Lies I Tell Myself About Money

Photo credit: richardhe15067, CC BY 2.0.

Most of us are guilty of lying to ourselves about money, at least some of the time. Maybe we set a tiny budget for takeout even though we order in five nights a week. Or we justify a big expense by saying we’ll spend less the next month, only to “forget” and spend what we normally would. I love to set up hypothetical budget spreadsheets, but my actual spending rarely matches my plan.

As a single mom with a toddler and a nonprofit salary, my expenses have been higher than my take-home pay in the last year or two (tax refunds, a couple of small bonuses, and generous gifts from family have filled in the gaps). One of my goals for 2018 is to cover our monthly spending with my paychecks. It seems doable: I got a cost-of-living raise at the end of last year and my workplace offered some new benefits in 2018 that have reduced my expenses — and yet I’m still coming up short.

I sat down with my monthly budget spreadsheet and Mint to see where the gaps were. What lies am I telling myself about my money?

Lie #1: Clothes and groceries are busting my budget.

When I started to write this piece I thought my “lies” would be about how I go over budget on clothes and food. Then I looked at my actual spending, and… the facts did not support my story. I do go over budget on these categories from time to time. In particular, I tend to spend a lot on clothing each February (it’s my birthday month and I usually get a tax refund then). But my monthly averages are around what I budgeted, or just a little over.

The more I dug into my planned budget and compared it to my actual spending, I realized that the real problem was that I didn’t set a monthly budget for travel and home/garden expenses. In the last 12 months, I spent an average of $322 a month on travel and $400 on my house and garden (not including mortgage and utilities). I don’t spend money on these categories every month, but when I do it’s usually a pretty large sum.

Lesson learned: either I add travel and home/garden to my monthly budget, or I make a conscious decision to cover these irregular expenses out of savings.

Lie #2: My childcare costs are the same every month.

Last summer I finally got a daycare spot for my son (infant/toddler daycare spots are like unicorns where we live). Even though weekly tuition is always the same, that doesn’t mean it’s all I pay. Any time daycare is closed or my son is too sick to go in, I have to pay for a sitter or use PTO. At $150 for a full day of babysitting, that adds up.

The amount I have in my monthly budget for childcare is pretty accurate — I average $1,600. But I need to remember that a “cheap” $1,300 month could be followed by a really expensive $2,000 one. In addition to my budget, I keep a spreadsheet to track cash flow and upcoming expenses; I should probably just put a babysitter in there every three weeks. Then it can be a pleasant surprise if I don’t need to spend the money.

At some point this year my son should move into a classroom for slightly older kids, which cuts the cost of tuition by $100/week. Then I’ll be rich!!! (Okay, not really.)

Lie #3: I will clean the whole house this weekend!

One of the pieces of advice most working parents get is to hire out anything you can — especially cleaning your house. I’ve had cleaners on and off over the past five years. I love having someone else vacuum and scrub the shower, but I feel guilty spending a few hundred dollars a month on something I’m capable of doing myself. I don’t enjoy cleaning and tend to let things go for a few weeks, until we have friends coming over or I just can’t stand the amount of dirt on the floor. Every few months I debate whether it would be “worth it” to take some money out of savings and give myself a break from cleaning.

Lie #4: I should be able to live off the amount of money I earn.

I go back and forth about whether this is a lie. Yes, I make more than enough to cover all of my family’s needs. We have a comfortable house, clothes to wear, and plenty to eat. I read a couple of frugality blogs, and I know those bloggers would be telling me I should stop eating out, shop at a cheaper grocery store, and maybe get a roommate. They’re not wrong.

But I know myself. A life with no lattes or lunches or cute new blouses would make me pretty miserable. Ironically, when I feel too constrained about spending I tend to “splurge” and buy things I don’t need. My income will go up again at the end of the year, and some of my major expenses will go down (looking at you, daycare). I do have a healthy savings account. Would it be the end of the world if I planned to spend a few hundred dollars more than I earn each month, at least for the short term?

Writing about my budget and spending had one unexpected benefit — I realized that the problem wasn’t what I thought it was (clothes and food, two very Billfoldy things to feel guilty about). My issue is that I haven’t come up with a good way to plan for irregular expenses, whether that’s travel,  babysitters, or new clothes. For now I’ll stick with cleaning my own floors and not buying every pretty plant I want in my garden. I’m hoping I can cut expenses enough by the end of 2018 to actually live within my paycheck, but I’m not going to sweat it.

Amanda Davis is a nonprofit worker and single mom by choice. She was very relieved to realize daily lattes aren’t wrecking her budget. You can find her on Twitter @amandad_dc.

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