Well, we survived January! This last month was very challenging for me, both professionally and personally. My big work project occupied the first half of the month, and left me feeling stressed out after working insane hours. The second half of the month brought an entirely different set of stressors from things mostly out of my control, and involved a lot of phone calls to my Senators. I’m still not handling the reality of our new president very well, and some of my fears have already materialized. The fact that this was a busy and stressful month added another dimension to my simultaneous attempts at an Uber Frugal Month and Dry January. I’m infamous for handling stress by eating copious amounts of junk food, overdoing it with alcohol, and buying stupid things on clearance. So, for better or for worse, January also forced me to figure out some new (low cost and alcohol-free) coping mechanisms. While my actual ability to handle the stress of this month is up for debate, I survived, and I learned a lot about myself and my finances in the process. So how did I do? Let’s see!
I Could Have Been More Frugal
Although we did a month of not eating out last year, I wanted to use UFM as an opportunity to really scrutinize ALL of my finances, and establish a baseline for month to month expenses. Although the month felt fairly successful, turning a critical eye towards all unnecessary spending definitely revealed some “fluff.” Even though we did have an eating out ban this month, we weren’t perfect. I ended up spending about $100 on non-grocery food purchases, including two restaurant meals (one due to poor planning and another due to being in a different city), a few trips to the convenience store, and coffee & desserts out for a friend’s birthday. I also spent about $100 on non-essential stuff, including some craft supplies to make signs for the Women’s March, a new glass water bottle at Target, and a signed book at a lecture I attended. I don’t feel particularly bad about the stuff, but I could always do better to not spend $5 here and there at a coffee shop or convenience when I am feeling lazy or in need of a donut. Having two modest restaurant meals during the (long, long) month of January also made it feel like less of a slog.
As far as groceries go, I think we actually did ok! I was trying to buy most of the groceries so I’d know the official tally, but there were a few times I forgot my wallet. I ended up spending about $250 on groceries, and I think Mr. G spent another $75 or so on top of that. My “dream grocery budget” is around $300, so we’re getting close.
I Was More Generous
I had a bit of unplanned charitable giving this month, and I didn’t have to think twice about supporting the projects and fundraisers of a few friends or throwing a few dollars at national organizations when they needed it most. Although I have annual planned giving as well (hopefully someday as part of a donor-advised fund), throwing $20 at a friend’s charity run or classroom fundraiser is something that gives me great joy.
I Spent A Lot on Travel
As mentioned in my planning post, I assumed I was going to spend some money on travel this month, but I wouldn’t count it as part of my spending baseline. Fuzzy math? Maybe, but I’m counting it a little differently since this discretionary spending could be axed if we suffered a financial emergency. I already save a little money each month that is specifically earmarked for travel, and this ensures that I can pay my credit card in full without having to dip into emergency savings. It also gives me a target budget for annual travel expenditures. And, since one of my trips is for work, I will be partially reimbursed two months from now. Being able to pay for travel arrangements in full is something that still delights me. During graduate school, I’d often have to pre-pay for travel to a scientific conference. Hundreds of dollars would sit on my credit card, accruing interest, until I got reimbursed after the trip. The ability to pre-pay work travel ensures that my reimbursement windfall can go right back into savings when I get back from my trip. (Is academia weird about this versus the business world? I have no idea. I don’t get an expense account or company credit card, but I don’t travel for work very often, either.)
I Still Did Pretty Great
Even with significant, anomalous travel spending this month, I still spent 19% less than my average month in 2016. If you deduct the travel and the fluff spending, my true baseline for monthly expenditures is 58% less than my average month in 2016. Could I truly maintain this low level of spending for the long term? Or does a little fluff spending save me from having to use all of my willpower on keeping my budget low? If I add a little fluff back in, I have a new number in my head for my target monthly spending, and I think I can achieve it without going crazy. It’s going to take some commitment on our part to keep our dining out budget quite low, but I think it’s achievable in a longer term scenario. This new long-term spending goal would having me saving about 60% of my take-home pay each month.
One revelation I had this month was in regards to travel spending. As I’ve documented here previously, it took me over a year of conscious spending changes and aggressively paying down debt to arrive at a place where I’m able to max out my 403b contribution each month. However, arriving at that place also left me feeling like there wasn’t a lot of other money to spend on travel, house projects/new house down payment, or to funnel towards a taxable brokerage account and early retirement. UFM wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t awful, either. It revealed to me that the goals of traveling or saving more are possible, but I’m going to have to sacrifice most eating out and non-essential shopping to make it work. In the short term, I’ll probably continue to sock this money away in my emergency savings. Once that account is at a level I’m comfortable with, I’ll start funneling it towards a house down payment, aggressive mortgage pay down, travel, or other long term goals.
On Self-Care and Battling Inertia
One thing that’s not obvious from the outset is how much a UFM changes your schedule in addition to your spending habits. Meals eaten out of the house often include trips to other destinations or a stop at the pub on the way home, and can end up occupying several hours of our evening. In my experience, meals eaten at home free up significant weekend or evening time, even when preparation and clean-up are taken into consideration. On evenings when I don’t have some pre-scheduled event, I’m terrible at picking up a new project, and inevitably I’ll just spend my evening watching Netflix or reading Twitter. It’s especially bad in the winter when it’s dark and cold, and a long walk or bike ride is not going to be particularly enjoyable. This month, my weird dynamic was especially glaring, since I spent the first half of the month working almost every evening and the second half in some sort of post-project depression. (In grad school, we lovingly called it the post-quals slump.) I’m hoping that “admitting I have a problem” in addition to being better about keeping a list of ongoing home/fun/hobby projects will help keep me a little more focused in the evenings.
An evening filled with eating out, shopping, and a trip to the pub is also a good way for me to mindlessly spend an evening without feeling idle. This outlet isn’t really an option during UFM (or UFLife), and it is really just another element of the treat yo’ self culture that leaves you broke and offers a temporary distraction from your problems. With this option off the table in January, I was not great about seeking out any other self-care opportunities (free or otherwise), despite an emotional state that left me feeling drained and despondent for much of the month. Some memorable activities that did leave me feeling energized included seeing Hidden Figures, community trivia night, my friend’s birthday at a coffee shop, my local Women’s March, two super interesting (free) lectures, and many weekend walks in the woods with Mr. G and our dog. Although not all of these were free, they didn’t involve shopping or drinking, and they required me to break my personal inertia. Looking to this month, I’m hoping to pick up some drop-in fitness classes and start taking longer walks as the days get longer and the weather gets warmer. And I’ll be embarking one of those pre-planned trips!
UFM To-Do List and The Year Ahead
I finished everything on the UFM to-do list that I had laid out in my halfway post, except for researching cell phone options. I opened a 529 for my sibling’s baby (super easy!), finished my taxes, and researched options for retrofitting my SodaStream (I went with SodaMod and also sourced a local store that will fill the canisters). I also lost about 6 lbs, which I tried not to regain this weekend when we broke our eating out ban and went out for pizza and beers. ? I did a little decluttering, but my house is still kind of a mess since I didn’t have time to do a full January Cure.
Moving forward from UFM, my goals are to:
- limit eating out – try to keep to one lunch and one dinner out per week
- limit random stuff purchase as much as possible (I’m looking at you, craft supplies)
- continue to frugalize grocery spending
- continue a “shopping ban,” of sorts – only buy replacement clothing items, and buy used when possible
- focus on opportunities for free and low-cost self care/personal enrichment
A big challenge for me: can I spend less in 2017 than I did when I was a graduate assistant?