Totally Worth It, Week 8: Accept your financial reality
By Jessica Roy
Hello, and welcome to the end.
How’s it going?
We’ve spent eight weeks together reimagining what your relationship to your finances can look like. Making a budget is one thing, but sticking to it is another. This is your cue to take a breath and think about how it’s going. Are you staying on top of expense tracking? Are you checking your categories before making big purchases?
YNAB (You Need a Budget), the budgeting software that I use, talks a lot about “rolling with the punches.” That means things change. Your priorities change, your income, your necessary expenses. And unexpected things happen to all of us. Going over your budget on something isn’t blowing it. You didn’t fail because you couldn’t say no to a pricey night out one time. It’s better to try and mess up and change your approach and try again than to never try at all. And nobody is great at anything the first time they try it, including budgeting.
As I’ve said before, I screwed up a million times. I would try to budget out for a whole month with just the first paycheck of the month, even though I was living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t have paid all my bills on half my salary. One time, I accidentally budgeted the money for rent twice, and called my husband in a panic to tell him we couldn’t spend any more money on anything for the rest of the month. But I refused to let any of that discourage me.
The limits of personal finance
I want to emphasize, again, that making a budget and keeping track of where your money goes is not a financial panacea. It’s a very good start, and for a lot of people, it helps to know where your money is going and to decide to be a little more intentional about the process. But there’s no piece of financial advice that could possibly apply to everyone. Budgeting helped me pay off my debt, grow my savings and sleep better at night. I used to feel broke a lot of the time, but I never lived in poverty. I’ve been fortunate in many ways in my life, and I want to own that. What worked for me can’t and won’t work for everyone.
If you’ve cut every bit of fat and are still way underwater on meeting your basic needs, budgeting probably can’t help you very much. I wish that wasn’t the case. I don’t want you to feel like a failure, either. I hope clarifying the reality of your situation can help you get started on getting the help and services you need. Consider looking into affordable housing programs, seeing if you qualify for programs like SNAP, and researching local resources from 211 for things like food and housing assistance. There’s no shame in asking for help.
Little ideas for making or saving a little more money
When I first started budgeting, I spent a lot of time Googling “ways to make extra money” and “how to save more money.” If you do that, you get ... a lot of weird stuff. I was encouraged to open a lot of suspicious-seeming banking or investment accounts and other things that were clearly very thinly veiled ads. It’s part of what inspired me to write this newsletter.
So I wanted to share some of the things that I, personally, actually have done to make or save a little extra cash over the years. Because a little bonus fun money can go a long way.
Check for unclaimed property. Someone probably owes you money. Check the unclaimed property database for your state and get it back. I discovered 12 whole dollars. Whatever! Free $12!
Get your security deposit back from your landlord when you move. No, your landlord can’t keep all your money forever and just text you that it was “for cleaning.” I wrote about what they have to do and what you can do. You have four years from when you moved out to reclaim your deposit if you had a written lease.
Commit to using whatever freebies you get. I started a physical file folder called “gifts and free stuff” so I wouldn’t lose track of gift cards or coupons (specifically the Bed Bath and Beyond 20% off, the holy grail of coupons). Any time we wanted to do something fun and had no money left in the fun budget, I consulted the folder. Free Redbox rental I got from McDonald’s fries? Movie ticket voucher when the projector broke during “Dunkirk”? Gift card from a distant relative for a restaurant chain that only had locations in the Valley? Hello, Saturday night.
I extended this philosophy to free stuff. The Ralphs coupons included a free box of snack bars I’d never tried before — well, I’m trying it. I went to an event where they gave out gift bags with moisturizer and body wash from a brand I’d never heard of, and I used every last drop. You don’t have to use a plastic grocery bag as your purse, but committing to using up what I had before I bought something new helped me save a precious few dollars here and there.
Review your subscriptions again. A few weeks ago, we took a hard look at our expenses, and hopefully you found a few recurring line items you didn’t get much use out of. Now look at the ones you kept. Have you been to the gym since the last time you paid your membership fee? Have the veggies from your last three meal kit deliveries wilted in your produce drawer? Did you ever even finish the tutorial on the language app? No? Cancel. Be ruthless. You can always re-subscribe if you really miss it.
And if you paid upfront for a year of whatever it is — hey, it sounded like a money-saving prospect at the time — take this opportunity to freshly vow to get your money’s worth. You’re spending Saturday nights with the DuoLingo owl from now on.
Join your neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group. I cannot sing the praises of my Buy Nothing group highly enough. You truly never know what your neighbor will have up for grabs. My most recent acquisition: a 3-D puzzle of the Sydney Opera House. The Los Angeles Times has written about the quirky fun of Buy Nothing. To join, you can use the Buy Nothing Project’s app, look for a local group, or go on Facebook and type in “buy nothing (your neighborhood)” and search for it.
Seriously, use the library and the freezer section. OK, I have talked about these before. But they were my budgeting BFFs. Get free ebooks from the L.A. Public Library, plus lots of other freebies, including digital access to the New York Times (that’s one monthly subscription you can knock out right there). And no one — NO ONE — is too good to eat frozen pizza or have a box of mac and cheese with half a bag of frozen broccoli on a weeknight.
Well, that’s all from me. I hope you learned a lot and maybe even had a little fun. If you kept reading this long, you’re way ahead of all the people who fell off their New Year’s resolution back in mid-January. And if you’ve done even one little thing that will help you save more or spend less, you’re ahead of where you were when you signed up.
This newsletter was free, but making it was not. I hope you’ll consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times, if you don’t already. I think it’s a worthwhile use of your money. $1 for the introductory offer — tough to beat that value.
In the future, you’ll get occasional emails from this newsletter with stories about personal finance from the L.A. Times and around the internet. You’ll see my work on the Utility Journalism Team and can always find me on Twitter @jessica_roy.
Until next time! And remember: You’re totally worth it.
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