I Buy Books Instead Of Food; How Do You Prioritize Money?

I used to buy books instead of food because the books kept me alive.

Jan 29, 2014 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Freya on the slide during our Christmas Day walk around the neighborhood.

This holiday season was really great in some ways. We hosted a dinner at our place, full of friends. We didn't travel so we didn't have to fight the crush of holiday traffic. And we exchanged thoughtful gifts (bought with an agreed upon budget) and spent a whole bunch of time together because I took a lot of time off.

All of that was totally awesome -- less awesome was the reason behind some of the decisions that kept us at home. My husband Ed lost his job at the beginning of December, which had a significant impact on our travel plans and budget for the holidays. Going from two incomes down to one meant travel just wasn't going to happen (which actually is a damn shame because we LOVE spending Christmas with family).

Since then, it's meant being a lot more budget-conscious in general. We had fallen back into bad habits of eating out a lot -- there's no faster money suck than eating out almost every meal, especially when you start multiplying that by people. Now we're cooking at home again, and that means reallocating our time and energy into grocery shopping and making food.

We're not totally broke (yet), but I've definitely been thinking about how I choose to spend my money. It's so easy for me to fritter my funds away, five or 10 bucks at a time on little things that seem necessary in the moment. In some ways, I'm relearning my fiscal priorities.

There have been some points in my life when I didn't have money for food. And even during those times, I allowed myself to buy books. It wasn't even something I hesitated over -- books have saved my life too many times over the years. One ex-boyfriend thought it was charming; another ex-boyfriend thought it was just another perfect illustration of how I refused to live in the same practical world as he did.

I never thought I wasn't being practical. I just thought I had to have stories around me to live.

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Freya is bored by this budgetary discussion. Ed is stressed.

That's not so much changed, but these days a lot more of my reading takes place online. (Yeah, I admit, I read a lot of fanfic on my phone in the middle of the night when I can't sleep.) So curtailing what I spend on books hasn't been a pinch.

It's other things -- little things mostly, like nail polish. Or yarn. The little expenditures that add up really fast. I've been pushing myself to remember a thing I heard a long time ago -- the store is called the store because it stores things and I can go and get them when I need them; I don't have to hang on to them in my house.

It's hard though. I'm used to hanging on to things just in case or snapping them up as soon as I can. Because, in the past, I've not had enough money to buy things -- or, in the case of clothing, things flat out haven't been available for love nor money. I think that's common, actually, for folks who wind up having a little money after a long time of not having any.

Despite being in charge of our finances, I'm still not as good as I want to be at budgeting. I'm not TERRIBLE at it but this whole "regular spending" concept is a little hazy for me, and that leads to things sometimes still surprising me. Reducing our combined income has definitely upped the challenge factor because our expenses are higher now than the last time Ed was unemployed. Is this like leveling up?

Right now, I'm using the old school method of writing down our bills and tracking them on a calendar in conjunction with my paychecks. I've tried Mint.com and some other software -- and I kind of hate it all. Tracking every purchase has proven to be overwhelming.

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This is me, worrying about money.

That's what I don't know how to fix.

Well, that and how to strike a balance between telling myself (or Ed) no and bending enough to say yes -- I don't like that I apparently only have "everything is awesome" mode or "panic panic don't spend even a penny" mode.

That's what I need to figure out -- because we really ARE going to be fine (though if you have a job lead for an entry-level IT guy in Orlando, I wouldn't say no to it!) and there's no reason to carry all of this anxiety around while I deny us any little thing in mega draconian fashion. Like, seriously, Marianne, one nail polish is fine. Just not one every single time I go into the drug store every couple of days.

How do you strike this balance? How do you figure out what indulgences to allow yourself when you're on a budget?

What's even a reasonable budget for a married couple with no kids and a bunch of animals? (We've got four cats and a dog and they eat really well.) The more I dig into financial advice, looking for some way to feel okay about the situation, the less sure I feel about anything ever. Partly because budgeting resources, much like diets, have this language of extreme restriction, but also because it's all so theoretical. Where can a person get actual factual numbers to look at?

Talking about money is super fraught -- it's obviously way emotional and it's easy to blow up at people who have more of it when some of us are really strapped for it. But I'm hoping we can figure a few things out here -- like how to be conscious of spending without feeling like things are getting obsessive in a bad way.

Should I just call a financial planner the way I've been secretly wanting to for a couple of years now? Do you have any juicy stories to share about financial planners? Because I always just figured they were for rich people but lately I've begun to suspect they'd be good for regular folks, too.

In the meantime, I'm going to pack my lunch for tomorrow at work. And figure out what to eat at the house for breakfast. I'm going to calculate how much money that's saved us in my head -- and maybe take Ed and I down to the used bookstore after work. Because we do still need stories.