As a student, we are presented a nearly blank check in the form of student loans and financial aid packages (aka, more student loans). It can be hard to resist taking out more than you actually need. But once you open the intravenous drip of federal funds, it can be hard to quit it – hard to reduce your liabilities.
A close friend of mine confided in me that he was broke. The credit card debt had taken over. It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. He had student loans, but he knew better. Something had happened; sort of inexplicable, really. His expenditures soared, but the income was stagnant.
After realizing his budget couldn’t right itself, he scrambled to find help with friends and family. Fortunately, they supported him financially and he’s been fixing his broken budget. The following are some excerpts from our conversation (via email), as he’s learned a lot about what drove him to this level.
Romantic relationships and money
Our conversation ran the gamut, but for a moment, he focused on the impact of relationships and money. Implicitly, there’s a pressure as man (whether there should be or not) to treat and offer to pay – to be a provider.
I like the thought too about expectations, the impact on relationships (if one partner has to suddenly cut back). Part of my expectation (related to gender role socialization) has made it tough for me. I’m so used to being able to buy nice things for Susie, to pay for her dinner, to treat her to nice surprises (fuck, even for little things like buying flowers).
He ran out, and in sharing this with his partner, she was surprisingly accepting, supportive, and helpful. It can be difficult to admit budgetary defeat, and the longer it goes unnoticed, untamed, and denied, the deeper the hole can become. Here are some things he learned from confronting and sharing this realization:
…She’s been great about the whole thing. I think she’s honestly relieved a bit. She’s been much better at being frugal than me (more self-disciplined and better at handling money) from day one. I think she’s been very aware that marrying me means joining with my maelstrom of ego-driven impulse buys, not effortfully considering the true cost (long term) of my purchases, whether I can afford things in reality, and my staggering student loan debt.
Last May, I realized I was sinking, and attempted to change everything because I didn’t want my debt to destroy a loving relationship. Seemingly, by confronting and asking for support from others (emotional and/or financial), the way back can be made easier. My friend decided he needed to start from scratch and analyze the budgetary gaps where money was disappearing.
The sink is shipping… How do I take back control?
For me, I had a similar experience to your 7 day challenge. I had so many little expenditures I didn’t realize (holes in the hull of my “finance boat” if you will). I had far less variety in food while I was getting the hang of it. I made rice & beans and had it for like 6 meals. I changed a few things up, would add cheese or salsa. I would wrap it in a tortilla or just have in a bowl. And I would intersperse a McDonald’s dollar menu purchase to balance it out. But it was tough feeling like I’d failed. Tough having to tell myself no, you can’t have it. I think it helps knowing I can’t “cheat” when I have these either-or decisions to make.
As he traveled through the joys of cutting back and realizing what needed to go, the budget was pretty clear; all or nothing, he had to change. The spending couldn’t be sustained. The credit cards were maxed. The student loans were tapped.
When I had literally $0 mid-way through December, I started to realize what had to be done. And magically, I was able to change my expectations, get a roommate, cancel many unnecessary things (gym membership, no more buying expensive proteins, no more consumer reports, got Comcast to lower my cable bill, etc). I’ve been able to set up a budget and stick to it. I’ve been able to track every expense, because I finally HAVE to do this. Years of attempts and failures, but finally having “skin in the game” lead to success.
Changing, fixing your budget is more difficult than it sounds
To spout out the mantras and trite cliches that simply say, “Change your budget to take in more than you spend,” can sometimes be more difficult than it sounds.
Adjusting my budget wasn’t a small change, it’s a giant lifestyle change that’s hitting nearly every area of my life. I needed to change my workout routine since I cut my gym routine. I have to get a roommate and change my living situation. I have to get used to rarely eating out. I have to change leisure time since I can’t really afford 20$+ to take Susie and me to the theater. My choice was to bottom out with no money in May again, or finally get my shit together. And for now, I’m on the get your shit together path.
Like many who’ve participated on this site, asked me, or debated online, the line between frugality and simply stingy/cheap is sometimes a gray area. Being cheap can sometimes elicit a value question.
A big question a lot of this leaves me with is how to be frugal without being cheap. I think there is some overlap, but that they are different. Frugal to me means cutting back, often not being fully satisfied at the reward of more savings. Cheap to me often reflects a self-interested style of frugality. In my mind, I think of friends who would leave little to no tip at restaurants, try to get everyone else to pay for them, continually try to ask “are you going to finish that.” As I’m making huge changes, maybe I’m trying to find a way to stay congruent with my values in the process.
By sharing my friend’s hard lessons learned and insights along the way, I hope it gives you a window into a world. What you do with that window is yours.
Special thanks to my close friend and confidant. Really appreciate being able to share your growth and story with my readers. All names have been changed, but you know who you are!