One of the first questions I hear when I tell people about how focused we are on getting (and staying) out of debt is: “Isn’t it depressing to never have any fun?” That would be depressing, and it’s exactly why I avoided an honest budget for so long. The idea of working 40, 60, or more hours every week only to come home and make sure that every dollar I made was spent in a responsible, boring way made me want to cry. I learned something recently, though: responsible doesn’t have to equal boring! You can absolutely have fun while living on a budget. For example, here’s a website I found that lists 21 different origami projects you can do with just a dollar bill! Talk about a crazy Friday night, and just think of how much cash you’ll save by making your money look like a shirt instead of spending it on a shirt.
Budgets Aren’t Boring, Debt Is
So many people I’ve seen asking about budgets elsewhere on the internet seem to have this mentality that if you create a budget, you can only put things on there that “adult” you would approve of, and entertainment of any form is forever off the table. Here’s the thing. If you’re old enough to create a budget, you’re old enough to put whatever you want on that budget, and you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself about it! As long as your obligations like food, shelter, and bills are met, you could put My Little Pony collectibles on there, and if you have the money for it, you get to buy them! You are the one that earns your money, so you get to decide how it’s spent. Does having a budget mean you get to buy everything you want, as long as it’s included in the budget? No. The key phrase there was “if you have the money.” This is where priorities come in, and it’s where you have to decide how Future You is going to live based on how Current You is spending. If Future You is fine with having a little less put aside for retirement because it meant Current You got to buy all the super cool Star Wars Episode VII Lego sets while they were still on the shelves, that’s groovy. I hope Future You lets Future Me play with them when we get older. Just make sure Future You isn’t standing in line at the community food pantry trying to impress everyone else with stories of how Current You has every single iPhone ever, even though none of them still work in Future You’s world. The issue comes in when you have debt standing watch over your budget saying, “Nope, you can’t have that money. I need it first.” In order for your budget to be a freeing experience rather than a constrictive one, your money needs to be yours, not already earmarked for someone else before it even hits your account. That’s why paying it off so quickly is so important.
For R and me, we’re deviating a little from the Total Money Makeover plan in this regard. Dave Ramsey would tell us that while we’re getting out of debt, we shouldn’t see the inside of a restaurant unless we work there, we shouldn’t even think about vacations, and any trips to a shopping mall should be for exercise only. This is good advice to most people, who are able to pay off their debt completely in 12-18 months. Because R and I make a little less than other people our age and have over a year’s worth of our combined salaries left to pay off, we’re looking at three years left to go, if everything goes well. Three years without stepping foot inside a restaurant, an airplane, or a retail store would be an impressive accomplishment, sure, but I have to wonder what effect that would have on our marriage. Because it’s going to take such a big chunk of our lives to get rid of this beast, we have about $150 set aside each month for vacations, restaurants, gifts, and fun money. That’s for both of us together, mind you, not each. This debt is absolutely still at the top of our priority list, and we’re not about to push out those payoff dates even further into the future just so we can have a steak dinner once a week. What do we do with that money? I’m glad you asked.
R has family out of state. Once a year, everyone gets together and goes to a state park for a weekend for food, games, and conversation. I’ve been honored to tag along twice now, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite events of the year. Again, according to Dave, it would be three years at the least before we’d get to go to this reunion again. That’s just not something we’re okay with. A lot can happen in three years, especially with kids, newly married couples, etc. We keep in touch with these family members somewhat through the magic of Facebook, but nothing replaces physically being with your family and sharing a weekend of meals and laughs. For us, this is worth pushing out the payoff dates for, but we lessen the blow of the airline tickets by saving for it all year. Driving would be cheaper, but not by much, and the extra time it would take means we’d need to ask off for additional days from work. In between these big trips, we stave off our travel fever by taking smaller day trips to tourist traps around our area or campgrounds nearby. Travel is definitely something that’s on our to-do list, and it motivates us to get rid of this debt faster.
Like I said before, Dave’s advice on restaurants for the family in debt is that they’re great… for picking up extra income. We’ve compromised with him on this. The last time we went to a restaurant together was for R’s birthday earlier this month; we got pizza. I do plan on doing something special for our anniversary coming up at the end of the month, which I’m sure he would throw a fit about. However, before we started this plan, restaurants were where dinner came from. We ate out almost every night, and our wallets looked about like those old Western movies, tumbleweeds and all. Now that we’re on it, restaurants are what I’m sure they were intended to be when they were first invented: a special treat. When they become rare, they become really exciting. I mean, think about it. You can go somewhere and have someone hand you a list of things to eat, and all you do is pick one and wait. Then they bring it to your table, and even clean up after you when you’re done! I think in our culture, service like that is merely expected when it should be appreciated. Just like with vacations, restaurant trips are now planned out and planned for ahead of time. We’ve met him more on his side on this than truly in the middle, but the occasional night where R doesn’t have to cook and I don’t have to clean allows us to recharge a little and just focus on each other.
Last year, R and I didn’t really participate in any gift exchanges with family at Christmas. We both felt about an inch tall as we watched other people open their gifts, and especially as we opened the ones we received. I know the reason for Christmas is about Someone so much more important than Santa Claus, but it still cut deep knowing that our own poor spending habits meant that we couldn’t afford to give anything to our friends and family. This year, most of our family is doing homemade gifts, but we’re also planning ahead. Did you know that Christmas comes around every year, usually in December? And it’s the same with your cousin’s birthday, every year! Lucky for us, that means we can plan for those types of events with a high degree of accuracy. I know that if my sister had a birthday this year in June, chances are pretty good that it’s going to fall in June of next year, too. I can use that information to budget out gifts when those times of the year come around.
Fun Money is what R and I use for those super cool origami animals I showed you at the beginning of the post. We have a little collection of them on our dresser, and it’s how we entertain ourselves. Okay, no, no it’s not. Fun Money is our own personal stash that we get to spend on whatever we want with no questions asked. If a new Disney movie hits the shelves and I’ve got the Fun Money, it’s mine. If J.K. Rowling decides that Harry needs to go back to Hogwarts for his graduate degree, R’s at the bookstore before I even know she left. Sometimes, we use this money on each other, but mostly, it’s for our own personal enjoyment. It keeps us from feeling like we’re stuck when we get to enjoy a little of our own money, even if it’s not nearly as much as we’d like to enjoy. Yet another motivation for getting rid of the debt.
So, Uh… What Do You Do In Your Free Time?
All of this is well and good for an overview of where our discretionary money gets spent, but what do people on a tight budget actually do for fun? We sit around the candlelight and play card games on the cards I made from notebook paper, same as everyone else! Nah, I don’t have the patience necessary for that. Here’s a little of what we do:
- TV – We don’t have cable, but we do have an antenna, an Apple TV, and Netflix. Netflix and the apps on the Apple TV cover about 85% of what we want to watch with news, movies, and TV shows. The antenna is handy occasionally for when there’s breaking news or we need to watch storm coverage. The other 10-15%, things like sports, TV shows on cable channels, etc., are admittedly a casualty of the debt we have. You can patch those holes for cheaper than a cable package would cost, but it’s not worth it to us to slow down our debt repayments.
- Social Activity – There is a couple we hang out with, and they are some seriously rad people. (Hear that, Snick? You guys are rad!) They’re on the same page we are with this financial stuff, so the activities we do together are pretty low-key. We go to each others’ house about once a week and eat dinner, play board games, watch a movie, really just enjoy each other’s company. We never feel like we should be spending more money when we’re around them, and we always have a great time with them.
- Hobbies – Maybe R and I lucked out with our personalities here, but we both have some really cheap hobbies. I love to read and play video games, and I’ve recently re-discovered the library. Seriously, guys, the library is amazing. Did you know they have video games now? And movies? And online magazines? And, like, all the books ever? All for free! You can just go online, search for what you want, and they’ll put it on the holds shelf for you to pick up on your way home from work. My boy Arthur was right on target, I just wish I would have listened to him sooner. R likes Netflix and calligraphy. Seriously, give the girl a bottle of sweet tea, a pad of paper and some markers, and turn on The Office, and she’s good to go for the rest of the night. She’s the best.
So, there you have it. Sure, we’re not going to concerts in New York every other week, or constantly jetting off to Greece, but I don’t feel like we’re boring people. Our debt has caused us to get creative with our entertainment choices, but it hasn’t forced us to have staring contests in the dark in the name of saving money. And even though I don’t feel like we’re squashed as much as we probably are, it helps to remember that this is only temporary. One day soon, I’ll post an update here with a zero in every debt row. Then, I’ll have to figure out what to do with this blog and with all the extra money we’ll have. For now, I’ll stick to chatting up librarians and trying to like sweet tea at the family reunions.