Our Attempt at a $20-a-Day Budget

by Emily Kaye Lazzaro

I am a 29-year-old woman, married for four years. I am a playwright, actor, blogger, screenwriter, tutor, and babysitter. My husband is a software engineer. My money-making schedule is varied and inconsistent and sometimes I will just freak out about it — especially now, because I’m pregnant.

If you’re like me, getting pregnant means you immediately start Pinteresting and reading magazines about pregnancy and you start thinking that you need a lot of Things. The baby needs lots of Things and you need to buy them. Your baby needs his own room, his own thoughtfully organized closet, his own bookcase and nightlight and humidifier and small appliances that warm up various items. These things all cost money.

Not only do baby things cost money, but my husband and I recently made a big financial mistake, which required us to take a hard look at our finances. We recently bought a condo. There are a lot of things you have to do as a property-owning adult. One of the things one must do on a yearly basis, in the town we live in, is reapply for a residential tax exemption (ugh so boring. So boring! I know). But listen: I live in a city where enough people rent out their property that the city likes to encourage owner occupancy, which means our local government created what is essentially a property tax discount if you live in your own condo.

We learned this year that we missed the deadline for the residential tax exemption, which means we are at a deficit on our taxes, which means we have to pay an extra $500 (roughly) a month to catch up. I tried to fight it for a while, but it was more trouble than it was worth. It would have involved me having an argument with the bank that handles our mortgage payments, and as a pregnant person, I was not up for that noise. And when I actually crunched the numbers, even with just my husband’s income, not counting anything I might take in for writing for a blog here or there, tutoring pay, and the odd commercial, we should be able to survive and also pay our big tax bill every month. It just requires that we buckle down and be careful with our money.

I thought a good way to get both of us involved in saving money would be to put a limit on how much we can spend in a day, and make it sort of like a game. I looked at how much money we spend every month without realizing it (all our bills automatically come out of our bank account, like magic) and how much we should have left over. It appeared that a conservative amount of money to spend, per day, for each of us, was $20. That had to cover everything: food (restaurants and groceries), train passes, gas for the car, parking, clothes, and incidentals like dry cleaning and concert tickets. Anything I was handing over cash or a credit card for had to come out of my $20 a day allowance. Maybe it could be like a game in that we get points for having extra money left over at the end of a day or week. My husband will participate in almost anything that he perceives to be a game or that may involve points.

I guessed that we could survive on $20 a day, each. I also guessed that it would be hard. And in order to not freak ourselves out too much, I established that this $20 a day thing would be on a trial basis — to see if we could do it.

Now, that’s not really true, because we had found ourselves in a real financial bind. We still needed to convert our guest room/office into a nursery, and I needed new clothes every month because my body is changing. And we needed to buy more food because I am a constantly hungry food monster, consuming everything in arm’s reach. So this wasn’t actually something we were “just trying out” to “see how it feels” — we had to do this so that we would survive and not go bankrupt and not have zero dollars when I left all my jobs to care of this baby full-time, which is likely to happen as none of my jobs pay enough to cover day care. We had no choice.

Sometimes if you phrase things like they are a choice, it makes the pill a little easier to swallow.

I started our “experiment” on June 5, 2014. Everything was going fine until June 11th, when I had to pay $100 for a follow-up visit from a dog trainer. This was the first of our “not-bills, not-$20-a-day” expense. It was presumably a one-time thing, and we deemed it necessary, so we put a note about it on a spreadsheet and decided we’d not count it in our daily tally, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to eat for a week, which wasn’t ideal. The reason we needed the visit is because our beagle has separation anxiety and rips our house apart when we leave her alone.

We spent a lot of time deciding if something was a bill or an elective expense. We decided my therapy copays are a bill, but my visits to the chiropractor were an elective (though not so much if you ask my right hip joint).

On June 12, I found a desk/shelf unit on Craigslist for $200 and decided this also needed to come out of the auxiliary fund. This was the first in a long line of expenses related to making the guest room/office into a nursery. Expenses related to having a baby are farther-reaching than I had originally expected. We decided to keep house updates and baby stuff in a separate budget, which might even mean we dip into savings to cover it.

On June 13 I sold a bunch of old books and made $28. This was cause for celebration! We went out for a date at a Mexican restaurant and had $28 worth of fun (after using a coupon)! One thing that made having a strict budget easier is that I’m pregnant and, therefore, don’t drink. This saves a lot of money. Cutting out alcohol is one of those things that saves money and helps you lose weight like nothing else, but is so annoying and lifestyle-changing for lots of people that it seems like an extreme solution. But that decision has been made for me, so I’m just riding this out, saving the money I can by not drinking, and deciding to reevaluate once I can drink again. Will it be worth it? If I buy two bottles of decent wine, even cheap wine, that’s maybe $16. I can probably stretch two bottles out for a week, so that’s not prohibitive. But forget about it in a restaurant. $10 for a glass of wine, plus food. That’s astronomical now that I’m the cheapest person alive.

On a related note, my husband and I had to have a tough conversation in which he told me he really wanted to buy a limited edition whiskey from a local liquor store. He said it would cost $45, but they only made a few cases of it! And it’s local! And I told him that was just clever marketing and this was the kind of thing that we’d have to limit ourselves on, now that we are cheap budget Nazis, and that this was exactly the sort of sacrifice we’d have to start making. He replied that I was right, and, anyway, he had an unopened bottle of whiskey at home. I hated being the kind of person who had to tell him that he couldn’t have something he wanted, but what was the alternative?

On an emotional level, this whole thing was starting to feel pretty challenging for me. I want to be easy-going and fun. I don’t want to sell books so I can go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner where I won’t even get a margarita and we will pay with a buy-one-entrée, get-the-second-free coupon. This new person is not fun. This new person is kind of an asshole.

On June 16, I made a note in the spreadsheet saying this was getting really hard. My chiropractor wanted to keep seeing me twice a week, which meant $50 in copays per week, and $200 a month, even though I told her I’d like to start coming less frequently. What I didn’t tell her is that part of me kind of thinks chiropractors don’t really do anything? It’s the same part of me that thinks yoga is for idiots. I do yoga every week, but sometimes I roll my eyes while I’m doing it.

Dog food costs $25. I didn’t know this before I was keeping track of my daily expenses. Has it always cost $25?! That seems like a lot!

On June 17 we were so negative it was ridiculous. I had run out of Tylenol, which is one of the only medications you can take while pregnant, and was the only thing that was alleviating my allergy-related sinus headaches. Was I just supposed to have a headache until the next day when my budget had room in it? No. I would go farther into the red because it had to happen. I was also hosting a play reading at my house that night and had told people I would be feeding them. I agonized for HOURS about what kind of food to get, and settled on pizza (and salad for the lactose-intolerant among them), but not before trying to get away with chips and salsa. My husband said I needed to feed people real food because they were doing me a favor and even though we were on a budget, I needed to not be a dick about it. In the end, nobody ate the salad and most people didn’t even want pizza. I felt a little smug satisfaction about that — until I looked in my wallet after everyone had gone home and realized I had dry cleaning to pick up from a month ago. How was I going to afford to pay for dry cleaning?!

Ultimately it worked out okay, but mostly because we were lucky. My husband won a $500 gift card to a local grocery store in some kind of confusing and embarrassing sweepstakes he entered and it helped us make our budget in June. Our auxiliary fund came to $791.15 for the month, which is under the $800 I calculated we can afford in extra costs per month. Ideally, we wouldn’t spend very much of that money every month, so that we’re actually putting money away for the future (but one thing at a time). By the end of June, my husband was over his $20 a day budget by only $3.59 and I was over by only $1.57. So I won. Yes, we were still over, but it was so close that I count it as a win.

The conclusion I came to is that it’s not as impossible as it seems. We are continuing the $20 a day challenge for July, and I am continuing to call it a challenge so that it seems like more of a choice and less of a requirement, though it is 100% a requirement.

This kind of endeavor also makes me look really hard at my choices and at the luxury of being a playwright/actor/blogger/screenwriter/tutor/babysitter instead of a person who works in an office and takes home a regular paycheck. I am lucky to be able to afford to do what I love, and I should appreciate that this budget is a sacrifice I have to make.

But you guys: This is actually pretty doable, if you’re interested in saving money. Here are some tips.

1. If you drink, try stopping (ugh I know, horrible idea, but it just makes CENTS *barf*).

2. Go to the super cheap grocery store that is too crowded with elderly eastern European ladies and stresses you out. The deals are worth it.

3. Realize that every event you want to attend has expenses attached to it. Train tickets, gas money, food at said event, movie tickets — these all cost actual dollars! My town has free movies outdoors on Thursday nights in the summer and you can bring cheese and beach chairs and I dare say it’s just as fun as going to a bar (no it’s not, but I can’t drink anyway and it’s something to do and it’s free).

4. Don’t let marketing fool you. You don’t need that limited edition whiskey and you probably also don’t need so many appliances to warm baby paraphernalia.

Try it! Tell me how it goes.

Emily Kaye Lazzaro is a playwright, actor, and blogger from Somerville, Massachusetts.

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