Am I doing money wrong?
October 1, 2015 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I go from one financial juicebox to another. I can't save money, am trapped in an unpleasant job situation as a result, and the whole mess has me frankly pretty depressed. Is there anything at all that can be done? Warning: long woe-is-me descriptions within.

First things first: I currently spend the bare minimum on nonessentials. I don't buy things like books or art or music (which makes me sad). I go to the movies maybe three times a year. I eat out maybe once a month, if that. I break down and buy new clothes only when my existing clothes start to develop actual holes in them--and I often nurse those along by mending them to the degree that it's possible. I go too long between haircuts and feel frumpy as a result. (I have very special hair that requires a skilled hairdresser, and I look awful with hair any longer than chin length, so short, high-maintenance hair it is.) My glasses are literally falling apart. No subscriptions other than the cheapest Netflix plan, no gym memberships, inexpensive phone and cable. I'm 95 percent vegan and live mainly on beans, frozen veg, and cheap fruits like bananas.

I have tried to develop and stick to a budget, but I've found that every time I even think about doing that, or any time I move more than a couple of hundred dollars from my checking into my savings account, disaster strikes. A partial list of disasters over the last couple of years:

I have two cats, both 11 years old, with chronic health problems that have required thousands upon thousands of dollars to treat in order to maintain their quality of life. In 2013, I spent 10 percent of my take-home pay on vet bills for just one damn cat. Now it turns out that both of them have cavities and will need teeth pulled, a procedure that will probably run $600 in total. I also spend a fortune on high-end cat food. We don't have kids, and the cats are basically treated like human members of the family, meaning I will spend whatever it takes for them to have necessary medical treatments. But geez Louise, this seems ridiculous.

My stupid car has become a financial sinkhole. It's a 2003 Honda Civic that I bought new and is now at 140,000 miles. I drive it to and from work, a round trip of 12 miles on the highway, and seldom drive it otherwise. Nonetheless, it keeps breaking down and it always seems to cost $2000 to fix. I would estimate that I spent $5000-6000 on it over the last two years. In the last week it's been making weird noises again and becoming difficult to start. I can share more details on this if needed, but suffice to say I was hoping to get a lot more miles and reliability out of it.

Last night, my partner and I noticed a loud running water sound coming from the other side of the basement wall. Water is seeping in from the outside. The landlord looked at it and has determined that there is most likely a break in the pipe outside the basement wall, with water running freely from it. It's going to be fixed...sometime. We pay for the water bill, and I shudder to think how high it's going to be. Given how high it is on a normal month, we're thinking $500? More? Who knows.

I keep hoping I can sock away enough money to have an emergency fund of some kind. I would even like to take a plunge and look for a different job and have some financial freedom to take one that might pay less but possibly make me happier or just a little less stressed out. My job causes me extreme anxiety--I've sought out both therapy and drugs for it but neither have changed the fact that it's just not a good fit. I'm non-neurotypical, non-gender-conforming, don't have much in common with my coworkers, am not good at my job despite working hard at it. But at the same time, I can't imagine that I will ever earn this much again. This fills me with despair, because it means I'm chained to this job indefinitely?

My partner is in even worse financial shape than I am. I earn much more than he does, he has more debt, and he has a 50+ hour a week job that leaves him perpetually exhausted. We are both pretty depressed most of the time about our finances and frankly, our lives.

The one area that I know we could improve is in our housing costs. We currently split a $1050 a month rent to live in a small house. This is very cheap for our area. We love the house, love the neighborhood and our neighbors and our short commutes. The house is seriously one of the few good things about our lives right now. I'm also a lifelong insomniac whose sleep has improved dramatically now that it's not at the mercy of loud neighbors on the other side of a wall. So I don't know what to do about this.

Disclaimer: I consider myself extremely lucky that I am earning enough to cover all of these unpleasant surprises, and that I don't have children depending on me. I don't know how people with kids manage at all. I do realize that the majority of people on Earth today are feeling financially desperate, and I don't pretend that I'm anything but highly privileged. I feel like a big whiny crybaby even asking this question.

But! My money woes are fucking with my mind. I think about little else. I am not the only person in my immediate family to struggle with keeping a job and with financial solvency, and I have horrible visions of losing my job, sinking into debt, and having to move back in with unwelcoming family members to relive my unhappy childhood all over again.

Is my financial situation fairly typical in modern-day USA? Is there anything at all I can do to save money under these conditions? Starting a budget at this point almost seems like madness, since every time I do another unplanned thousand-dollar expense comes out of nowhere and wipes out my savings. Is there anything I should do differently? Get a new car? Live in a trailer? I'm willing to consider just about anything to get out of this rut.

Thanks for reading my sob story.
posted by whistle pig to Work & Money (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Oops--I just reread my question and mentioned having cable. That should be internet, not cable. We don't have cable.
posted by whistle pig at 10:02 AM on October 1, 2015

How much do you actually make?

Also: you mention that "he has more debt," so - you both have debt? What kind? Could you be paying any less per month toward that debt, ie if it's student loans, could you switch to a longer-term payment plan?

You may also want to consider palliative care for your cats, going forward, the next time they suffer a health crisis. They're old, their quality of life is going to keep going downhill no matter how much money you throw at them.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:07 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think people could give better feedback if there were some numbers attached to this. For some people, yes, they do not make enough to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. For others, you can look at salary and expenses and kind of see that there are ways to improve the situation.

For me personally, we were not only living paycheck-to-paycheck but also sinking into debt, with no idea where the money was going. I got us set up with YNAB and it has been a complete game changer -- rather than a standard budget plan that always goes awry, it's flexible and therefore more realistic.

But, start with numbers. Can you list how much you and your partner make? And what your main expenses are? Then we can go from there.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The landlord looked at it and has determined that there is most likely a break in the pipe outside the basement wall, with water running freely from it. It's going to be fixed...sometime. We pay for the water bill, and I shudder to think how high it's going to be. Given how high it is on a normal month, we're thinking $500?

lol fuuuuuuck this. I would put up with this for precisely 0 seconds. You rent. The landlord can fix the problem today or pay for all the extra water bill until it does get fixed. Write it in a letter, write it in an email, write it in a text, you have my permission to be a total jerk about this. Deduct whatever extra the water bill is from your rent next month.

I've found a very calm "sorry, but that's ridiculous and I'm not going to do it" to work very well for me in apartment-related discussions.
posted by phunniemee at 10:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [35 favorites]

Is public transportation, carpooling, or even biking possible as an alternative way to commute?

I don't see why you would be responsible for paying for water lost in a leak that it's your landlord's responsibility to fix.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

As sad as it is, I think it's pretty typical. As far as saving goes, have you thought about losing the car? 6 miles is a decent bike ride, but definitely doable, especially if your partner still keeps his car.

As horrible as the consideration may be, you should think about how much you're actually willing to spend on your pets. $600 seems ok if high to me, but 10% of your income? Decide on a figure and have your partner rein you in if need be. I remember seeing relatives cling to sickly pets long after it was sensible or even kind to the animal.
posted by Trifling at 10:10 AM on October 1, 2015

Can you share more information? Your take home salaries and total monthly fixed expenses (debt payments, typical utilities).

Your housing may be too expensive not because of your rent, but because of electric and water. I would look at your typical, not emergency, monthly cost and see if cheaper housing is possible when factoring in utilities.

If you value your neighborhood, sleep, and commute, I would consider renting out the living room to a student for a year. Put a bed and curtain there.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re: the water bill - in many municipalities, if you discover a broken pipe, they'll calculate your average usage and forgive the extra water with evidence of repair i.e. receipts. Definitely contact your water company to ask if this is an option.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:19 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

Firstly, have you investigated the cost of pet insurance for your cats? That might soften the blow next time they need treatment. Insurance is so worthwhile for stuff you know will eventually come. I have dental insurance (you don't strictly need it in the UK) solely because my teeth are so bad I know it's only a matter of time until I need a crown/root canal and I don't want to cost to hurt as well as the procedure.

Also, I think you need to take a deep breath and apply for some jobs. Lets be real, it IS terrifying changing job. You lose the "I've been here for ever they can't get rid of me" safety net, it's exhausting learning a load of new people's names and new processes and filing systems and stuff. But it's almost never a step down financially (your knowledge and experience are valuable however negatively you seem to see yourself) and it's a GREAT challenge to set yourself. Keeps the brain nimble to cope with changes and adapt to a new place. And long-term, you'll likely take all that "extreme anxiety" off your plate. Surely changing job is a better option for that than all that medication? Get outta there!!
posted by greenish at 10:19 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't acquire any more cats after these. What you're spending on cat care could be going to your emergency fund. Get your animal fix another way. Perhaps volunteer at the Humane Society? Part-time in-home cat care as a side business?

Something that's helped me recently is bartering. You don't say what you do, but if you have barterable skills, you could trade for goods and services that you need. You might end up with a network that includes, say, a plumber!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 10:21 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do you have enough wiggle room in your budget to get $20 cash back whenever you go to the grocery store? This is a decent ersatz saving method for me: pad some cash onto a normal grocery purchase, put the cash in a safe place, and forget about it until I need money in a pinch. I've got enough in cash to see me through a lean time, and it's not connected to my bank account in any way so it doesn't tempt me.
posted by witchen at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2015

First things first: Pay YOURSELF first. Set up your Direct Deposit to pay a small amount into your savings every month, or set up a small transfer. Get started. Even $20 a paycheck is something.

YNAB works for a lot of people who have trouble with traditional budgeting, so that's another one to look into. But start by paying yourself first.

Second, it sounds like you are horribly depressed -- you mention that you've tried drugs, but have you asked your doctor(s) why they're not working? Are there other things to try? Can you get tested for some of depression's various medical outriders, like low vit. D, thyroid issues, and iron deficiency? You are every bit as worthy of medical care as your cats.

On a related note, depression lies and I have to wonder if you are really as terrible a fit at your job as you feel you are. Are your boss and coworkers telling you it's a bad fit, or is it your brain telling you that? If it's your brain, know that it may be lying to you.

Fight that water bill, obviously. It's not your fault the main broke and between your landlord and the water company, someone should be able to find some slack for you there.

Call up your service providers/creditors and ask about discounts. Do one a day. I usually find that threatening to leave my internet provider gets a $10-$20/month discount reinstated (not always, but enough to make it worth calling every year or so).

If you have a current glasses prescription, try Zenni Optical -- not perfect but for $20, you can get a pair of new glasses that are not falling apart.

If you have the energy, you can also start looking for part-time work -- babysitting, or working at a cupcake store, or similar -- something that's casual and needs only weekends. This has three benefits. First, you increase what you're taking home. Second, you aren't spending money while you're at work. And third, you're meeting new people and making new connections that might help you land a better full-time job. I know someone who worked full-time in a professional job and weekends at a bakery to pull herself out of a similar hole -- it was a long year but she ended up in a much better place.

And finally, apply for new jobs, even if it feels pointless. You may find a better job that pays more. You don't know until you try.

Good luck!
posted by pie ninja at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

It is hard to give specific advice without numbers. You sound really frustrated and unhappy. Frankly, other than being frugal about the little things and being wise about the big things (longer payment plan on the student loans, 10% for cat expenses sounds awfully high), the only thing left to do is increase income. Your job sounds like it sucks anyway, so if I were in your position I would focus on finding a better job. You say you can't imagine earning this much again - that's hogwash which sounds suspiciously like a self-defeating inner depression voice.

Also, you say that your partner has a lot of debt - are you taking on more household expenses than you are really comfortable with? Are you enabling partner to have a certain standard of living, even if you can't really support it for two people? I only ask because I was in a similar situation and my partial subsidy of rent/groceries enabled my ex-husband to keep making poor financial choices. I don't want to project, but I recognize the anguish in your post ....
posted by stowaway at 10:40 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm semi confused about your job situation - at first it sounded like part of the problem was that you didn't have time or skills to look for a better-paying job, but then you say you don't like your job but fear that you'll never make more. Are you making a reasonable living wage and having trouble actually managing the money situations?

Is it possible that the money in/money out situation is actually more or less reasonable but it's the general stress that is making you feel otherwise? The fact that your basic housing costs aren't insane and you're otherwise not giving specifics makes me think that this is a more general stress/organization concern. If this is not the case, then look for new work that pays more. Encourage your partner to do the same. Money scenarios and budgets are really a matter of income and outflow, despite the many emotions we lard upon them.
posted by vunder at 10:45 AM on October 1, 2015

Part time work for both you and partner.

A better mechanic that doesn't charge you 2 grand a year. Try the CarTalk forums. If you have replaced most of the more expensive things in the past few years, it may be a long time until you get another $$ bill. Think about going down to one car for you both and using other options when you really need two cars. Can anyone at your job drive you home so your partner can just drop you off?

I also spend a fortune on high-end cat food.
Review some recent research into what that brand provides vs the slightly cheaper ones. Ask your vet for samples and/or cheaper recommendations. Maybe get a different vet that knows you aren't made of money. Check out sliding scale services.

It doesn't sound like you are paying too much rent or could find anywhere cheaper that wouldn't just be a source of frustration for you both. You like where you live and it lets you sleep - both pretty important aspects.
posted by soelo at 10:46 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the cats, you might be able to use Care Credit to give yourself a little breathing room. Depending on the amount, you can pay them back in anywhere from 6 - 24 months, interest free. Note that if you don't pay the balance off in full within the promotional period, or if you are late with a payment, they will apply interest back from the purchase date. I've done a couple of big purchases with promotions like these, and I set up an automatic monthly payment for it.

Here's an example of their plans for the $600 for the dentals.
posted by amarynth at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2015

Thanks for all of your suggestions. I'm definitely going to investigate many of these. To address some of the questions:

I hate to be coy about it, but for some reason I'm really anxious about providing exact dollar amounts on my income. I will say that I am earning more than I ever expected to earn. Due to some hidden disabilities, alluded to in my original question, I'm not the world's most desirable employee.

I will add that after paying all of my expenses for the month (rent, gas, electric, water, internet, phone, Netflix; car insurance and gas; cat food and medication; student loans; people food and maintenance costs such as occasional haircuts and clothes), I should easily have $500 a month left over. But this budget doesn't account for things like unexpected car repairs.

Just to address a couple of other comments: I have about $8000 in student loans left, down from $40,000. I got excited at making it out of five digits and recently threw $1500 at it. Now I'm regretting that.

The car thing: I'm definitely looking into being a one-car household. At this point it doesn't seem feasible because my partner drives a lot for his job and my job also occasionally requires me to have a car. But I'm still considering ways to make it happen.

I'm also stressed about being the primary breadwinner. Would it be worth it for us to go to a financial counselor of some kind? And I've developed a weird aversion to trying to keep a budget because I've come to view it as almost like tempting fate. I know this is unreasonable but I don't know how to snap out of it.
posted by whistle pig at 10:54 AM on October 1, 2015

I can relate to your feelings and frustration. One thing that helped me move to a place of more peace and progress was working with I was on the basic plan for awhile, but when I went to the next level of membership where a planner creates a budget a plan for you is when I started to make some noticeable progress -both mentally and numbers-wise.

It's all online and over the phone, which I don't mind. I appreciate the tracking website/app they have as well.

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the best!!
posted by river99 at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

But this budget doesn't account for things like unexpected car repairs.

You need your budget to account for things like unexpected car repairs- I do this by setting aside specific funds into a "unexpected things" fund every month- you've mentioned spending 2-3k a year on your car, aim to have at least half as much saved. I personally try to maintain that fund at least 2k at any given point- I started with $50 a month set a side. If it's over 3k, some overage goes into a different savings account (vacation fund, general savings or towards debt). If I'm under, I make a point of trying to save more into the fund. This is NOT a fund for a splurge, vacation, living expenses, it's purely car/health/cat related, and I really try to not dip into it even for unexpected things.

Another thing I would consider is talking to your partner about your worries and having their buy in. Admit that you feel nervous about the situation. Have a weekly or monthly check in with them. In my home, I worry way more about money, and we are in full agreement that money talks are awkward and terrible, but we still try to have them at least monthly- full on break out the bank statements/credit cards, look at where the money went, and decide what is the priority for the next month. The talks make me feel better that we're at least on the same page with general spending/goals, and helps him see why I'm stressed about whatever. (ie 5 weddings this summer destroyed our short term savings...)

BTW, getting 40k debt down to 8k is really impressive!! Be proud of yourself for that! but now it might be worth paying just the minimum for a few months to build up a "unexpected" fund for the next cat emergency/car thing.
posted by larthegreat at 11:16 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

A lot of good suggestions here; I've been in a similar situation, I think (it's a little hard to tell without even a ballpark income number). When I was in something close to this situation, I also had a hard time thinking about anything other than money. Now that I'm financially in a better place, I marvel at how I can go out sometimes and spend $20 on a book without it having to be an agonizing, how-will-this-effect-the-rest-of-the-month experience. That is to say, this is not all in your head, being strapped and making tough choices is a real problem that take up so much of your mental space.

It sounds like the car and cats are your major expenditures. You drive such a short distance to work that it really makes no sense that your car absorbs so much money. I similarly had a car that was a repair and gas sinkhole, and since this was when gas was almost $4/gallon, all car-related things really hurt. I ended up selling my car and using the small amount that I got for it to buy a very, very boring, but tiny and good on gas, low maintenance car. The cash I got for it wasn't enough to buy another car in reasonable condition, so I did two things: one, I put absolutely every purchase for the next two or three months on a credit card, and I put all the resulting cash towards the car. Yes, I paid two months worth of interest on the credit card, but the extra cash help me get a slightly better car and I knew I would be spending a couple of thousand in car repairs on the old car, if I still had it. I know this shuffling of money from one source to another can be dangerous, but it can also be helpful if you can stick to the plan. Secondly, I was lucky to have a very small retirement account, and it turned out that I could take a loan from myself on the account so I did that. It took me 2-3 months to pay the credit card off and about 8 to pay the loan to myself. So the net for that first year was not a lot more than I would have paid for repairs to the old car. The second year, I didn't have a bunch of expensive car repairs, so I was ahead!

Also, if budgeting is too intimidating right now, take one step towards it by tracking your spending in Mint. It's really helpful to see clearly what you do spend money on, once you know that, you can track your money in real time rather than guessing if you have enough, or agonizing about where exactly things are going. And btw, paying so much on your student loans is no small thing - that's probably where a chunk of your money has been going, which means you're doing pretty well managing it!
posted by ashworth at 11:26 AM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

One of the items that jumped out at me (the others have been addressed already) is your cat situation. It may be hard to hear, but part of being a responsible pet owner is acknowledging whether you're financially capable of being a responsible pet owner.

If you're not willing to cut down on their costs (buying less expensive food, forgoing the expensive medical interventions), maybe you should consider giving them up to people who can afford to care for them in that manner. It would suck for you, but could put your cats in a better situation. Are there any no kill shelters near you? Any friends who could adopt them?

This also means being realistic about not getting any new animals until you're more stable.

Also, looking for a new job is free; assuming a better job is going to pay less is a good way to guarantee that your situation never changes.
posted by danny the boy at 11:29 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not something for right now but a thought for later down the track: If you think you might be able to continue to pay $3000/year for car repairs, that is enough money to make payments on a new car that is covered by full warranty and thus requires no repair payments... and also doesn't break all the time. (though I'm guessing your credit rating might make this more difficult.)

But even better than a new car is a nearly-new car that the manufacturer has reconditioned and is selling with the full bumper-to-bumper warranty, and which still qualifies for lower "new car" interest rates at your bank/credit union, and the first year or two of depreciation has been shaved off the price.
You might want to be careful about a payment plan that takes 6 years and a warranty that runs out in 5 years, but, food for thought.
posted by anonymisc at 11:33 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you are making an income you are happy with -- and you may be undervaluing yourself -- then the opportunity lies with your partner. If they are working 50+ hours a week yet making very little money and facing high debt, they should look into debt consolidation, finding a better paying job, or even declaring bankruptcy. Something is not adding up here and my guess is one or more of those things might help.

I also wanted to note one other thing that jumps out at me. You are making a lot of sacrifices to support your partner and care for your cats. You're willing to splurge on high-end cat food, sacrifice to manage partner's debt, etc. But you're not treating yourself to music, to books, to art, to movies, to things that make you happy. I mean there are ways to get these things that don't cost a fortune, but your needs and happiness are as important as your partner's and your cats'. Please don't put them last.
posted by Threeve at 11:39 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

And I just read the part where your budget is +$500/mo., which is like, pretty good and doesn't seem to be commensurate with your current level of stress? That is, it sounds like some stuff happened to clear out your savings, but you're fully setup to build it back up.

It doesn't sound like you're in a financial death spiral. It's more like, if you want to accelerate your rate of savings, not fixing your car anymore is probably the way to go. Maybe sell it and get a scooter, take local roads to work?
posted by danny the boy at 11:42 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's fine that you don't want to share your income or how much you're spending in each category every month, but keep in mind that the most frugal spending in the world won't balance your budget if you don't make enough income to survive in your area. It sounds like you aren't tracking your expenses for your own records (since you mention that you "should have" 500$ a month left over) - if not, you definitely should be, it'll tell you where that 500$ is going. If you mostly use cards, it's easy - just look at your statements and slot everything into categories. If it's mostly cash it's harder, but can still be done (keep receipts and/or write down everything you buy).

Also, you're wondering why your 500$ "left over" is disappearing, but I'm wondering why you only have 500$ a month left over. I don't mind sharing that I make about 20-25k net, I'm fairly frugal (saved up a decent chunk on that salary) and I still spend pretty close to 500$ a month on things outside the categories you mention (entertainment/hobbies, vacations/gifts, medical/dental, misc. household purchases, and other unexpected but required expenses). So it sounds like the main leak is happening upstream of that 500$, if you're bringing home much more income than I am.

Of your "rent, gas, electric, water, internet, phone, Netflix; car insurance and gas; cat food and medication; student loans; people food and maintenance costs such as occasional haircuts and clothes", you've mentioned low costs on everything except car insurance/gas, cat food/medication, and student loans.

So, car insurance/gas - look into public transit/biking options, otherwise see if you can reduce your commute somehow, carpool etc.

Student loans - I'm guessing you're paying more than the minimum if you cut your debt down so much - congrats! But you need to stop that if you can't balance your budget. Getting into credit card debt or just making yourself miserable with lack of funds is not worth it to pay your debt a little earlier. Go back to paying the minimum for now.

Cat food - you want to treat them as people, which is fine, but would you suggest your broke friend buy only organic, free-range food if he couldn't pay his credit card bill every month? I wouldn't. See if you can downgrade the quality a bit, at least until you have more free cash. It might be slightly less healthy for them, but we make tradeoffs like that for our own health every day, and many people (and cats!) live a long time on suboptimal food.

Cat medicine - make sure you tell your vet you're on a limited budget, not "cost is no object", and ask what the consequences of delaying or not doing the suggested treatment are (if something is e.g. "good for the kidneys" or "recommended for optimum health" but much more expensive than the alternative with no quantifiable benefit, you might consider skipping it or delaying awhile, like until your loans are paid off or you get that promotion). And easier said than done, but consider whether the cost is worth the benefit (thousands of dollars on chemo to increase survival a month or two? 50$ a month on medicine or food that slightly lowers the risk of something bad happening?). And make sure your vet is not using a creative definition of "necessary" medical treatments, especially if he/she suspects that you'll pay for anything falling in that category without limits. (Same goes for your mechanic - I'm a little suspicious about such expensive repairs being needed, but you might just be unlucky).

Your partner might be a hidden leak, particularly if you're in the habit of loaning him money or buying things for him when he's short on cash (or to be nice). It sounds like you have separate finances (?) but you also mention being the primary breadwinner, which makes me suspect that you're subsidizing some of his expenses. Are you splitting rent and other utilities evenly? What about groceries? If you're effectively paying for two people on one salary, of course you're going to be struggling if your salary isn't double most people's!

I can't really say anything else without knowing the actual numbers, but if you happen to be comfortable sharing the numbers privately instead, I don't mind taking a look at your budget and/or sharing mine (I've worked out a pretty good system).
posted by randomnity at 11:51 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

I would seriously investigate the cost of using car share/ car rentals/ taxis when you need it versus the cost of your current car.
posted by oceano at 11:52 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live a very frugal lifestyle, even though I no longer need to. I think you're right, that your situation has clouded your attitude of how great life actually can be. For us, bargain hunting and spending as little as possible is a fun "treasure hunt," and we enjoy the challenge. I'm thinking that you somehow need to flip that switch where the money thing is messing with your mind, and try to see it in a more positive way. Figure out your goal, which for you might be transitioning to part-time work. Figure out how much money you need to save to get there, and then start whittling away at that budget to get it down as far as you possibly can. There are so many blogs with great advice, and if you have an actual goal in mind, it makes it almost fun to see how much you can save by not spending on regular stuff. Here are a few tried and true things we do:

First, Zenni Optical. It's unbelievable how good the glasses are for the price. I get compliments ALL THE TIME on my glasses, and the ones I'm wearing now cost $48 for progressive lenses.

Second, oh man, I don't buy books or art either. Just SO expensive and I have no place left to store books or hang art. I use my public library, both in person and on line. Mine also has a bookstore, so I always stop in there to browse. There's also a Goodwill bookstore a mile away from my house and I can drop five bucks there every once in a while. I go to the local fairs and festivals to get my art fix, usually buying some small piece under $10 when I just must have something to soothe my soul. I also attend art openings just to look, so I can still surround myself with beautiful things.

Transportation is a little trickier, especially if you must have a car for your work. Are you sure about that? Can you figure out some wiggle room there at your work? Because six miles is not a bad commute without a car. I own a scooter for fun. After the initial investment, it's a very cheap way to get around. My Vespa gets 75 mpg, and that's about average for a scooter. Great entertainment, too!

As for clothes, I've scouted around my city and I know which thrift store carries the best selection of clothes that I like. My budget always has room for a $2.00 dress or pair of shoes. I try to buy wardrobe basics, and rotate them through my closet regularly. At that price, I don't hesitate to purge when things get tired.

And last, it's amazing how many free little things will add to your comfort. An hour's worth of housework. Clean sheets. Purged closets. Sitting in the sun with a glass of ice water. A 30-minute walk. My partner and I regularly have off days that are scheduled to be money-free, planned from start to finish to be filled up with free activities. Sometimes we take turns and have a contest to see who can come up with the most fun day.

Good luck! You can do it.
posted by raisingsand at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm going to second the advice of larthegreat.

Creating a budget in which I sock a set amount every month away for all the things that are not fixed monthly payments has made a tremendous amount of difference in our finances. I initially set it up by going into my banking records and adding up how much we spent on these items in the last year. Then I divided by 12. Every month, if I do not meet the figure that I'm budgeted for that month for that item, I take that money and put it in a special savings account. I track it using a spreadsheet. Or, alternatively, if I exceed the amount budgeted for the month, I take that amount out of savings and transfer it to my checking account. The sorts of bills that I use this for are auto insurance (payable every 6 months), car repairs, gas and electric (we have gas heat but electric a/c so these bills fluctuate a lot depending on season). If I had other sorts of things that tended to pop up once or twice a year unexpectedly, I'd do this for those items, too.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2015

I keep a zero-based budget, where all income for the month is assigned, and anything I spend is entered. The result of this is two-fold: I know exactly how much money I have left, and it incentivizes me to spend less, because I don't want the bottom-line number to go down!

You don't necessarily need to do this, but I'm a huge proponent of it, for the above reasons. It gives you a level of control over your money and shows you exactly where it's going.
posted by Automocar at 1:12 PM on October 1, 2015

Using the money you have saved for emergencies like car repairs or pets is exactly why you save that money. That's doing a good job of creating savings and using them as intended. I hear you on wanting to get a bigger financial cushion, which is great, but don't beat yourself up for using your emergency fund for emergencies.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:38 PM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

One possibility for saving when it comes to pet care procedures: Is there a veterinary college near you? They often offer services for less money or even for free if you are okay with (supervised) students performing the work.

I also second randomnity about checking how your partner may be contributing to your budgeting issues - if you're sharing the home and the utilities, they need to be sharing the costs - and the worrying. Are they on the same page as you about saving and financial planning? Budgeting is a lot easier to do as a team than as one person carrying another's weight.
posted by Mchelly at 3:42 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just going to throw in another recommendation for YNAB. It's changed my life.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 4:30 PM on October 1, 2015

You both need to focus on getting better jobs -- making the sacrifices that it takes to your comfort level or risk tolerance. (But don't go to graduate school without a rigorous cost benefit analysis). It's the only solution for the long run.

Two cats and two cars and $1,000 in rent are not an unreasonable lifestyle expectation. Having kids is not unreasonable either.

But tomorrow you can get a reliable used car for $500 down and $200 a month. Do it.)
posted by MattD at 5:21 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I've had a wide range of income situations over the past 15 years or so, ranging from so poor that social services thought I must be lying and hiding some additional source of income, through to quite comfortable. I've developed a few rules for myself that might work for you too.

If I have a car, I budget for the cost of the car itself, insurances and registration, fuel, and then also if it is out of warranty, I budget $2000 a year for maintenance and repairs. Most years when it is still fairly new, you won't spend that whole amount, but later on, you'll spend a lot more. The unspent amount from the $2000 in low-cost years is rolled over into the next year's budget.

If those car costs come to more than I can afford, I can't afford to have a car. I know there are some locations where that is next to impossible, but I guess I've been lucky enough to be able to cycle or take public transport to work in less than an hour each way.

Same deal with pets. I not only budget for pet food and annual checkups/vaccinations, but also I assume there will be medical costs, especially as they get older. Pet insurance here is about $40 a month, and I assume they calculate that on average they will make a little bit of profit on that, so $30 a month seems like a good number for "self-insuring" against pet medical stuff. If I can't afford that, I tell myself I can't afford pets, and there have been periods where I didn't have cats for that reason and it made me so miserable. Being poor sucks.

Finally, it sounds like you are putting a lot of money into paying off debt, which is great. When that debt is gone, all that money will be freed up to go into savings. So don't beat yourself up too much yet about not being able to save. Getting rid of the debt should be your primary concern.
posted by lollusc at 7:24 PM on October 1, 2015

What kind of debt does your partner have? If it's federal student loans, is he on Income-Based Repayment?

I also want to echo that whittling $40K of student loan debt down to $8K is a huge achievement. I hope you can find the mental space to congratulate yourself about that.

I don't think you should move. If you live in a cheap, wonderful place that keeps you sane, why on earth would you give that up? Even if you did find a better apartment somehow, moving is expensive and a HUGE stressor—it would take you a while to recoup those financial and mental costs anyway. Much better to spend that effort on a job hunt.
posted by the_blizz at 7:51 AM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't think you're "doing money wrong," but think that possibly your anxiety is clouding your ability to do rational cost-benefit analysis here, and to imagine alternate solutions, and to accurately assess your current situation.

I would even like to take a plunge and look for a different job and have some financial freedom to take one that might pay less but possibly make me happier or just a little less stressed out.

There's literally zero plunge involved in looking for another job. You don't have to quit your job to job-hunt. You have nothing whatsoever to lose by applying, even to things you think you might not get. And there's no reason to deliberately look for a job that pays less; why not start out by looking for a job that pays the same or more, but will be less stressful? IF that doesn't pan out, you can start considering jobs that pay a little less but offer a better quality of life. But don't put yourself behind the 8-ball on purpose, right from the start.

The one area that I know we could improve is in our housing costs. We currently split a $1050 a month rent to live in a small house. This is very cheap for our area. We love the house, love the neighborhood and our neighbors and our short commutes. The house is seriously one of the few good things about our lives right now.

Unless this is a typo, I don't understand how THIS is the "one area" you could improve? It sounds like this is actually the "one area" in which you have maximized your benefits while minimizing costs. It is cheap, you won't find as good or better for cheaper, it is good for your health and your well-being. Why is this the ONE item on the proverbial chopping block? Not rational. Take it off the chopping block.

Your current situation is that you're fine but not great; you're getting by but you want a cushion. You're spending more on things you didn't expect to be spending on, but such is life (and a ten year old car with 140K on it is, frankly, a thing you SHOULD expect to get more expensive). You've got housing nailed; you're employed.

You need to work out a car solution (people have great ideas above) and get your landlord to come correct. Do those two things, and you knock out a huge part of your problem. Start there, and go forward from the perspective that you can in fact do things to make your situation better. You can make forward progress. But it may be frustrating along the way. I feel you on the panic of not having savings; I am religious about savings myself and have felt the no-net panic. But you gotta just sit with the panic and take the baby steps to fix the money, because short of a windfall or an inheritance, it's baby steps that will fix it.

Finally, I know MeFi recommends therapy to everyone and you definitely won't want to consider it given your financial anxiety. But. Your references to unwelcoming family and an unhappy childhood make me think that maybe something's going on here bigger than just money stress. The way you are ready to cut out anything that would make you feel better (tasty food, a haircut, housing that is good for your health, applying for more jobs) rather than ask your partner to step up or demand your landlord do his goddamn job...sounds like maybe you don't feel you deserve to "do money right"? You don't need therapy to take control of the financial realities of your situation, but maybe you might need it to feel okay about doing so...a thought for down the road.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:46 AM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Also you asked whether this was normal in the US and yes, it really is. It is very, very hard to build a savings cushion in the current economy (and in most economies throughout time). It's just hard. It takes a long time. And life is an asshole, and doesn't like to wait for you to patiently build your savings before it throws bullshit at you. IME, a lot of people with strong savings started with a big lump sum, like a tax refund or a gift or an inheritance, and then were just lucky enough not to have any crap land on them for a little while so they could hang on to it and grow it.

You're NOT an outlier. It's hard.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:50 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

You may be surprised by how much money it saves to be a one-car household. I did it for 17 years with my ex when we each had five-mile commutes, and it enabled us to pay off our mortgage 20 years early while earning incomes that qualified us for benefits. You’ll need to decide whether you’d prefer to have the financial cushion or the convenience of owning the car.

Your numbers will vary from this, especially since I don’t know your income or debt payments. But if you’re making $30,000/ year after taxes, that’s $2500 a month. You might have:

$550 rent
$250 human food
$50 cat food
$80 electric
$50 internet
$50 phone
$20 water
$50 gasoline
$100 car insurance
$100 medical
= $1300
That leaves you with $1200 for debt repayment and savings.

I know your numbers won’t match these, and that you have other necessary expenses. But think hard on where else your money is going and how you can cut back. If this is close to what you’re actually spending and all your extra is going to emergencies, that SUCKS and I hope you’re able to figure out a more sustainable car and cat situation soon. (I only paid $1500 for my 2003 Civic two years ago and haven’t had to put any other money into it.) I suspect though that a significant percentage of your income may be going to support your partner however, and while that may be a reasonable choice to make, it is good to be aware of it if it’s the case, and discuss whether there are ways he can increase his income or decrease his expenses (what’s he driving?)
posted by metasarah at 5:41 AM on October 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Cars generally are financial sinkholes. If it's within the realm of possibility for you, consider switching to a bike or transit commute. Let me know if you need more information on how to get started.
posted by aniola at 1:09 PM on October 8, 2015

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