While there were many little lessons learned along the way (like the importance of keeping an organized pantry so food doesn't pass expiration because it's shoved in some dark corner...), here are the main things I learned:
- Cash is good
Well, obviously cash is good. But for this experiment, cash is what made it work! Without tracking our spending due to the amount of cash we had left in our pockets, it would have been tricky to stay on task and on budget. Using a debit or credit card just makes it too easy to cheat. And there was some cheating, trust me (see my last post about that). Using cash can be a pain - like when Alex went to the grocery store this week and I had to make sure he had enough of the cash to pay - thus the invention of debit cards. Still, I think we were able to stick to the plan by using cash. And there is something about handing over bills that make a purchase seem more...real.
- Meal planning is the bomb
I've gone through bouts of menu planning before where I've listed out the meals for the week, checked to see what items I needed, made my list around it, etc. But it's something I really need to stick with. It is SO helpful when I've had a long day and thinking about dinner is the last thing I want to do! Having a plan for dinner is half the battle. Plus I have an idea of how long it will take to prepare, so I can plan any post-work to-do's, like working out or errands, around dinner prep times.
- I sometimes buy food items just because they're on sale
I said at the beginning of the month that I was a pretty savvy grocery shopper and we are good about staying within budget for groceries, largely due to shopping around Publix's sale cycles and using coupons here and there. Well, I realized that I was buying some items just because they were a good deal. And some of those items were not things we needed nor necessarily liked. From now on, I'll think twice before I buy something at the grocery store just because it's super cheap. It must be something we like and something that's good for us, OR just a special treat that we love (like Peanut Butter M&Ms - Alex's favorite!).
- I sometimes buy clothes just because they're on sale...
Notice a pattern here? During Essentials Only Month, I cleaned out my closet and realized I have a lot of clothes that I don't wear. And the one thing 90% of those items have in common is that I bought them for little bits of nothing. (Target and TJ Maxx tempt me SO BAD). I have decided it's truly worth it to splurge on nicer things that you really, really love and will wear for a long time versus something that's just alright (but seems awesome at the time because of the price tag). I think I will be happier with my wardrobe in the long run this way. I'm not saying I'm going to blow it out on designer goods all the time - trust that my frugal soul and I will still shop the clearance racks! But I only want to buy things I really LOVE.
- Having some "fun money" set aside each month is a good idea
This goes back to the love-of-cash. Alex and I have decided that we will each get a designated amount of fun money - kinda like an allowance - in cash each month to do whatever we want with. This will cover little treats here and there, like coffee or nail polish for me or breakfast or a book for him: the little things that chip away at a household budget. Once the money is gone, it's gone until the next month. I think it will give us the freedom to feel like we're treating ourselves without overdoing it.
- We like to eat out - and hey, it's okay!
I said from the beginning that our downfall is going out to dinner. It's a social thing - meeting friends for drinks or dinner out is part of life and we love to do it. Unfortunately, it can add up so fast, and without knowing what's hit us, we've racked up an $80 dinner bill. However, it was recently brought to my attention that we shouldn't beat ourselves up over spending money on our social lives and on date nights. Why? Well, when we have kids (which is so not in the near future, but in the eventual life plan for sure), we won't be able to spontaneously head out for Mexican or meet friends for drinks, dinner, then drinks again. So with a little more planning and allocating of the funds, we've decided that going out is something that matters to us and is worth the spend.
- Essentials Only Month was supposed to feel restrictive - but in some ways, it was freeing
Yes, it was hard not to buy stuff I wanted. Yes, it was tough to refrain from my shopping norms. But overall? The feeling I felt most was freedom. What I mean by that is the fact that I knew we had both money in the bank and cash in our wallets: whatever we were buying day to day was coming out of the cash, and the money in the bank was for monthly bills and...what else? Exactly. There was excess. I found that I wasn't extra-excited about my next payday. because we had plenty left over from the one before! It's amazing what money you can find in your budget when you go on a little spending diet for a month. Such a great feeling to get back on track. It literally feels like we've started over where budgeting is concerned.
I thought many times this month about families that have mandatory no-spend months every month because things are that tight. I am blessed that although sometimes things feel tight, Alex and I are blessed with more than what we really need. It's all about keeping things in perspective and being happy with what you have.