Monday, February 15, 2010

Getting the Budget Back To Square One

Lately every day, it seems, I wake up feeling like it's the first day of school and I'm the new kid. It's an uneasy feeling and usually sends my already precarious stomach into nervous overdrive. The past two months have been exhausting and enlightening, although there's still a long way to go. The budget is still a work in progress and we've done something we rarely do - give ourselves a real deadline. When dealing with extreme financial anxiety, approaching the very real aspect of budget planning can just about send even those with the best intentions into a massive back pedaling under the covers. At least it does to me. Why is that? Why is the reckoning of my financial means cause this internal uproar? I suppose it doesn't really matter, except to approach with care and understanding toward myself and our dancing around our budget.

What I realized is that part of my running away from the idea of creating a budget is that I actually don't even know the true definition of the word. First step - accept my gaping ignorance and look the damn word up. According to, the word 'budget' can be parsed in the following ways:

1. An estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future.
2. A plan of operations based on such an estimate.
3. An itemized allotment of funds, time, etc., for a given period.
4. The total sum of money set aside or needed for a purpose: the construction budget.
5. A limited stock or supply of something: his budget of goodwill.
6. Obsolete. a small bag; pouch.

7. Reasonably or cheaply priced: budget dresses.

Verb (used with object)
8. To plan allotment of (funds, time, etc.).
9. To deal with (specific funds) in a budget.

Verb (used without object)
10. To subsist on or live within a budget.

As I look over these various definitions, I kind of feel hopeful. As far as the six noun usage, I can't really claim that I have any contact or application with most of them. Maybe #5, which is showing some promise as I'm working on strengthening my sense of my own limitations. Moving on to the adjective - YES! I've definitely got a strong connection to that one, as I've written about before. I'm a natural born bargain hunter and can count on one hand the amount of times I've bought something at full price. The rest of the list, verbs with or without objects? I suppose I'm able to budget my time, although I've come to realize that multi-tasking is just cramming everything I need to do in too small a period of time and just how difficult it is to do one thing at a time. So, I guess I better be honest and realize my budgeting skills around time are a also work in progress.

Part of the challenge is that when partial employment becomes the main source of income, peppered with whatever freelance work can be fitted in, the fluctuations on a monthly basis can make it challenging to create a workable household budget. Not impossible, just challenging.

If I'm honest with myself, then it's not realistic for me to think that I can simultaneously incorporate all ten of these budget definitions into my life. But I can use them as a starting point for understanding what I don't know, which is obviously quite a bit and I can also commit to a few of them that are doable, three of them to be exact. For this week, I think I can realistically commit to #1, #2 and #10.

1. An estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future. Thankfully, our income seems to be coming back into some sort of stabilization, at least approaching what it was before this period of uncertainty. And now that the intense stress has passed, budget planning can happen.

2. A plan of operations based on such an estimate. Again, possible because #1 is now approachable.

3. To subsist on or live within a budget. Even without having created our family budget, I've been doing really well on my 21 Day Financial Fast. My non-essential spending is non-existent and I haven't been inside a  coffee shop, have only bought coffee I've had coupons for, in over a week. I've walked into a few thrift shops, my personal non-essential budget breaker, but have turned around and high tailed it out of there before lots of non-essential items started wooing me. I've kept to a very modest food budget and managed to cook a week's worth of delicious meals (that even the kids ate up) and still have left overs to get us through to the middle of the week, even with the extravagance of having a friend over for dinner. It felt great to share a simple meal made from what was in the refrigerator, as opposed to running out to the store. And I came across a great food shopping tip to pass along - I read about a mother who buys a $600 grocery store gift card for her family of four and makes it last the entire month. She expressed initial fear that she run out before the month's end, but with the right planning, she's made it work. I was inspired by her example and while we are a family of five, which pushes our monthly food bill up a bit from hers, and the fact can't quite plunk down that amount of dough in one fell swoop, I can take away some lessons. We could break it down into two parts. I like the challenge of having to make it work, and it would satisfy definitions 1, 2 and 3.

Many of our other budgetary items are fixed, but food? Even if I can just commit to addressing our second largest and most fluid part of our budget, our food costs, then that would be the biggest step toward instilling some financial sanity. I like that. Feeding our budget by budgeting our feeding. Not limiting the quality or nutrition of our food budget; after all, we have three small and fast growing children, but I know that our food budget has long been the bane of our household budget ills. Shopping without lists, not using coupons, impromptu meals instead of weekly meal planning, shopping when hungry or with hungry (and bored) children. All of those items are ones we can change and I've begun to see, after two weeks, the positive impact of shifting from the negative toward the positive.

  • Meal planning. I've made new dishes I never would have made without planning, not to mention cutting down on unnecessary trips to the store, which has had a positive impact on our gas and car usage. 
  • Cutting AND using coupons. We make this a family affair. The kids help cut the coupons and on the way back to the car after shopping, we hunker down over the receipt and see how much we saved. The next step is to take these savings and put them into a family "mad money" fund like my medical examiner/electrician friend told me she did with her family.
  • Eating before shopping. Good for the waist line, great for the pocket book. 
  • Involving the kids. I can't even count the amount of times I've left completely full shopping carts in aisles and left the market after three tired and/or bored children have pushed me to my limits. Now, either I go to the store by myself, which these days is like a trip to the Bahamas, or I make sure they all have specific roles and duties for when they accompany me. One is the holder of the coupons. Another is the finder of the bargains. The third is the sorter of the coupons. It works and we end up having fun together, rather than it being just another chore. Plus, as I'm trying to give them some kind of financial education, going to the market is a great place to do some on the spot training, with aisles of items to talk about quantity, cost comparison and quality. 
The whole budget process is about learning, trying and trying again.

All right, so I feel a little bit better than when I started this post. I feel like I'm finally not running away from my budget fear, and just the act of looking up the word has cast new meaning and allowed me to get back to square one with a bit more gentleness and self-love. 

And I just looked back up to my list of budget definitions and realize that do have a personal connection to one of the definitions - noun #6 - a small bag; pouch - but I think I sold it at my last yard sale. 

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