Sunday, March 3, 2013


M. and I are challenging ourselves to save as much money as we can, starting now. Good goal, right? But you're probably thinking "don't they do that already?" Well, we DO save money, that is true. We both contribute to our work-sponsored retirement accounts (plus I have pension accounts from my old employer and my current one, though your guess is as good as mine as to whether they'll actually pay out when the time comes), we put a little extra in a couple of IRA accounts each month, we contribute to college savings plans for both kids, and we have a set amount of money transferred to a savings account each month. Sounds pretty good, right?

But here's the thing. SOMETIMES, we have to pull money back out of that savings account to pay for things. Yeah, they're usually pretty big expenses, like HVAC systems or hardwood floors or yearly life insurance premiums. But still - it has been tough to really GROW that savings account, and our "liquid" savings really hasn't substantially increased ever since we bought our house back in 2007. And while that's OK for now, it crossed my mind recently that should we ever have a major life change, we're going to have to do better. We could get by for a while if one of us was laid off (says the chick who may be facing a furlough shortly), but things would be very tough after about 6 months. Hopefully we won't need to test that, of course. But we also need more money if we ever want to consider moving to a new house, be it here or somewhere else. Back when we bought our house, it was pretty easy to buy property with a 5% down payment (which is what we did), but obviously things are different now, and loans aren't as easy to come by. If (IF) we can ever sell our current house for anything close to what we owe on it, we will need to offer up 20% down on our next house. That's... a lot of money. Especially around here (or New England, where we would also consider living), and especially considering that we would be looking for an upgrade (i.e., no more townhouse!).

And the OTHER thing is that we really could be saving more, even putting aside the big-but-necessary purchases. We don't have a budget, really. We pay all our bills in full, on time, but we don't really watch our spending. We shop a lot. We eat out a lot. We eat out a lot, AND manage to spend $150-$220 on groceries every week. How is that possible? I have no idea. I don't even have teenagers yet, I still have fairly picky little kid eaters (though my god they can sock away a box of Nutrigrain bars in record time!). How we spend that much money on food is beyond me, but the fact is, we do, and then we spend probably another $100 each weekend on breakfast out, lunch out, coffee out... you get the picture.

So we are putting ourselves on a money diet, and the name of the game is "austerity!". Which is what M. and I mutter or shout to each other to help ourselves resist temptation when we're contemplating an expenditure. Looking for something to do on Saturday night and considering renting a movie through On Demand? Austerity! We watched Kingpin from our DVD collection instead. Thinking about getting a latte as we head in to the grocery store to bolster flagging energy and kid-arguing levels? Austerity! We passed. Even the kids have taken to shouting it randomly, though they don't REALLY know what it means. All they know is that it means we've changed the TV.

Because Austerity Measure #1 is:

1) Get rid of cable.

We've actually been thinking about doing this for some time. I am continually blown away by how expensive our cable/internet bill is - about $150/month (we spend the same amount on our cell phones, by the way, and all we pay for is one Blackberry with a data plan and one regular cell phone without a data plan, and no texting plans - how this adds up to $150, I have no idea - so at some point we'll be putting AT&T on the chopping block, too). We have Verizon Fios, and I can say that a) their internet is great, and b) their cable/On Demand service sucks. The interface is not user friendly, there are big lag times in working the remote, and about 50% of the time we try to watch something on On Demand, we end up having a technical difficulty of one sort or another and it doesn't work. Not a fan. Right now we have a bundle deal that costs us: $68 for cable, $37 for internet, $7 for a standard cable box (in our bedroom, we never use it), $12 for an HD box (in our living room, where the kids watch most of their TV), and $17 for an HD DVR box (in the basement family room, where M. and I watch most of our TV at night), and about $11 in taxes. Our new plan is:

1a) Keep Verizon internet, which (since it's no longer part of a bundle deal) will now cost us $85 plus tax, though we have a two year contract and some other 12-month discount that will lower it to $70 for a significant amount of time.
1b) Hulu Plus account for $8/month, which we can use to watch programming via our Wii system or on our laptops.
1c) Netflix account for $8/month, the one where you just get instant programming and not the DVDs mailed to your house. We can ALSO watch this through the Wii system or on our laptops.
1d) We moved the Wii system up to the living room for easy access to kiddie programming, which means we need something for the downstairs TV - so we have ordered a Roku box for a one-time cost of $70. This will let us watch Netflix and Hulu Plus on the "big TV."
1e) We already have an Amazon Prime membership, which we can apparently also stream through the Wii and Roku.

The total monthly cost will be $86 plus a few dollars of tax, so we'll say $92. Versus the $152 we were paying previously. The Roku box should pay for itself in less than two months.

The tricky thing will be getting used to these new systems. DVRs are SO convenient - everything is recorded in one place. We'll need to figure out which programming we need to watch through each system - kids' cartoons, older seasons of TV shows, and older movies on Netflix, some current shows on Hulu Plus, other current shows on Amazon Prime, and some that we'll just have to suck up and watch live via digital broadcasting (CBS, I'm looking at you!).

Plus, M. has to pretty much give up watching sports. Which TOTALLY stinks for him, and is probably the main reason we've been putting off making this change. And while I am known for being "less than enthusiastic" about sports and sports-viewing, know that this was NOT my idea. It was M.'s - he thinks he will be OK without the Big 10 network and ESPN. I'm not so sure.

Anyway, I'll report back after we've tried this out for a while, and let you know how it's going.

Obviously $50+ in savings on cable a month is not going to get us to our dream house. Other "Austerity!" measures we are taking include:

2) Curtailing eating out/carry out to approximately once a week. There will be times this won't work (for example, we have a couple of trips coming up where we need to eat on the road), but we will do our best (and also limit the times we DO eat out to places that are relatively inexpensive).

3) Limit Target trips to once a month. And go with a list. M. thinks we should become Walmart shoppers, but I don't know that I can go THAT far.

4) Stick to boxed wine and homebrewed beer. This will work for now, though when the weather gets a bit warmer I may need to look in to buying several bottles of a decent-but-cheap "house white" (since boxed white wine apparently hasn't progressed much beyond Almaden and Franzia in quality).

5) Try to keep the grocery bill down to around $125/week. This will be tougher now that we'll be having more meals at home, but I'm going to try my hand at cooking a few things in bulk to help keep costs down. This weekend I used the crockpot to make a big batch of marinara sauce and a HUGE batch of refried beans. I foresee a lot of spaghetti or beans & rice-type meals in our future, but I don't plan to skimp on fresh fruits/vegetables, so they'll be accompanied by some healthy stuff. And I'll still be buying a few organic things like milk, sliced cheese for the kids, and apples (they just look better than the non-organic). We'll see - this may be a moving target.

6) A general "buy less stuff" outlook. Kids are bored/we're bored? Go to the library instead of Barnes and Noble, where we always get suckered into buying new books (and often, Starbucks drinks!). Renew our National Zoo membership and go once a month instead of once every six months (and pack our own lunches!). This should get significantly easier as the weather gets warmer and we can do things like go to all the many nearby playgrounds or our neighborhood pool, which are FREE.

7) Avoid major/moderate house projects, for now. Instead, I'm hoping we can draw up a list of little no-/low-cost projects we can do to keep the house in good condition - touch up paint (needed EVERYWHERE, and we already own some, we just need to DO IT ALREADY), reorganizing/purging storage spaces, recaulking showers, deep cleaning grout, etc. We WILL do some gardening (my favorite part of spring) which will mean buying some flowers, and I would like to try my hand at refinishing one of the bathroom vanities to see how it goes. But nothing BIG, nothing EXPENSIVE (she says, inviting the house gods to kill an appliance or three).

There are a few things we won't be ditching in the name of "Austerity!" M. will still bring his shirts to the dry cleaner. We've tried saving by eliminating the dry cleaner before, and both of us HATE ironing a big ol' pile of shirts. So no. And I will continue to have our cleaning woman clean the house every other week because SANITY. And probably others, I'm sure, but hopefully this will get us closer to comfort, closer to our goals, closer to whatever comes next for us.

How about you? How do you save money? Any good ideas for us?


  1. You'll have to let me know how you do with the ditch the cable plan. Jeremy is super into sports so I'm not sure it's feasible for us now. Your cell phones are definitely too high especially because you aren't really using data, right? So when your contract is up you should look for another plan.

    Our austerity measures are that we aren't spending any real money on the house even though there is quite a bit of cosmetic work that needs to be done. I just can't justify it when we are over/under. We rarely eat out or have date night (babysitter) so that saves. I also do shopping throughout the year for big events like Christmas and birthdays (mostly for Cameron because she is easy to shop for) which leverages sales and keeps from a single big expense in one month.

    I agree that keeping the house cleaner is a must. Sanity, indeed. I also will always keep my gym membership. I get there at least once a week if not more so it's worth it to me (and 5 minutes from my house). You will be able to relax a bit more in over a year when Lucy is out of daycare and into school. I can't WAIT for that expense to be gone (excluding after school care and summer camps). Of course that assume we get into the lottery, otherwise, private school it is. Sigh.

    Similar to you, I don't budget. However, I do hear that people who budget down to the last penny do a much better job with cash flow. That means including EVERYTHING in the budget like haircuts, birthday presents, etc. It can be overwhelming which is why I don't do it! :-) Good luck with austerity 2013!

  2. Jon and I live pretty frugally. I've talked a million times about how we use the library frequently. Not only do we get books, I also download books for my Nook and audiobooks for the kids. A couple of suggestions:

    - Target once a month might be difficult bc it would require more planning. We always seem to run out of toothpaste/deodorant/tampons/etc (needs) at times other than once a month. Maybe shoot for twice a month and only buy from your list?

    - Clothes also seem to be a huge expense, bc when the boys outgrow a size, they outgrow almost everything at the same time. I try to get as much secondhand and/or borrow from friends as I can.

    - Clothes for adults. Here I am lucky because Jon is a minimalist when it comes to clothing. But picking up cute t-shirts or a new skirt or some sandals? It adds up over time.

    I'll be interested to see how this goes! Like Stacey said, when we were done with day care, we suddenly had thousands of extra dollars each month back.

  3. I'm so proud of you! that's a really big commitment and a great one at that. Making it a family focus is great too and getting the kids on board teaches them about financial responsibility which you can never learn about too young. one thing I've started is that I watch the Suze Orman show every week on HLN. While not everything is related to my life, I feel like i'm much more aware of the stuff you should think about like long term retirement planning and how to prioritize savings ideas and really challenging yourself to think about if things are a "want" or a "need". I think she would approve of your AUSTERITY! plan though i think I should now google that and make sure I understand what it means....

  4. We did cash envelopes for awhile when Ben was between jobs, and we saved a ridiculous amount of money is less than 6 months. We put away all of his severance package plus more than 1K a month-- it was crazy. And really fun to have cash envelopes-- we treated it like a game and tried to have as much as possible left over each week to go back in savings.

    Then we bought a new house and returned to our previous gluttonous lifestyle.

    We also have an obscene cable bill and 2 ridiculous cell phone bills. We are also spending about $300 a week on groceries, plus eating out. When we did the cash envelopes, we did 200 at the grocery store, and 80 at Target every week, and it was perfect-- every week we talk about going back to the cash.

    The biggest thing for me is knowing where the money is going. Ben is afraid that mint will steal all our money, so he makes and updates a really detailed spreadhseet. But neither of us has been paying any attention to it, and we have barely saved any money since we bought our house almost 2 years ago (besides retirement).

    We need austerity, too!

  5. We do the cash envelopes too and it works really well. We spend about $600 on groceries a month, which is tight and doesn't allow for a lot of organics, but allows for all the fresh foods and fruits and veggies we want (we all love beans, so this helps). Our "date" (eating out/takeout) money is $125/month. I wish it was higher, especially since we haven't adjusted it since two kids ago and now they demand to eat too. We also each have our "discretionary" budget of $150/month for individual lunches out, movies, clothes, music, coffee, whatever (I spend mine every month, Ryan hoards his, but you don't get to ask each other about discretionary). We also added a $200 "misc" fund for odds and ends that don't fall into another category like diapers, laundry detergent, light bulbs, occasional kid outings, etc. It's working pretty well. We have managed to save about a 9 month emergency fund, in addition to contributing to retirement and the kids' college. It helps that my van is paid off, Ryan drives a 2000 Neon, and we also live in a much cheaper part of the country than you guys.

    Yay for austerity! Good luck to you guys.

  6. (Also, I would sell one of my feet if it meant we could have a housekeeper periodically, but every time I mention it Ryan goes on a bathroom cleaning spree and I drop it for another month or two. That's part of the plan if I ever get the opportunity to go full-time.)