When Two Become One…Income

(Want to learn more about my wedding and subsequent big fat European honeymoon? Check out my guest post on And Her Little Dog Too today!)

Ahhhh, my wedding day. A day during which I pledged to be with Lucas in good times and in bad. For better or worse.

For richer or poorer.

At the time, that seemed like a pretty vague concept. Neither of us was particularly rich to begin with, and as college graduates with great resum├ęs and stable jobs, we both felt really optimistic about our futures.

Optimistic enough, in fact, to buy a house (in 2006, at the height of the housing bubble), keep two cars, indulge in financial whims (TVs, cell phones, clothes, travel) and generally operate budget-free.

Then came the fall of 2007 — just 17 months into our marriage, I confessed to Lucas that I was miserable at work. I’d been offered an extension to my contract, including a decent pay raise and a promise that I’d be advancing in the company quickly. And instead of being thrilled, I just wanted to hide under my covers.

Without hesitation, he told me to rip up the contract and take a job that was less stable and much more exciting. I did, in a move that turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. (Hi, Growing Bolder!)

My world got exponentially better — which made Lucas feel exponentially worse.

As he watched me pursue my passion, he knew he was stuck in a dead-end, soul-sucking position of his own. So, he quit. With no job to turn to, no financial parachute to carry him gently to the ground and no real plan for the future.

(You can learn much more about that jump in one of the most-read posts I’ve ever shared: “Four Words I’ve Never Heard.”)

Since that day, we’ve experienced some of the best and worst times of our marriage — personally and financially. Today, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that not only are Lucas and I happier and more fulfilled, we appreciate money and budgeting in a way that we never could have if we had not taken such big risks. He is working several jobs (none of which total his previous income, but he’s in heaven) and we’re in a better financial position than we were over the previous 12 months.

So, here are a few of the things we did, things we did not do, and the lessons we learned.

(I’m not a financial expert — in fact, I can barely do basic math. So please don’t take this as a primer or how-to post…you need to figure out what works for YOUR situation!)

Things We Did

  • Immediately audited our spending habits and set limits.
    • On two incomes, we typically split the grocery bill, which ran between $80-$125 a week. On one income, we dropped our spending to an average of $50-75 a week.
    • We used coupons, bought in bulk and allowed ourselves just one “splurge” item for each grocery shopping trip (crackers, a special beverage, candy).
      • Since I’m vegetarian, we already had a lower-than-average meat bill. But we cut it even further, eating beans and lots of grains during the week.
    • We avoided unnecessary car trips to save gas.
    • Instead of buying expensive gifts for friends and family events, we brought homemade treats or offered our services (babysitting, handyman work).
    • I used Mint.com to figure out where our money was going each month.
  • Cooked and ate at home almost exclusively.
    • Sometimes, this DID mean buying more at the grocery store, but an extra $5 for vegetables or grains was measly compared to the $40-65 we’d normally spend at a restaurant.
    • If we were invited out to dinner with friends, we’d instead ask to hang out over drinks or dessert, and eat the main part of our meal at home first.
    • I began to be more aware of portions at dinner, and purposely kept a lunch-sized portion of dinner aside for the next day’s lunch. I in no way restricted myself, but by being more mindful, I found myself eating less at night and saving money on lunch foods.
  • Cut our entertainment budget drastically.
    • We were never that spendy on movies or events before, but we definitely started changing our plans to involve more free/cheap entertainment whenever possible. Instead of window shopping at the mall, we’d take a walk around the lake. Instead of going to the movie theater, we’d rent a $1 Redbox movie or play video games at home.
  • Limited the “extra” spending.
    • Instead of entering expensive running and triathlon events, I ran for free on the roads near my house.
    • I slashed my clothing budget from about $150 a month to a maximum of $50.
    • Lucas and I joined the library and borrowed books and magazines instead of buying them.
    • Put major renovation/decorating projects on hold.
    • If we did go out to dinner, we ordered appetizers and water rather than entrees and alcohol. We pre-gamed (ha!) at home.
  • Dipped into savings.
    • Although we had money in savings when Lucas left his job (enough to pay bills and protect us for a few months), we decided to stay out of that account as long as possible. We also agreed that before using any of that money, we’d talk to each other and make sure we each understood. After several months, we needed to dip into the account for a small amount.

Things We Did Not Do

  • Get rid of cable, Internet or cell phones.
    • We looked very hard at all three of these bills, since outside of mortgage and utilities, this were the highest totals. But since we’d agreed to cut back on most entertainment expenses, we wanted to keep cable as long as possible. We needed the Internet for work at home and our cell phone plan was already on the low side (considering that we both have smartphones).
  • Rack up credit card debt.
    • I’ve always been really wary of using credit cards, because of their high interest rates. We did use our cards to make some major purchases (travel, home repair, etc.) BUT we paid off those purchases within two months.
  • Miss any bill payments.
    • This isn’t a brag, because there were months when we had to restrict our spending even more than normal to get our bills paid. But with some juggling and creativity, I’m proud to say that we paid all bills on time.
  • Borrow money.
    • If push had come to shove, I know that we could have asked our families for support. But because Lucas had chosen to leave his job, and had not been laid off, it was a matter of pride for both of us that we do everything in our power to support ourselves.
  • Stop contributing to savings or my retirement account.
    • We’ve always had an automatic contribution to our savings account, and it was important to me that barring an emergency, we continue to take any extra money (whether $10 or $1,000) and put it into our savings and retirement accounts. I knew that depleting our savings would mean even more heartache in the future.
      • We did stop contributing to Lucas’ retirement account, but we did NOT dip into it.
  • Stop working out or living a healthy lifestyle.
    • I am lucky that I have a gym membership as a work perk, but I also squeezed out enough money to pay for a monthly Dance Trance membership. Between the gym, Dance Trance, running, cycling and DVDs at home, I think Lucas and I actually worked out more since he left his job than we did before.
  • Decrease the number of fruits and vegetables we purchased, or compromise our strong feelings about buying fresh and organic.
    • I was prepared to make concessions here if I had to, but with a little planning and compromise, we were able to stick to our budget while still buying healthy, organic and PURE foods. We did cut out almost all processed foods and ate smaller portions at dinner.

Lessons We Learned

  • We didn’t miss most of the items we’d given up.
    • I thought I’d freak out at having no money for clothes, shoes, going out with friends or all of my fancy foods. I was wrong. I learned to really enjoy going into my closet and creating new outfits from old accessories, scarves and layers. I got closer with friends because we talked over tea or on a walk rather than at a loud restaurant or movie. I got creative with substitutions in recipes and appreciated everything that I had in my pantry.
  • We can live on one income in an emergency.
    • …Or, in a non-emergency. Yes, it’s nice having a bit of a buffer with Lucas’ income, but for the most part, we still try and live on one income, so we may put away most of the second income. If either one of us is out of work in the future, we WILL be OK.
  • We didn’t have an appreciation for money before. We do now.
    • It is hard to get me to part with even a nickel these days — because it’s not just paper and coin. It’s my hard work. It’s our sacrifice. When I buy something, it means I’m NOT buying something else.
  • You really don’t have to spend money to have fun.
    • I have never talked to Lucas more than in the last year. I have not snuggled with him and the dogs more than in the last year. I have not watched so many funny movies at home, played so many computer games, blogged so much or read so many books than in the last year.
  • Some things are worth the money.
    • I can honestly tell you that buying the Dance Trance membership was worth it. Buying healthy food was worth it. Buying vitamins and organic, paraben-free makeup and skincare products was worth it. Paying my health insurance was worth it. Taking the dogs to the vet was worth it.
  • Some things are not worth the money.
    • Crappy meals at chain restaurants were not worth it. Keeping up with clothing and shoe trends was not worth it. Dropping a lot of money on decorations for our house was not worth it. Buying processed foods was not worth it.
  • The best way to avoid spending money is to stay far, far away from temptation.
    • This was the biggest lifestyle change for me. I used to love walking through malls and stores, but I’d almost always find something I just had to have. I am a sucker for specialty food stores, but couldn’t trust myself to keep the wallet away — so I stopped going. I unsubscribed from all of the newsletters I received pertaining to stores and shopping (except for Groupon) and purposely left my wallet locked in the car trunk whenever I did find myself wanting to window shop.

I know that my situation is MUCH better than the dire straits so many Americans are facing, and I really don’t mean to seem callous. This is not easy. There were many times when I *felt* the sacrifice. That I got cranky. That I indulged in self-pity. That I lusted after things that I couldn’t justify buying. But I never felt on the brink of collapse, and if you DO feel that way, I urge you to get some financial advice and support.

But I’m a much better person for having faced these financial challenges, and I can honestly tell you — I like my “cheap” life better than the one I lived before.

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Comments

  1. says

    I relate to this so much. When we got married we felt like we had the world at our fingertips. Well…now, close to a year and a half later, I just completed my first semester going back to school. And like you, I could not be happier. I’m in a city I like, in school again for a field that excites me, and have a job that I freaking LOVE. Interesting enough, I see some similarities between Ross and Lucas. I think since he’s been seeing how much I’ve improved the quality of my life, he is realizing he doesn’t have that and wants that in his current job. So it’s interesting! Bottom line money-wise? I think we can all live on less. My husband is a teacher and we’re living off his salary completely. My income goes 100% to tuition every semester, with leftovers going to savings. Ross does tutoring on the side, 100% of which goes to savings, so when I’m done in 4 yrs with all this schooling, we can be in a better situation to take a backpacking trip across Europe, buy a house, and have babies. If you know what you want and what you value, you CAN live on less, and enjoy it. :)

  2. says

    These are great tips for anyone, not just couples. It’s all about prioritizing what’s important to you. I don’t pay for cable because I can watch shows online for free and don’t miss it; to some people, cable is an essential. I pay more for organic because that’s important to me; other people are okay with conventional produce. Pick your battles. Awesome job!

  3. says

    When my husband lost his job over 5 years ago, we had a little freak out moment but both of us realized it was a good thing… he was very unhappy there and would never have quit on his own. Yes, we gave up some things. But I am sure my husband would say it is all worth the sacrifice. And, with a happier husband, I’d have to agree.

    BTW – I was thinking of you… my son has a SU alumni interview this week!

  4. says

    This is a wonderfully well-thought-through post. I’m working on budgeting improvements in my life right now, and I’ve had many of the same thoughts on how some things are worth the money — gym, organics. Compromising on those things won’t make me feel good about myself; fewer trips to Panera will.

  5. says

    What an excellent post Katie. I’m currently in a situation where I’m making less money that I was before and have had to really prioritize what is important to me. Thankfully my fiance has a full-time job and I had saved a lot, but you never really know what you’re going to do with less money until you have to.

  6. says

    This is a great post and a great reminder about the things that really matter in life. In many ways, I bet it was nice to simplify.

    We eat almost all of our dinners at home unless we are getting together with other people. And for lunch I often cook or brown bag it. Unless I’m meeting someone else. I have to force myself to sometimes ‘splurge’ and ‘take myself out to lunch’ and usually I end up taking half to-go as leftovers, so the dollar gets stretched. I rarely shop for clothes, and usually buy inexpensive stuff. The more pricey stuff i use for years and years.

    If push came to shove, I think that we’d be able to adapt well. Thanks for the tips!

  7. says

    Oh yes, for the first time since the hubs and I have been married, we actually had to budget once we moved back to the states. Let’s just say, I’m still working out the kinks. All major home improvement has been put on hold, and shopping just does not happen. Thank goodness, I’m graduating this week, and hopefully, I will be able to find a job soon!

    These are all great tips, and we didn’t sacrifice on our wholesome food either!

  8. says

    Bravo dear, so proud of you. Thanks for the important lessons that we all some how need to learn along the way. Nothing beats real life examples, no matter how awful it sounds. Life lessons eventually teaches us to master money management skills :)

  9. says

    I love these tips. I changed jobs recently and took a relatively significant pay cut in the process. I love, love my job, though, so it’s been worth it to me to make some adjustments in my lifestyle. I budget very carefully, use coupons, and look for deals wherever I can. I rarely buy new clothing and I think I’ll likely be cutting the cable at my house this month–my roommates and I just work too much to watch it.

    I’m fortunate that my boyfriend is generous with his income, so if we decide to go out to eat or to a movie, he often pays. I try to help out by looking for grocery deals, restaurant coupons, and so on to help keep our costs down.

    I love my job, so making some lifestyle sacrifices has been worth it to me too.

  10. says

    Thank you for this post! I may be an unmarried and otherwise single college grad but finance tips are definitely important.

    Also, your wedding photo is gorgeous!

  11. says

    I’m not married yet, but I will be in March. I think Clay is kinda like your husband. My first job out of college was absolutely horrible, but then in Oct 2008 when I started my current job, I really loved it. My fiance saw how much it really changed me to be in a job I loved, and his job was just getting worse! They didn’t replace workers who left, they never gave him a pay raise or promotion, and basically, they treated everyone really badly there. In January 2010, he went back to college for a Computer Science degree because he likes computers and felt like he could get a better job with that. Money’s been a lot tighter ever since, and he’s still at his current job just for the benefits and the money (while in college full time!). He has at least another year to go, but I think it’ll be worth it in the end. Until then, it’s couponing, one vacation a year (we do treat ourselves, personally I’d rather spend money on experiences than stuff), and a very, very, simple, family only wedding in March.

    It really can be done- and I agree with all of your tips. We went through a financial class my job offered last summer and it really helped too. Now it’s just all this college debt when he gets out…

    Amy Lauren.

  12. says

    Love this post, Katy! After we got married in 2006 I accepted a promotion from the part-time job I had worked through college and said I would stay for a year. After 4 months I started counting down the days. I had the job for 15 months, and I called my boss and said, “I’m up 30% for the month, and this is my notice.” I only made $3000 the rest of the year and was never happier.

    Now I am working and my husband quit his job that made him miserable, but our relationship is better and we’re much more responsible with our money and make sure to spend it on things we really value like local restaurants and our CSA share. It’s a much healthier perspective for both of us.

  13. says

    Wow.. this is by far one of the best posts/experiences on the subject. I congratulate you both on making frugal living a part of your life, and adapting so successfully to it. this is role model material.. thanks so much for taking time to write this.

  14. Sweta says

    “I’m not a financial expert…”

    Are you sure about that? Seems like you nailed it in this post. The problem with many finance experts is that their advice is too abstract and thus not relateable. I think you offered really good advice that others can relate to. I know your blog isn’t a personal finance blog but I’d love to see more posts like this.

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