When my first son was born eight years ago, I was:
- Overweight and super unhealthy
- In massive debt
- Living with my girlfriend’s parents
- Blowing a fraction of my unemployment checks on scratch-off lottery tickets
- Living life without a plan
- Weigh 65lbs. less and have been certified “fit” by my doctor
- Am employed with a steady job
- Have eliminated most of my debt
- Own a house with my wife and our two sons
- Track every dollar
- Live life on a budget
In my Change for the Better: Making Informed Decisions Regarding Your Finances and Health series, I want to share what I’ve learned throughout the years with the hope of helping those who have been struggling to reach their goals.
First things first: I’m not going to bullshit you. I’m not here to promote companies and services I haven’t used or don’t believe in, and I am in no way affiliated or being paid by anybody. I’m just a simple guy who’s passionate about saving money and staying healthy. A guy who hopes something I say sparks a positive change in you.
This brings us to the first topic in this series, and what has undoubtedly and singlehandedly changed my life for the better:
I always used to say, “Damn, where’s my money going? What happened to my young, lean body? Why am I broke? Why am I overweight?” Keeping track of my life never occurred to me.
My wife, we’ll call her A-Dawg (I’m sure she’ll love the title), first suggested creating a budget when we were struggling with two underpaying jobs, a money pit car which lived in the shop, and the astronomical cost of daycare. She had just read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Success. Certain things inside this book clicked with my wife and sparked her desire to change. I didn’t read the book, but she recapped chapters for me. She was the CliffsNotes translator, per se, and certain things she said clicked with me, too.
I think change is super hard. That’s because it requires work, and work is also super hard in my book. And sometimes, the amount of work required to achieve something simple seems insurmountable. When A-Dawg and I made our budget of monthly incomes and expenses, we tacked on a list of our collective debt. The list seemed like a bottomless pit of depression. We both had outrageous student loans. There were four maxed-out credit cards between us with balances ranging from $2,500 to nearly $10,000. We lived in an overpriced apartment, so we weren’t building equity. Like I mentioned, one of our vehicles kept breaking down, and it seemed like every month we’d spend anywhere from $300 to $800 on the blasted thing. And on top of all of that, we had daycare expenses.
Our dream was to eventually buy a home. Unfortunately, when we created our budget, it seemed impossible. But by taking baby steps and sticking to the plan, after several years of busting our humps and making sacrifices, we’ve finally bought our first home. And I couldn’t be happier.
Here is my belief about money in a nutshell: it’s almost impossible to make sense of finances without a budget. There are always just too many big numbers speeding every which way.
Having a budget means making sacrifices in the short term in order to secure a comfortable long term. A budget lays everything out in front of you and asks what’s truly important. It tightens up your wallet and earns you that much-needed ammo to attack the real enemy, which is debt.
Many people find themselves ball-and-chained to debt by interest. Credit cards, when used as crutches, are pure evil. They lead you to believe that you can live the life you dream of right this very instant. There is no accountability other than that of which you hold yourself to.
A-Dawg and I were in massive credit card debt, and the advice we took to heart was this: live tight and throw every available penny at your smallest debt. Continue to pay off your debt from smallest to biggest. We chose to narrow debt as quickly as possible, not based on interest, but quantity. Why? Because instinctively, human beings are encouraged by progress. We need proof that it can be done, and there’s no quicker and easier way than eliminating our smallest debts first. This also helps us see the light at the end of the tunnel. Personally, I’d rather be faced with 1 debt of $50,000 than have it broken down into a gang of 20 different debts.
After making a simple budget in Excel, A-Dawg and I found that were we spending way above our means. Here are some of changes we implemented over the years to save money:
- Cut cable (bought a new-age antenna and eventually “splurged” on Netflix)
- Relied heavily on our public library (great place to borrow not only books, but movies, video games and even board games for free)
- Made dining out a once-per-month reward for sticking to the budget
- Learned to coupon, not just for groceries but for household supplies, clothing, appliances and more
- Bought food in bulk at membership clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club
- Searched for free activities the family could do together (parks with trails and playgrounds, festivals and events like touch-a-truck and art shows)
- Invested in an Entertainment Book (can usually purchase a discounted copy for $20) which supplies bargains on dining out, shopping and entertainment for an entire year
- Installed energy saving products like light bulbs and insulation to cut down on our monthly electricity bill
- Cut gifts down to the bare minimum and only shopped deals (a cardinal rule I’ve come to live by is never pay full price for an item)
- When asked for birthday and Christmas ideas, we always asked for gift cards for gas, clothing, activities
- Kept one active credit card which we could earn cash back on and pay off immediately
- And more recently, before we make purchases, we go through cash reward sites like Ebates and our bank’s shopping site, and we always search online for promotional codes. We also try to “stack” promotions when possible. For example, when we bought a new TV a few months ago, we waited for a sale, used a coupon, and purchased gift cards at our local grocery store. We receive 20 cents off each gallon of gas for every gift card we buy, so that purchase alone earned a few free tanks of gas. On top of that, we bought the TV online through a rewards site and received 1% of the total purchase back via personal check.
I’m sure I’ve done things throughout the past few years which may come across as cheap. Yes, I go through my receipts. I will walk back into a store and insist that I was overcharged on yogurt by 10 cents. One time, this saved me $3. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you give your money away freely, you’re setting a bad precedent. To me, this isn’t cheap—it’s being smart.
Instead of ordering out, I pack a lunch for work every single day, because you see, I’ve come to use budgeting for more than financial reasons.
I used to be 65lbs. heavier than I am today. I ate terribly. In fact, I used to work at a casual dining chain, and I’d pick at plates before they went out and even after they came back. My ritualistic late night snack from McDonalds used to consist of two double cheeseburgers, a large fry, chicken nuggets, three packets of ranch dressing and an Oreo McFlurry. I still love food like this once in a while, but it serves more as a treat rather than a meal replacement.
Five years ago, I was working 3rd shift (2:30am to 11:30am) editing video for the local news. It was super depressing sorting through all the raw video not fit for TV. All the crime scenes. The blood. The victims and their families and the stuff they’d say in the heat of the moment. The realness—I still remember it. And there I was, sorting through all the chaos, trying to piece together 30-second clips of TV-appropriate material.
I was always dragging, and my boss never did any work and took full credit, and I had a newborn son, so I was sick of hearing about kids constantly getting raped and killed every single day. It wasn’t unusual for me to close my editing bay door and steal a few minutes of sleep under my desk. Or nap in my car.
I did these things because after work, I met my wife at a nearby McDonalds, not to eat, but to pick up my son. You see, back when we couldn’t afford daycare, we had to take jobs with schedules that aligned perfectly for one of us to always be available.
I don’t remember an exact day or month or even year, but I remember, quite vividly as if it is happening just now, how I plopped my rear in my car’s bucket seat to take a half hour nap, and I felt my love handles curl out from behind. In truth, I didn’t gain a ton of weight overnight—the damage I had done was a result of eating like crap for years. But in that moment, I felt foreign in my body.
What the Hell? I thought. I’m big.
I’ve struggled with weight on and off throughout my life, especially during my college years. It’s a subject I’ve always been self-conscious about. Even now, when people say nice things about me, I feel uneasy and wish to talk about something else.
Back in that car with the bucket seat, I cried. I’m not ashamed to admit that I sobbed. I sure as Hell didn’t doze off, and after regaining my composure, I slipped into work and headed straight for the bathroom to blow my nose and splash cold water against my face.
It was hard, and I knew it’d be one helluva commitment, but when I left work that day, I vowed to never weigh that much again. When A-Dawg got home, I put it out there—I asked for help—I said I wanted to lose weight, and I knew that meant making healthier choices. A-Dawg’s awesome and totally supportive. She asked if I had ever thought about keeping a food journal. I said I never knew that was an option.
I’ve never been very proactive, but let me tell you this: If you want to lose weight, a really good first step is to track your calories.
Back then, it must’ve been late 2009 or early 2010, there wasn’t an app for this process. Now you can simply download free programs like Lose It and scan barcodes on your phone. It’s super fast and effective, and they’ll even ask you upfront how much you weigh and how much you wish to lose per week. The math is done for you. But back when I was trying to lose weight, I had to buy an actual notebook and write everything down by hand (I sound really old talking like this!).
The idea of calorie budgeting is rather simple—according to your weight, you should only be consuming a certain amount of calories per day. The goal it to stay under this amount. If you stumble, which I did many times, it’s no biggie—you can always make up for it throughout the rest of the week by working a little bit harder.
By using a food journal, I didn’t have to work out to shed nearly 50lbs. I simply ate within my means. But I was so motivated by the weight loss that I tried and liked a few fitness programs and ended up implementing them into my weekly routine. I’ve come to love fitness, even though there are nights where I gobble down an entire bag of chips or half a tub of ice cream.
If it had not been for my journal, I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I would have broken my own promise, and I might even be unhappy. But that journal proved to me the task could be done. So, too, our financial budget—if it weren’t for that, A-Dawg and I would have never been able to organize our finances properly, and we’d probably still be living in an apartment. Even now, with all of our planning, we’ll have a few rough patches here and there. Don’t let this discourage you. Life is very unpredictable and unforgiving. We try to keep a positive attitude through it all, even when things seem bleak. Sometimes a bottle of wine helps ease the pain.
If you’re reading this, and you’re struggling, I want you to know that I believe in you, and I want you to succeed. I want you to do it for yourself. For your family. For the thing that matters most to you. I don’t want anybody to feel like I once did, or to feel that there’s no way out. You find a way, no excuses. You do what you must. You adapt and overcome, and in the end, money isn’t the prize—the euphoric feeling of conquering the mountain is.
I’m going to dedicate the next installment in this ongoing series to deal-shopping, followed by losing weight at home for free, meal-planning on a budget, cripple debt before it cripples you, and whatever other advice I can scrounge together that’s helped me achieve my goals.
I really hope you’ve enjoyed this read and continue to follow along!