After 20 years of marriage I can look back and see a pattern to how my husband and I used excess cash. While it has been a long time since we lived paycheck to paycheck, any money not going toward living expenses is still almost always saved or spent for our children. I didn’t say it was a complicated pattern, but it is a pattern and for the first time in a long time we can see a shift away from it.
In these later years, as we’ve ticked one expense after another off the list – dance costumes, braces, teen drivers, proms, AP/ACT/SAT testing, college tour trips, college application fees, senior portraits and finally college tuition – we’ve directed our discretionary income more to our wants and needs and not those of our children.
Some might consider the money I spend on my gardens as discretionary, but I provide most of the vegetables, herbs and some of the fruit we eat throughout the year. I garden as much to put food on the table as I do for the sheer pleasure of it.
The real challenge for us over the past 20 years is that we’ve navigated wants, needs and unexpected expenses on one income and we don’t sit in the top tax bracket. I’ve contributed financially a little here and there, but it was never enough to substantially alter our standard of living. My income just made some months a little easier than others.
We didn’t sit down each month or once a year and decide how we would spend money. We are both relatively practical people and we have always understood that you can’t spend more than you make for an extended period of time without depleting your savings and maxing out your credit. So, we didn’t.
There are some tips for making this work if you aren’t inclined to be practical.
- Learn to feel gratification in simple things. Appreciate the fact that your bills are paid instead of bemoaning that you can’t afford to eat out or get a manicure. Find joy in the fact your children are learning to dance, play soccer or play the piano instead of regretting that you can’t afford a fancy vacation. The skills your children gain through these activities will pay off and have a much longer lasting benefit than your one week trip. They would often rather spend time with you doing fun things at home anyway.
- Adjust your definition of wants and needs. I believe the difference between want and need is personal and the definition changes over time. If you aren’t sure how to define them, take a month or two when you eliminate all spending beyond saving, paying your bills and buying what you need to live from the grocery store. As new expenses arise define them as wants or needs. Six years ago before I started earning an income as a freelance writer I didn’t need a laptop. Now I do.
- Gain control over impulse spending. This is a lot easier to control when you have a firm grasp of the difference between wants and needs. In the early days when I found myself in doubt about whether I really needed to buy something, I would imagine what I was potentially taking away from my children. That emptied my shopping cart pretty quickly. Find what works for you. Make it specific, make it personal and make it something you desperately want.
- Be honest with yourself and your spouse or partner. This needs no explanation.
My husband and I have done nothing financially extraordinary. We haven’t built a portfolio worth millions on an hourly wage income. We don’t have a vast real estate empire and neither my husband nor I inherited a fortune. We have used common sense to make everyday decisions about money. In the next few years we will go from single income, two kids to dual income, no kids. I’m sure our discretionary income will increase.
I mentioned earlier that we had started to shift toward using spare cash for our wants and needs. Some of you won’t find this very exciting, but for the time we will use our excess to save more aggressively for retirement…as soon as we get back from Italy.
CollegeMom is a staff writer for ConsumerFu.com. She and her family live on four acres of old farmland with their two dogs, one cat and a large number of gardens.
Photo Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov