meal for the night and get the ingredients just for that.

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