I am a budgeter. I love balancing my checkbook. I track every penny meticulously. I actually love doing it because I feel in control of my money and my life. But I often find myself feeling disappointed when I victoriously get all the numbers to match up then see how little is left in my budget envelopes for food, how little is being paid to debt, and how I feel so far from meeting our financial goals. Then that joy of a checkbook well balanced plummets into despair and despondence.
eat ice cream go for a run and read some inspiring blogs, then get pumped again about getting on the budgeting horse and continuing to look forward toward future progress in paying down our debts and meeting our other financial goals.
But this summer I fell off the horse, and maybe ate a lot of ice cream.
What with a lot of traveling starting in June, I fell behind on balancing the checkbook.
Yes, I kick it old school and actually write all my debit card transactions and checks in my checkbook register, then I compare it to my acocunt online to make sure it adds up and then add those transactions into my budget categories on Goodbudget. I usually balance my checkbook/budget every few days or a week at the most. We keep our budget a month ahead so that we always have one or two paychecks in our account that are to be used for the following month’s expenses. This ensures that we will always have cash on hand in an emergency and gives us some buffer if we go over on our monthly expenses and eat into next month’s budget (usually due to grocery costs or other variable costs like that).
But this summer, I took a vacation from my checkbook register, and it bit me in the ass. In June I went on a week long beach vacation with family. I had not originally planned to go on this trip but I was invited along and was able to stay at my Aunt’s beach house in Florida and carpool there, so my costs were low. We ate out only twice and made inexpensive grocery trips to cook at the house. I had a fun and relaxing week. I came home from the trip and my husband drove out of town the following week to visit a few of his friends in another part of Florida. This was also a last minute planned trip and we rationalized that it would only cost food and gas since he was staying at his friend’s house. So off he went to have fun with the boys.
Several weeks prior, my husband and I had spent the majority of our measly savings to book a hotel room for a trip to Atlanta which we had been planning for a long time. We had planned to stay with his cousin but realized only too late that she lived in a suburb and was quite far away from where we needed to be in downtown Atlanta. Sigh. So we booked a hotel downtown out of convenience, which was also overpriced since it was only a few weeks out and many other vacationers had booked up hotel rooms.
I know….I know better. Unplanned vacation plans and dropping several hundred extra dollars I didn’t have and pulled from savings on a hotel room for “convenience” is a bad idea. But I told myself that it would “work itself out” somehow and banked on that cushion in my account from budgeting a month ahead. I wanted to bask in the ignorance, avoid the bank, and just pretend like everything was fine.
I was wrong. That cushion ran out real fast. I knew that we were making the wrong choices with all the impromptu additional costs, but I oh how I rationalized it. That vague feeling of uneasiness at my financial irresponsibility gnawed at me.
My response was to do the only thing I could think of. Bury my head.
I decided that it was best to ignore my budget. I knew I was several hundred dollars in the hole and eating into the next month’s budget with no real prospect of making up the difference before the next month began. I felt like I didn’t know how to fix it so I just went with it. I panicked and refused to go grocery shopping, instead eating up the food in the pantry and only making small trips. Every time I needed to pay for something I started to sweat because I felt unsure of whether I could afford it, even if it was something I really needed, like paying the electric bill. Then work got really busy and I was happily distracted. I tried to ignore my unease and couldn’t bear to look at the numbers to see how far in the hole I actually was.
Then my husband and I went on our trip to Atlanta and had a lovely drive there, enjoying spending the time together and I tried to ignore my heart rate each time we got gas. We checked into our hotel and my husband checked our bank account app on his phone, then told me the news we had both been avoiding.
We had just arrived on our vacation and had $49 in our bank account. And it was a holiday weekend and I would not be getting paid until 3 days later.
At least our mortgage payment had already been auto-drafted out of our account, which caused the dramatic drop in account balance, so we didn’t have to worry about that bill. But we had many other bills to worry about. And immediately, we had to worry about dinner.
My husband had opened a credit card last year to build his credit and we only put one tank of gas a month on it, then paid it immediately. We discussed our options and had very few, so we ate cheaply for the weekend, tried to enjoy our vacation despite our fear, and put it on the credit card.
We returned home and I continued to avoid balancing the check book. I started on it, got afraid, and decided to watch television instead. I’m sad to say it, but it took several weeks to get caught up and determine how far in the hole we were. God smiles on fools and I got paid one of those magic third paychecks in August, which caught us up (for the most part) and put us back to budgeting a month ahead. Well, until my husband purchased his books for the fall semester for $500 for 4 books (seriously?!). We are still in the hole but at least we can make a game plan now.
You have to step on the scale before you lose weight. You have to know where the starting line is before you can visualize the finish line. You have to balance your checkbook and know where you are financially before you can change.
What have I learned this summer:
1. I need to balance my checkbook every week No. Matter. What. Even if I am scared or know I will be disappointed, I must do it.
2. Savings accounts are imperative and we must prioritize saving so that we can handle emergencies without borrowing from next month’s budget.
3. Emergencies are only emergencies. If I have an option as to whether I will pay for something, it is not an emergency.
4. I have to say no. I do not get to go on vacation when I cannot afford it.
5. My actions should be driven by my values and goals. I value financial freedom and have a goal to pay my bills and get out of debt. I have to ask myself before I make a purchase if it is furthering my goals and in line with my values.