I’ve had to do some thinking on the purpose of my blog now that the “working mom trying to keep her crap together” angle feels a little, well, inappropriate. Not that I’ve found all my crap and maintain it as a cohesive whole or anything. It’s just that  having a spouse who stays home kind of changes that picture. Kinda sorta. 🙂 It’s like when celebrities give advice on achieving work-life balance; you understand and accept that they have very busy and complicated lives, but with that level of institutional support, it’s also kind of hard to feel like you can walk away with anything useful from what they have to say on the topic.

And so, how to keep my thoughts relevant and somewhat on point? I know that I am not specifically writing to an audience now, but, focus never hurt anyone, least of all me. Well – here’s something very relevant, and that’s been occupying my thoughts for a while now. And that is…in an era when so many of us are trying to get by on less, whether by choice or by circumstances outside of our control, how do we still live balanced and full lives? How do we enjoy what we have, and not covet unnecessary or unhelpful things, but also pursue things of beauty and that make us happy, even if they are a little frivolous? They are sort of conflicting impulses, aren’t they…on the one hand, to simplify, and on the other, to fill our days up with little pursuits and projects that bring us joy. And for me, it’s just not possible to take a lot of that online advice about living a less expensive life very seriously, because so much of it isn’t at all applicable to my life or appears to involve soul-crushing exercises of deprivation that just make me feel miserable and poor. And when I feel miserable and poor, I binge (spending-wise, I mean). Ungood.

Anyway…for my family’s part, we have had a number of changes in our lives in the last couple of years that necessitate a new way of looking at things. Not only could we not live the way that we did ten or five or even two years ago, but we wouldn’t want to! Having a baby, they say, is as expensive or cheap as you choose…well, in our case, it’s not super cheap, because we’ve chosen to be a one-income family for at least a little while. That definitely does away with some of the money for the “extras,” but at the same time, it improves the quality of our lives, and takes away the need for many of the “convenience” expenses we used to have (dog walking, laundry service, copious amounts of takeout, I could go on…). Ultimately, we have to live differently, and so far I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we could have because we have only ever really taken random stabs at getting our finances under control. Don’t get me wrong – we’re savers – but only as a result of making such comfortable salaries, really. Now that that’s no longer the case for both of us, it’s going to take that heinous thing…discipline. And to that end, two projects I have on the go, which I’ll explain in a bit more detail below. Baby steps for now!

Tracking Expenses

This has been my white whale all along. Try as I might, I could not muster up any enthusiasm for the prospect of writing down every little thing I spent my money on. The problem? Well, besides the fact that every single personal finance guru out there insists that you must do this? It was allowing me to totally live in a state of denial about my spending (hmmm…perhaps why the gurus insist on it!?).

And so I discovered an online program that would not only do all the dirty work for me, but wouldn’t allow me to hide from any of it! Best of all, it’s free, free, free: check out http://www.mint.com. Caveat: I didn’t really carefully examine all the privacy implications for myself, and so if this is a point of concern for you, definitely do your research, because you have to plug in your online banking passwords and things for it to work effectively. I just relied on the fact that it had been so heavily endorsed by reputable magazines and websites and things. Annnd it’s already working for me! The basic premise is that it pulls in every single transaction from all of your accounts – banking, retirement, credit, etc – and you work with the program to categorize it all. You can give the program a budget as well, so that you can follow along and see how much you’ve spent on, say, clothing so far this month, and what percentage that represents of your allocated budget.

It honestly makes a lot of this painful stuff fun! I urge you to give it a try (in the United States – sorry, it doesn’t work for Canadians!), even if you aren’t a “budgeter” per se, or if you like to write things down the old-fashioned way. If you’re anything like me, you find it near-impossible to keep track of what’s going on in every account and on every credit card, and so this prevents things from slipping through the cracks or getting hidden. Already, just looking over December, I saw that we had over $700 in ATM withdrawals. Seven…hundred dollars…gone, totally vaporized, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I spent it all on, since it’s not like our credit card purchases were any more modest! I need this program and the draconian control it will be exerting over my life.

Meal Planning

Ah yes…the other elusive little bugger I’ve never been able to pin down during my now long career of living independently and cooking for myself. You see, I’m a poor planner, and I’m really awful at committing to what I am going to eat tomorrow today. I love the freedom of thinking oh – I want quiche! AND whipping one up. Trouble is, of course, that this mode of operation leads to many last minute, painfully and unnecessarily expensive trips to the grocery store, and more tragically, impulsive takeout orders and dinners out.

The new plan is as follows: once every four weeks, we are going to plan the next four out in terms of meals, accounting for the odd takeout or brunch or whatever. Then, every Tuesday night, we do a grocery list to stock up for the week and then commit to The Plan. This is challenging, especially because of my hours and refusal to buy a lot of convenience foods. But I think it’s worth it, both for our health and wallet. Plus, I’m all about setting a good example for Ava about the importance of taking the time to prepare wholesome food. It’ll take some effort and tweaking, but I’m so stoked!

Check back for an update soon! 🙂 I need all the help I can get in staying honest!

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