Family Budget Decision-making
January 12, 2008 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Look, I truly do get the “know your income, know your expenses” bit about budgeting. And I’m pretty frugal in my habits. My problem is this, as the financial head of this family, I have to decide what we will spend our inadequate resources on. So in general, how to prioritise discretionary spending in a fair and efficient manner?

We’re not broke-poor, but while I’m studying and working only part-time, we have limited discretionary funds. Before quitting full-time work to study, I locked the house rate in, and created a slush fund which is half gone, the remainder earmarked for a deposit on a second-hand car.

Specifically, here’s the competing stuff.

Teen daughter would like a mobile phone, more expensive razors than I currently buy, hair dye, professional haircut (not boutique, just not at home) ,hair product to keep the haircut looking normal, eyebrow waxing (again, not at home) and a new electric toothbrush (after her alleged neglect killed the last).

Teen son would like university books paid for, regular junk food (ie two bottles of Pepsi a week and an occasional pack of chips (not a real lot), fixings for pizza – his main food group), transport to uni (train, bus, bus), occasional LAN party permission where two other very tall people come and eat chips and drink Pepsi and sleep in the daytime.

Husband (& major breadwinner) would like new computer (his died) but not bottom of the range for WOW, must be good enough to do coding on (don’t ask me, I just work here), a new washing machine (the current one puts lint all over our clothes), a new dryer (the current one works intermittently) and the rights to buy lunch at work. He also feels that a Wii and a big screen tv would bring the family closer together.

My list: buy a second-hand car (we don’t have one currently), send husband to the dentist for the tooth chipped over a year ago (no, he doesn’t want to go), replace guttering (okay pipe dream), have a trip away (camping or some such cheapo thing), get a fence, get a whippersnipper.

Clearly, the kids need to get jobs, but without licenses (they’re too young and we don’t have a car) most of the jobs they’re eligible for involve them walking home in the dark (I don’t like that for my daughter) or spending most of their wage on taxis (pointless and public transport around here is pretty tragic). I could earn more money but I’d have to quit full-time study (and I’m up to my last year with 264 days to go, not like I’m counting).

So again, how to prioritise discretionary spending in a fair and efficient manner?

Next week, how to encourage a very shy teen boy that being a check-out chick is fun and profitable.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think the key here is that you have less than a year to go for your degree, which will then allow you to get a much better job and pretty much instantaneously rejuvenate your finances. Your teens won't like it, but teaching them patience, while difficult, is imparting them with an invaluable skill.

That said, you may want to consider if there is a small discretionary kitty that you can have for "mad money" types of purchases. Not a Wii, but you know, trips to the ice cream store and so forth. Surprises, fun, I-still-love-you stuff.
posted by dhartung at 4:52 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Teen daughter-haircut and hair product, with encouragement to find babysitting gigs where the other parents provide transport.

Teen son: help with books and heavy encouragement to find employment.

Husband: computer, plus appliance repair and or used washer and dryer that works. The wii and bigscreen tv can wait a daggone year. And he really should see about those teeth.

You: I would say secondhand car, but cars involve all kinds of expenses to include gas, maintenance, taxes, and upkeep. Can you get by on your current transport for one more year? I vote for your camping trip.
posted by konolia at 4:54 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Teen Daughter: Get a job. In the meantime, here are functional yet glamorless razors and a functional yet non-electric toothbrush.

"Teen Son: Get a job. In the meantime, here is a functional and delicious snack known as an 'apple'.

"Husband & Major Breadwinner: Your daughter killed an electric toothbrush through neglect. Be a good dental health role model for her and get your tooth fixed.

"Me: Let's go camping! It can be done for free or virtually so."
posted by Flunkie at 5:01 PM on January 12, 2008 [7 favorites]

How I would approach this is to make a list of all of these things and determine costs for each. Then have each member of the household rate each item (yes ... even the things they obviously don't care about) with whatever scale you choose.
Then think about how permanent these things are. For instance, an eyebrow waxing is nice, but books will contribute to your son's education and I assume everyone would get some use out of a computer (provided it doesn't become solely your husband's).

In the end, this is just a cost benefit ratio, weighted by cost, with input from all those affected. It should help put things in perspective.
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 5:03 PM on January 12, 2008

What about asking everyone to provide you with costs/estimates for the things they want and to prioritize their own lists? Seems like that would be a big help for you (a reality check on what costs actually are), give you some direction (you're not setting yourself up to be the bad guy by guessing about the relative value of their wants) and get them educated about managing budgets, too.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:04 PM on January 12, 2008

If this stays as your problem, all the blame for the unmet desires is yours, too.

Wouldn't it be better to coopt the other three members of the household, and make this a shared problem? One semi-easy way would be to take the "discretionary" household money in cash (so that it is real, not just numbers in the air) and all four of you sit together and decide how to allocate it each month -- how much to spend now, how much to set aside for bigger projects.

It's ok if there are a couple of crummy decisions made -- one month it all goes for a big pizza party or whatever -- because this is discretionary money, and we aren't talking about the money for the rent, the food, or the emergency fund, right? The goal here is to stop this from being all your problem, and make it everyone's; in doing so, perhaps there is a chance for seeing ways to increase the amount of discretionary income available. (There are probably snazzier ways to do this, but it sounds like we are talking about a fairly limited amount of money, and by putting it in cash everyone can see how limited the budget really is, and how spending on a Wii means no washing machine, or how an extra haircut means no new pants.)

Also, I don't know your children's ages, or the work laws where you live, but there is a time in a person's life where it becomes appropriate for them to pay for their own pizza and haircuts. That may be overdue, or it may be a few years down the road, but don't be shy about saying "no pizza and no eyebrow waxing from my bank account, kid" if they are old enough to start carrying some weight of their own. They may "need" those luxuries a lot less if they have to pay for them themselves.

Whatever you do, don't drop out of school to get a job to buy pizza and eyebrow waxing for your kids. They won't really appreciate it, and the short term benefit will be outweighed by the long term cost of not having a degree.
posted by Forktine at 5:07 PM on January 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

This is not an answer but it is help in finding an answer.

I notice that your list is all "selfless" (heck even your holiday suggestion is camping with the family!) while your family's list is all consumer goods and services. I very much doubt that this is the case. Try mulling over every family member's priorities (including yours) for a few days. Don't just stay in the same ruts of thought about them - consider what they really want, how they are motivated.

Try something that encourages you to work together. Maybe you could get a car and the kids could get jobs with regular shifts for their discretionary spending? You and your husband can pick them up - lots of folks work it this way.

If you have money after the car, things that make jobs more gettable (normal hair; good teeth; university books) obviously come first.

I didn't get allowance after age 16 and had to earn my money starting when I was legally allowed to work.
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:14 PM on January 12, 2008

I'd suggest that the haircut & some middle-of-the-road hair product are probably pretty important. This comes from someone who just got a bunch of old photos of me from my parents.

Also - University books are optional? Transportation to University is optional? And it's pretty cool that he's enrolled in University, but too young for a driver's license (is this not in the US?).

And you didn't indicate how much discretionary income you have to work with.

Feel free to e-mail me details/answers/a response -- I'll happily post it (I'll only be online another hour or two, though).
posted by amtho at 5:57 PM on January 12, 2008

I agree with Forktine 100%. I don't know that it's your job to choose for anyone else what to buy- each person should be able to decide for him or her self. But you can say, ok, you get X dollars a week/month, and then they can decide for themself what is important.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:20 PM on January 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I like what everybody else has to say, but here are my two cents' worth.

What you need to do is separate the relative necessities from the luxuries here.

You: Get the car. Go camping with the family. Do some comparison shopping on the fence and guttering for now so that you're ready when it's time. Also, some hardware/home repair shops offer workshops for do-it-yourselfers. Check those out if you can find them. And I have no idea what a whippersnipper is.

Husband: Buy a mid-range desktop or laptop on special. I don't know how credit works where you are, but you can probably find a computer store (like Best Buy) where you can open an interest-free credit card account and pay it off within a year. It's for his job, so it will pay for itself fairly quickly.

The washer you should probably replace asap. That is not a luxury. But the dryer is expendable for, air/line-drying is better for your clothes and energy bill. If you have Sears where you live, you might try to sign up for the one-year-interest free credit card and pay it off within a year, too. Otherwise check out garage sales or craigslist.

But the big-screen and the wii? You can definitely wait on those. If he simply must have a bigger tv, try looking on craigslist for something that is more within your budget.


All the things you mentioned he could afford on a weekend job wage. If he needs transportation, there's a handy device we call a bicycle. Judging from what he's eating, it couldn't hurt him to get a little exercise, too.


Cell phone can be a shared expense contingent upon her getting a job. No job, no cell phone. If there is ever an evening where she finds herself stranded at the sporting goods store where she works, she can always whip out that bad boy and find a friend to bring her home. (I would absolutely not let a teenager leave home without a way to get ahold of her.)

If after the cell phone bill she can still afford nice shampoo, let her buy it. Otherwise, she can live with the bargain stuff for awhile. (I have on good authority that the only difference between the fancy stuff and cheapies is the fragrance). The electric tootbrush can wait, and manual brushing is better for the teeth and gums anyway.

And here in the US, we have a fine beauty implement for eyebrow maintenance that is inexpensive and effective. They're called tweezers.
posted by mynameismandab at 6:55 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Not meaning at all to be snarky, but more for clarification):

You're son is apparently old enough for university, but not for a driver's license. Where do you live?
posted by theperfectcrime at 10:02 PM on January 12, 2008

Is there a beauty school in your area, or a salon with training nights? I get my haircuts for free at one of the fanciest salons in SF, because I arrange to go on training night and get a cut from an apprentice (a fully qualified, and totally talented stylist who's just learning to be a hotshot). When I lived in Phoenix I had my hair cut at the beauty school arm of a fancy salon, overseen by real stylists, for eight bucks, and my brows waxed by students for $5.

We had money issues growing up, and my mom's take was to say: this is what I'm able to pay for. If you feel you need something better, you are responsible for the difference. Anything that didn't fit into the normal grocery budget, any makeup that didn't come from Walgreens and anything I didn't need but just wanted to try out, I paid for that. I paid the difference for fancy razors when my mother was only willing to shell out for Bic.

It's also worth encouraging your kids to seek out bargains: if your daughter can find a sweet internet deal on the toothbrush she wants, or your son reads the newspaper circulars and discovers a Super Bowl weekend sale on Pepsi at the market, support that.

If your son is actually willing to make his own pizza rather than order in or heat up a frozen pie, he is going to make someone a fabulous partner some day, and good for you.
posted by padraigin at 10:11 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your list is a jumbled mix of necessities (university books, dentistry) and luxuries ("hey! let's get a wii!")

You need to separate those. Buy the necessities. For the luxuries, give everyone, including yourself and your husband, their own allowance and let them make their own decisions on how to spend it.
posted by ook at 10:35 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have no idea where you are, but I'm guessing you aren't in the U.S. If it's possible and they are subsidized by the government, your university son should get student loans. Even if they aren't you should think about it. This will also allow him to concentrate on his studies rather than spending time as a check-out clerk.
posted by grouse at 1:48 AM on January 13, 2008

I can understand your daughter's need for a decent haircut and beauty products. Peer pressure and all that. I second the idea of seeing if there's a training night at a local top-notch hair salon. When I was a student that's how my hair got cut.

As for the eyebrow waxing, this costs under $10 from the drugstore, and is really easy to use. (If I can use it, anyone can.)

For a toothbrush, a Pulsar is about $6 from the drugstore. Not quite a Sonicare, but it's a powered brush that will give her clean, clean teeth.

I'd encourage both kids to get a job, and also point out to them that them being 'poverty stricken' (yes, it's relative, but I'm sure they feel 'poor' compared to their peers) is temporary. They need to learn that short-term pain is worth long-term gain.

I'd also suggest that, when the budget is worked out each week (or month, whenever you do it), you allocate an amount to each family member for them to spend or squander as they wish. So if your son wants pizza and Pepsi and spends the lot in the first two days, he's out of luck for the rest of the week. Likewise, if your daughter wants a $40 haircut once a month, she will learn that putting away $10 a week will get her that haircut instead of having to rob the Bank of Mom.
posted by essexjan at 2:13 AM on January 13, 2008

You say whippersnipper, "pretty tragic", and "check-out chick" so you're probably in (or from) Oz.

Second the question about your son being in Uni, but not old enough to drive. Perhaps because you don't have a car, he hasn't had the chance to learn? A car can make a lot of things possible that weren't before, but beware the money sink that a second-hand car can be (especially one not from a "reputable vendor", as if any such thing ever existed in the used car world). Check the NRMA website for running costs of used cars (per km) for guidelines.

Get your husband to a dentist, stat. I chipped a tooth, left it for a year, and ended up needing a root canal, which is much more expensive and painful.

Get the dryer repaired, professionally, so you don't burn your house down if you live somewhere that line drying isn't feasible; for the washer, you probably just need to clean out the filter.

If your gutters leak water onto your house, get them repaired or face a much larger repair bill in the future due to water damage (think: mould/rusting/masonry mineral leaching/expansion cracking/foundation undermining, etc)

Go camping unless it means buying a bunch of gear. If you don't buy your own second hand car, look into renting one for a week. Can you borrow a whippersnipper from a neighbor?

Give your kids a (small) weekly allowance and at least encourage your son to get a job. Doesn't have to be check-out chick, there are other jobs in retail.

Teenage girl + mobile phone sounds like a recipe for disaster. Get a pre-paid one so she doesn't run up a $250 bill in the first week, if you get her one at all.

Any computer is good enough to code on, even an old one (I still use systems that are, at least in CPU/RAM terms, 3-5 years old). If he is or works with a geek, I bet there's someone who has an old system lying around in a cupboard that they'd happily part with for $50 (since otherwise it'll cost them money to dispose of it -- most geeks are pack rats and can't bear to part with tech that might "one day be useful, hey I could put a webcam in the fridge")

Of course, these are just ideas and opinions. Jobs for the kids sounds like it will solve a bunch of problems on that end if you can get them to/from work in a manner that you're comfortable with.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 5:34 AM on January 13, 2008

What? Mama Warbucks bank is closed? It sounds like your family was happy to outsource all the financial responsibility to you (bill payments, taxes and other non-fun stuff) as long as the unlimited cash withdrawls continued. Well, time to be selfish and stand up for yourself. I bet you are denying yourself a lot of little luxuries in order to make it through school.

Get everyone together and show the budget, split the discretionary monthly income four ways and decide on the family's priorities together. Items like the washing machine or camping trip that benefit the whole family would require a financial contribution from all four members. Maybe your daughter will see what the new washing machine will cost her (several months of nice hair) and decide to get a home repair book from the library and repair the machine herself (a lot of their problems are pretty easy to fix if you have the time). Your son can probably borrow his textbooks from the school library too. Your husband really does not need a wii or tv when three of the family are studying for school. It is so easy to spend parent's money but when people earn their own they truly do learn the meaning of money (before I buy anything I always figure out how many hours of work it is costing me and decde if it is worth it to me). Since there are no jobs for the teens (your son can't get one on campus?), then maybe your husband should pick up some part-time work, I've certainly worked full time and have had a part-time job on the side to balance my budget when I was paying off my student loans and struggling with daycare costs. You are working part-time, can you see if there is another, better paying job at the same amount of hours?

Your family sounds really unsupported of you going to school. If they aren't willing to work with you then you just have to be the big bad mama that asks if they would rather have the lights on or another bottle of pepsi. As someone who also has a husband that does not understand the whole "budget" thing about money I have given up trying to explain and just say no all the time. Mefi mail if you want to commiserate.
posted by saucysault at 8:29 AM on January 13, 2008

These decisions will keep coming up. It will help to categorize them. Here's how I'd categorize - YMMV.

mobile phone: luxury, recurring expense, provides some safety
more expensive razors: luxury (silly in my mind, they probably work the same)
hair dye: luxury
professional haircut: luxury
hair product: useful (store-brand)
eyebrow waxing: luxury
new electric toothbrush: useful and health-related

university books: educational
junk food: luxury, bad for health
transport to uni (train, bus, bus): educational
occasional LAN party: luxury1

new computer, WOW: luxury unless coding is work or school related
new washing machine: useful, also could make family more environmentally friendly
new dryer: useful
lunch at work: luxury
Wii, big screen tv: luxury, would bring the family closer together.

second-hand car: useful, large expense, requires serious maintenance, plus insurance, gas, parking
dentist for the tooth chipped: useful and health-related, not a priority to owner of tooth
guttering (okay pipe dream): useful
camping trip: luxury, would bring the family closer together, good value.
fence: useful
whippersnipper: useful

I recommend you give the kids an allowance, and allow them to choose their own luxuries. They may choose unwisely, which is a learning experience. Also, making their own choices is quite satisfying. Things that relate to health and education are a high priority in my house. Some of the useful stuff sounds like your luxury spending choice. If everybody gets a luxury, even if small, it helps make the lack of other luxuries tolerable.

The kids will get jobs if they want luxuries enough. If they don't do chores at home, for no pay, they should. Everybody should contribute. Things that make the family closer are also a high priority. Camping trips recommended. You probably know people who can loan you most of the gear.
posted by theora55 at 8:32 AM on January 13, 2008

The son and daughter should have an allowance. It doesn't have to be a lot, but it should be theirs to spend as they wish. Some things that you are currently buying for them (razors, junk food, etc.) should have the money spent on them transferred to the allowance budget, and you should stop purchasing these things yourself. Son and daughter will take care of prioritizing their own spending, learn lessons about blowing budget on wrong thing. Don't bail them out.
posted by yohko at 9:54 AM on January 14, 2008

Just speaking up for the "OMG going to Uni/college but doesn't drive?" questions -- I live in the US (CA and then WA) and didn't get a license until I was 26. Car insurance was too expensive in my teen years and after's very difficult to learn how to drive as a young adult on your own! But I managed with walking and busing for quite a while.

As far as that goes, your son might want to look into whether there's a subsidy or something available for his transit needs. In high school I had a free/cheap bus pass through the school district; when my husband went back to college, they had a low-cost pass available.

The "two other very tall people" should be chipping in for LAN party food expenses, or at least evenly taking turns as hosts if possible. (Are they perhaps school-mates? Maybe they can be a source of carpooling?)

Nthing the recommendation for the teens to look for jobs. Again for the son: is the college a reasonable source of a job? If he's LAN-partying, maybe the IT department. I fondly remember my very first paycheck and what I bought out of it: a pair of jeans and getting my ears pierced, both of which Mom had refused to pay for. :)
posted by epersonae at 10:36 AM on January 14, 2008

See if there are any on-campus jobs for your son. Or rather, have him look into it.

on preview: epersonae beat me to it, but I was thinking even food service.
posted by herbaliser at 1:49 PM on January 14, 2008

The original poster DID send me a follow-up, but I stupidly did not think to check my MeFi mail, so I only just saw the reply (three days late). Here it is, for the sake of completeness:

Teen son skipped a grade. Also, we're not in the US. Car licensing process begins at 16.5 years and takes a minimum of 1 year (with 200 logged hours) but a maximum of 2 (I think) and he hasn't bothered to start this, even though he is 16.75 because since we don't have a car, so he can't practice and nobody has the money for him to go to driving school.

Uni books are not optional, but his are a new expense this year, as is his tranport to uni.

Saying how much discretionary income I have is pointless, the prices between areas let alone countries is enormously different.

Addressing other points that other people have brought up:

The computer would be husband's own, we each have one, we prefer it to tv.
Camping is impossible without the car. We use taxis when we must, buses, trains and walk.
I'm a minimalist and really don't want more possessions. I pretty much have everything I want.
The kids don't get allowance, they get paid for doing the dishes, a minimal rate of $1 per night. They take turns at this chore. Occasionally I'll pay them to do other things (at slave labour rates), like vacuum and mop house, do the laundry etc.

Thanks to everyone for the ideas, I'm looking forward to sharing the load of prioritizing because "all the blame for the unmet desires is yours" is my biggest issue and using the "here is the unglamorous but functional" line if they won't play.
posted by amtho at 4:41 PM on January 16, 2008

It's not on your list, but it sounds like a couple of cheap secondhand bicycles could help out with transportation at a fraction of the cost of a car. I'm not sure how you feel about this, but I know that places I might not want to walk through at night (I'm female) would feel safer on a bike. Or perhaps, depending on schedules, you or your husband could meet them (on bike) to accompany them home in the dark.

Once they have jobs, they can pay for all their luxuries themselves. If jobs really aren't an option yet, then an allowance sounds like a good idea; they need to learn how to budget.

It sounds like a lot of the necessities (computer, washer/dryer) could be bought secondhand at significant savings, as mentioned above. And despite what everyone wants, non-essentials like TV can wait until you're out of school.
posted by bassjump at 7:22 AM on January 17, 2008

Camping is impossible without the car.

Just to play the role of devil's advocate, cars can be rented as well as bought. I own a car, but the last time I compared my yearly costs of car ownership (depreciation, maintenance, insurance, etc) with renting, I worked out that I could have rented a car for every long road trip I make and saved a lot of money. Not so good for going to the grocery store every week, but much better for long trips where mechanical problems are the rental company's problem, not yours.

I don't have my own costs handy, but the US IRS allows reimbursement at something like $0.50 per mile; I think the yearly average driving is about 15,000 miles; giving a cost of something like $7,500/year (Edmunds gives a "true cost to own" of $0.42/mile for a 2007 Honda Civic, which is supposedly one of the cheaper cars to drive, so that IRS rate is probably realistic). Subtract some of that for gas and tolls and parking meters, which you would pay the same if you were driving a rental, and that still leaves maybe $6,000 on the table, which will get you an amazing number of days in a rental car. (In fact, according to Enterprise's website, one can rent a small car for about $500/month, in which case that $6000 would cover me in a rental for an entire year. My guess without having my budget handy is that my car actually costs me about $3000/year in insurance, maintenance, and depreciation, which would give me "only" six months in a rental car. Hmmm.)

That's a lot of camping trips, without the insurance hassles of paying for two teenaged drivers and worrying if the hoodlums down the block will steal your stereo for the second time this month. (Obviously, that is made-up math; you will want to put in real numbers for your own situation; and $6000 will also buy a couple of decades' worth of beaters, so there really are multiple options. The point, though, is that car ownership is surprisingly expensive, and the cost of the car is sometimes the least of it.)
posted by Forktine at 9:25 AM on January 17, 2008

It hasn't been said enough..
Bicycle! -- Even very ponderous cycling is 3 times faster than walking, anyone who actually wants to get where they are going can get up to 5 times faster pretty easily, and a teen boy who is really motivated can probably beat a car to destinations within 20km.

In January, north of 40 degrees in the northern hemisphere, it is dark at 5pm, so I don't think "home before dark" is a particularly useful criteria. Of course female safety is an issue, but..

If you are attentive, around here in Toronto, used appliances are basically free. You do have to provide transportation though, which means you'll have to consider delivery cost vs. guarantee (none, when it is free, so it might be worth talking to a used appliance store, or something).

Keeping a computer up to date can be fairly inexpensive if one puts time into it. Be content buying 2 year old technology, and using it for a couple of years. The old stuff will be resealable, and you will be buying at vastly discounted prices, so the total cost of ownership will be pretty damn low. Best places to buy computers: for ultra discount, try retrobox (now called something corporate) or vfxweb, and for good prices on more current stuff, check out the BST areas of online forums like 2cpu, HardForum, and ArsTechnica.

I think the key here is that you have less than a year to go for your degree, which will then allow you to get a much better job and pretty much instantaneously rejuvenate your finances.

I really don't think that is key. No sense joining the overconsumption craze just because you can afford it.

Finally, yes, transferring responsibility is a very good idea. I'm pretty sure slave labour pay is better than allowance.. However, you'll probably have to give them a bit of a raise when you download their personal expenses to them, in order to offset the "this isn't fair" cry..
posted by Chuckles at 9:40 AM on January 17, 2008

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