A Budgeting We Go

We have a super fun date night at the beginning of every month around here.

Just kidding, it’s the worst. But we’re usually alone, usually spending a decent amount of time talking, and it usually involves alcohol.

Kind of sounds date-like, right?

We’ve been doing a monthly budget since we first got engaged, so for around the past 5 1/2 years. I wish I could say we’ve paid off the entirety of our debt in that amount of time, but alas, we’re still knee deep in student loans. HOWEVER, we have paid off a huge chunk of it, and we’ve honed a handful of best practices in our financial behavior that seem to be working well for our family.

Mostly we’re big Dave Ramsey aficionados, but we also keep doing (stupid?) crazy things like international travel/moves (when the opportunities arise) and, alas, our shared love language is drinking alcohol at a 40% markup in somebody else’s dining area. So. We’ve got some work to do yet, and we’re not the hardcore beans n’ rice cookers that we could be.

Oops. Italy was expensive. And delicious.

Still, we’ve made huge progress in this area of our lives, and I’ve gotten a handful of questions lately about budgeting soooooooo I thought I’d break up the thrill of endless postings about Advent practices and share some of what we do with you.

I’m very very much the opposite of a financial expert. So take this all with a salt lick or something.

I am, however, almost a diamond-level Target shopper, and I’m a devoted radio listener of Mr. Ramsey. I’m also a thrifty mom who loves expensive leather. It somehow all holds together, and I could never tell you how…

But the budget. Of all the tricks in our relationship bag, this one is probably the most useful and the most necessary, apart from our shared faith and practice of NFP. Because conversations. Over and over again. And continual circling back and reevaluation of goals. It’s amazing what that will do for a marriage.

The nitty gritty.

  • Every month close to the 1st, we sit down with our little Xcel spreadsheet and do a zero balance line item budget. That’s where we list out the total income for the month and then assign every single dollar of it to an outgoing debt/expense until we’re left with a balanced zero budget at the end. It’s a very simple Xcel spreadsheet with a list of all our expenses on the left, and we just go down the list and fill in what we’re spending in each category. It’s repetitive, but you’d be amazed how much difference there is month to month. For example, hundreds of dollars of stimulating dental work for yours truly this month. Ahem. So list it out like so: tithe, rent, groceries, energy, doctor’s co-pays, etc.
  • We’re trying to get back to using a cash envelope system for groceries/gas/babysitting/clothing/home goods, but I have to confess I’ve become notoriously lazy in this arena. I 100% believe that cash is more effective at protecting against overspending, but I also have 3 little kids and I hate going into the bank. Or the gas station. Womp womp. So, mostly we use our debit cards and track our spending daily on our bank’s mobile app.
  • We don’t use credit cards. Ever. We don’t even have them, because at one point we did, and the temptation of the very thing’s mere existence is just too much. So, reward points be damned. We don’t use ’em.
  • We’re not saving anything for retirement or college yet. That looks terrifying on paper, but the truth is, aside from what our employer’s contribute to our 401Ks, nothing is going in. Why? Because we’re still in debt. So we’d essentially be borrowing to invest, which is ridiculous. As soon as we send that last check off to Great Lakes (aka Great Satan) and are free and clear of our own student loans, the saving will commence. For now, we’re in payoff mode.
  • We are not homeowners yet. Believe me, this one is by far the hardest…but when the furnace goes out, the master bath springs a $15,000 plumbing leak and the carpets are getting, well, used by small children…I’m a little bit relieved. Even though the rental market in Denver is appallingly steep, we’re so thankful to have found a reasonably priced, comfortably sized house to rent while we finish paying off our debt/save out down payment. As much as it pains me to be approaching 32 and not yet in a home of our own, I know that the pain is temporary, and that the reward of entering home ownership with zero debt (and a healthy down payment) will make our mid 30’s and beyond so much sweeter. Renting is a little embarrassing, but being house poor seems like a much bigger problem than my ego.
  • We’ve put a temporary freeze on eating out/travel. This has been the hardest part by FAR. We both love to go out, we love to travel, and we love happy hour. But at the beginning of Advent we had a little come to Jesus moment over the sobering (ha) reality that all those little date nights might be adding up to additional months not living in our dream home, so we’ve ripped off the final band aid. The only exceptions are previously standing commitments and birthdays. (And mine is coming up this weekend, cheers!)
  • We take pretty much all the freelance work that comes our way. I say we because even though I’m really the only one with flex time in my life to be able to take on extra projects, Dave’s support and help with the kids in the evenings that makes it possible. I use a mother’s helper each week to help keep me sane, and I write 2-3 freelance pieces each month to pay for her. Anything beyond what she costs goes into the larger money pot.
  • We do a debt snowball. We knock out our debts from smallest to largest, regardless of the interest rate, and we attack them. There’s a list on the fridge, and every time I get to cross off another line I feel like partying. I won’t list actual numbers, but it’s really gratifying to see that when we started marrying out budget together we had 4 student loans (including grad school), 2 car payments, a tax bill, a credit card debt, the cost of our international move, and a year of preschool tuition. All we have left on the list are 2 student loans…WOO.
So that’s the bird’s eye view. I’m always listening to the Dave Ramsey show when I’m in the car between noon and 3, and if I’m home, I stream it on my computer and have it playing in the background. My kids know his theme song by heart, haha. I need the motivation because I’m a hard-headed idiot who has to hear the same thing over and over and over again before it really sinks in. Hence it taking us 5 flipping years to give up eating out. C’est la doggie bag, though.
Anniversary trip to the mountains last month. Our last travel for … um, ever?
So how about your family? Are you trying to pay off debt? Do you even have any debt? Does talking money make you feel icky? I love hearing other people’s get out of debt stories – they’re almost as addicting as birth stories.


  • Mary Wilkerson

    ahhhhhhhhhhh this is awesome. In our house, we got on the ol’ Dave Ramsey Bandwagon right away. It meant I had to work 2.5 year longer than I wanted to, but it was way worth it. The wait is hard, the struggle is real, but screaming ‘we’re debt free!!!!!!!’ on his show was one of the coolest things I have ever done. We did it when I was pregnant with JP, and 2 weeks after I was able to become a stay at home mom. Basically, we lived off of Aaron’s salary and paid down our almost 100 k of debt with my salary for that 2.5 years. Now, the struggle is finishing up the plan (fully funded emergency, retirement, etc…) we will beginning that in 2015 even though we’ve been debt free for 1.5 years. The best part? for real? Being out of massive debt has allowed us to give a true tithe, as well as other giving, I have always wanted to do.

  • Rebekah Gilley

    I love hearing about couples who budget together! And I love that you guys started this in engagement. Gotta start sometime, right? And I love that you guys have goals that you are working towards with practical steps…basically I love this post! 🙂

    Do you guys divide your budget into overall categories and try to stay within a certain range? Also, is there a specific template/outline on Excel that you use, or dd you create it yourself? I’m curious because I’ve yet to find a means of tracking my spending that is not writing everything down, and even then, it’s a lot different from when I was in a leadership school on $100/month with no expenses! What do you recommend?

    • Jenny

      We basically try to get every category down as low as feasible in order to pay off the hugest chunk of debt each month. The ones that consistently evade my efforts to stay, ahem, frugal, are definitely groceries, eating out (formerly), and kids’ clothing.

      We made our own Excel spreadsheet and it’s super, super simplistic but neither of us have much of a head for numbers so we needed something really basic. I’ll try to upload it here so anyone who wants it can download it.

      My sister uses Mint.com and loves it, but I’ve yet to try it. We have a monthly budget sketch out and then we revisit it on the 15th to make sure we’re still on track to hit our spending/payoff goals for the month – it’s crazy how much can change week to week!

  • Molly Walter

    We did a ramsey-esque snowball before our first was born. Payed off 12k+ in less than two years while neither of us was making more than $12 an hour. Right now we use “You Need a Budget” and are hoping (unless another bundle of joy pushing things back) to have the student loans, a loan from family for our house and cc debt gone in less than 2 years! Those last two should be gone by this summer and I’m hoping the SL’s will be gone by the time my son starts kindergarten if not 1st grade!

  • diana

    My husband and I were married, and both working full-time, for almost 7 years before we became parents so in that time we were able to pay off my small students loans ($15k) and our home (under $100k). Been living debt free for almost 4 years and it’s wonderful!! We do have credit cards but always pay them off every month, only charge reasonable expenses, and mainly have them for the rewards so I don’t count those as debt. We really paid off our mortgage in about 2 years just by putting almost all my income against it since we planned for me to stay home once we had a kid (and I do). It was good practice for living off one income. And we’ve seemed to have a lot of high expenses since the mortgage was gone (replacing both cars because they were getting too expensive to maintain, adoption/NICU fees for our son, 2 foot surgeries for me, a major bathroom remodel, major repairs done to vehicles) that we often wonder what we would have done if we had a $600+/month mortgage payment. Now we’re starting a new saving account for what we budget our mortgage payment to be for our next house so we get used to that payment again and have a some downpayment money on top of selling our house. We are in no hurry to move (living for free!) but know we will outgrow our starter home someday!! So, yes, stick with paying off all the debt. It will feel so good!!!

  • Deb

    We became truck drivers after grad school and paid off $100K in 2 years. Some life issues happened and we stopped trucking but kept plugging away and are now down to a solo student loan, less than $25K (thanks, FUS). We listened to Dave 5 days a week for 3 hours a day on the road. We’ve since altered our plans a bit by buying a house, but we are in a pretty good place all things considered!

  • Lauren @ Here We Geaux

    Thanks for sharing – it really makes me think about our finances and where we might be able to pinch pennies if we should find ourselves with a baby on the way (and thus my desire to be home with said child). Our only debts are in the form of house and car payments, and our savings account is pretty robust. However, we want to get to a point where we can invest in rental properties (residential or vacation), and earn income off of those. As I said above, I’d also like to be at home with our (future) children, and each of these little tips can really go a long way toward making that happen. Thanks again!

  • Valerie

    I love reading about budgeting too, so thank you for writing this. Although, I honestly hate talking about budgeting with my spouse. He would love to do what you and your husband do each month. I need to quit being a toddler about it and just do it. I just find it so depressing that we have been married for nearly 11 years, and we still have no extra money each month. My husband used to be a school teacher, so the lack of extra funds is obvious because…teacher salary. Then he had a career change, so essentially we are 32 and just starting out back at the bottom of the ladder. My husband’s job satisfaction is much higher, and in the long run things will be better financially…but it is still hard in the mean time. Thankfully the only debt we have is the loan we took out on our 12 seater family wagon. We should be able to knock that out in the next couple of years. I feel your pain though about not eating out or traveling. We don’t do either of those things. I am just hoping that at some point we will have extra money to save for a down payment. My fear though is that by the time we have enough money saved for a down payment on a home, our oldest will be leaving for college and will need those funds. Then we will have another child entering college every two years after that – pretty much forever. Money is the one thing that really causes me anxiety in life, so I guess that is why I tend to want to ignore it.

    • Jenny

      I totally hear you. One thing that really resonated with me was what Kris said further down in the comments, that there are many ways to pay for college, but there’s only one way to save for retirement. So true! I tell myself that while I’d *like* to help our kids out, I’m by no means sold on the idea that we’ll be footing the bill for college.

  • -Missy

    I love this post! My husband and I took FPU right after we were married and like you feel it was one of the biggest blessings to our marriage, right after the NFP classes 😉 we managed to pay off a little over $80k in three years, mostly to my husband working a ton of overtime. The best part was when we mailed the check to pay off my student loan and the. I went to work and quit to stay home with my daughter. We are now saving for retirement but wish we could save more for other things, college fund, new car, etc. Maybe if we gave up eating out it might happen but that would take a lot work!

  • Jena

    My struggle with keeping up with a budget is those discretionary categories…how do you divide them up? I have always done separate categories for clothing, food, household, etc…but then if I go to Target or Walmart and get something in all three categories it gets pretty complicated. So short of itemizing all of our receipts (which, as an accountant, I can and would probably enjoy…I know weird), I just don’t have the time to do for our little fam! It’s such a practice of self control and discipline! Love listening to Dave Ramsey as well and it always reignites the fact that, no, we don’t need all the things!

    • Jenny

      Ours is paaaaainfully subcategorized…but that’s the level of detail our current state of life: (babies, diapers, childcare, groceries, copays, gym fees, etc. ad nauseum) demands. So we literally list out groceries, dry cleaning, diapers, copays, alcohol, etc. into separate categories.

      I hear you on the Target situation though. I try to reconcile the budget asap when I get home from a Target run, or tuck the receipt aside to do later, since at least they are kind enough to break out the categories for me (home goods, pharmacy, grocery, etc.) kind of considerate, really.

  • Kris

    When my husband and I got married, I had a little credit card debt and a car payment and he had no debt except a mortgage. We quickly paid off my CC debt and just had a car payment and our house. For awhile, we were paying two mortgages because he had to sell a house that he owned that had a renter in it, but we unloaded that also. We do an annual budget in the summer and then I track EVERY single dime we spend on a monthly spending app. We do use credit cards, because like you, I never get cash or have time to get cash, but we pay off the balance EVERY month. We keep from over spending by using the budget tracker app so I always know where we are in every category. I also allocate all expenses every month into Quicken, so when the next year rolls around, I know exactly how our expenses have shifted. Currently, the only debt we have is our mortgage. We both drive 10 year old cars (mine has almost 230,000 miles on it and his had 167,000). We also fully fund our retirement, but we don’t put money in kids’ college accounts. There are a million ways to pay for college and only one way to save for retirement, so we don’t pay for college. We help where we can. Our oldest put herself through and our next one is on a full, ROTC scholarship. We do allocate money for Catholic high school, because we feel like that’s a worthy expense for our kids. I homeschool our younger ones and I do some freelance work also. All that “extra” income goes towards the high school tuition or into the savings account.

  • Laura

    This is great, Jenny. I love talking personal finance. And you guys are motivated but not above some splurges. I think we all relate to that. . . . I used a very non-exact spreadsheet to track finances when we were first married. We used my salary to pay off debt (my substantial law school loans, his modest college loans, and a small car loan). We lived off my husband’s salary (at the time it was a lot smaller than mine).

    Now I use Quicken to budget and track expenses. I like all the detail but it’s gotten too detailed. I’m not sure how to transition back to something simpler though. I have trouble with simple.

    Also, when you mentioned approaching 32 I had to stop and think: “am I older or younger than Jenny?” Took me several moments! (Older, by a few months.) After 30 I lost all motivation to remember my own age.

  • Chrissy S

    I both love and hate talking about budgeting equally. My husband and I met when we were just shy of 30 so we had our loans pretty well squared away. He even had some money saved, which was nice. Now with a family and a house we have a mortgage and that’s it. It seems big though!! We try to have a buffer if something big needs fixing but that is really hard to do. We don’t eat out much but honestly that’s just because we live in a rural area with limited options. If we lived near sushi. We would eat it a lot! It’s funny because if it was 15 years ago we would be able to save more because we wouldn’t be able to online shop! Without a decent mall in the area we would have to drive over an hour to get clothes. Now it’s all just a click away. Baby needs a couple new sleepers…click…..i need new jeans…..click! I admire u for following a budget! Also think that not having a house was a blessing for you guys. You got to live in Rome and not have to worry about your mortgage! God works in all sorts of ways. Houses are places to live but also huge expenses. We bought a fixer uppper and it seems like all our disposable income goes into it. Like honestly somedays I wish we didn’t need new light fixtures and we did need a trip to Mexico you know?

  • Jodi Boyle

    we are working on getting out of debt also.. having 3 teenagers and being a military family this has been a struggle. But our goal is to be debt free in one year. We are starting Dave Ramsey this month and I am looking for work to help out. Great to hear someone else is motivated.

  • Brittney

    We just sent our last grad school payment off in September and it was glorious! Keep going, it will totally be worth it. Los Angeles is the worst for housing so I feel your pain/embarrassment on renting. In October we were just able to move into a (rental) house from an apartment which has been so nice!

  • Ari Mack

    Being house-poor is real, and it does suck at times, but it is very good to have that investment over the long run. I took FPU and got 100% out of debt (at the time). However, I didn’t follow his rules 100%. I continue to have credit cards, and I have purchased houses without being at the correct “baby step.” I have never *EVER* stopped contributing to my 401K and IRA, even when paying off debt. I can see how doing one step at a time would really make results happen faster. Now I find myself back in debt (just got married, bought a house this year, major expenses on the house and moved across country the year before). My husband and I are filing taxes separately. Dave Ramsey doesn’t work as well for people who cannot accrue overtime in our jobs or those who are free-lance/self-employed types who have fluctuating finances. I would love to be a SAHM, but barring some major miracles, I will most likely always have to work and be the major breadwinner, that is if we can even afford kids. It’s important to be able to talk budget and finances with your spouse. A weekly meeting at least, even if you don’t share all expenses (like in my case). I just wish life were as cut and dry as Dave’s baby steps. At times I do feel like you have to make decent money in order to have something to save and something to budget. Some of us are stuck in paycheck to paycheck with no end in sight. Dave’s ideal world seems set up to accommodate for a decent job from the husband, using the wife’s money for paying off debt, etc. so that she can spend time at home with the kids. That will never be my life.

    • Jenny

      I hear ya on the cost increase and all the extras that come with marriage. One thing that we’ve found for us as our family has grown, so have our careers. It has been really wild to watch it unfold, but my husband is actually making about twice what he made the year we got engaged, and my income has stayed steady even with moving to a work-from-home situation.

      My parents always told us “every baby comes with a loaf of bread under his arm” which is kind of gross but sweetly endearing, too. And we’ve found it to be true in spades. I think that is something Dave encourages people to keep in mind, that their income doesn’t *have* to be stagnant, that there’s always room to dream and room to grow and advance.

      Easier said than done when you’re not actually living in the paycheck to paycheck situation though, I’m sure. I hope you guys are able to get to where you want to be as a couple and as a family.

  • Rosie

    My husband and I really need to start actually budgeting – with me not working anymore, everything has changed financially and we still haven’t figured out how to make things work financially… Maybe it’ll be a super-fun post-Christmas activity for us :/

  • Andrea

    Love this post, thank you for writing it! My husband and I were married earlier this year and we went through online FPU during our engagement. We now love Dave and also love listening to him when possible during the week. We are currently in baby step 2, and though it feels like we still have a ways to go, the debt snowball is so motivating!! Love seeing those balances get paid down to 0. We would also love to be homeowners someday (we’re both in early 30s) and it sometimes it seems like we’ll never get there. But, the other motivating thing that keeps us going is we know that when we get there, we will have set ourselves up for success very well. We try to do the monthly budgeting meetings but sometimes we aren’t very diligent about it (cause I am not excited about budgeting sometimes…) Very naughty in the eyes of Dave, I know! We have to work on that but we are very thankful for Dave and the foundation his program has set for our financial future. 8 months into marriage, I can already see how vital communication about money and being on the same page is. Gotta have that!

  • Rachel Boschini

    Not much to say in the way of debt, although we’ve got plenty of that! 😉
    But I realized that you live in Denver! My husband and I (and our 2 kids) live in North Carolina but we will be moving to Denver in July/August! I would love to talk to you about it and ask some questions about the area. 🙂 We will also be renting when we first get there!


  • Jen

    We’re Dave Ramsey fans too. His plan has improved our finances and our marriage. Money isn’t the sore spot it used to be.

    Something else we’ve recently found that some of you other Ramsey folks might also like, mvelopes.com. This site makes the budgeting and reconciling process so much easier. We tried mint.com for a while, but found it frustrating because it didn’t quite do what we wanted it to do. Mvelopes really streamlined our budget meetings. We love it.

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