Budget sacrifices

We have a couple gifting occasions coming up this summer. Normally I don’t give it a whole lot of thought – if it’s a wedding I go to their registry, pick something out, order it, ship it, done. If it’s a baby shower, I do the same thing. If it’s a baby announcement, though, I like to go to some baby explosion store and buy some cute wearable. Because it’s a baby and they have amazingly cute, tiny things. And it’s remains a novelty for me to shop for tiny things.

Essentially, I make giving gifts all about me in the convenience and fun factor. Plus buying from a registry ensures the couple or parents get what they want or need, and the post delivery baby gift selection is typically functional as well as ridiculously cute. At my core I am pretty practical.

I never think about whether I’m being cheap or anything else. I typically have a budget range in mind that depends on who the person is in my life, their own circumstances, etc. In my mind gifts should be given and accepted graciously with little or no thought to cost. Of course, I am a complete Pollyanna who truly believes it is the thought that counts.

Lately here, discussion in my own life about weddings and baby showers are coming up more and more, and there seems to be a great debate over how much to spend on a gift. With 2 kids having weddings last year, apparently I should be more in the know about this stuff? Nope, not this mom of both a bride and a groom. The kids are adults, capable of handling their own gifting and financial affairs, and frankly the biggest concern I had was being the mother of “those kids” who did not write their thank you notes in a timely manner. Thankfully, both of mine got theirs done within a month of their weddings.

Sorry friends, I’m the last person you know to ask if a gift makes you look cheap. If you put some thought – even if the extent of the thought was to check their registry and select something – it counts. A few years back a client’s son was getting married and when I checked the registry, a single piece of their china was over $100, crystal was expensive as well. I felt weird giving a coffee cup or salad plate, so I wandered over to towels and such and purchased a set of towels that happened to be on sale. It was a registry item; obviously that’s what they wanted. I didn’t blow my budget and got them something they indicated they desired. My work is done.

This comes up periodically because I work with younger folk, many with a lot of student loan debt hanging over their heads and influencing their choices in jobs and career pathways. Something like gifts for a wedding and a shower can be major budget busters. One of my associates was recently asked to be a bridesmaid. She immediately said yes but is now having serious reservations about the idea once she began adding up the costs. There is an engagement party, so that means a gift. A shower gift, a wedding gift, the dress and shoes and jewelry, the bachelorette party, and it’s also a destination wedding. Ugh. I would have been tempted to say no to the invitation out of budget constraint, but I’m also middle aged and if my friends are getting married now, they are more far less concerned with the modern day wedding experience.

When is enough I wonder? I don’t know. I had the minimalist experience with my daughter last year and then the more modern tradition with my son. Both turned out beautifully and all parties are happy. My daughter had the small courthouse wedding she wanted, my son and daughter-in-law had the wedding of the decade (it was so much fun). The work leading up to the bigger wedding event was enormous, but that was what they wanted, so that’s what they had. I think they did a good job of managing costs and expectations, but it was still an expensive event. I also think it helps enormously that G and K are reasonable people – no -zillas that I saw or heard about – and were able to work with their friends to make the important parts of the wedding happen.

But I still know a lot of folks who worry about appearances. I suggest to my peeps that living within your means always looks good, but when you are a young attorney saddled with debt, most people only look at the profession and make the assumption that passing the bar automatically equates to healthy salaries. Perhaps, but when you factor in long hours, living expenses, and the burden of 5 to 6 figure students loan debt, they healthy salary sudden feels a lot like minimum wage.

This does not mean feel sorry for the well educated young professional, they have such a rough life. But it does mean that their lives are not so rapturously golden because they have a law degree and a professional job.

Once upon a time I was a budget coach, in that I helped people figure out their income and expenses and all the live they were presently living and really could not afford. It was some of the worst and most painful work of my life. Going through it myself was bad enough; trying to help people understand that their “needs” did not equate to cable television, 2 cars (with car payments), new electronics every year, etc. was a huge challenge. Once they realized they would have to give up most of if not all of their wants to pay down their debt, they wanted to get out debt as quickly as possible, which meant unsustainable budgets and more month than money and having to hit the credit card again for basic living expenses.

It was an ugly cycle.

I rarely do that kind of thing anymore. Dave Ramsey has getting out of debt pretty well covered if someone is serious about taking those steps. But chatting with my associate and her stress about the minimal expenses and bridesmaid obligations saddens me. Her heart is in the right place, her friend is her best friend since childhood. But the expenses are going to pile up and she is not going to be able to afford a cup of coffee for the next 7 months unless she diverts any bonuses (90% of which have been used to pay down her student loans) for the wedding expenses.

At least she has options; few people get work bonuses. Small comfort when she is trying so desperately to relieve herself of the debt burden.

Hard choices, difficult conversations ahead. But no, I don’t think she looks cheap for not wanting to spend thousands to be in her dear friend’s wedding. And yes, I do think her friend should understand if she says she cannot afford to be a bridesmaid and attend a wedding in Hawaii. If anything, I wish everyone were as disciplined and as driven to break out of debt enslavement. Law school was worth it, and student loans felt like her only choice at the time. I don’t care about that; what’s done is done. But I very much respect her smart choices now and the sacrifices that may have to be made to slay that dragon.

I am very proud of her, no matter what happens next. I advised she be true to herself, her values and priorities. True friends will understand or work with her to make it happen.

Dragon slaying (aka slashing our budget)

So now that I have had my fill of trying to update and customize the blog theme, I am back to the more serious business of working on our budget with the recent demoralizing salary slashing. I am still not over it. My full-time job is the most depressing, non-dangerous place to spend 8 hours daily. And even though I know what I want to do, what has to happen, I have been dragging my feet on getting our budget updated.

I have not wanted to cut our retirement savings, and thus far I am successful in protecting that savings bucket. Everything else is on the hit list for ruthless examination and cutting, and it has been an uncomfortable experience. I know mine remains a luxury problem, because I’m still saving a significant chunk of my income for retirement and long-term goals and having to cut my very generous flexible spending categories is not a real hardship. Unless you are an entitled spoiled brat, and despite my foot-dragging and whining, M and I know how lucky we are in our to have only this level of discomfort.

Our flexible spending categories are getting slashed 30%, but as I have said, they are generous. I mean, a $600 food budget for a family of 2 most of the time? I am not a conscious shopper; I rarely have a list and never look at the grocery flyers. We tend to wander up and down the aisles and toss whatever catches our eye or sounds good in that moment into the cart. Bad, bad habit, but I have taken great pains to point out that we are not particularly frugal people. We rarely eat out anymore – Chef M now resides under this roof and is preparing all sorts of interesting meals that carry over into the following days as well. We are working together on meal planning putting forth concerted effort to cut down on the food waste, which is embarrassingly huge. Vegetarians we are not; meat is a huge part of our diet, especially for M, and organic (read: expensive) is always going to be our first choice. The trick we are finding is to buy ginormous pieces of meat or packages of chicken and either cut and freeze in more sensible portions or cut, cook, and freeze them into normal sized, 2-person meals with at most a couple days of leftovers.

We are determined to get our food budget under $600 from mid-July through the end of August. This should really not be much of a problem, because the freezer and pantry are both well stocked right now. Fresh fruits and vegetables – critical items for me – are going to be the primary consumers of our food-shopping dollars.

The ones that I suspect will be most painful are personal care and supplements. M is a huge, HUGE consumer of vitamins and supplements. The vitamins themselves tend to come and go in 90-day supplies, but there are so many we are buying different things every single month. I also take a couple of spendy brand supplements – my Vitamin D is $22/bottle and last 2 months, versus the one M takes that is $10/bottle from Costco and lasts 6 months – so we will both be making some concessions. In this area M more than me will be feeling the sacrifice immediately.

But in this we will adjust and it’s mostly an annoyance right now because of the circumstances. If we were just trying to save more money or to pay for a home enhancements or even an unexpected expensive event it would be easier to swallow, so I need to just suck it up and deal. My part-time gigs have some intriguing work coming up next week and through September, so there is that to look forward to around our vacation days. M is also going to be doing some fun (to him) work that will minimize our crash back to earth to “normal” spending plans and budgets.

With all things finance, I believe the initial contraction is always painful when it must be accepted and implemented. While knowing might be half the battle, it does not make it suck any less.

Off to go have some cheese with my whine. Have a great evening.