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My family’s mess of a budget forced me to do things I never imagined

Lisa Fogarty


Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

My family’s finances have turned me into a slightly crazed dictator (in the best possible way)

If neither of you is good with money, someone still has to step up to the plate — why not you?

Hi, my name is Lisa and I'm a recovering consumer of $10 chia seed bags and $95 skin care creams containing bee venom. Up until this month, I routinely confused the name of our electricity and gas company for no other reason than because I DGAF. In case I'm giving you the wrong impression about my situation, let me be clear: I didn't grow up in a family where money grew on trees, nor, to my knowledge, is such vegetation currently sprouting in my own yard. It's embarrassing to admit, but without truth there is no change, so here goes nothing: I suck with money because I don't respect it. And, in not respecting it, I am directly causing harm to my family and putting unnecessary strain on my otherwise solid marriage to a man I love more than anything.

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Naturally, a change had to come and I decided this year would be the year I would be that change (it didn't hurt that my husband lit a fire under me after finding out about a few over-the-top Christmas gifts, but I'll make myself feel better by pretending it was 100 percent my idea).

Starting this month, I have appointed myself the supreme ruler of all things finance in our household. In case you're wondering what I slipped into my husband's coffee to get him to agree to this (remember: $10 chia seeds), he is totally on board because a) (no offense, honey) he isn't exactly a maestro when it comes to saving money and b) I called a couple's meeting the night after New Year's, presented him with a glass of whiskey, my brand new Mint budgeting plan and a simple and concise, five-point plan for the next few months. Gandhi, negotiator extraordinaire in his time, would have been proud, though I'm sure he never had to create a personal finance budget that includes its own separate "booze and fun things" category.

In order to develop my budget, I had to first succumb to the painful process of locking myself in a bedroom for an hour and carefully reviewing our bank transactions over the past few months. If you think keeping a food diary is painful, you haven't felt the anguish of having to confront the fact that you spend, on average, $1,100 on groceries for a family of four. For about five seconds, I attempted to self-placate by reminding myself that I live in New York City, home of expensive, shiny food items, but that's just because the amount I've been squandering on food that I don't even know how to prepare is astonishing. Case in point: a bag of romanesco is currently rotting away in my fridge. Anyone know what to do with it? Because I don't.

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With all Band-Aids ripped off, I set forth creating a budget that allows for no more than $700 to be spent a month on all groceries, including diapers, wipes and paper goods (the goal is to eventually get it down to $500). Just in doing a bit of research, I discovered I could save a ton shopping for groceries online, where I'll know exactly what I'm spending and won't have an opportunity to throw random pretty things in my cart. Another big change: instead of dropping some random amount at Sephora without taking into account exactly how much I've spent on myself that month already, my husband and I will split up approximately 9 percent of our total earnings on discretionary spending.

When we found out how much that amounts to, both of us were pleasantly surprised. "You mean I could buy myself a new Apple watch in two months?" my husband asked. I barely heard him over my own daydreams of how I plan on blowing all my fun money in approximately three days.

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Mint — as well as several free personal finance sites and apps out there — is a beautiful companion because it links to your bank accounts and tracks all of your spending and earnings in real time. I wish I could say painstaking research went into my decision to try Mint, but here’s what actually went down. My friend Cia has been using the service for years. She owns an apartment in Harlem, a handsome Rottweiler who looks well fed and recently returned from a trip to Archipelago Los Roques, Venezuela, where she caught a barracuda. She’s the only person I know who actually scaled Mount Everest. And she pays her bills on time. I thought: Gee, I’d like to scale Mount Everest one day, too. Mint helped that happen? Why, Mint it is then.

I'm pleased to say it has not disappointed. I accidentally typed in a much higher car insurance cost than we pay, and it actually sent me a sad email letting me know I'm overpaying for insurance. I feel like it's holding my hand throughout this process, and yes, I'll need a lot of guidance for the first few months. Every time money leaves your account, it updates accordingly and lets you know how much you have left to spend for the month in a specific category.

Of course, a website can't do everything for you. As part of my plan, I have made a commitment to wake up and check each of our accounts, make adjustments as needed, and send my husband an email each morning letting him know how much money he has left in his "lunch" and other categories. At this point, you may be thinking, Oh, hell no, I'm not going to be my husband's keeper.

But here's what I've found: Unless one person in your relationship eats, breathes, loves and truly understands money, chances are one party is going to have to step up to the plate. In our case, I am far more invested in saving money when I assume control over pretty much everything, like a benevolent, still slightly crazed dictator. For me, the definition of torture is sitting side by side with my husband and coming up with finance plans — group work, no thanks. Splitting finance tasks simply doesn't work for us because we tend to get loose and lazy about them when we feel the other person is handling everything.

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Before the Great 2016 Budgeting Plan, my husband and I would constantly bicker and judge one another for spending OUR money on hockey tickets, one too many tapas or Butter London 12 Months of Manis (no regrets). Between the two of us, he was always the one who managed our money over the 10 years we've been together, but let's not get crazy. By "manage," I mean spend a few months shaming us both for spending 5 cents on ourselves (which was painful, but effective) and then another few months agreeing with me that we've both suffered enough and deserve everything we want whenever we want. Repeat pattern. Wonder why we aren't squirreling away as much as we can?

Neither one of us had an epiphany when it came to money — I simply got too embarrassed of myself not to do something. We talk a lot about how wrong it is to "shame" each other, but as a tool, a little self-shaming now and then can keep you from going broke. Now, we're finding we actually have more freedom and more money to spend on whatever the heck we want for ourselves because we know, at the start of each month, that we're only allowed to withdraw a specific amount of cash for "pleasure-seeking" that has to last us the entire month. Want to blow it all on wireless headphones? Be my guest — there will be no judgment here.

This isn't to say we haven't realized sacrifices are going to be necessary if we want to reach our savings goals. Neither one of us have gym memberships (YouTube videos are fine and dandy, if you ask me). We don't rack up credit card debt on anything we can't afford right this moment. And, for the most part, we limit nice dinners out to once a month.

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It's too soon to say whether I'll be successful in my new role, but it already feels like an exciting world has opened up — one in which my husband and I share a more clear vision of our mission in life, which is to provide for our family to the best of our ability. Chia seeds may still fit into that, but only if they're on sale.

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