Where Logic Meets Love

You Can't Get an A in Saving Money

Friday, July 15, 2011

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You Can't Get an A in Saving Money | Faith Permeating Life
I've been thinking lately about saving money... but not in the way you might expect.

One of the blogs I follow recently posted this powerful post in which she basically explains why no matter how frugal you are and no matter how much money you save up, there's no guarantee it will always be enough. And you can't live your life in fear of debt. Being proud of how frugal you are and saving up more and more money makes you no better in God's eyes than the person who puts their worth in their possessions.

I really struggle with this because I alternate between fearing we won't have enough money to achieve our few big goals (adopting a large family, buying land, and building our own house) and trying to keep myself from getting too obsessive about how much money we're putting into savings each month.

Mint.com, much as I love it, has totally messed with my perceptions because it's all based on a budget. I try to set our budget as high as possible in each category so we can see the "worst-case scenario," so it's always telling me that we're going to barely save the $250 that is our monthly goal, plus there are always a few categories where we end up spending more than planned. It scolds me by turning a month's budget red if we make even a dollar less than I said we would. The majority of the time I spend on Mint makes me feel like I can barely manage our money.

Yet when I look at our "trends" on Mint over the last year, I see that when you compare how much we brought in to how much we spent, we saved an average of $1,000 a month. How is this possible???

And then I feel like I'm being too tight with our money, even though I know we're saving up for a reason.

Yesterday I went to a seminar at work on saving money because I figured I could pick up a few tips even if it was mostly stuff like "here's how to make a budget." I did end up with a handful of notes (like "Don't forget to add the Christmas gifts budget to Mint now") but the vast majority of it was stuff I consider basic baby steps, like "Try to curb impulse buying when you go to the mall" (have I even been to the mall in the past year?) and "See if you can cut back to basic cable if you're not watching all the premium channels" (we don't even watch TV).

The worst part was that I was sitting close to the front and the speaker apparently needed constant reassurement because she kept asking, "You know what I mean?" and then pouncing on me if I looked at all like I didn't know what she meant. She kept making generalizations about women and shopping, like, "Women, how many black pairs of shoes do we really need? You buy a pair and then find you've got one just like it at home, amiright?" and "We're just lazy, we'd rather go buy a new dress than look through our closet to see what we have." The last time I went clothes shopping was in January and that was because I'd gotten a bunch of Kohl's gift cards for Christmas. I rarely spend money on myself.

I know all the statistics about how most people don't have a budget and that it's really common for people to buy coffee every morning and go out to lunch every day. It's just that the concepts of having an emergency budget, saving for long-term goals, and paying off my credit card in full every month are so drilled into me that I have a tendency to assume that people spending that much extra money must have that much more money than me, and so I find myself wishing that I had those kinds of things to cut out of my spending so I could save even more money and reach our goals that much faster. Which is silly.

Wise Bread ran an article last fall about how when they'd asked readers what money advice they were sick of, many people said they were sick of being told how much money they'd save if they "cut out their daily latte." People who spend a lot of time reading about personal finance aren't often the type to have these kind of "daily sacrifices" they can make to bring their spending down. One great blog I read, The Non-Consumer Advocate, recently asked people to post their money-saving ideas, and these were much more geared toward people who have the basics down: tips about what to find at thrift stores, how to get things free in bad shape and fix them up, what kind of free entertainment to look for.

One of the comments on the Wise Bread article, though, has stayed with me. Here's part of it:
When we are first new to this save-money thing, it is exciting because there are lots of strategies to learn. But eventually we pretty much have learned what there is to learn that we can apply to our lives. We all want to continue to learn, so we come to sites like wisebread. But it is an unrealistic expectation that we will continue to find a wealth of completely new ideas at the same rate.

Frugality has limitations. That's just the reality. You can't save so much money that your cost of living is zero. There is a bottom limit that is a realistic standard of living. But even if you do everything possible, for some people it still will not be enough to make ends meet. There just is no magic.
This is hard for me as a person who wants to follow all the rules and get straight A's and explore every possible avenue. There is no point at which the Magic Money Fairy will come down and say, "Good job! You are now saving 100% of the money you could possibly be saving!" It's an area where I just have to say to myself, "I'm doing enough" and be satisfied with that. I've already made some decisions about where my boundaries are, what things I won't cut out and won't do -- like I rarely attempt to find coupons because 1) we get half our food from our CSA and 2) Mike never remembers to take them to the grocery store anyway. The effort it would take to find and use coupons isn't worth the few dollars a month it would save.

This is an area where I need to "let go and let God." Maybe when we have five kids our current strategies won't be enough and we will have to become crazy coupon-clippers or something, but right now I feel like we're doing pretty damn good. I can't predict the future. It's possible we'll be completely fine and achieve all our goals and live long, happy lives in financial security. It's also possible that even if I found an extra $1,000 a month to put away, we'd get hit with something so big we'd end up in debt. There's no way to know. I can only do my best and trust God with the rest!


  1. I know what you mean! I tracked all my spending to the penny for 10 years, beginning when I started college. Then one day, after more than a month of berating myself for slipping behind on entering data into Quicken, I started to think about how I had savings equivalent to more than two years' income and how my checking account was never anywhere close to drained, and I realized: Maybe I actually know what I'm doing! Maybe I don't have to monitor everything so closely! So I quit, and it's been fine.

    I did have to get more careful about my spending when I went on maternity leave and then back to work part-time. Because I had pre-tax income diverted into a Flexible Spending Account to pay for child care, and because I was paying the part-timer's premium on health insurance for my whole family, and because my 12 weeks off were at half salary, I received ZERO take-home pay until my son was about 5 months old and then got paychecks that were about $20/week more than what I was paying for child care. You can't get reimbursement from an FSA until you have paid the caregiver, and at that point (this improved later) I had to submit a paper form documenting 6 payments and wait up to 4 weeks to receive a check. So from time to time, I'd move money from savings (money market account) to checking to avoid overdrawing the checking account. Every time, I felt guilty and irresponsible because I was failing to live within my means. After all, my partner was paying all our family expenses except child care and health insurance, so why couldn't I keep up?

    Oddly enough, it took me months to remember (and then I had to re-remember several times in the next few years) that THIS WAS THE TIME I HAD BEEN SAVING FOR!!! I mean, I also have retirement savings, but the money market account exists so that I can pay for the big stuff:
    1. college (done)
    2. occasional large but practical purchases, such as a car or a home improvement
    3. parenthood--being able to afford to spend more time with my baby and to keep my social science research position, instead of selling my soul to earn big bucks doing something I hate while barely seeing my child!!

    I honestly had forgotten that I would ever be "allowed" to use money from that account to meet everyday expenses. I was so firmly in the habit of putting money IN and only taking it out with a rare 5-figure check for some obviously important thing like the down payment on the house, that it seemed horrifyingly frivolous to take money OUT just so I could have cash in my pocket for, like, new sneakers and an occasional granola bar.

    But I guess that's backward from a lot of people: They buy the sneakers and granola bars and daily lattes at every whim, save nothing, and run up credit-card bills when they're out of money. THOSE are the people most of the advice is for, and with good reason.

  2. @'Becca
    I'm so glad to know someone else thinks the same way I do! We have an ING account that is the "money in" account, and I have to remind myself that it is OK to spend our savings sometimes. It is not going to sit there until we die. For our anniversary we are planning a very expensive dinner and I keep reminding myself that we are allowed to splurge sometimes.

    It will definitely be very hard for me when we have kids, like you mentioned, and our spending goes up and Mike stops working--but I will try to keep remembering! I would like to think that the more we put away now before kids, the less worried I'll be about spending money then, but I know myself and I know that's not true. I will need frequent reminders. So thanks for letting me know I'm not alone on that :)

  3. I look at saving money this way: when do I want the money by, and when do I need the money by? Say I want to buy a car. I want the money by the end of 3 years, and I need it by the end of 6 (when my car will likely be kaput as it's already 10 years old). So if I want to save $5,000 for a down payment, then 5000/(3 x 12) = $140 I need to save it month ideally, and 5000/(6 x 12) = $70 I need to save monthly at a minimum. Then I look at what I can realistically afford to put back (say $100 a month) and that's my target for each month. If I can save more, great! If I can only put back the minimum, okay I'm not terrible. If I have to miss a month due to unforeseen expenses, then at least I've paid over in some months and that kind of makes up for it. So then I don't have to "be perfect" and shoot for an "A" in savings. I can just meet my goals and be happy. :)

  4. @Anonymous
    That's a good way to look at saving for something specific. That's basically what I've done with saving up for adoption: I set a goal of when we definitely want to adopt by and how much we need to save every month, and that gets factored in as one budget line when I do our monthly budget (Mint does this automatically). Most months we've been able to save more than that, but when we decided to put more toward Mike's student loans it was fine because we were so far ahead of schedule with our savings.


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