In the 14 years I've been with my boyfriend, Nick, we've weathered a lot of storms, from my parents' divorce to paying off $50,000 of debt.
Nick and I started dating in 1999 as poor 19-year-old college students. We didn't know anything about managing money at the time, but we learned together. After graduation, we both found full-time jobs, in finance for me and in information technology for Nick. We moved into a convenient (read: expensive) downtown apartment, bought a new car and furnished our apartment with a big-screen TV and new furniture.
For a while we paid our bills on time every month, but eventually our frivolous spending got ahead of us -- and we landed thousands of dollars in debt. I wasn't sure Nick and I could pay off our balances, and I went to see a bankruptcy consultant. As a financial planner, admitting financial defeat was one of the lowest points in my life. Ultimately, we didn't file bankruptcy -- there would have been too many consequences for my financial career. But we immediately cut our expenses and readjusted our budget. I took a second job, and it took us three years to get back on our feet -- but we did it.
Laid Off During the Recession
But in 2009 we suffered a huge blow. Nick's company was acquired, and they outsourced a lot of jobs, including his. I wanted to play the supportive girlfriend role, to tell Nick everything would be OK and he'd find another job quickly. But as a financial planner, my mind was racing: How could we adjust to living without Nick's $65,000 salary?
Though we had a small emergency fund, I was determined not to touch it and to figure out how we could truly live off one income. So I scoured our bills, and we discussed how to restructure our budget. The first round -- such as dining out several times a week and premium cable -- freed up a whopping $600 each month. Through this process, Nick and I began to realize that living off my $70,000 salary was indeed possible. Here's what we did.
How We Made It Work
We scaled back on eating out. When we realized we were spending upwards of $400 every month on dining out alone, we cut that down to $20 a week, which still allows me to grab a bagel and lunch with my co-workers once a week. I began bringing my lunch to work the other four days and stocking my desk drawers with instant breakfast options. Let's just say that learning to cook was not a success, so I compensated by finding premade foods and snacks to eat at work. They taste better than anything I can cook, and it's much cheaper than going out every afternoon.
We found cheaper ways to socialize. Being extremely social, as Nick and I naturally are, is extremely expensive. Now we limit our restaurant dinners and after-work drinks with friends to once a month, instead of once or twice a week, and we easily save at least another $60 a week. Our friends were very understanding when we told them about our financial situation, and they even started hosting dine-in dinners in their own homes. This allows Nick and me to enjoy time with our friends without having to worry about whether the restaurant bill fits into our budget.
We cut out vacations we couldn't take by car. The key to making budget cuts is to not feel like you're sacrificing too much. Traveling was really important to us because we didn't get to do it in college, so Nick and I were used to taking a couple of vacations every year -- at $2,000 to $3,000 each. Instead of eliminating vacations altogether, eliminating the need to fly cut our vacation costs in half.
We still prioritized retirement savings. As a financial planner, I knew how important it was to continue saving for retirement. After all, we still wanted to retire someday. I adjusted our $200 biweekly retirement contributions to $50 monthly in order to keep saving without straining our budget. I felt good knowing I was still building our future nest egg. (Plus, I was concerned if I stopped contributing completely, I may not start again when we had more money to spare.) So I stayed the course and only increased my contributions when we could afford it.
Thankfully, Nick was out of work for less than a year and is now happily employed again. Even though we're once again a dual-income household, we haven't fallen back into our old habits of careless spending. Although it's cliche, we really did learn (the hard way) that money doesn't equal happiness. Instead, we found happiness in being financially responsible and finding a balance between enjoying ourselves now and planning for our futures -- even when the going got tough.