I recently moved from Arizona to Oregon to take advantage of free schooling (which ironically enough, I originally moved from Oregon to Arizona because I wanted to go to college there). Before the move, I had ~$3500 in savings. After the move, I barely paid the first month's rent, utilities, etc... and ended up falling behind over the following two months. Now I'm stuck with ~$1500 worth of credit card debt. I ended up having to get a $200 loan from my mother for the first months rent, which I just last month paid her back (with some extra because she's awesome).

For income, both myself and my girlfriend of 4 years both work. I get a bi-weekly paycheck of ~950-1000 after tax, and she gets a weekly paycheck of $250-300 after tax. Currently I have not been able to pay last month's car insurance (So atm I don't have car insurance, but I still drive 6 miles a day to work and back), and I've almost hit the 30 day mark on my car payment.

If I tally up my monthly bills, it would come to something around $1800/mo. That's before things such as food and gas. Even with July being "3rd paycheck month" for me, it actually boils down to "pay rent for last month and pay off old debts paycheck".

My big problem here is that I can't get over feeling like I have no control over my financial situation. The maths say that in a month or two, I'll be fine and on top of things. That's based off the idea that $950+$950+$250+$250+$250+$250 = $2900 - $1800 = $1100 extra each month for food and stuff.

However I suck at budgeting, especially budgeting for food. For two people, I will budget $300-400/month but I will probably still go over. I'm trying to figure out a strategy to pay off my debts in such a way that I can feel secure about my financial situation. The stress is completely messing with my home life. Are there any strategies that have helped other people in a similar situation?

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    Since food is variable, and you are spending a lot break it down into smaller increments and only use cash. Try and budget $300. Every 5 days you get $50. Once the $50 is gone, you get no more until the next 5 days. This will help you exercise discipline.
    – Pete B.
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 13:35
  • So far that's the best approach to reducing my food budget that I've heard, more specifically the 5 days part. I'm going to purchase some additional cookware (don't have a decent knife or spatula), and then see if we can't go 5 days on $50.
    – user17781
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 14:36
  • You can often get food cheaper if you're able to buy a lot of it. Make friends with whom you can split bulk purchases. Also, look for free dining opportunities. And the internet is full of good cooking advice. Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 4:27

3 Answers 3


Budgeting is a tool for planning, not for execution.

It sounds like you don't have a problem BUDGETING (planning what to spend on what things) but rather with the execution of your plan. That is - living frugally.

This is primarily an issue of self control and personal psychology - not an issue with the mechanics of budgeting and finance, which explains why the most popular personal finance "gurus" (Dave Ramsey, Suze Ormond) deal as much with your relationship to money and spending as they do with financial knowledge.

There is no easy answer here, but you can learn to spend less. One helpful thought is to realize that whatever your current income is, someone in your community is currently making less than that and surviving. What would you do differently if your real, actual income was $100 or $200 less than it is currently.

If your food budget is a concern, learn to cook cheaply. (Often, this is more healthy.) You mentioned schooling, so I assume you are on or near a college campus. Many colleges have all sorts of free-food opportunities. (I used to eat free vegetarian meals weekly at a Hare Krsna temple. Price of admission: listening to the monk read from the Bhagavad Gita.) Fast food is, of course, a complete no-no on low-budget living.

It probably goes without saying, but just in case you haven't: cancel cable, get a cheap phone plan (Ting is excellent if available in your area), and otherwise see how you can squeeze a few dollars out of your bills.

On the subject of frugality, I have found no book more enlightening than: Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving

  • Sounds like you've really hit the nail on the head with that one. I don't really live near a major campus, just a community college at the moment. Getting a new car when I was making $40/hr really screwed me now that I make less than $20/hr as those $500 car bills really put a dent in my budget.
    – user17781
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 3:54
  • @Thebluefish Have you considered selling the car and buying a cheaper car that doesn't require a $500 repayment? There is no sense in keeping a car that isn't in line with your current income.
    – mezoid
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 5:52
  • Unfortunately due to certain circumstances I owe about 5k more than the car is currently worth. Because of that making a sale to anyone not a dealership just isn't possible, and to a dealership I wouldn't be in a much better boat.
    – user17781
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 6:00

You sound like you are budgeting too much for food. Try limiting yourself to $200 a month for food and take that out in cash. When it's up, it's up. It's a hard way to learn but if you can tackle that, then budgeting for other things gets easier.

In terms of your fear of doing a financial bellyflop, which is valid, it sounds like you may need to both sit down and learn a little more about personal finance. Try mrmoneymustache.com or fivecentnickel, or any of the other frugal living blogs that are out there. There are whole communities that can help you and give you tips to do more with less, and learn budgeting and finance and how to handle your money and your future. And no worries, the fact you are concerned enough to look for direction now means you may be able to avoid your fear completely.

  • TBH I never was taught how to cook, let alone how to shop for food. I once went into the grocery store with some basic meal plans thinking $30-40 and came out with $90 worth of food for a week. $200 sounds impossible to me, but I think you've hit the nail on the head there.
    – user17781
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 3:47
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    @Thebluefish Check out cheapskates.com.au as there are heaps of tips on how to reduce the cost of your food budget among other things.
    – mezoid
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 5:53

Put your budget down on paper/spreadsheet/tool of choice (e.g Mint, YNAB, Excel). Track every cent for a few months. Seeing it written down makes The Financial Conversation easier. One simple trick is to pay yourself first. Take $100 and sock it away each month, or $25 per paycheck - send it to another account where you won't see it. Then live off the rest. For food - make a meal plan. Eggs are healthy and relatively cheap so you have breakfast covered. Oatmeal is about $2 for a silos' worth. Worst case you can live off of ramen noodles, peanut butter and tuna for a month while you catch up. Cut everything as some of the others have answered - you will be amazed how much you will not miss.

Dave Ramsey's baby steps are great for getting started (I disagree with DR on a great many things so that's not advocating you sign up for anything). Ynab's methodology is actually what got me out of my mess - they have free classes in their website - where budgeting is about planning and not simply tracking.

Good luck.

  • YNAB is actually what turned me living from paycheck-to-paycheck in AZ to having a savings account with $3500 after 5 months before moving. The methodology really doesn't work with planning ahead which is part of the reason I'm worried.
    – user17781
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 3:46
  • 1
    @Thebluefish YNAB does work with planning ahead in that all expenses become monthly expenses. Once you know what all your monthly expenses are you can compare to your monthly income to see if you are moving forward or backwards. "Planning" in the sense of "forecasting" is fairly unhelpful because you end up fooling yourself with money you don't actually have yet and may never have. Good to see YNAB has worked for you too. My advice would be to use it again to build up a buffer and live on last month's income as per the methodology.
    – mezoid
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 5:49
  • @Thebluefish You should also go over your budget with a fine tooth comb and eliminate expenses that are not absolutely necessary.
    – mezoid
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 5:50

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