My Sister’s (Book)Keeper
Part 1: You really need a budget
This is the first in a series of articles about sisters and budgeting. Genie, a frugal 28-year-old, attempts to mentor her sister Kate, a spendthrift 31-year-old, in the messy and confusing world of personal finance. How do you help your family manage their finances without going insane or completely destroying your relationship? We’ll find out.
My older sister and I are opposites in almost every way. Kate is messy, I am neat. Kate is spontaneous, I’m a planner. Kate is all big conceptual ideas, I am all details. These are generalizations, of course, but you get the picture. So it’s no surprise that I love to budget and Kate doesn’t. But about two years ago, after hearing about how much I loved my budgeting system and how much stress it had lifted off of my shoulders, Kate decided that she wanted to try it.
Kate and I Skyped and added up her expenses for each month — rent, student loans, insurance, electricity, internet, groceries, eating out, occasional fun purchases, etc. Then we looked at how much she was making each month. And it was very clear that one number was bigger than the other, and that number was not her income.
I am not great with money and never have been. I would consistently whine to Genie about my financial stress but do nothing about the problem. I had declined Genie’s offer to help me create a budget many times, but I finally gave in and decided getting an outside perspective might be helpful. I did not expect our first Skype session to induce a full-on meltdown.
I moved to Chicago four years ago in search of a happier, more fulfilled work life. Unfortunately, I my search for fulfillment made me blind to the necessities of financial stability. On a logical level, I knew that my new job for a nonprofit theatre paid less than other jobs I’d had, but I was also pretty sure this was my dream job. You can’t put a price on happiness, right? Wrong, wrong, so wrong. The numbers didn’t lie. Adding insult to injury, it was my younger sister pointing out my glaring mistakes. How could I have been so unaware of how much I was spending?
“Oh my god, Genie. My basic expenses are more than I’m making. I’m a failure as an adult. I’m probably going to have to quit my job and move back home. Never mind, that won’t work because I don’t even have enough money to buy the gas to drive to Mississippi.”
I tend to overreact. This is a personality trait that I share with both my sisters, so we are all near experts in talking people off a ledge. After some deep breathing exercises, it was time to take an honest look at my financial situation. This is when having a controlling, detail-oriented younger sister really comes in handy.
There were some fundamental financial rules that Kate and I needed to discuss. For starters, taking a good look at how much money she was losing on credit card interest, and how to set up a plan that would allow her to still use her cards while working towards paying off the debt.
At one point, when I first started using my current budgeting system, I opened a new credit card in order to take advantage of a no-interest balance transfer. I used this interest-free period to get the debt paid off. Kate had done this same kind of balance transfer, except that now she was using that card as well without an active plan for paying it, or the original card, off. We needed to get her to the point of seeing money spent on credit cards as money that still came out of her monthly budget — not as extra money, or money to be dealt with later, unless in the case of true emergencies. Moving forward, all new purchases needed to come out of what she could afford now, this month, and they should be paid off this month as well.
We also need to discuss groceries vs. eating out. Her eating out expenses were out of control! Did she ever make meals at home? I was trying not to judge the amount of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee purchased while stressing the need for some discipline.
“Doesn’t your office provide coffee you can drink there for free?”
“No, Genie, I work for a nonprofit children’s theatre, not a Seattle tech company.”
I don’t work at a tech company, not anymore, but I still got the message. Maybe some of the coffee could stay. At this point, we had to prioritize. Long-term habits can change slowly over time, but we needed to deal with immediate crises.
I tried to explain that some days you just need that mocha iced coffee to start your day — budget be damned! Genie looked past my coffee habit for the time being (while insisting I try to take control of the situation). But her overall message was clear: I could not spend any more than I was bringing home. A simple solution in theory, but so very difficult to execute.
My first task: find a new apartment. I lived alone in a nice one-bedroom apartment, and the rent was going up again in a few months. I was rarely home, considering all the side jobs I worked to cover expenses, so downsizing to a studio seemed like an easy solution. (I will skip over the stress of looking for a new apartment in the middle of July while nursing a broken foot.) I was lucky enough to find a great studio for $725, reducing my rent costs by $150 each month.
Now to deal with the cards and the rest of the bills. I am paid twice a month, but my paycheck was completely wiped out on the first when rent was due. So I had been buying essentials, like groceries, using my credit card. (In all honesty, I purchased some non-essentials as well. I told you, I’m not great with money.) By the time I got my second paycheck of the month, my student loan payments were due which didn’t leave very much extra money to pay off the cards. I was making minimum payments only, and the balances were adding up.
Finding a cheaper apartment was a huge and necessary first step. But it was clear that Kate needed more help than just one budget-coaching session, she needed an entire money makeover — and I was determined to give her one whether she liked it or not. Without a clear plan in place (ahem, a budget!), she was building up debt and barely scraping by. But what was worse, in my opinion, was that she had no bird’s eye view of her finances in order to decide when she could spend a little extra. I knew that budgeting sounded, to her, like all limits and no fun, and I really wanted her to reach the point of a budget helping her with fun purchases instead of hindering her.
There was a lot of work to do in order to change her mindset about budgeting and spending. We scheduled another Skype session to get started on creating a whole new financial plan.
Coming up next in My Sister’s (Book)Keeper: We set up a budget for Kate, trying to find the balance between current spending habits, necessary cuts, and realistic goals.
Genie Leslie is a writer and actor living in Seattle. Kate Leslie is a theatre educator and director living in Chicago. In between budgeting sessions, they host the podcast The Musical Version with their younger sister, who has not sought out any financial advice at this time.
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