Guest Post: #909 “I Should Be Able To Do Money…But I Can’t”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am so scared. I keep messing things up financially. I just don’t know how to do it. How to DO MONEY. But it’s a paradox, because I am earning a decent amount.

It’s a paradox about which I feel rather ashamed, because I am aware of my privilege. I come from a middle-class family of financial flailers–always earning a comfortably middle-class salary, yet always lurching, always in debt, always bouncing checks, always living paycheck to paycheck, always STRESSED AS FUCK about money, yet never really changing (or seeming to know how to change) spending habits, or debt, or livingsituation, or whatever the fuck it is you do to live with lower financial stress. I am just like my parents in this regard.

I am so scared. I am always living paycheck to paycheck, and even that isn’t enough. To illustrate what I mean, I often have to stop eating for 3 days before paychecks, I tend to bounce checks once every month or two, and I’ve had to postpone my student loan payments 3 times in 4 months. It is not so easy to just move, either–my rent is pretty decent for the location, especially considering that now I don’t have a car (a crash last summer, another financial fuckeroo), it is important to live near my workplace.

I just don’t know where to start. Whenever I google stuff about getting financial advice online for free, it’s always some advice that comes in the form of happy go lucky blank slates. Like, these super-duper positive people writing how-to’s as though they are teaching the teenage children of rich and stable folks how to save their allowance. Fuck that shit! I don’t want advice that is starting from some elusive, unrealistic (at least for me, but probably for most) baseline of financial stability and emotional okayness.

I want some advice that respects my baseline of terrible credit, shitty habits, major upcoming expenses, MAJOR student loan debt, major shame and self-loathing, and total overwhelm and fear.

I feel so fucked. I am scared.

I know that here, Captain, you tend to respond to stories. However, I also know that you love advice blogs in general, that you’re an aficionado of the genre. Therefore my question is a request for help in finding some other advice blogs: do you know of any places on the internet I can go to find the kind of help, the kind of realistic, open, detailed, respectful advice I’m looking for?

And frankly if you have thoughts on my situation, I will definitely take your advice, too.

Thanks a lot,

Financially Flailing

Dear Flailing,

I hear you that you feel scared—and that you feel especially ashamed because you recognize your relative good fortune to date. Would it help to know that you are not alone, that you are now among the majority in the US? Living paycheck to paycheck—or well behind one—is common, including in folks who’ve had sound opportunity. So kudos to you for actively seeking to set straight what so far feels to you like an impossible situation.

As you’ve found, the advice common in financial guides does not apply to everyone, or at least not to everyone’s starting point. Many such resources assume a near-magical combination of higher-income, plus a naturally frugal bent, plus a supportive family, plus a state of emotional zen, plus a cognitive capacity to navigate institutions ranging from banks to universities, plus plus plus. Not everyone has all of these. Folks with barriers such as stress, grief, cognitive limitations, a difficult family history, an experience of abuse, or a disability are often left to their own devices and, like you, feel embarrassment and shame that they aren’t “succeeding.”

Many mainstream resources don’t help. In fact, they exacerbate the issue by making it difficult for folks to come out of their financial closets. I know it didn’t help me one iota when all the advice seemed to scream, “Be an entirely different person! Become an extrovert! Don’t have Asperger’s or depression! Have more physical stamina!”  Ack. Our financial path must—at its most basic level—honor who we are at our heart, not to mention at our physical capacity.

You’re smart, articulate, and educated but, as you’ve discovered, these qualities alone do not lead to financial success. But other ones do.

As a volunteer, I serve some of my region’s lowest-income people. Interestingly, some had extremely high income (think executive directors and an NHL player) before needing help to secure and then live on $510 per month. As is usually the case, their financial flailing was not about a lack of drive, commitment, hard work, or intelligence. These folks’ careers relied on these characteristics. So what else is at play?

You seem to be painfully aware that you have sufficient income and status, and that there is some self-sabotage going on. This means that while you feel like a failure you’re actually already two steps ahead of the game!

I propose five strategies to help you fulfill your dream of financial well-being:

1. Prepare. Interestingly, preparing for financial recovery involves no file folders, specialized software, or fee-based advisers. Getting ready will involve just the simple step of writing down five free things you can do when you start to feel overwhelmed. What soothes you? A bubble bath? A run? Knitting? Texting with a dear friend? Meditation? A pitch black room? The Pogues on maximum volume? Post your list to at least five key places: your bathroom mirror, your car dashboard, the top of your shoe, your wrist, wherever you will see this prompt to self-soothe rather than spend. When the judgement or panic begins to arise, implement one of your personal self-soothing options. (And if you spend instead? No big deal, because you’re going to put in place the next steps too.)

2. Connect. The primary difference I see in people who transition from struggling to stable is emotional back-up. Many of us rely on spending to alleviate intolerable levels of loneliness, isolation, fear, anger, guilt, and more. Ironically, when we then spiral into shame about our spending, we often spend even more to cope! For this reason, I recommend your second step be putting support in place. For a sociable introvert or a person with a wild schedule, an online forum such as that offered by the Simple Living Network might be the best bet. For a person who thrives in live groups, the twelve-step program Debtors Anonymous can be a boon. If you have access to affordable one-on-one therapy, I encourage you to take that opportunity, too.

Even when these resources use financial floundering as a focus or anchor topic, much more will happen. This is because for most of us, money is attached to loss, hope, grief, attachment, and shame. When we focus on our finances, our money issues begin to resolve but so do layers of psychological struggle. When we act on one, we are inherently acting on both. So in healing financially, it is critical to have support not just to spend more judiciously, but to live through the emotional layers that arise when we shift the very way we’re interacting with our world. Your support person or group provides practical support while simultaneously (and more importantly) caring for your heart—walking you through your shame and out the other side while you implement change.

3. Envision. Take up to an hour to consider your personal goals. What are your dreams? When you see yourself in twenty years, what is your life full of? What does that look like, smell like, sound like, taste like? Pull related photos out of magazines, jot down key words, or chat about it into your phone or video camera. The sky’s the limit. Record everything you truly desire materially or environmentally. Silence? A turntable? An English country garden? The opportunity to raise a child?

4. Assess. Does your current lifestyle match this vision? If your heart tells you that in the future you want a peaceful cottage to write in, does spending $4 on ice cream today align with that? Don’t judge or kick yourself. Just notice. Watch yourself as though you are a scientist—a neutral third party curious about the patterns.

5. Record. On any given day, write down every penny that comes in to your life and every penny that goes out. This includes the dollar to the busker and the auto-debit for the internet bill. This activity can seem intimidating, because we anticipate seeing evidence of unmitigated disaster: pen hitting paper minute by minute, volumes of scrawled notes. It needn’t be overwhelming, though, and in fact can be strangely soothing. When we record in a notebook every penny as it goes out or in, we begin to see the power we have—the choice we get to make from moment to moment. We give ourselves a glimpse of our healthy decision-making capacity. Record nothing from before this moment, and nothing from beyond now. Just this moment’s transaction. As you record, accept your feelings. (Rely on your list for self-soothing.) Don’t try to modify your spending; no one else need see the information. Just record. Do this in as many moments, on as many days, as you feel up to it. Your consciousness will take it from there.

Once we have these five elements or practices in place, we naturally take steps to increase our income—asking for a raise, babysitting for a neighbour, snagging that grant—and decreasing our expenses—applying for a halt in student loan interest, canceling the gym membership we never use, inviting friends to a potluck in place of our usual Friday night restaurant outing. We do these one at a time, as our support team helps us to.

When we’ve connected more deeply with ourselves—and recognized our right to honor our truest self—we begin spending on that which aligns with our own deepest values, and declining to spend on that which others told us we should want: marriage, a magazine subscription, the university degree. Of course, the actual details of what we spend or save on are unique to each person, which is why our financial journey is often one of achieving physical, psychological, and relational freedom as well.

When we align our finances with who we really are at heart—ditching other people’s priorities in favor of honoring our own values and dreams—the perplexing paradoxes resolve. In the end, it seems that near-magic is involved after all, but it’s you who creates it.

Joon Madriga was marginalized by a severe yet undiagnosed brain-based disability, which left her on the streets. She subsequently found her way to help herself, then thousands of others. Her recently released book, Rising: Strategies for the Broke, the At-Risk, and Those Who Love Them, is available on She blogs at and welcomes your questions and struggles there.

Moderator Note: Readers, feel free to recommend other resources & techniques in the comments. I’d prefer to see recommendations in the form of “X site/forum/tool worked really well for me, here’s how and why” over “You should try X.”

352 thoughts on “Guest Post: #909 “I Should Be Able To Do Money…But I Can’t”

  1. Friends and relatives of mine in similar boats — decent income, smart people, dead broke or in the hole by the end of every single month — have had very positive experiences with Consumer Credit Counseling Services, . They are based in the U.S. and don’t charge for their counseling.

    1. My first thought as I was reading was “Gaby Dunn’s podcast”. I’ve been listening since it started. It doesn’t necessarily have pure concrete advice you can use, but it’s definitely a “you’re not alone out there in not knowing what to do with money” kind of thing. She even states that on the podcast (and in the theme song!) that part of her goal is to get people to not feel bad about not having been trained in money management.

    2. I’d second that and also recommend the second episode, when she talks to a financial psychologist. I don’t fully endorse what he says, but he talks about how we learn “scripts” about money when we’re kids that we recreate as adults without realizing it. And, in general, Gaby Dunn talks a lot about the shame aspects in the first episode.

    3. My first thought as I was reading was “Gaby Dunn’s podcast”. I’ve been listening since it started. It doesn’t necessarily have pure concrete advice you can use, but it’s definitely a “you’re not alone out there in not knowing what to do with money” kind of thing. She even states that on the podcast (and in the theme song!) that part of her goal is to get people to not feel bad about not having been trained in money management.

    4. I’ll also recommend another podcast: “Open Account” with SuChin Pak. It’s not a practical how-to, but rather a series of conversations with interesting ordinary(!) people on the emotional aspects of money and how we relate to it.

      LW, I can so relate to how you are feeling. I want to reach through the intertubes and give you a comforting hug if it is welcome. The podcast I mentioned was really really really helpful to me in unpacking the fear and shame feelings, realizing that this was common and normal, and that was the thing I needed to start doing the practical how-to stuff. I’m not totally slaying it yet, but I do have a ton more confidence (and actionable tools!) that I’m not somehow fated to be a financial fuck-up for the rest of my life like I thought when I was in the fear and shame spiral.

      Wishing you so much success in doing this thing that is hard but totally possible!!

      1. Whoops, meant to add:

        Once I got into the right headspace (thanks to that podcast) some tools I’ve found helpful:
        -I set up a separate online checking account to cover all of my debt repayment. I don’t have a debit card for that account – I just figured out how much money I need/want to spend on debt repayment each month, then direct deposit that amount from each paycheck. Then I set up auto-debit for each of those accounts (student loans, credit cards, etc.) to be automatically paid on time each month from this account.
        – This one may or may not work for you but it’s totally worth a try – it costs you nothing other than a few phone calls: I called all my credit card companies, found one that would give me an 18 month 0% interest rate on balance transfers, then transferred ALL of the balances on all of my cards to that one. Then I took that card out of my wallet so I won’t spend on it (new purchases don’t get that nice 0% interest) and set this one up to autodebit (see above). At the current rate that I’m paying it down, I’ll make my last payment in month 19, so I’ll pay interest on that, but this still feels a lot better to me than before! Also, because I know I’ve got that “deadline” I’ve taken a gamification mindset to beating that “boss” – if I get an unexpected windfall in the meantime, I’ll make an extra payment on that balance and see if I can beat the interest rate.
        – Once I do pay that balance off, I plan to “snowball” payments on my other debts that come out of this same account. You can google how to snowball (it’s pretty straightforward: figure out how much you can spend on debt repayment each month, pay the minimum payment on everything BUT the smallest balance, then throw the remainder at that smallest balance – once you’ve paid the smallest balance, move on to the next smallest). Some people hate the snowball method because it’s not always the way to minimize interest BUT it is (for me) extremely emotionally satisfying to see significant progress against that one that’s getting the snowball payment every month. NB: I have tried to do this several times, but couldn’t stick to it until I set up that auto-debit debt repayment account that I described above.
        – I recently tried out to check whether there was a “better” (minimizing interest payments) way to do the debt repayment, but found that in fact, my snowball plan matches their recommendations (yay!)
        – Finally, I use to see all my finances in one place. Somehow, just seeing all my account balances in one place all at the same time gives me a lot more comfort and confidence – it turns out that for me, a lot of my fear/shame about money was related to not knowing what was going on with various things (my retirement contributions, which balances on which credit cards, etc.). Not a magic bullet, but it goes a long way toward stemming the anxiety for me.

        Best of luck and happiness LW – you’re not alone and tons of people in exactly your situation have been able to get a grip on this stuff – you can do it too!

        1. I do something similar to TheAngryGuppy’s debt repayment account for bills. I figure out what my monthly bills are, and what my annual and six-monthly bills are, then transfer a steady amount from my pay check into that account, and have auto pay set up for all of those bills. That way I don’t accidentally spend my bill money, and I am not surprised by a big annual bill.
          (Actually, I’m sometimes still surprised by a big annual bill! But now I have a system for it, I pay it this year, and add it to my list to include in the bills account)

          1. And I meant to add – good luck! I was in a similar boat about 5 years ago, I’m still climbing out and not quite there yet, but so much more comfortable. I think you have a great attitude to this, and I’m sure that you’ll succeed in your goals.

        2. The snowball method worked for me! I used a debt consolidation service and each time a debt was paid off I instructed them to put that amount towards the next smallest debt. It worked astoundingly fast and painlessly.

        3. CAUTION: not paying the full balance off by the end of the interest-free term will often trigger the ENTIRE interest that would have been charged to come due. Be careful and check your terms & conditions. Home Depot, for example, gives you a handy breakout on how much interest you will be paying if you don’t pay off the washer (for example) by the end of the six month (for example) interest-free period. It’s something like $50 for a $1400 starting balance. I love 0% balance transfers and have used them in the past but usually YOU MUST PAY THE WHOLE BALANCE by the end of the interest-free term or it’s not interest-free after all.


          1. Thank you for this heads-up! I understood from this bank that the month 19 interest would just go up to the usual (still ridiculous) 15%, but I will certainly double check!

        4. Ready for Zero is very helpful – I like that it’s simple, there’s a visual of your progress, and you can choose whether to enter payments (or increases in debt) manually or have it automatically update from your account.

          I’m also currently using YNAB, which is sort of useful, but I find that I’m not really a good “envelope” budgeter (I end up leaving a bunch in “unbudgeted” and shifting it from there in too many categories). The interfaces of the online version and the app version are both a bit counterintuitive in spots (but not the same spots… odd) but adequate. I also wish there was a more visual element to it – I’m a graphs and charts person, and just numbers isn’t enough.

          For me, though, what’s most important is to keep trying, and to not beat myself up when a system ends up not working for me. Even if it helps for a couple of months, that’s still progress I wouldn’t have made otherwise. I’m also trying to find ways to honor the anxiety and vague feelings of being “trapped” that restricting my spending brings me, instead of pretending that those feelings don’t exist.

          1. I tried YNAB because I wanted to move my budget online, but whoo that system did not work for me. I have friends that swear by it, though. So if one thing doesn’t work, it’s definitely worth trying other things.

    5. I’m glad I command + F searched the page, because that’s exactly what I was going to say. It has de-stressed me by several degrees.

    1. I second this. I love Money Saving Expert. I’ve used it as a resource for some major financial decisions, but also smaller ones. I like the general approach of the site, which is helping people with where they are now, not some hypothetical perfect starting point.

    2. Strongly second the Debt-Free Wannabe section of the above site. It is full of people who have been exactly where you are and will take the time to help you figure out a detailed, specific-to-you plan and then hold your hand and provide support while you try to make it work. Basically, they will ask you to post a detailed list of all your incomings and outgoings (there is a handy form for this) and help you figure out how and you can cut back in order to be able to pay off your debts and get into a calmer, more stable financial situation.

      Note: I have always found the practical sections of this site to be mostly respectful. It’s a very pragmatic site for the most part, of the ‘we’re about getting better at managing money and that applies to everyone’ variety. However I strongly advise AGAINST going to the Discussion forum. It used to be a fairly nicely balanced place but now it’s mostly just people shouting at various clouds. -_-

    3. I third MSE – there’s a lot of great advice on the site, and it’s very supportive.

      The other thing that really helped me when my spending got a bit out of control was to print out 3 months of bank and credit card statements and just go through them, dividing the spend into a few big categories (groceries, housing, clothes, cash etc.). I was really surprised to discover how much I was spending on groceries each month, mainly because I wasn’t planning my meals for the week very well and so I ended up throwing food away. Once I knew that was an issue for me, I could concentrate on that area and soon managed to bring things back under control.

  2. I really liked Get Rich Slowly back a few years ago; I liked that it was specifically about long-term habits rather than quick fixes like the Facebook ads suggest. Money stuff is hard– I started with just writing down what I was spending, rounded up. Tracking a behavior often influences it in the direction you want it to go.

    Some people have had luck increasing their employer’s withholding, so they have an automatic savings account (not getting interest, but not there to spend either.) If you have a particular goal to save for, that might work to hide the money for a year and essentially take a pay cut.

  3. YNAB (You Need A Budget) had been revolutionary for me, and many people. It is basically an app that works like a digital envelope system and prioritizes being proactive with what money you have at the moment and what needs to get paid til you gain more income. The app itself is very useful but the magic comes in the methodology which emphasizes know exactly what your debts are, exactly where every penny goes (bc you manually enter everything) and being FLEXIBLE. It’s not a budget that is static and doesn’t shift and leaves you feeling defeated. I would highly recommend jus treading through their educational materials as while I love the app, it’s the method I think is most useful and you can use a spreadsheet or whatever you want to enact the method. It’s definitely marketed towards people who struggle with debt and I find quite accessible.

    I must sound a bit evangelical, and I think a lot of people who use YNAB sound that way. It really transformed the way I was just loosey-goosey letting money disappear from my pocket as someone who never could push myself to get full visibility of my finances. I realized I was saving money yet still living paycheck to paycheck and relying on debt to float me between pay periods. Now I have a stash of money saved for not just emergencies but for xmas gifts and a future vacation. Anyway, I recommend giving it a shot or just checking out the info on the site 🙂

    1. I love YNAB too. I would make one big suggestion, though, to anyone planning to try it: don’t overcomplicate.

      YNAB makes it very easy to make zillions of “envelopes” for your cash, which is great when you need that level of complexity. But I find that it makes budgeting hard and time-consuming, leading to me not doing it. Whereas cutting things down to about 8 main categories means I spend half an hour budgeting, once a month, and that’s enough to let me keep track of what I’m spending and where, and what impact that is going to have on my financial goals.

      YNAB is also specifically set up to help with paying down debt, though I’ve not used that side of it myself.

      There’s also a mobile app. I don’t use it for recording spending (I almost always use card, which means I can import my transaction history automatically, and I’m comfortable enough financially that I can just stick the odd ten in a “spending money” category and be done with it); but once you’ve got fairly stable spending limits for different categories, the app is great for very quickly checking “can I afford this right now?” whenever you need to.

    2. Yes! Not to be all “YNAB changed my life!!”, but…YNAB CHANGED MY LIFE. I found the free seminars really reassuring, they made me feel like I was able to get control of what was happening with my money. I’ve been using it for a year and I’ve cleared all my debt and built up some savings, after five years of that exact paycheck-to-paycheck thing the OP describes.

    3. I’m yet another YNAB fan. Actually, I’ve been a lapsed YNAB user for a while, but this post has inspired me to go back. I was trying Mint, but their budgeting tools didn’t really work for me.

      I’m rather frugal by inclination, so I wasn’t doing too badly money-wise when I started using YNAB. But I still found money really stressful. I was never really sure if I could afford something or what I’d do if I overspent. What I like about the YNAB method is that it tells me exactly how much I can afford to spend on things, and it also gives me the tools to adjust my plan if I do overspend. It helps me feel in control of my money.

      As other people have said, YNAB is more about the method than about the software. I found the old version of the software very useful, though, because it had exactly the right tools for the method and very little else. I’m still getting used to the new version, but it seems pretty good to me. The software has a 34 day free trial, which I really liked because I didn’t have to spend money on it until I knew that it worked pretty well for me.

      I used YNAB’s forums a few times when I was confused, and I found them very helpful and friendly and encouraging. I didn’t take any of their live online classes, because I mostly prefer reading help to watching demonstrations, but I have heard really good things about them. The classes are free. I liked having multiple sources of information – help pages, forums, classes, videos, in-program help text – so I could pick which ones worked best for me.

      It doesn’t look like anyone’s posted the actual link to YNAB yet, so here it is:

    4. Husband and I used YNAB for a number of months to keep track of our spending and I honestly found it rather clunky. It was helpful for tracking our finances, but we don’t use it anymore. Admittedly, we’re also much more self controlled and better at keeping each other accountable. It was a bit of a bummer to pay for the software and now we don’t even use it.

      All the positive reviews convinced us to sign up, so I just wanted to weigh in and give a bit more balance. YNAB is just a tool.

      I think the advice given in the main part was pretty helpful.

    5. Another similar system that CHANGED MY LIFE AND THEN SOME : good budget.

      The steps that the Captain outlined above, the actual process of setting a budget, is something you have to do when you start using these tools is wonderful.

    6. YNAB is the first way my husband got onboard at budgeting. He actually has a bunch of cash sitting in his checking account right now, which has literally never happened before, because he’s following the budget rather than just spending until he’s broke. It’s pretty amazing.

    7. [Guest Poster Here:] YNAB is one of my favourite tools, too, and one I strongly recommend in my book 🙂 For folks that also need help breathing through shame, coping with financial regret, creating enough mental space in their life to deal with a program, bringing in work-free income in order to stabilize, etc, I offer additional tools as well. More at my blog linked to at the end of the post!

      1. I love YNAB also. In the end it’s just a tool – the stuff the Captain suggests about preparation, connection, and vision should come first. But when I moved to a new job in a city and couldn’t understand why I suddenly didn’t have any money in my account even though my salary had increased, YNAB helped me figure out where the money was going so that I could make more conscious choices about it.

    8. Another YNABer here! I started using it when I had some major financial changes happen in my life, and all of a sudden I was scrambling from paycheck to paycheck and carrying a credit card balance and just feeling hugely stressed out about money all. the. time. A friend recommended YNAB and it was exactly the tool that I needed to stop the bleed and dig myself out of the hole I was in. I like that it’s proactive, not reactive, and pulling out the app to enter a transaction every time I spend a dollar helps keep me accountable. You can also start exactly where you are, right now, today, without having to go back and review months of spending. The forums were also super helpful–just about everyone there has walked the walk, and I found them to be extremely low on the judgy BS that the LW is trying to avoid; there are also lots of inspirational stories about people who’ve made it out of crushing debt to financial stability for when you need a boost. I was just looking at my YNAB summaries yesterday, actually, and when I started using YNAB last October I was limping along with a balance of about $400 in my checking account and under $1,000 in savings; almost exactly a year later I have $2,200 in my checking and around $4,000 in savings. I’m very privileged to have made it to this point (stable job, affordable rent, low cost of living city, no significant medical expenses or chronic conditions to manage, car has been behaving, etc.) but YNAB was absolutely crucial in getting me to where I am right now.

      This might sound counterintuitive, but at this point I find my budget very liberating–just like in the post, it helps me to make sure that the financial choices I’m making now are helping me to get closer to my long-term goals.

    9. Yes, I too feel/sound a bit evangelical about YNAB. I’m not still YNABing actively, but the habits are with me and my financial life is reasonably sound. And I started very much like OP. And it was terrible.

      OP! You are OK. Shame is a huge huge huge part of this, and I am here to tell you: it’s just money, and you are not a terrible person. You CAN get control of it, and it will feel AMAZING when you are, and it’s ok to need help, and you are normal and good.

    10. What I love about YNAB (another YNAB user/evangelist here) is how its educational materials and documentation don’t lie to you about how primal money is. Money isn’t money, it’s priorities, safety, and a feeling of what you deserve. Budgets are hounded by shoulds and shame and if-onlys and in-future-I’lls and that’s what makes them feel so defeating. Because decisions made in a shame spiral never stick. YNAB lets you be honest with yourself about what your priorities are by observing what you’re are _actually_ spending money on, and the YNAB documentation is really explicit about that. It’s not until you observe honestly the choices you’re making and get a sense of what need you’re meeting by making those choices that you can even begin to consider changing.

    11. Another YNAB fan here.

      What helped us SPECIFICALLY, though, was that we always only use credit cards or bank cards for purchases (we take out cash twice a month for the cleaner and farmer’s market – everything else is plastic). IMPORTANT: we started YNAB and imported and categorized the last 4 months of transactions.

      There: now you know where your money tends to go. Real-life example: my husband was all like “oh, 400$/month is PLENTY for groceries!” Me: “Well, according to this, we’re currently spending around 900$… so we either need to adjust expectations or reality.” We ended up adjusting both. But that can’t be done unless the background info is available – otherwise you just wind up being like ‘oh, well, it’s impossible to stick to a budget, look, we’re over that $ and only 2 weeks in’, and the truth is that THAT budget is wrong for you but there is a budget that’s RIGHT for you; it just needs to fit your actual needs and life patterns.

      Once you know what you tend to spend, you can either decide that it’s a reasonable/unavoidable expense (I can’t change my mortgage payment, gas to get to/from work is pretty stable, we now spend around 500$/month on groceries and restaurants combined, etc) and what is NOT reasonable (what is this 400$ on clothing spending?? Fix it right now!!) or can be altered (negotiate a cheaper phone or internet plan, call your insurance company and at least 2 others and ask for quotes – shaved 200$ off our bill, worth trying!), etc. And then decide what you think is reasonable for ‘luxuries’ (kindle books? Clothing you want but don’t NEED? music? coffee shops? restaurant with friends? Don’t say ‘nothing’, that’s key to blowing your budget in one weekend 3 weeks from now. Pick something reasonable that fits what you have left over after essentials/non-negotiables/debt repayment/retirement saving contributions.

      Budget planning in a nutshell. Good luck!
      Also, quick recommendations for further reading that really helped me:
      – Your Money or your Life: in a nutshell, seeing money as a reflection of life energy made me REALLY leery of spending the equivalent of 20 minutes of my life’s work (as represented by money) on a latte. Change of mindset that was really effective for me.
      – The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber. Technically, it’s a book about teaching kids about money. In practical terms, it’s what made me realize that we never talk about money when we talk about money: we talk about values and priorities and things that we feel are important and social position and class, and those are reflected in our decisions about how money is actually spent. Being able to concretely realize that made me realize that some of my spending wasn’t actually aligned with what I want my values to be, and that some of it was, and that discussing this in a concrete way made my spending more sensible (in my case: I ‘value’ relaxing on my time off, spending time with people I love, and not feeling obligated to do things. Instead of spending money on a down-south vacation like I was thinking about doing, I stayed home, bought a few good books and a pretty teapot, and organized some picnics with friends and family I love, and spent time playing with my toddler. 5% of the cost, exponentially more satisfaction, only realizable with some reflection about how ‘everyon around me is doing this’ isn’t a good metric for spending my money.)

  4. I found that using YNAB (You Need A Budget) really helped me – it’s easy for me to put into practice that 5th step – recording everything. It connects to my bank accounts, and makes it really easy for me to see where I can cut back/what is not necessary/when I’m getting way out of line with my spending so I can reel it back in. I’ve been using it for the last two years, with moderate success. It takes a bit of practice, and your needs shift as you start to settle into a routine. It took a few personal realizations as I started tracking my money to help me make some huge lifestyle changes. YNAB also has a bunch of videos on their YouTube Channel, and blog posts on their website that might also be something to check out. Take what works for you now, and throw everything else out/in your back pocket for future use.

  5. One thing worth mentioning is that if you feel like your co–workers and friends who are making approximately the same amount of money as you aren’t struggling as hard, it’s probably true. That’s because being broke is incredibly more expensive than being well-off.

    Someone with a bad credit history will pay more interest and will have to put more down on something like a car or personal loan. You’ll pay bank fees that they don’t, if you can even get one. They’ll earn a higher rate on savings and investments. They’ll be able to buy bulk or take advantage of sales and have the space to store those items until they’re needed. They’ll be able to buy higher quality clothing and shoes and take better care of them during cleaning, so they’ll need to replace them less frequently. Depending on your housing, they may have access to more (or any) kitchen space and equipment, and so eat out less. All of this is even before we get to things like payments and interest on old debts. The list of potential expenses for you that probably don’t apply to them goes on and on. I don’t tell you this to make you feel bad. It’s so that you don’t waste your time wondering what you’re doing wrong compared to them, when in reality, it’s entirely likely that it’s not at all in either of yours’ control at this point

    1. Yes! Also, people have a lot of shame around money, and we tend to hide it when we are struggling, so you might not necessarily know people’s real situation. You are not alone, LW.

      1. I know a lot of fairly well paid people who are primarily living on their credit cards. It’s tricky when I’m around them, because there’s a lot of social permission to just spend and “Treat Yo Self” all the time and not worry about it. When everyone around you is ordering their second glass of wine with the fancy dinner and then buying a nice clothes and things on the way back to the office it’s easy to get sucked in to doing likewise. It’s been eye opening as I’ve gotten to know my work colleagues better to realise how many of them are financially borked.

    2. Yeah, that’s a really good point.

      I also want to say, it might be stuff which can only be fixed slowly, like a bad credit score.

      But it might also be, they’re struggling just as much, but not telling anyone. Or they’re in as bad debt but aren’t as stressed and broke day-to-day. Or they’re just as bad as you, or worse, they just don’t tell everyone.

      Or it might be, there’s one or two large expenses you didn’t realise you had, which would help things a lot if you got rid of them. Or that if you can budget a single month better, you save a lot due to fewer bounced checks, fewer late fees, etc.

      Like, you have a problem here, but don’t automatically assume everyone else is perfect, or everyone else is just as bad. Assume there’s a range. If there’s any friends you trust to talk about this with, talk to them — have a realistic idea of how much struggle is normal, can make the problem a lot more practical and less shame-filled.

      1. (Trying again to post here, my software makes WP wonky…)

        I want to piggyback on Jack’s “bad credit” mention with my credit-rebuilding tip. Because their fees are lower, this likely only works at a Credit Union. It’s totally legit. Mine was the source who *taught* me this trick.

        You have $1000.00 in a CU savings account. You now apply for a loan of 1k, using your 1k as collateral. The bank cheerfully approves your no-risk-to-them, secured loan. They move “your” 1k to another account and place a hold on it. You are now paid the borrowed 1k. (I’ve thought of this as the bank’s 1k and even though I’ve put it in my savings account, it was not to be touched.)

        Next, we set up an auto-pay for the loan, which I funded from my original account. Each month’s payment unlocks that amount of “my” 1k from the bank’s hold. Because my money and the bank’s are both in interest-bearing accounts, the loan cost me less than $50 to get. I promise this works; I’ve done this twice. The second time, I ducked out of it early, but there was no penalty. Once it’s paid off, everything just resets as it was. Except I now had a higher credit score and a shiny, stellar repayment history.

    3. This is my life and I cosign it.

      Geek tangent: I was recently playing a board game with my husband (7 Wonders Duel) and I lucked into an early-game influx of cash (Temple of Artemis) and basically coasted to victory on that. We both made a lot of dry remarks like “it’s easy to put 10% in retirement if you don’t have student loans!” and so forth.

  6. This is really good advice. One thing that I’d like to point out though, is that knitting is a hobby that can get real expensive real fast. I think there are a lot of hobbies like that, where it can be super tempting to spend a ton on supplies.

    1. Awesome catch, Looc64! Yes, choosing low-cost activities for self-soothing is key! (Can you tell I only knit with one ball over and over? lol.)

    2. Hah, yes, that was my thought too. It can be really cheap if you’re using supplies you already have, or are happy with large projects using cheap yarn. But then there’s alpaca, and hand-painted yarns, and silk blends…. *sigh* Still, knitting – even with good yarn – is cheap compared to, say, horses.

      Some cheap approaches I’ve found to crafting:

      – Cross stitch kits on clearance can be really cheap. The denser the stitching, the longer it’ll keep you busy. I got one for $5 that was a 5″ by 7″ piece completely covered with stitches. It took me upwards of 40 hours to complete, and I’m rather proud of it.
      – If your eyes and fingers and brain will cooperate, projects made with fine yarn take a lot longer to complete but are about the same cost as projects made with thick yarn.
      – Ravelry is THE site for free knitting and crochet patterns.
      – Check thrift stores for yarn and other craft supplies. You’re not likely to find nice stuff there (though sometimes you’ll be surprised!), but if you just need to feed a knitting habit, it’ll keep you going. They often have cross stitch kits and embroidery floss as well.
      – Thrifting and refinishing furniture can be relatively inexpensive. It’s not as cheap as knitting, but it’s very satisfying, surprisingly possible to do in an apartment, and is much cheaper than buying new furniture.
      – Thrift stores often have fabric as well. And there’s bed sheets and curtains that can be recycled if sewing is your thing. Upcycling clothes is also a thing.
      – Jewelry making is kinda expensive as hobbies go, but if you’re the kind of person who buys a new pair of earrings a week it might be a less expensive way to feed that itch.
      – Ask your landlord if they’ll buy paint for you to repaint your apartment. Many will.

      1. Oooh, I second Ravelry! I’ve found great free patterns there.

        If you’re looking for nice and affordable yarn, I’ve had a great experience with KnitPicks and their Brava acrylic: my knitting circle has oohed and ahhed at the softness, and they have a large color palette. I’ve knitted two large blankets with the stuff, and it’s just lovely.

        1. Thirding Ravelry. Just started knitting about a year ago (username there is same as here) and have found it a great resource. I’m very grateful, also, that I found out about it before I started stashing yarn and patterns, as it would be a huge chore to put that data in if I hadn’t started from the beginning. Fantastic resource.

          Amazon also sells Knit Picks yarn (among others) and it is often bargain-priced. I’m on yarn store probation for now, but I have bought small bundles of skeins from Amazon twice, and it was cheaper than it would have been otherwise.

          Also co-signing that knitting gets expensive, especially if you get yarn-snobby about fibers (which I totally understand). It’s like painting or jewelry making in that regard, as noted above. With painting, even blank canvases don’t start off cheap. Don’t even talk to me about tubes of decent quality paint! Sheesh! In jewelery making, almost everything is fairly cheap by the unit, especially if you choose not to work with real gemstones, Swarovskis or precious metals, but you will need a lot of units! And stuff that is going to be sturdy and comparable to store-bought pieces will need higher-quality parts and findings.

          There are less expensive hobbies and activities, like: coloring books, journaling/doodling, origami, friendship bracelets/macrame, growing herbs/veggies, training the pet(s) you already have to do a new trick, decoupage, stripping and refinishing thrift store furniture you find, glass etching thrift store items and mirrors, digital hobby photography (obviously film photography and self-developing prints is still a costly avocation), etc.

          I will say that some ways I have curbed my emotional spending are:
          * Therapy for the depression that contributes to the need to self-sooth by buying stuff
          * Cancel all but one credit/debit card.
          * Move from a bank to a credit union.
          * Open savings account, funnel $X into it each payday, if possible. (Vet bills, car issues, etc. are valid reasons why $X doesn’t go into the account.)
          * I do not set foot in shopping malls, ever. I do all holiday shopping online.
          * I don’t even go in thrift stores any more, frankly. When I did, I took out, in cash, what I was allowed to spend. I left my card(s) at home or locked in the car trunk.
          * Take a friend who is also on a budget if you must go try on a pair of pants, and tell them you must not buy more than one pair of pants that fit. Friend’s task is to get you in and out of the store with JUST one pair of pants. Do not take someone who is not on a budget and who will start buying shit and get you revved up to do the same.
          * Pay bills first. Set budget for what I can spend on Amazon per pay period. I am not allowed to exceed that amount.
          * I have a collector gene, in that I am strongly stimulated to get sets of things, and feel very soothed by sets and collections. I sold, gave away, and hid a lot of my collections, choosing to keep out very few. This cuts down on my urge to add to my collections of objects.
          * I also have a weakness for media of any sort (books,DVDs, CDs, vinyl records). I do not ever buy anything brand new. My urge for books is fed by the public library. My vinyl is currently in hiatus. I am allowed to get penny (actually, $4 with shipping) books, CDs and DVDs used from Amazon IF I don’t exceed my allotted Amazon budget (and if the film isn’t on Netflix). I also have to watch / listen to what I already have gotten before getting excited about getting something else.

          Those steps address my hot spots WRT emotional spending. They may or may not work for anyone else. Sometimes they aren’t enough to help me, as I am still struggling with finances: it seems that every time I get ahead of the game, misfortune (car accident, need for a medical or vet procedure, etc.) crops up and wipes out my savings again. I still struggle most with spending that isn’t tied to emotional stuff, as I have control over whether I give in and splurge because I feel bad, but less control over the flat tires (and new $$$ prescribed Rx meds or barfing pets needing a vet or broken Rx eyeglasses or moth holes in your only winter coat, etc.) in life. I have a parent who also financially abuses me to a degree by (for example) demanding or agreeing that I do something expensive (e.g., medical procedure, pursuing a degree in a different field, renting a storage unit “for just a month” that turns into a year plus, accidentally breaking or deliberately giving away my appliances and furniture, etc., etc.) and occasionally also promising to help me pay for it and then reneging. If you’re being financially abused, your abuser should no longer be privy to the exact amount you earn from this point forward, and money you save by trying new ways to curb emotional spending or make more frugal choices (if possible) should maybe go into a savings account your abuser doesn’t know about and has no access to.

          Good luck!

      2. WRT thrift stores and knitting: you can sometimes find sweaters at thrift stores that are not something you want to wear (unflattering shaping, unstylish details, wrong size) but are made with fairly luxe yarn. Ripping out the sweater, washing the yarn, and re-knitting it to a different pattern can be a particularly cheap and satisfying way to calm restless hands.

        1. I still have tons of thrift store sweater yarn in my yarn dresser from my broke-as-shit days. That stuff lasts a good long time. I recommend looking for 100% cotton items to take apart; the yarn de-kinks well when washed and doesn’t tend to have felted up during its time as a sweater, unlike wool or fuzzy acrylic.

        2. Value Village has a yarn section. You can add that to the self sooth part of your routine by looking in every day for a few minutes to see what they have. Mondays, there is a different color tag that sells the item for a dollar. I enjoy just browsing.

        3. I do this and recommend! I shop the men’s XXL section (more bang for the buck, and men’s sweaters often have less shaping and fiddly nonsense than women’s). I have found mostly cotton, but also some really lovely silk/wool and alpaca blends. Taking the sweaters apart is also meditative.

          I’m no longer quite so broke and could buy new yarn, but browsing the sweaters and re-purposing is still very satisfying for me.

        4. One word of caution if you decide to plunder thrift store sweaters for yarn recycling…make sure you take a good hard look at the sweater construction (i.e. turn it inside out and see how it’s seamed, etc.) before you decide to buy. A LOT of commercially produced sweaters are made by machine knitting a large square, stamping the shape of the sweater out and then machine sewing the seams. This results in a sweater that is impossible to deconstruct in one piece, instead giving you a million little short pieces of yarn that are useless for reknitting. (Ask me how I know! :D)

          Sweaters that you can recycle are definitely out there, but make sure you know what you’re getting before you take the plunge, especially if you’re trying it as a cost-saving measure!

      3. I’m a fan of colouring books myself.

        I can’t knit, and am not good enough at crocheting for it not to be frustrating, lol. Plus I’m allergic to wool. I was looking at coats at the thrift store the other day, ran into some wool ones, and my fingers got all tingly.

        I’m going to go ahead and push libraries here! Many have a lot of things you can do besides just books (and the books are awesome!) including movies, which could cut down on things like cable/netflix bills.

      4. When I was a SAHM living in grinding poverty, I used to troll Goodwill every once in a while for silk/cashmere sweaters, buy them for a few dollars, and spend the time to frog them. The yarn I got from each wasn’t enough for a large project, like another sweater, but I did make many a pair of lovely silk/cashmere baby booties or hats for friends who were new parents. ; )

    3. If you’re in Canada, or have access to someone who is, Dollarama is amazing for cheap craft supplies. I’m useless with crafting, but I always wish I could do something with all the neat stuff they have in there!

      Coloring and crossword/sudoku/pen and paper puzzles are all really good self-soothing activities for me. If you’re into that kind of thing, there is a free app which is helpfully called just “Puzzles,” which has a bunch of neat sudoku and other logic-type puzzles.

      Finally, fidget toys! There are dozens of different kinds of them, and they’re fabulous for playing around with in your hands if you need that kind of kinetic energy. I’m also a big fan of fidget jewellery, although this is definitely the kind of thing you can start spending way too much money on if you’re not careful. 🙂 But if this kind of thing appeals to you, you don’t actually need to spend any money at all. Smooth rocks are good, or smooth rocks with a bit of a broken/bumpy edge. Pine cones. Even those black binder clips that are so common in office supply cabinets – anything with a couple of different textures and a maybe a movable part or two, will work.

      You do sound super stressed, LW – I hope things work out for you soon.

  7. No advice or resources, LW, just solidarity. Nothing overwhelms me like money and nothing is a bigger fantasy for me than having so much of it that I never have to think about it again. The problem is, that’s neither an implementable plan nor a particularly realistic fantasy. Even millionaires still have to think about money.

  8. A few years ago I was in grad school, living below the poverty line, and had *no* financial skills.
    The Captain’s advice about writing everything down is really good. I did the same and it was well worth the time it takes to mark every transaction.
    Things that have helped me were making myself never take my bank card when I went out, and using the envelope budget. When I had to physically count each dollar for food, for household expenses, it helped me appreciate what that extra meal or game or outing would cost in the long term.

    LW, I wish you the best and hope your journey to solvency and financial literacy goes well.

  9. YMMV, but something that helped me was I stopped carrying cash. I have a debit card (not a credit card, that way lies madness). For some reason, that makes me think more about what I’m spending; with cash I’d often spend it without paying attention and then suddenly I have no more cash. If you have a bank account with online banking, that also helps keep track of your balance. You can log onto most of them with a smartphone, and mine also offers a service where they text you your balance, if you don’t have a smartphone. Getting into the habit of checking my balance before purchasing anything or making plans really helped me.

    Also, for the student loans, you might see if they offer deferrments, x number of months where you don’t have to pay. Even three months can help you get things on a more even keel. You could also check to see if you qualify for an income-based repayment plan that might be less than what you’re paying now.

    1. I’m the same! Most advice says “only carry cash” but cash goes through my hands like water. Card spending, I record and I notice and I act differently. Do what works for you, LW, even if it goes against common wisdom.

      1. Upon consideration, I suspect it has to do with the accountability… if I spend cash, well, it just vanishes into the ether, doesn’t it? (I’m AWFUL about receipts. Simply awful.) But if I use my debit card, it pops up on the list of transactions on my online banking. Which somehow makes it ‘real’, if that makes any sense.

        1. I am the same. Cash just disappears, and I never remember what happened to it. If I buy something with debit I know that my balance will go down, so it feels like I’m really spending money. And at the end of the month when I get my bank statement that line will be staring at me and I’ll remember exactly why I have $50 less in my bank account than I should.

          1. Same here, with a twist. A big bill is hard to spend, for me. I look at a 50 and go, “Oh no, mustn’t touch, nope nope.” But fifty dollars in five tens? Gone.

            I try to use the cash for treats and keep only a small amount on me, but too many treats are making me feel guiltier and guiltier. I know I’m doing it because I’m stressed, tired and hungry, but the guilt doesn’t help anything.

      2. [Guest Poster Here:] I’m the same as the folks here who happen to do better with cards vs cash, for a few reasons. I get into those more in the book and blog, but just wanted to affirm here that every person is RIGHT to do what works for them! One approach works for one, another for another. Key is not to follow a guru, but rather to know who we are and follow that 🙂 Great stuff!

    2. I have the opposite experience. I prefer to set aside a certain amount of petty cash per fortnight and use that for various expenses. It stresses me out to see a bunch of tiny purchases in my online banking. My biggest stress is caused by the drip drip drip of money out of my account. Fuel, groceries, bills, mortgage payments come out of my account. A coffee comes out of petty cash. And once that money’s gone, no more allowed until the next paycheck.

      1. I also used to do the petty cash thing, and got into the habit of planning ahead for the week so I knew exactly how much to take out of the bank on Sunday. Tuesday I go dancing, that’s $8 for admission. Thursday I have lunch in the park with friends, that’s $6 for a sandwich. I’d fold up each set of bills separately and stack the folded sets in my wallet with paper clips on them so I wouldn’t be tempted to break into them and spend them on something else. And I always set aside something, even just a dollar or two, for spur-of-the-moment purchases so I could feel like I was indulging myself now and again. The worst thing about being broke is the idea that it’s immoral to have fun until you’ve paid off your debts. Fun and spontaneity are necessary for mental health! And spending a tiny bit on myself, even just buying a candy bar, was worth way more than whatever pennies of interest I would have saved by sending that dollar to the credit card companies instead.

        1. Folding the separate sets of bills is what I do when I go to conventions. I’m usually there to table, but I want to get a few things too. So I put some cash aside for that, but put it into different envelopes and number them so I know where I am in terms of how much “fun” money I have left for the show.

      2. I just started doing this, too, and it works really well for me. I tend to have different amounts of “spare” cash so I can always look and see if I can afford that coffee/sushi roll/video game depending on how good the month has been. Sometimes it might only be a coffee, sometimes I might get to splurge on a game! (I am a contract worker and my income varies wildly, so it can be hard to get a handle on things.)

    3. I am the same way. The way my mind works, cash is already out of my bank account, so what does it matter if I spend it? But a debit card charge? That requires taking the money directly out of my account, so I’m less liberal with it.

      I do like credit cards actually, because of the cash back, but using one or not definitely requires knowing yourself. If you are one who will borrow beyond your means, then obviously they must be avoided at all costs. But if you get to the point where you can trust yourself to pay them off every month and not use them for unnecessary expenditures, you can do things like put all your normal expenses on them and earn a little bit back. But always, always err on the side of no credit card if you aren’t sure.

      1. I agree with what has been said here about cash being like water. I have a special pocket in my wallet for cash-only purchases (for example, I have a friend who gives me piano lessons and I pay her with cash) but otherwise my brain thinks that if it’s cash, it’s already spent (since I’ve already accounted for it coming out of my bank account) and so I spend it like there’s no tomorrow. LW, what you might do is sit down and figure out which type of spending is the easiest for you to do. Do credit cards make you rack up major bills? Does cash flow through your hands like it does for me? Are debit cards super easy to spend? Figure out whichever ways of spending money make you spend it the most freely, and then don’t carry that form of money (whether paper or plastic). Or do something that will limit you; for example, if you have a hard time hanging on to cash, then keep $20 in case you end up someplace that doesn’t take anything else (in my area they’re still somewhat regular) and don’t take any more cash. If it’s a credit card, either don’t carry one or carry one with a super low limit if you can get one. Etc.

    4. I think that this advice is YMMV. I don’t think it’s wrong per se, but I have a different experience. I find it much easier to frivolously spend on my debit card than with cash. If I spend cash then I’m watching this physical thing that I had in my possession no longer be in my possession. The act of handing over physical currency feels much more real to me. Whereas for card I just wave it over the machine and somewhere far away an electronic number goes down but it won’t really hit home until I see my bank statement. Just my personal experience.

      1. It is so interesting to see the variations on this. For me, multiple small debits don’t really register as spending. I am crap at adding them all up and realizing that hundreds of dollars are trickling away. Cash starts from a set amount and then dwindles.

        I am planning to try YNAB in hopes that envelope budgeting electronically will have the same psych effect, or as good as.

    5. I use a credit card for this BUT it is VERY IMPORTANT to pay it off in full every month. And if you can’t do that then it’s a bad idea for you. For me using a credit rather than debit card means rewards – lots of credit card companies offer cash, or vouchers, or air miles, or other nice things so using a credit card can actually be cheaper in the long run if you keep on top of it. (use a different card to hold any balance-transfer debt because a)the card company will probably (I’m in the UK I don’t know anything about US card companies) credit your payments against the low-rate balance first, and this will cost you and b)cards with good balance-transfer deals don’t often have good reward schemes).

  10. I recently had a major change in my financial situation and can expect to have another in a few months (also student debt related). I found that keeping track of what I spent was very helpful, to clear up where my money was going and figuring out how much wiggle room I had in my budget. E.g. it made it clear that I spent way more than I was comfortable with on eating out.

    Simply making a budget can really help a lot. Once you have your expenses on paper, outside the immediate situation, you can think about it in a more objective way and that makes it easier to see which expenses are really essential and which are just bad habits. You’d be surprised how helpful a simple spread sheet can be.

    As for low cost hobbies, do you have a library nearby? A good book and a cup of tea (or whatever) is a very cheap way of entertaining yourself.

    1. I love libraries and I definitely cosign that hobby advice, but as a busy and somewhat disorganized person on a tight budget, I would like to mention that library ebooks through the overdrive library app on my phone are my favorite thing these days. While I prefer the sensory experience of a physical book, it’s really easy for me to forget or run out of time to return them and then wrack up fines and shame-spiral about that and end up with SO MANY FINES OMG by the time I finally manage to get the books back to the library. But my ebooks automatically return themselves at the end of the borrowing period! It’s like magic! And since there’s an overdrive app available for even my ancient windows phone, I didn’t need to get myself any other e-reading equipment, and I’ve always got a book with me for downtime at work or on the bus or whatever.

      (Also, if you do prefer physical books and have ended up in the un-pay-off-able in a single go fine situation I was in a few years back, I found that many librarians were really understanding and were willing to work out a payment plan with me–one library worked out a “just pay *something* towards your fines when you come in and we’ll let you keep taking out books” plan with me, which I super appreciated.

      1. Thrift stores are also a great source of very cheap books, no late fees! I used to get all my crappy mysteries from Savers for a dollar or two as I just couldn’t stomach paying $10 for something I’d read quickly and then get rid of.

        1. Yessss, also book sales and used book stores. Plus, if you read on an ereader or computer, Project Gutenberg is a treasure trove of public domain works for people who like old things.

      2. [Guest Poster Here:] Liyana, I feel you! My mind is like a sieve for so many things. I’m highly distractible and easily overwhelmed. Hence, several of my strategies involve a calendar, including putting deadlines for returns (whether library books, shopping purchases, or warranties) on one. Using ebooks where possible is a great tip, and I love hearing here what some libraries are doing to make the “returns” issue work better for folks like us 🙂

      3. My local library has a maximum fine of $15.00…which I have run into several times in the service of research projects 😛

        I think their attitude is that they’re just glad to get the books back *at all*, let alone in decent shape. But it’s kept me from shame-spiraling and keeping the books anyway because I can’t afford ALL THE MASSIVE FINES.

        1. My local library has no overdue fees at all. They just restrict your borrowing until you return your books (or pay the replacement fee if you’ve lost it). They do also limit the number of books you can borrow at one time to about half the number the libraries I used to belong to allowed. I think that helps encourage people to return them sooner as well. The only time I risk overdue fees is with inter library loans, but my library tapes a notice on the cover about it with the return date which helps my scattered brain remember.

          I just wanted to add that libraries themselves can sometimes be a great source of cheap second hand books, and the money from the sale goes towards keeping the library running.

          1. “My local library has no overdue fees at all. ”

            *is jealous* I am massively careful about fines because my local library supplies me with all the spaceships, exploration, mystery, and neatly-solved relationship angst I can handle. Much cheaper than actual trips to actual places, and less chance of traveler’s tummy 😉

      4. I lived in a particular city for a while as a preteen, moved away, then 15 years later moved back and went to get a card at my old library. The library clerk looked me up in the system and said “No problem, but first you’ll have to pay your overdue fees of [some small amount, like three or four dollars].” She gave me a printout to confirm that I had paid, and it was for a’ book I had checked out in 1982, when I was in sixth grade. I would have been embarrassed, but she was so matter-of-fact about it that I got the feeling it wasn’t even close to the oldest overdue fine she’d ever seen!

        1. As a librarian, I’ve seen people pay off fines from the 70s. We’re just glad to get it off the books.

  11. Finances are hard because you(gen you, not specific you) have to know/learn how to say “Hey! I have all these NUMBERS! Now tell me things, numbers! I shall work with you!”

    And it’s not something that a lot of people really understand how to do or are very comfortable doing, especially at first. Every financial question involves a bit of a math word problem. I didn’t even realize this myself until I was like, Man, why do I like doing basic finances so much? And it’s because I like playing with data and learning things from it, and finances are way more rewarding that statistics (which I was studying).

    So first, it’s okay to be confused! It’s hard skill to learn! Lots of people are confused about Math! Don’t judge yourself!

    I think it’s useful to write out what you want the data (your financial data) to tell you, and then figure out how to answer them like math problems. If you have Mathematically minded people in your Team You, ask for some assistance in how to answer them, but you don’t necessarily have to share information with them if privacy is important.

    i.e. How much am I earning per month?
    How much am I spending?
    What kind of spending am I doing? (like, categories, food, fun, utilities, lunches, clothes, etc).
    Am I spending more at certain times of day or times of the month or year?
    *Don’t judge! You’re just gathering data!~*

    Hopefully this will be helpful for you. I love the Captain’s suggestion of a transaction list. It’s a nice way to just be mindful about purchases and money as it flows around you in life, but I’m with her that it’s something you have to just learn to see and work with and be okay mentally and emotionally first. Then try to manipulate it.

    I also really love (they’re free in the US and owned by Intuit, same company that does TurboTax and Quicken and Quickbooks and other useful semi-professional financial programs.) You can enter all kinds of accounts you might have, debt, checking savings, credit cards and it’ll compile and make charts of data easy, so you can answers questions like mine above easily.

    Some people don’t like mint. And in my experience they usually prefer the ALL CASH method instead. All Cash method! –> Any non-discretionary spending (bills, utilities, rent, etc) are on cards/checks. Everything else is cash only! At a certain time, you withdraw how much you’d like to spend ($50 twice a week, $40 in the morning before work, whatever you think is reasonable) and try not to go and withdraw outside your habitual times. Spend only with cash, that way you can physically touch and count the money you have. When you buy, you have to count it out and can see what is left. If you’re like, Wow, $50 a week is not enough, then just up it to 60 or whatever. Then you can go back and make sure your withdrawing is less that earnings and tada! Basic balanced budget you are adhering to.

    It really helps with just being mindful of money, and also, not having to juggle numbers in your head (since tangible money).

    1. “How much am I spending?”

      This reminded me of something that happened when my kids were small. One of them was with me when I made some remark or other about money when shopping. She referred to how much money we had _wasted_ on grocery shopping. And I realised that we’d made the mistake of talking about money only in terms of what had gone wrong. She was nearly 10 years old and was thinking that spending money and wasting money were the same thing.

      I doubt the LW is making this particular mistake, but it’s quite common for us to carry around serious misconceptions about money and its uses. All arising from unthinkingly categorising some kinds of expenditure and some uses of language. (One son-in-law works with a budgeting/saving business so we get a bit of an idea about how to budget. The prime rule – be realistic about your spending. Once you have a complete grasp of a budget that accommodates your real financial needs and habits, you can get on top of manageable, incremental changes to those habits.)

  12. I found this post useful:

    It basically talks about doing one thing right with money at a time. When I’ve felt overwhelmed with chronic illness, sometimes it has been useful to only focus on one thing for a period of time (for example, my sleeping habits). That feels doable, and once that is under control, it’s much easier to build on that (for example, by adding some exercise or whatever). You might find the same thing to be true for finances.

    As in health, all of the different parts of finances are connected. If you have one thing sorted, it will make the other things easier. That way you can slowly start an upward spiral rather than a downward spiral, without feeling overwhelmed.

    Good luck 🙂

    1. Absolutely this. One thing at a time is the way to go. Changing your habits requires a lot of willpower and it takes time to really settle in. Trying to do everything at once will just wear you out before you manage to make anything stick. Do one thing, to the point where doing it is not a chore anymore, then do the next. I’ve found that to be the best way to change things in the long run.

      Adjust to the specifics of your personal circumstances and temperament, of course.

    2. This is excellent advice.

      Also, while you’re getting “financially healthy” if you do “slip up” (I don’t like that phrase, but can’t think of a better one) think of it as a series of individual choices that don’t have to affect your next choice.

      Eventually, you’ll get used to your budget, but in the meantime it can be super discouraging when you read articles that say shit like “Here’s how you can cook healthy vegan meals in minutes for $3 a week” or whatever, and your car needs a muffler and you broke down and bought a $4 latte and you feel like a failure and like this will never work.

      Don’t give up if you make “mistakes”. Don’t say “Oh well, this week is fucked, might as well stop trying”. Just take a second, and focus on the next meal that you’ll cook,thing you’ll repair, coffee you’ll make yourself.

      1. Oh, yes. This is an important way of thinking when you’re trying to change any habit, really — right now I’m trying to exercise more regularly, and I specifically wrote into my workout plan a target success rate of 90%, because otherwise I knew that the first time I missed a workout I would go “Well, I’ve already failed to meet my goal, might as well throw the whole thing down the toilet”. Having that 90% goal made it okay for me to be busy or sick or just plain lazy sometimes, skip a workout, and come back the next day and try again. (And by the way, now that I’m not beating myself up so much for making “mistakes” like that, I’m more able to look at when and why I mess up and start noticing patterns, which means I have a chance to either try to change those patterns or learn to work with/around them in my future plans.)

    3. I agree–very good advice! A long time ago during a difficult time in my life I latched on to the idea that I could make one very tiny low commitment positive change. So I started regularly flossing my teeth. Many times since, when I’ve been down, I’ve thought, hey, at least I’m doing one thing right.

    4. [Guest Poster Here:] Right on! The “one thing at a time” and “easing into it” pieces are my philosophy too! When a person is overwhelmed, or struggling with disability or chronic illness, this is key. My book proposes exactly that, basically starting with breathing…because at the start, that’s what I could manage! 🙂

  13. I’m a bookkeeper, so I see a LOT of people’s financials. So so many of our clients are in the same boat as you are, LW. There is a ton of shame around money in our culture in the USA (I can’t speak to elsewhere), and it doesn’t do anybody any good. I have the habit of shopping to self-sooth, too, so the free-things-to-do list is a great idea. Writing everything down is also great. As a bookkeeper, I tend to recommend that clients don’t use cash, because it’s so hard to track, but if you’re writing it all down anyway, then it doesn’t matter.

    I wanted to specifically chime in, though, with the two places people tend to spend the most money without noticing: Bank fees and eating out. Overdrafts and ATM fees are sneaky and expensive, and they add up quickly. If you’re in the habit of getting $20 out of the ATM but not looking for one that doesn’t charge fees, it’s easy to pay $5 or more in fees between the ATM’s charges and your bank’s. That’s a pretty huge markup! Take the time to find free ATMs, or get larger amounts of cash at once and stash it in an envelope at home. Overdraft fees are also very expensive, and some banks work to get you with more of them. Wells Fargo is especially horrible for this. Often, though, if you were hit with an overdraft for an overage of a few dollars, you can call the bank and have them refund it (keep asking to talk to a manager until someone can help you). See if you can set up a savings account with overdraft protection (if you can do it free, even better). But again, if you’re writing everything down, you probably won’t overdraft. Also, it is totally possible to have a free checking account, and if you pay a fee to have one, you should look at getting a Credit Union account.

    The second huge one is eating out. It is painfully easy to spend $25 on a meal out, and it’s also pretty easy to spend about $5 to eat in. Many of my clients spend huge portions of their income on eating out, without even realizing it. Some of them spend more on that than their rent, even. If you enjoy cooking, this is a huge boon. Even if you don’t like to cook, find some easy things to make for lunch and dinner, things that you can make in large batches and then freeze in smaller portions for later are great, as are fast meals; cooking seafood at home is fast, and still cheaper than eating out, for example. Find meals you enjoy that use shelf stable ingredients or frozen items, so you can keep those on hand for when you haven’t made it to the grocery store.

    TL;DR: You’re not alone. Save money by avoiding bank fees (overdraft charges, ATM fees, “service” charges, etc.), and eating in.

    1. I’ve found that Credit Unions are the best for avoiding fees. I’m a member of two different ones – one related to my university, and one related to my city – and neither charge fees. I can use any co-op ATM, which is basically any credit union ATM plus a bunch more, and I’ve never paid an overdraft fee, even when I’ve accidentally over-pulled. I know it can be tough to find a credit union if you live in a more rural area, but they’re great in suburban or city environments.

      My husband was also able to transfer some high interest debt to a low interest credit union credit card, which let him pay it off a lot faster.

      1. I love my credit union. When I switched from a for-profit bank to the credit union, I ended up switching the column in my budget labeled “$&#@ing bank fees” to “bank interest”. No joke.

        1. Yes! Why do commercial banks even exist, I mean for regular people? (they probably are good for rich people and businesses and stuff). I actually cannot wrap my head around why everyone does not bank at credit unions … I think I do know why this is infrequently advised by commercially motivated financial advice, though — commercial banks must pay for it.

          1. [Guest Poster Here:] The above discussion presents is a key piece: That, unfortunately, the solution is rarely as simple for the overwhelmed person to “go here vs there.” In my region, for example, the credit unions are very expensive while at least one of the big banks offers no-fee banking to folks with a disability, including a nonvisible one. Where a person is struggling, some of the best resources available may be truly surprising! More on all that at my blog, 🙂

          2. I dragged my feet about joining a credit union because I’d banked with the same institution since I was a small child through four name-changes (and as it got progressively worse and more impersonal and more prone to fucking up my account and charging me for more things but less good service, etc). I thought it would take a lot of time, money, energy and effort to switch over, and that I wouldn’t be able to find ATMs to use and I liked online banking and balance-checking with apps and websites, and I liked auto-depositing of my work checks, etc., so I kept on with the status quo…until my last bank royally screwed up my account and I finally got enraged enough to tell them to go F themselves.

            Folks, it was SUPER EASY to transfer my dough. I found out it cost $5 to open any kind of credit union account. Most any ATM works. I have online banking via app and website. I have direct deposit. I like that when I forgot about an automatic donation I’d set up and overshot my balance available in checking, they just took some money out of my savings account without tacking on a huge fee because I miscalculated and overdrew my checking account. It has branches in my current hometown, and the city where most of my friends and family live. I’ve been very happy since.

            Consider the humble credit union! You probably qualify for at least one near you, based solely on the fact that you reside in the state you reside in, as some credit unions are pretty open to almost everyone. Also, maybe your employer belongs to one, or you’re a teacher or student, or in local government, or a resident of a particular county or town…it’s worth trying. And switching was painless.

            Also, F those big banks. Well Fargo, Bank of America and Wachovia, you all suck especially.

          3. I’ve had terrible service at all three credit unions I’ve ever tried.

            One, despite me repeatedly going in and asking for my new debit card, didn’t mail me my card until 2 months after my old one expired. They also didn’t fix the only ATM in my area. I’ve also paid them $40 in fees over the years, where I’ve never had to pay my big bank a cent.

            Oh, and when I signed up, they didn’t ask me to fill anything out, they just asked for my license and said they’d fill it out. They signed me up with my middle name as my first name, and when I told them to fix it they insisted I went by my middle name when I talked to them. I hate my middle name. I’ve never done that.

            The other two weren’t as spectacular. My friend told them she was traveling to Europe, and to change her fraud alert settings accordingly. She got to Europe, and her only card didn’t work. They cleared it for use in South America instead.

            Sorry, LW, I know this isn’t super relevant, but I’ve never met a credit union I liked.

      2. Some credit unions do even better here: because they often have fewer ATMs available than other banks they will *refund* any ATM fees you incur, or up to 5 ATM fees per month, or something like that. I highly recommend figuring out what credit unions are available to you — if you’re in school there may be one associated with your school, or one for everyone who lives or works in the municipality you live or work in, etc.

    2. Not just eating out, but specifically drinking coffee out. I definitely recommend writing down all expenditures, but if that’s too much for you right now, just write down what you spend on liquids: coffee, tea, soda, alcohol, bottled water. I’m on the tea-total side of drinking alcohol so I’m not recommending drinking at all, but if you do drink, notice how much wine costs in a restaurant versus having a glass/night at home. (Red wine can go in the refrigerator with a cork in it too.) Notice what mixed drinks cost in a bar. Same for soda. Do you get that much pleasure from a coke with your meal? Tea costs less than pennies when you boil water in a sauce pot. Etc. Big savings in liquids at home. Big savings and health benefits from drinking mostly water everywhere you go.

      1. LW, both here and in some of the linked resources, I’m seeing a lot of people recommend stopping before making small or impulse purchases and asking yourself if you really, really want the thing. That’s not bad advice, but it only works if the answer is allowed to be ‘yes.’ If you start by assuming that you can’t possibly want the thing in your heart of hearts, or that there’s something wrong with you if you do, it’s just another kind of self-shaming. Sometimes you really, really do want the thing. Some times that $3.95 cup of coffee will give you $3.95 worth of pleasure. Some times it will give you $25 worth of pleasure. Other times, yeah, you might be just as happy to go home and make tea.

        And other times, you might be willing to spend a hundred dollars to sit down in a warm cafe and drink a pile of whipped cream with some coffee under it and still really not be able to afford the $3.95. Part of the key to not spending the money when that’s the case is admitting to yourself that you want the thing, dammit, and you are unhappy about doing without. You can still decide that saving the money is worth living with the unhappiness. Telling yourself that you’re just peachy keen about giving things up every time you forego an expenditure, OTOH, is setting yourself up for failure.

        1. I really second this–it’s something I’ve struggled with, personally. Trying to convince myself I didn’t want a comfort item (like a cup of tea from my school’s cafe) can leave me feeling small and fake, and the smaller I feel the more likely I am to end up in the Financial Fuck Its. You know, the place where you say “My financials are never going to be not screwed up, so I might as well go out in a blaze of glory.”

          Being able to say, “I’ve been so good today, and done all the hard teaching work, and I deserve that cup of tea, but I’m still not going to buy it no matter how badly I want it” doesn’t change the outcome–no tea–but does make me feel like the cool character in an action movie walking away from an explosion. I’m not a Magical Zen Fairy Who Has No Needs, I am a Grimly Determined Financial Warrior with a cool scar over my eyebrow! I didn’t buy that tea for the greater good! I have made a sacrifice for the glory of my house! I may not have a cup of tea, but I made it through with my honor intact.

          Walking away from something you want takes courage and strength of will. Celebrate that! And, on the days when you can’t walk away from it, remember–there’s no action movie worth watching where the hero gets everything right every time. Even heroes are human.

          1. Small caveat: Walking away from something you want *when you need to.* Being on a budget doesn’t mean losing everything you enjoy–just getting everything to manageable amounts.

        2. I think this is where having a view on the big picture and having a budget will help you, though. Your current model is just saying, “In the moment, is that cup of coffee worth $3.95 to me?” And maybe that’s true, but it’s true in the same kind of way that the kid in the Delayed Gratification Marshmallow Test decides that eating a treat right now is better than having two treats five minutes later

          That coffee will always bring you pleasure. But will it be more pleasurable in the long run that you had that coffee (and the four others this week) or if you can actually eat food regardless of when your paycheck comes in? Like, on Day 2 of your fiscally-enforced fast, are you still saying, “I’m glad I had that coffee last week, this is totally worth it, my belly wouldn’t kill for $3.95 of ramen right now”? Some people live in the moment like that and are net happier not having to plan. It just doesn’t sound like you’re one of them, so you need to do something to bring that future pain into the moment of your coffee decision, or have shifted the pain around so that, yes, you can have coffee any day, but you’re biking literally everywhere no matter the weather.

          1. Except that 3.95 of coffee isn’t going to fix your car.
            Assuming that the “four others this week” exist is also unfair.

            When you’re broke, 3.95 of coffee might be all you get for fun – you can’t afford a holiday cruise for example, no matter how much you save up – so shaming (and yes, I think hbc’s comment is shaming) is unhelpful and just increases the suckiness of the situation.

            Broke people know how to plan for the future. The problem is they don’t have any money.

          2. And sometimes that $3.95 is what it takes to keep someone going. When you are really struggling financially, sometimes buying a tiny luxury is what it takes to keep you sticking to your budget for the rest of the week or the rest of the month.

        3. [Guest Poster Here:] Beautifully said, Ellen Fremedon! Key is not to restrain ourselves in every moment, deny who we are at heart, ignore what actually lights up our buttons. We need to know who we are and honour it. Sometimes that means getting the thing that will help us in this moment or in this year. Sometimes it means declining to get the nice thing that doesn’t actually feel crucial, and living with the emotions and sensations that arise with that. Setting ourselves up for success means honouring all aspects of ourselves—bank account included, but everything else too! I talk about that a bit in this post, among others:

        1. No problem. I agree and reiterate. The trick is to start seeing expenditures as glorious delicious CHOICES. A lovely hot cup of tea now in that cute cafe in the seat by the window that the smiling server brings me or cozy hot cup later at home in my favorite chair. Whatever choice you make, enjoy it. Savor it– and take note of your own enjoyment. You’ll likely find that at least some of the things you’re spending the most on are things you enjoy the least. Again, going back to the liquids– I realized that I was spending a lot on soda in restaurants, and I didn’t even like soda that much. Flavorwise, water goes with savory meals much better, not something sweet. So I started buying soda to have at home– where I realized I didn’t like it that much there either. I’m not trying to make anyone stop drinking soda. If you like it, love it, drink it, enjoy it. The point is that I CHOSE water based on what it was worth to me.

    3. Food is 100% my downfall. I hate to cook, and I hate to grocery shop more than pretty much anything. I’ve tried to start ordering groceries more but then I get caught up in that I’m paying more for the groceries I”m ordering. (But I need to remember that a $20 recipe is not a $10 recipe but is till not a $50 grub hub bill.

      The problem is even just knowing enough of what to buy so that we can have a few meals at home ach week is overwhelming and a pain in the ass when I get busy with work.

      Grub hub is the devil, that is all.

      1. This is so important! You’ve got to make this sort of thing work for you, even if it means you’re not saving the absolute maximum that you potentially could at every opportunity. I find it so easy to slip into a sort of binge/purge or yoyo diet approach to money, where I’ll be OMG SO FRUGAL DON”T SPEND ANYTHING, LIVE ON BREAD AND WATER, WALK EVERYWHERE for a while, but then get so miserable and worn down by it that I’ll end up really splurging out and then struggling to get that floodgate of spending closed again.

        Letting myself do some sort of middle ground like you do with paying the extra to get your groceries delivered is so much more stable and sustainable, and better for both my stress levels and my finances.

        1. [Guest Poster Here:] S and Manatee, so well spoken! Yes, finding that middle ground—for who we are as an individual—is key! For folks struggling with work, parenting, disability, etc, it’s very wise to find balanced approaches that meet one’s critical needs while living within one’s means. For people who, like me, have a struggly life, that may mean spending a bit more in some areas than another might need to. That’s okay, and even good. One of my “cheaper fast food” approaches, addressing exactly what you’re talking about, is detailed here:

      2. Would one of those meal-prep service work for you? (Blue Apron, Plated, etc.) They would all be cheaper than your Grub Hub bills and would take care of all of the planning and whatnot. I think basically all of them have free trial periods, might be worth a shot.

        1. Maybe? I’m going to talk with my partner about it tonight. He’s kindof a picky eater and a solid cook, so he ultimately might prefer a more DIY approach. Last year I ended up doing a package of prepared meals, and we ate some of those, but they were not all tasty. 😦 A lot of the services are super ethnic and into weird healthy stuff which, we’re not. Lord save me from Kale I am not pretending that it tastes good.

          1. I totally get that – when you add my pickiness and my husband’s pickiness, it covers quite a lot of food. From what I have heard, some of them are better than others as far as selection of meals available, how much you can customize the menu, and how “kale-y” they are. Or, given your husband’s proclivities, maybe dinner prep should be primarily his responsibility, and you do one or two meals a week with a frozen dinner, meal prep service, takeout, or whatever.

            I’ll cease digressing now, I suppose. For whatever reason I find how couples negotiate dinner within the constraints of time, money, and preference fascinating.

          2. Yeah I actually was researching services yesterday and one of them gave me $30 bucks off, so we’re going to try it! I know my partner will do most of the cooking. He’s not great at planning? But very good at doing. So yeah. And we both have evening activities a few nights a weeks so we’ll probably still do take out for some of those. I also want to get back into the habit of cooking a big sunday dinner, like a roast or chicken and sides and stuff. And then leftovers 😀

            I will probably keep using instacart though, it is just SO much easier than going to the store. Driving here is just… ugh. And people, and crowded, and hate.

        2. We’re on our second meal-prep services, and I really, really like it. Blue Apron first round, Hello Fresh after a break. Nothing wrong with the first, just stopped using it after a while and then picked up the next.
          Here’s why I like it. Set expense every week. I KNOW what the grocery bill for those three meals will be. Partner, the picky one, manages the account, and gets to pick between six options every week for the three meals we receive, so I never get shrimp at home which I love, but he never has to eat shrimp which he hates. Three times a week, we cook together and then eat together. Three times a week, we are eating healthy but tasty, and he eats vegetables and even likes it mostly! I think in nine months of Blue Apron, there was one meal neither of us liked, and maybe half a dozen that one of the other of us wasn’t interested. Finally, they are really easy to expand if there are people over for supper by buying more of the basic ingredients.
          Oh, and some days I throw the directions out the window and use the raw food to make something completely different. 🙂

      3. Gosh, this. I finally started focusing on cutting back on online food delivery this summer. I went six weeks without a single Foodler order from early July to late August, which was a big success, for me.

        What did not work:

        1) Blue Apron. It’s expensive and the recipes I got were delicious, but time-consuming, and the ingredients tended to spoil quickly so I wound up wasting a lot of food.

        2) Vague plans to cook something.

        What did work:

        1) Taking Lyft home from the grocery store. It’s only like a one mile walk, but it’s a lot less work with ride-sharing.

        2) This website: and other very simple food options – even stuff like frozen dinners that isn’t super healthy but that’s also much, much cheaper and likely for me to willingly eat than, like, kale.

        3) Notes! My fridge has lists of a) food that’s currently ready to eat, b) food I can prepare with ingredients on hand, c) ingredients I need to buy, and d) food I can prepare once those ingredients get bought. They’re all in pencil, and items get shuffled from list to list over time.

    4. I second (third? Fourth?) the advice on not eating out very often. I usually cook batches of things up on the weekends and then eat them for the next week. Some people can’t handle that much repetitiveness but will cook a few things and throw them in the freezer and take them out as needed. Also, in a way to make things more reasonable for myself, I’ve tried to make a limit of eating out once per pay period. That way I don’t eat at restaurants a TON, but I still get to enjoy not cooking every now and then, and it’s more like a treat. If there’s some way you can do that (or have something else that you like to splurge on that you can cut down to once a week, once a pay period, etc.), then that can make it feel less like deprivation.

    5. It’s also fine to decide one wants to prioritize take out, assuming there’s enough money to go around generally (which is sounds like there is in this case). Depending on the LW’s relationship with and opinion of cooking, they might consider not cooking money well spent, particularly right now while they work on some other stuff.

      1. Yes, I definitely prefer to spend more money on prepared food and eating out, than to spend less money but more time on cooking. I enjoy cooking when I have the time, but it’s really rare that I actually have the time to do it in an enjoyable fashion. I would much rather trade the cash for the opportunity of spending time with my children – this includes both fun at the park as well as feeding, bathing, nagging to pick up toys, and other not so fun stuff.

        There are tradeoffs to everything, and money-for-time is a pretty common one. If you choose to spend more money to make better use of your available time, that’s a totally reasonable choice to make. Just do it intentionally, and see if there are other places in your life where you can make other tradeoffs to save more money.

      2. Hashtag it me. I don’t just hate cooking, I also have a ton of anxiety around meal planning and preparation. It isn’t financially ideal, but for me the money I spend on takeout is worth it. I’m playing for the meals/delivery/tip, but also paying for the relief of not having to do it myself. But, obviously, that’s not financially feasible for everyone, and it requires taking a good long look at what you’re spending and prioritizing. For me, it’s worth it; for other people, it might not be.

          1. On the topic of food and disability; if you find cooking difficult but you still want to make food at home rather than eating out I’ve found to be pretty useful. It’s a blog run by a team of disabled people about meal preparation with a big focus on keeping things as simple and cheap as possible, including giving advice on the best ready meals and pre-prepared things you can buy (which is a nice change from the usual “if you want to save money you need to make absolutely everything from scratch” kind of stuff…)

      3. Yes. I enjoy cooking and grocery shopping but I also live spending the day walking around town getting tea, eating lunch at a local restaurant, and getting more tea. It’s a great way to get out of the house (I work at home and I get stir crazy easily) and it’s a nice change of pace. I spend a lot of my discretionary budget on coffee shops and restaurants and I’m 100% okay with that. It’s okay to prioritize things other people label as frivolous. Budgets are kind of like diets in that they need to be reasonable to work.

    6. Seconding (thirding?) the switch to a credit union thing! I’m generally pretty good with my money but every once in a while something will slip through and I’ll overdraft. My credit union’s fee for doing that? $2. My boyfriend banks with one of the big banks and he accidentally overdrafted last month and his bank charged him $25. HUGE difference!

    7. How much it costs to eat in is definitely going to be location related. Food deserts exist.

      Sorry, that’s just kind of a pet peeve of mine. My family eats out maybe once every two months, once a month. That ain’t where our money is going. Gets a teeeech old 😛

      1. This exact thing is why I liked the guest poster’s “big picture” advice – a *lot* of money advice is particular tips or hacks that a) may not be relevant or terribly impactful and b) don’t necessarily do anything to help us think about how we’re relating to money.

    8. Oh, man! I like (or I did before things went weird with a joint account, long teel deer), and here is one of the reasons why: my bank started off with debit card PIN pad purchases being no extra charge. As a commuter in a large city, I would shop day by day, every day. I didn’t realize they’d changed their policy, however, to include a two-dollar-per-transaction fee, which they would charge in aggregate on the fifth of every month as, say, “$66 ATM transaction,” for hitting CVS and Food 4 Less daily (I am not good with cash, either). When I signed up with Mint, I was shocked to find that I was spending over $800 a year in “ATM fees”— fees that I could have saved by going with “credit.” The bank has since changed its policy, but that was a real eye-opening moment!

  14. Writing every expenditure down was absolutely the way to self-observation for me. And with that, I began noticing when I did certain things, which was really helpful to intercepting my reactions. I started using Quicken long ago, but there are free/near-free app and online things now. Writing down the utility bill, the car stuff, all of that, in there was both intimidating and helpful.

    I found that it was very important to budget for things I enjoyed, even a little treat money every day like a dollar or two, some small thing like an ice cream, or a coffee at a cafe, or a book. Without that, the budget felt like beating myself up. Those people who scream that going for coffees will ruin you are not taking into account the grown-up pleasure that ordering a coffee and sitting in the cafe occasionally provides. It’s cheaper than eating out and just as refreshing, for me.

    The debit card/cash thing seems to be a big divide. For me, having a cash allocation, a physical set of bills that when they were gone they were gone, was far easier to manage than a nebulous number off in the bank’s register that I had to look at.

    LW, you learned bad money management from your parents, you say, and Joon is so right about knowing that being helpful to you, because you know the origin of your own pattern. You know too that you can learn something new that you didn’t learn from your parents, just the way you learned other things. Good luck!

    1. Absolutely all of this! I too have issues with cards– I’ll forget to write down an expense, or get overwhelmed with so many that have to be accounted for, but with cash I know exactly how much of my weekly or daily budget is left, and it’s harder for me to be deterred by all the steps of logging into my online banking, writing everything exactly, trying to remember if there’s anything there that hasn’t registered yet, etc.

      I also wholeheartedly agree with the idea of budgeting for self-care. And all the advice that your strategies should be suited for your own lifestyle– I have my breakfast and morning coffee out every day, for example, but I always get the same (relatively cheap) items and I work that in to my weekly plan.

      Also, maybe this sounds like super obvious advice, but it’s the one thing that I’ve been able to stick to (I have some mental illness type things that make it really easy for me to get stressed out and sabotage myself). And that is: any plan you use, break it up into smaller steps. Don’t just make a nebulous, far-reaching plan for the distant future; make a plan for where you want to be this time next year. This works best if it’s simple, like “have X amount in savings.” Then break that up into seasons, months, weeks, days. If your income is wildly variable like mine (I make tips), plan for the lowest amount you’re likely to receive.

      And I can’t really understate the value of socializing. I personally will often fall into the trap of isolating myself out of shame, then when I go hang out with people it’s an extra special thing so I have to go all-out and spend WAY too much, so I take on extra hours at work and therefore have less energy and time to see people, so I spend more to feel better, then the shame cycle starts again. Make socializing and self-care a regular part of your life, not something rare and magical that you must pay to be included in, and certainly not a tool to punish yourself with if you fail to stick to your plan.

      1. [Guest Poster Here:] TK, all of that is so sound! Thank you for sharing it. That piece about “planning for the lowest amount you’re likely to receive” is especially a gem. I refer to that as the “guaranteed minimum income”. This is critical for folks living with low disability benefits *or* with variable income. I explore that more in this post: Hope to see you there! 🙂

    2. Totally agree with all the comments about budgeting little pleasures or things you enjoy into your calculations, even if conventional wisdom or whatever says you shouldn’t. I look at it like trying to make a change to your eating habits. If you don’t feel satisfied, it’s not going to be possible to stick to it in the long term. 🙂

  15. I’ve started using this free-to-share spreadsheet to track my finances:

    It’s modifiable to suit your needs, but might be helpful for the part of the above advice about writing down every bit of money that comes in or goes out?

    Additionally I second the advice about using a debit card for everything – I’m a person that hates carrying receipts (what if one gets lost? Relying on receipts really increases my anxiety) and the fact that all my purchases are therefor recorded electronically is really helpful.

    Good luck OP! You’re taking a step to address the problem. That’s the only way to get a different outcome than the one you’ve already seen.

  16. The advice to record every penny helped me the most when I was in a similar state. It helped me see how much was going to things I didn’t care about that much, and that I had choices. I could spend money on x thing but that meant I wouldn’t have money for y thing. So, which do I want? I was spending a lot on habit things like lunch out, or impulse buys that I didn’t care about a month later.

    I still feel like a baby about investments, and I’m 61 years old, but I feel good because I know my money is (mostly) going for things I care about.

    Good luck. You can do it. Remember that so many of us have shame around money because our culture treats it as life’s report card.

  17. Like you, LW, I grew up in a middle-class house where money flowed in an out at rapid speed. “Money was made to be spent” was what my mother always said, and that’s nice if you’ve got an endless supply of it, but less helpful as a new college student with her first credit card. I had no idea how credit worked, or how to manage a budget. When I met my partner several years ago, I had over $50K in student debt and about $6-7K in credit card debt. And I was super ashamed about it. My partner is really frugal, and really good with money, and I was embarrassed to talk about how much I sucked at it.

    Luckily, he was not judgmental at all, and he helped work out a plan of how to pay down the credit card debt (we pay ours off every month, and my original debt was gone in about a year), and how to budget our money. I do need to caveat this by saying we got together incredibly fast (we had combined finances less than 6 months after we started dating), and I was helped a lot by the second income. But it wasn’t a huge second income (combined, we were making about $40K/year).

    It took a long time (is still taking a long time) to separate my feelings from spending money. I still feel guilty about wanting to buy new clothes or shoes, etc. sometimes. But what really helped was 1) acknowledging that my feelings about spending are complicated, and impacted by how I was raised; 2) tracking all of our expenses and income on an excel spreadsheet was a great way to just see what was happening to our money; and 3) “savings” can happen incrementally. Seriously, just entering all of our spending into a spreadsheet helps to keep everything out in the open, we can see what we’re spending the most on, what months have higher spending than others, etc. It also helps to just be able to see what our habits are. Are we eating out too much? Ok, maybe this month, we don’t eat out at all. Do we need new computer parts? Ok, well, for the next few months, no big expenses.

    A quick word about saving: I used to think it would be so easy to just have separate accounts and add money to a “savings account,” but I found that when it was easy to move the money out, I would (making excuses like “I’ll add more money back next month” or something). We found the site, which rounds up credit card purchases – like, you spend $20.45 on Amazon, it rounds the purchase to $21.00 and deposits the difference ($.55) in an investment account. It’s tiny amounts in one go, but those can add up. Doing something like that, that you don’t have to think about, and that you won’t really “miss” could be a way to get started (albeit slowly) on saving for retirement-future.

    Good luck, LW, and know you’re not alone!

    1. I really like Acorns! Bank accounts and certain credit unions do the same thing into savings, but it’s fun for me to feel like I’m investing and the money is much more difficult to access so I’m actually saving as opposed to sneakily withdrawing $30 here and there for expenses.

    2. I like the idea of Acorns in theory, but in practice it looked confusing, and possibly not profitable for me. But I’d love to have my bank round up my dollar purchases and put that aside in a savings account.

      1. Wells Fargo has something like this–every time I use my debit card, it puts a dollar in my savings account. Obviously, WF has some major drawbacks, as well, but I’ve personally done well with them as my primary bank.

  18. I came from a pretty privileged background, and I ran into a situation where I was living paycheck to paycheck (and then unemployment check to unemployment check) or worse. Here’s how I weathered it and got out of it.

    1) Track your spending. It’s really important to do this, because if you don’t know where the problems are, you can’t fix them. I used (and still use) for this, so it’s a great resource if you have regular access to a computer and internet, and your bank accounts (if any) have online services. If you don’t have access to these things, or if you’re currently unbanked, a regular old ledger you cart around with you works just fine.

    2) Do you have a bank? Are you currently paying any fees on your account? If you are, go talk to a banking representative, and see if they have a free checking account that you can roll into. If you do not have a bank yet, I’m afraid I’m a little lost at sea here. I’ve always been suspicious of check cashing places and cash cards, and I certainly don’t know how to make decisions based on the fee structures of those.

    3) Do you have regular access to a kitchen? Do you have basic cooking tools (knife, cutting board, spoon, fry pan, saucepan, baking sheet)? Are you physically capable of the labor required to cook? If your answer to all of the above is yes, I’d recommend perusing some of the recipes you see in Good and Cheap found at Free cookbook, good food, $4 a day.

    4) YES YES YES on income-based repayment plan for student loans it saved my boyfriend’s behind and here’s the link if you’re in the US

    5) Here’s some information about credit counseling in the US

    6) Finally, don’t get discouraged. This stuff happens to people, but you know what? You’re already taking the steps to get out of it, even if you feel like you’re just flailing. You might face some setbacks, but don’t give up- you’re going to be okay.

    1. I’m such a fan of mint! I like knowing where my money is going but I am in no way organized enough to write it down every time I buy something. Because I use a credit card for just about everything (that I pay off in full every month), I could hook it up to mint and it automatically categorized (almost) everything for me so I could see where my money goes. It’s also great for catching fraud on your account – if mint can’t automatically categorize something for me, that’s a definite red flag.

  19. Aw, jeez, yeah, I feel you on this one. My parents had financial issues and I inherited the familial legacy of guilt, shame, and despair when it comes to “fixing” my finances. I’ve only, this very year, implemented actual changes that have helped me begin to get past those oily money-shame feelings and it started with pennies in/pennies out.

    The thing is, we all use money in very different ways so discovering what my specific money impulses are was key. Humans, as a rule, tend to be forgiving of themselves, at least in the moment, of WHAT IS NEEDED RIGHT NOW…until the crash of shame and guilt rise up like the totally predictable tide that it is when you check your mail and see the plain envelope from the loan office. It’s a terrible feedback loop that makes it seem like there’s nothing that you can change and then feeling defeated because, well, nothing has changed.

    After writing everything down, I discovered that the root to my financial mind fuckery was a combo of Self-Sabotage FTW and Magical Thinking. Meaning I didn’t think I had enough money for rent, but I would still convince myself that actually I did have plenty of money for rent AND we could afford that weekend getaway or Christmas presents for everyone because the money was just sitting there in my account. Like a little false money angel full of promise.

    I now have my work divide my paycheck automatically (thanks, HR!) for me and it works wonders for my particular financial hangup: the bulk goes into one account for all things I must spend money on (aka the account I use to pay student loan payments and rent and the like) and then the remainder goes into a separate account (aka the non-savings account for incidentals – this is my leftover “fun money”). This has brought me so much relief because I’m not constantly worrying about whether or not I have enough set aside for my credit card payments because it’s tucked away in the Account Used For Living Expenses. I know whether or not I can afford that Kindle book or need to go to the library instead because I just check my Personal Fun Money Account to see if there’s money in there. It’s freed me up to start making bigger decisions about savings and what not, but it all started with looking at money coming in and money going out and what I thought/felt about it.

    I think the problem with most money advice is that it’s one size fits all. The Captain is really excellent with the response here because what is ended up working for me may be a far galaxy away from what will work for you because our relationship to money is deeply personal, tangled, and messy, but…I’m actually excited for you because you’re on your way to figuring it out. Be very nice to yourself to drown out some of those loud, gross money feelings and best of luck!

  20. What worked for me–and may or may not work for anyone else–was going sonewhat extreme. I was never any good at saving a little against a rainy day, but I have turned out to be really good at saving a shit-ton for the much bigger goal of having a true fuck-you fund–enough to retire very early. Like many people, although I like aspects of my job, I bone-deep resent having to work to live, and turning that resentment into fuel has really worked for me.

    So: it’s extreme and the arguments made can be phrased kind of aggressively and it’s not for everyone (but is definitely more aimed at people with reasonably good incomes like yours, Letter Writer) but if you think anger might help you, I’d say check out mrmoneymustache dot com’s intro posts.

      1. I read MMM when I need a jolt of motivation and/or kick in the pants, and I think he can be great about interrogating structural patterns of spending that are largely unquestioned by American culture (like cars and climate control), but as a word of caution…I would not recommend MMM if you’re already feeling fragile around finances, because he can be SUPER judgy and abrasive.

        1. Seconding this! Reading the entire MMM archive was crucial in helping me see my own unnecessary spending habits, paying off all my debt (including student loans) in a year, and switching from a car-based lifestyle to a walk-as-many-places-as-possible lifestyle, but sometimes his “I’m mocking this consumer-y thing we all do” approach comes off as “I’m judging everyone!” And while I think he is a reasonably self-aware person who is trying to do good in the world, he can be pretty oblivious to a lot of health- and disability-related struggles (dude, not everyone can or wants to ride a bike, shut up already).

          1. I got scolded at Mcdonald’s for driving instead of riding a bike once. I don’t know how to ride a bike. Plus, I was giving my elder care lady a ride to chemotherapy, and it had been raining! It came across really badly.

        2. Yes, this. MMM is 25% good advice, 35% sometimes-good advice, and 40% bullshit and ablism. Your caveats are good.

    1. I found out my husband is cheating on me and has been for a long time. Also he’s a major gaslighter and knows how to manipulate me. Too bad for him our retirement account hit the “fuck you” level right before I found out. Made the decision to divorce a lot easier and less frightening.

      (We did go to counseling but he didn’t cooperate and I kept finding out more stuff that he was up to. I was willing to try to get past it, but it takes two to make a marriage work.)

      1. Good luck to you. It definitely makes a big difference in how you can deal with major decisions like that when you have access to fuck-you money.

  21. Oh, LW, I so feel you. All the Jedi hugs!

    One strategy which helped me a lot: sitting down and thinking carefully (and non-judgmentally!) about what money means to me. Because when you think about it, it’s a very emotional subject! Some questions to ask yourself:
    –How does it feel when I make money?
    –How does it feel when I spend money? Are there things or feelings (beyond the actual item/service being purchased) that I’m trying to get by spending? This question can be particularly helpful once you’ve been writing down all of your expenses for a bit, because you’ll start to find patterns.
    –Ditto saving. How does it make you feel to save? If you currently are saving money, why or for what are you saving? Imagine you have $X large but attainable amount saved. How would that make you feel different than you do today?

    Once you have a clearer idea of your emotional hotspots around money, you’ll start to naturally identify tactics for getting your emotional needs met in a way that also works with your financial needs and goals.

  22. I tracked everything I spent for around the years after I graduated my first degree – a year in my first (decently paying) job, and then two years as a self-funding postgrad student. I stopped when I got funding. It is devastatingly effective for showing you got money works, but LW, I found it MISERABLE. For three years, I didn’t buy a coffee or a magazine or an y of those little £3-5 purchases that are (for me) the difference between the luxury not-having-to-think-about-money, and the misery and stress of always-thinking-about-money.

    Ten years later, I still think the best thing that money can buy is the freedom from thinking about it. I could probably buy a lot more “big stuff” if I focused more on the “little stuff”, but, for me, there is no big stuff that’s worth having to think about that little stuff all the time. For me, it is absolutely worth it to say, “yep, I’ll buy a coffee whenever I feel like it, and if that means that I’m using a slightly elderly Samsung instead of an iPhone, that’s totally OK.”

    So LW, I’m speaking from the privilege of having enough money, generally good money skills and no massive anxieties about money, but my point to you is that a), if you hate tracking the small stuff and find it super stressful, THAT’S OK, and you’re not alone! b) it’s possible that this will be temporary. You might find in a couple of years that you’ve got to the point where you can set your point of materiality (the number below which you feel safe spending money without tracking it) at $10, or $35, or whatever. If you find it tough, it might help to think of tracking all your spending as a means to an end – where the end is “I understand where my money goes, and I feel in control of my financial decision-making” – rather than something you’ll have to do for the rest of your life.

    1. I have an aversion to learning new technology which keeps me from even wanting a smart phone. I am perfectly happy with my flip phone and have resisted several coworkers’ and salespeople’s pressuring me to get a smart phone. This keeps me from spending tons of money on device-related expenses. Also, I have ignored any and all suggestions to use a credit card. Debit cards can be used for everything, even hotel reservations and car rentals. Plus, no pesky interest rates. I also learned not to loan money to others – ever.

      1. I hear you on the smart phones (although I finally had to get one since my flip phone broke down and a smart phone was The Option with my plan). I have found credit cards to be helpful but the way I try to make sure I use them is to pay off bills that are budgeted for, and then pay them off in full each month. That way I get the benefit of the perks they provide, but not the interest. It’s not a perfect system (sometimes I spend more than I realize), but for the most part it’s worked out (and I’ve always managed the paying off in full).

      2. In the UK, credit cards have one enormous benefit, due to the Consumer Credit Act, which is that for large items (over £100, to a maximum of £30,000), the credit card company has joint liability with the company from which you make the purchase. If the company doesn’t deliver, goes out of business, or the goods are broken and they refuses to fix the issue, you can claim the money back from the credit card company. This doesn’t apply to debit cards. So for a big purchase I always use my credit card, because the extra level of protection is very reassuring.

        1. Great, if all you need it to be is a phone! The pressure to Always Be Upgrading is fierce, and resistance is a good thing.

          I also want to say that for many, many people, a smartphone is essential for accessing the web if you don’t have a laptop or desktop computer and/or can’t afford a home internet connection. Y’all weren’t doing this, but I really hate seeing smartphones billed as frivolous or an unnecessary luxury by conservatives in the U.S. when poor people use them. I don’t think reliable internet access is a luxury anymore – especially if you are looking for work or in school.

          1. You’re absolutely right, and I did rely on my post-2009 smartphone a LOT when I was unemployed for a while and my old laptop started dying noisily.

            They aren’t frivolous as long as you are using them, and it is not frivolous to use them to self-soothe by keeping in touch with your support network and friends or playing solitaire or another game app or reading an ebook.

            People who can’t afford a laptop or desktop computer and still need to apply for jobs can definitely do 99.9% of the required hoop-jumping and research and application via a smartphone. I did.

          2. The people that I know who rebounded successfully from the couch surfing variety of desperation did so by holding on to their cell phones and cars. You need a way for employers to reach you, and you need a way to see job postings online. I also despise the framing of cell phones as luxury items by those who have never used them as the last connection to bounce back from disaster.

          3. Yes, and more and more smartphones are a necessity even if you do have a laptop/home internet. A few months ago I was flying somewhere and had to change my ticket last-minute (as in, while I was at the airport, having been bumped off the previous 4 flights). I was traveling stand-by due to a family crisis and so the airline would NOT — had made it impossible — change my ticket anywhere but online. I had no smartphone and the airport no longer had rent-able computers. Thanks to the kindness of a random stranger who let me use his phone for about half an hour (!!) I managed to make it to my family in time, but it really hit home to me that the US is organizing itself around having smartphones.

            I still prefer flip phones. I miss my old phone sometimes. I like doing random things like finding places in my area using the archaic technology of MAPS. But yes, I agree that smartphones can be essential in some situations these days, and wanted to respond to your comment by underlining that I agree with you on this point.

          4. Yes–it’s interesting to me because a smartphone or tablet is so often positioned as a luxury good, and yet they are often cheaper than a laptop. (I used to promote the $300 netbook as a good poor-person tool, but they’re getting increasingly hard to find, precisely because tablets have taken over that niche.)

            Similarly, as much as I love Poorcraft, the chapter on cars has always struck me as iffy. There are huge swaths of the country in the USA (rural and urban) where “do you have your own car?” is considered a legit interview screening question (because they don’t want your availability to be dependent on public transit or carpool/rideshare). It sucks but it’s true that it can absolutely be worth hanging onto even a money sink of a car just to be able to answer that with “yes.” (And yeah, I know that Poorcraft isn’t expressly anti-car, but “don’t buy a car unless you can pay cash, and if you can’t easily afford your current car, sell it and use public transit for a while” is pretty unhelpful if you need a car to make cash, or live in one of the many areas–such as most of rural/small town/small city USA–that is spread out and lacks public transit.)

        2. I had mine until 2014 ;’)
          If they make a comeback I will be first in line, because I HATE TOUCHSCREENS THAT MUCH.

  23. I struggle with managing my finances. What has worked for me is to sign up with an accounting firm that specialises in helping people like me. They aren’t cheap but have saved me thousands and kept me accountable and out of debt. I have slipped off the wagon from time to time but they understand the psychology behind why that is and help me. It’s not perfect by all means but I’m better off. My attitude to money is definitely associated with my anxiety disorder and it is like a catch22. Feeling anxious about overspending and taking a head to the sand approach and making the situation worse.

  24. Dave Ramsey is good for the nuts-and-bolts of how to set up a budget. His stuff is all approached from a Christian perspective, and is also rather prescriptive and doesn’t really consider disability, so it’s not the right approach for everyone. But on the plus side, he makes it dead simple and cheerleads like nobody’s business.

    Also, this is a timely post. I’ve been procrastinating on signing up for YNAB for way too long. I’m going to go do that right fucking now.

    1. If nothing else, please look up Ramsey’s snowball method for debt repayment. It got my family’s net worth from -$42k to $-8k in six and a half years, and as soon as my partner who was just laid off finds a new job, we should be able to kill off the rest within a year.

    2. I was coming to rec Dave Ramsey if no one else did. I recommend the book, because the right-wing Christian stuff is kept to a minimum (his podcast went a little nutso after Obama was elected and I had to stop listening), but the method is solid, and easy to understand, and has really helped me get a hold of my finances.

    3. One good thing about Ramsey is that he understands the importance of psychology – the snowball method isn’t the most mathematically efficient, but it’s psychologically efficient – and that matters too.

  25. The Larry Burkett videos changed my life by the simple expediency of making an annual budget. I was payday to payday and month to month until I figured out exactly how much more I was spending than I was bringing in. It was just enough to make it a lot worse when you added overdraft fees. I changed to a credit union so that an overdraft would not cascade out of control and cut spending on a couple of things. Just thinking about it differently made a huge difference.

  26. I have always been paid every two weeks, so approximately twice a month. What I do is add up all my fixed monthly bills and divide that amount by two, and then every paycheque I transfer that amount to an account that is strictly for paying bills. Everything left over is discretionary spending money. I found that knowing all my bills will always be covered took a lot of the stress of budgeting away. I used Mint to see what I was paying for monthly bills.

    Another thing I started to do about a year ago was have a separate account for food – groceries and eating out. Again, every paycheque I put in my two week allowance, and I only use this money for all food purchases. Some weeks I spend less and some I spend more, and I didn’t want to have this fluctuating need affecting the rest of my bills.

    1. Budgeting that way from biweekly pay also means two “windfalls” a year (three-pay months) that, if you stick to your budget the rest of the year, can be awesome contributions to savings or to debt pay-down.

    2. I do something similar. I have a notebook where I write down each month’s bills and which pay period they’ll be paid in, and I schedule the payments ahead of time so I know they’ll happen when they’re supposed to. I’ve also chosen my payment dates (not all companies allow this, but lots do) so bills are spread evenly across the two pay periods instead of bunched up at the beginning or end of the month. I used to regularly get hit with charges for late payments, either because I forgot to make them or because I ran out of money and had to wait until the next time I got paid, but with this system that hasn’t happened in several years now.

  27. I really love Bari Tessler and her site/book The Art of Money:
    She comes from a deeply therapeutic approach and gets the deeper emotional issues that all humans have around money. I’ve found her approach really helpful and refreshing in dealing with the feelings that drive my relationship to different money areas of my life– very much not the “do this thing” kind of tone, she usually starts with “take a breath”. There’s a ton of free content on the site, but she also just published a book.

    Best wishes!

  28. When you get an understanding of where your money is going, (do that first!), it’s a good time to figure out value judgments on everything. Not financial value, but emotional/mental health value, so you can figure out and work with your spending habits.

    One of my friends loves looking trendy and buying clothes, so she shops 1x/month or so. But she stays at trendy, cheap places like TJ Maxx and Forever 21. My idea of what is reasonable to spend is at least 4x what hers is – but I only go shopping about once a year and buy just a few classic pieces that I expect to last me for years.

    Neither of our approaches is wrong, but they both very much allow us to budget around what makes us feel good. It’s totally okay if you love to shop or eat out or need to support your SCUBA diving hobby – you just have to figure out what is worth your money and how to budget around it. Eliminating things entirely is probably not going to work; cutting out or scaling down, either in amount or “quality” (cheaper doesn’t always mean worse), is much more likely to be successful.

    1. It’s totally okay if you love to shop or eat out or need to support your SCUBA diving hobby

      YES. Cutting out your coping strategies entirely – the things you really look forward to, the thing that let you bounce out of bed in the morning, the things that get you through a bad day – is probably a bad idea. It’s great if you can reduce how much these things cost you, but taking away everything that’s fun and calming and expecting not to be anxious… not going to happen.

    2. “Neither of our approaches is wrong, but they both very much allow us to budget around what makes us feel good.” THIS. If your approach doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work, period.

  29. LW, I can’t scroll through the comments (weird mobile idk why) but my two recommendations are Money Under 30, which is full of great financial advice for people struggling to learn to do money, and Dave Ramsey. Dave Ramsey gets a little too religious for me sometimes, and I can’t apply all of his advice, but I find him motivational and inspiring without making me feel useless for not being as good as his inspo stories.

  30. There were two things that helped me a lot. One was to pay myself pocket money, even when my income was well below the poverty line. ‘Trying not to spend money’ is impossible (living costs money) and I felt constantly guilty over everything that was even the slightest bit nice, and every penny you spend, however necessary, means that you’ve FAILED AT YOUR GOAL. (Weasels. Bah.) Having a sum that I am allowed – nay, compelled – to spend frivolously, even if it was just £5 a month meant that the world split into ‘things I could afford if I really wanted them’, ‘things I could afford next month if I saved my money now’ and ‘things I could not afford’. And since almost everybody is in the same boat, only with a higher spending limit, that became much, much easier to deal with mentally.

    I also have two current accounts. One for paying bills out of, the other for paying running costs – grocery shopping, anything I want to buy online, Amazon, Steam games… and I fill up at the start of a week. I *hate* counting every penny, it makes me miserable as hell, it brings up very bad memories, and I already *was* frugal, so didn’t learn anything useful from it, only that I was not earning enough to cover my bills *and* eat. The main outcome for me was that I started having panic attacks over having spent £1 more than I felt I ought to have spent. Seeing instead how much money is available for purchases means that I can buy additional stuff or save the money as applicable, and it pretty much stops me from spending money needlessly if I see that there’s no money in the account but still three days and three lunches left. Only with the difference that I know my bills are covered, so this is a ‘do I choose to eat noodles’ rather than a ‘they’ll turn off the water’ for me.

    Most of all, this can be done. Find solutions that work for *you*. There’s no one way of ‘doing money right’ especially if you’ve got anxiety in the mix.

      1. Seconding pocket money! I think a lot of my less ideal money decisions were made because I convinced myself that better money planning meant I wouldn’t be able to do or buy anything. Like, I’d have to be the most frugal person in the universe just to make a difference to my bank account, which sounded kinda miserable. Instead, I’ve found that having pocket money means I could still do ALL those things I want, but with sooooo much less anxiety. It helps me prioritize my needs in the moment and do some quick thinking to decide what I actually want/need: so replacement work blazer gets bought and I make cocktails at home or I put blazer shopping on hold for the week and splurge on a brunch. It’s been so oddly and wonderfully liberating for me…

      2. Yes. I’ve found that if I don’t have money, I want EVERYTHING. If I do have money, then suddenly it becomes “Do I really want that? Eh, not so much.” And I move on.

      3. The thing that helps me is an actual, physical piggy-bank. I work freelance and so my earnings are a) cash, and b) deeply erratic – £200 this month, but only £30 last month – so when I have actual cash in hand I throw a few pounds in my copper pig. That way when it gets to a thin time and I need basics like bread and milk I can raid that stash rather than using the debit card, and even in the fatter times I can get a coffee or a small treat.

        I am a great fan of the less-than-a-fiver treat – chocolate, cheap nail polish, the occasional Subway meal-deal. I’ve learnt to be frugal in 99% of my life, but the ‘pocket money’ treats are a must-have for my mental health.

        1. We have a monkey bank! He’s pretty full, now that I think of it…I love having a place to put all the spare change and turn it into a nice night out or a movie.

    1. [Guest Poster here.] You speak this well, Friendly Hipposcriff! Like you, I’m not a fan of arbitrary spending limits. I need way more flex and flow than that. And yes, most of us will need to spend at least something on pleasure, in order to stay well, balanced, peaceful, willing, and happy. I explore the difference between prioritizing and frugalizing in this post:

    2. Yes! I haven’t had this with money, but I have with lots of other things. Telling yourself you’ll NEVER treat yourself is INCREDIBLY difficult. Even a small amount of “ok, I can treat myself LATER” makes it a lot easier.

    3. Oh, these are good ideas for me, thank you! I hate counting every penny too, mostly because I grew up with a Very Controlling Parent and I was majorly guilted for even wanting to buy a candy bar once in awhile. Once I got out on my own, I was good at saving money and sticking to a budget. I’ve hit a speed bump lately in the form of my spouse, who hasn’t been working and is the worst reckless spender. He is constantly coming at me with things that need to be fixed or renovated around the house (he knows construction) and he refuses to do more than cursory research, and everything ends up costing at least double what other people are paying for the same types of projects. We are redoing a room right now…it’s been more than a year since he demolished it…and when I try to get him to stick to a budget, he freaks out and yells “it costs what it costs!” He thinks I’m “being controlling” when I set money aside in a savings account and try to get him to cut back on his spending. It’s killing me.

      1. This sounds like three problems.

        – Costing: What should this realistically cost? When you start out, you overlook stuff because there are usually obvious costs (paint), costs you ignore because you’ve already got the tools (but eventually the brushes wear out and you need new ones), and costs you didn’t count on because you only discover during the job that the skirting board is rotten and needs to be replaced.

        – Time budgeting: How long will it take me to do this under perfect circumstances? How much energy do I have available for it? Add 50% and then _stick to it as well as possible_.

        – Respect: This is, I feel, where each and any excuses of ‘but I didn’t know’ fall flat: it is completely unreasonable to expect the person you’re working for to ‘pay as much as it costs’ unless you’re spending your own money and you know you have far more than the project will need. He wouldn’t treat an employer like that; he shouldn’t treat you like this. And if you say ‘this is making me anxious/unhappy/worried’ and he just blows you off, well… it’s not sounding good, and I’m not in the least surprised that you feel stressed by this. You’re NOT having an unreasonable reaction to a doubling of costs or an extra nine months of building work, because neither of these are reasonable in the first place.

  31. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this advice.

    Just yesterday it hit me that my spending is out of control, that it has been all year, that I’m buying frivolous things to distract myself from my feelings of isolation, hopelessness and grief over a few deaths. I mean, there are things I genuinely love to buy, like clothing and cosmetics, but this year it’s been more like a compulsion than a joyful self-reward. And I feel so guilty, because I have a good income and a stable job, and I know there are people out there with a lot less than me, and I should be on top of this, but I’m so not, and I feel so ashamed.

    Anyway, you posting this now gives me hope and something that actually speaks to me and where I’m at, so thank you again. I now feel like I have things to look at to go forward from this place

    Anyway, not that anyone wants to take advice from me, but the one thing that has been helpful to me that I’ve been practising over the last few weeks is remembering to HALT before I buy something – that is, to ask myself whether I am: Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If the answer to one of those things is yes, I tell myself I’ll come back and buy the thing after I’ve satisfied that particular need, so I go off and make a sandwich or call my boyfriend or something, and see if I still want the thing.

    1. [Guest Poster here.] Elektra, you are so welcome! I’m so sorry you’ve been struggling with grief +++. I’m really glad this post resonated for you and gave you comfort and hope. My own journey was long and tricky, so I love sharing this stuff now 🙂 Great point re: the difference between joyful self-reward and compulsion, yes! And…I use HALT, too!! Picked it up in the 12 Step community. When I’m struggling, I check this, and when my kid is, ditto. At age 12, he knows the acronym well. Great tip!

        1. p.s. I think it’s great when people who have had long and tricky journeys share what they’ve learned – it helps the rest of us so much.

  32. We built up some debt, and then I developed a habit of optimistically overpaying and then ending up really struggling and coming up short at the end of the month, and then not looking at the balance but still using the debit card, so that the overdraft kept growing, along with guilt and shame, etc. I got my equilibrium by limiting myself to paying minimums and letting a tiny cushion accumulate in savings before working on the debt again. If the minimum is all you can do, do that, but keep don’t let the shame drag you down. Keep checking your balances, eating your sandwiches and Ramen, and as long as you do your best not to acquire new debt, you WILL walk out of it, however slowly.

  33. Agreed on the writing it down part especially. I have online financial tools out the wazoo that notify my when I spend things, notify me what my balance is, build a budget and a savings plan, and even notify me when I’m over budget. Unfortunately, the way my mind works, these are all just pixels on a screen that mean nothing to my actual life. My new thing is literally just: I bought a planner, where the weekdays are listed on the left page, and the right page is just lined paper.

    On the left side, I write things I am going to do on my schedule. I am… a pretty retiring creature. When I look at the empty page that represents my time, and I don’t really have anything to write, it makes me think of how I want to be spending my time. Specifically, if nothing is written down, what are the odds that I’m going to be sitting at home with Netflix playing something I’m barely interested in in one tab, and the other tab one of my favorite online shops, looking at cute stuff I want to buy that I can totally afford because “I make good money and of course I can always just pay off this credit card balance *any time I want* I just haven’t yet because reasons, thank you very much.” Once I realized how much of my free time I was filling with consumption purely as a basic form of stimulating my brain, I sorta realized I needed to start filling my life with stuff I valued more. Art classes at the community center definitely cost more than the silly eleven dollar kitty chopsticks I felt I needed for some reason, but the two nights a week where “art class” is in my planner are two days where I’m feeling creative and accomplished, interacting with people and learning something new and not just walking around the boutiquey part of town, hemorrhaging money. A gym membership sure wasn’t free, but that’s three more items on the planner each week where I am spending my time doing something that will tire me out and help me get a good night’s sleep instead of laying awake at midnight and realizing I simply must order [bullshitty item I don’t really need] on Amazon. Add a library card on top of all that, and I have audiobooks to make my gym time way more enjoyable, or just a nice new square to stare at in bed (that WON’T allow me to spend money) when I’m too tired to do anything else. It also reminds me to make time to tend to my life: clean the bathroom, organize my dresser drawers, do sheet/clothes/towel laundry, make dentist appointment, schedule my annual physical – these are all little goals that I realize I need to consciously decide to put time into in order to make them happen. Even if I don’t plan them ahead of time, if I do something productive with my time, I make sure I write it down afterwards, so I feel like I am getting credit for my life skills by making a record of it. I can look back at the record of my week and feel like I am making my time valuable for myself.

    On the right side of the planner, every time I spend money, even if my bank pops up a notification on my phone already telling me what I spent and where, I still write down all of the money I spend with a small note about what I bought, starting at the second line from the bottom right corner and working my way up. At the end of the week, I add them all up, and the sum number goes on the bottom line. Now, when I flip through the planner, I see exactly how much money I spend each week right there in the corner.
    I also put my grocery list on the right side over the course of a few days, so I’m thinking about what meals I want to make ahead when I have spare time (put that shit in the planner aww yeah), rather than getting home, feeling drained and like after a long hard day I deserve a $30+tip order delicious Thai food delivered right to my door. I mean, sure, probably I DO deserve that and it’s okay to feel like I deserve that. But even more so, I deserve not having to choose between eating and paying rent in a couple of weeks when the money gets tight again. So if I open the fridge, and theres a stack of single-portion tupperwares with leek & barley stew I can microwave up, nothing is stopping me from chilling just as hard with that as I could have with the Thai food.
    If I need to buy a birthday gift, buy a replacement for [consumer electronic], buy a dress for [event], all of that goes on the right side too. Just, all the shit that is going on in my life where I’m being asked to put forth a part of myself, either in time or money (or emotion, it’s your planner so if you want to track feelings then definitely do it), it all goes in.

    So, for any given week, I can look at the left half to see how I am spending my time, and I can look at the right half to see how I am spending my money. There is something about looking at the two as a combined picture of my life, about who I am, what I like, and what is important to me that somehow brings it home for me that these two things need to be working together. It puts me in the mindset of genuinely thinking about what I’m actually getting every time I spend both time AND money. Am I buying a sweater because all of my other sweaters don’t work/I don’t like them? If this one truly is just that much more amazing than my old sweaters, and I’m definitely going to buy it… does that mean I need to review my closet and try to get rid of the stuff that isn’t working for me anymore? BECAUSE IF SO THAT IS GOING ON THE PLANNER, one more task to do where I’m not spending any money and tangibly making my life a little bit better. Am I going out to dinner or drinks three times a week to spend time with my friends? Is there something cheaper they might want to do together? Maybe they mentioned how they also would love to take an art class or join a kickball team or…?

    I dunno what exactly it is, but the planner has really been helpful in making me pay attention to how I am constructing my life every day, and it has helped me address multiple different personal shortcomings I used to fret over. Plus, as someone who likes cutesy bullshit, and chance to write in a pretty little book with a fancy little pen makes me feel nice, so it’s easier to keep up with than looking at a google spreadsheet or financial app or whatever.

    Also, not to do with the planner, but the only way I’ve been able to actually make savings happen is by opening a savings account at a completely different credit union than my normal spending account, and setting my paycheck to direct deposit $X from every paycheck there. I don’t touch it, there is no debit card connected to it, I don’t even really look at the balance and am not sure I even remember the password. It just slowly grows without me thinking about it unless I have an emergency, because as soon as I think of it as being there for me to access, it will be gone. No other helpful banking tools have been effective in making me save than just not ever seeing the money to start with, and since I was gonna spend it on who knows what kind of bullshit to start with, it isn’t missed.

  34. YNAB has already been mentioned, but I just want to add my story. YNAB changed my life. I was always just floating along, checking my bank balance and trying to make quick judgments about whether or not I had money to spend. This never worked well for me, and just caused a lot of stress. YNAB lets you keep track of your true money picture (what you’ve spent, what you need to spend later before you get paid again). They have great (free) online videos and resources you can check out and see if it will work for you. If possible, attend some of the free online live classes ( Their teachers will make you feel so optimistic and empowered. I hope it works (or any of the other solutions mentioned) for you too. You’re not alone and you can definitely learn to handle your money.

  35. Money stuff is hard! I hope you can be gentle with yourself, and take tiny steps. Over time, those tiny steps will add up. You don’t have to do everything all at once- I find that overwhelming!

    It helps me a lot to schedule auto debits from my bank account, that happen the day of (or shortly after pay day) for bills. Then, I’m sure they’re covered.

    Using goodbudget (a free app with spending envelopes) has also helped me track how much $$ I have left each month & also has helped me plan. I do two envelopes for things like food- one for my first paycheck, and one for my second, so I can see how much $$ I have for that 2 weeks until I get paid again.

    I also find scheduling a small auto transfer from checking to savings the day of my payday helps me save.

    And finally, I try to occasionally buy things like oatmeal or peanut butter to keep in the pantry for weeks that the food budget is tight.

  36. Lots and lots of people struggle with this! You certainly aren’t alone. When I first started out with my financial independence, I let things get away from me a bit, and had many years where I was carrying credit card debt even though if I had been diligent, I wouldn’t have had to. It didn’t help that my job at the time did not withhold taxes, and so I was supposed to also figure that part out myself too. (YUCK!) Something that really helped me get my finances in order was training myself out of two schools of thought:

    1. If I don’t peek at my bank/CC balance, I won’t feel the pain.
    2. I can afford something if I have the ability to pay for it.

    For the first one, I started looking at my bank info EVERY DAY. If you look at it every day, you can both avoid surprises, because you aren’t going to forget about how much damage you’ve done to your bank account one day after you’ve done it, and you always have an up-to-date idea of what your finances look like when you are in the middle of making purchases and financial decisions. It helps me too to use only my credit or debit card for almost everything, because then you can easily see what you spend. I find this more effective then pen-and-pencil writing down everything you buy, because there is no way you can fool or kid your bank the way you can fool and kid yourself. Once you get in the habit of looking at your bank and CC info every day (even for just five minutes to make sure everything is OK), you won’t have that dreadful moment of logging in when you haven’t looked in a while and you’ve been mentally ignoring your finances while you make purchases. There is also the bonus that you will catch mistakes or fraud on your account as soon as it happens.

    For the second one, I stopped thinking about my purchases as a “Can I buy this?” kind of thing. What’s really helped me to not have those “Oh shit! Where’d all my money go?” moments was to calculate how much money I took home each month and divide that money into mental buckets. For expenses that are the same each month, that’s easy, and for other stuff, I try to break it down as much as possible–groceries, dining out, car expenses, entertainment like movies and stuff, clothes, etc. I also have one for regular savings and one for vacation savings. These are only virtual buckets (I do this through my bank’s own software, but you can use other software programs or just use a spreadsheet of some sort). And then every purchase has to be assigned to one of the buckets–there’s no “Oh this didn’t count because I didn’t have a bucket.” I kind of think of this like decluttering an apartment–everything you own must have a place, and every dollar has to come from somewhere.

    Since I implemented these things into my daily routine five years ago, I’ve been able to go on vacations as well as save about 8 months of living expenses into my long term savings, and I do not make a very high salary at all. These things seemed unthinkable five years ago when I was playing the avoidance game with my finances.

    This is just what helped me, and what works for you depends on your own personality and the specifics of your resources, but I just wanted to share because your ability to handle this is something that is very changeable. You can do it!

  37. Dear LW, Jedi hugs (if you want them) from another human who makes a good living yet is mystified as to why I’m still living paycheck to paycheck (thanks for nothing, Dad and Mom). One thing that was a small start but made a BIG difference in my life was when I opened a savings account and automatically transferred some money over after every single paycheck – I may have started with as little as $25 or $50. This was amazing for me not because it miraculously enabled me to pay off all my student loans, but because after a few months it meant I *did* have a bit of a cushion if I needed one, which made me feel less ashamed, which made it easier to take another small step. I am not entirely sorted, but I’m way more confident now that I’ll get there. The Captain’s advice to figure out what you want your future to look like is a good one. I would also encourage you to take control of other areas of your life you may have been neglecting, it’s satisfying and also good practice to get that motor running.
    Best of luck to you. We are NOT alone, we can do this together!!

  38. LW, I feel like we’re very similar people. I too am middle class with no real financial role models and have been living above my means despite having a well-paying job. If you’re also scatterbrained and depressed then we are actual clones. I have the added problem where all of my friends are freakishly good at managing their finances (possibly because they don’t have my infinite safety nets), so I’ve never been able to get good advice. But I’ve finally managed to start saving in the past few months! Here’s how I do it:

    I have four bank accounts. A current account (I think they’re called checking accounts in the US?) that my pay goes into and everyday expenses come out of, a savings account, a separate current account that my fixed bills go out of, and another savings account that I can only get at by going to a physical branch. Every month when my pay comes in, a notification on my phone reminds me to:
    1. Send the exact amount of money to cover my bills to my bills account
    2. Send 15% of my income to my accessible savings account

    I have never saved 15% if my income in a month, but acting like it’s not there puts me in the zone for better spending habits, and when I inevitably run myself down to the wire I can just zap some of the money back in. Nothing ever comes out of my bills account except bills. Nothing. Ever.

    I then try and remind myself whenever I spend unnecessary money that I could instead have that money in my savings, which is really a “paying off my overdraft” fund. This seems to be training my conscience to make my feel guilty about spending money I don’t need to, which is useful, although it does mean I sometimes just order the pizza anyway, just while squirming the entire time.

    I also try and have less expensive habits, like instead of buying breakfast at work I bring in my own low-effort breakfast, or accepting that I just will not want to cook 2 days a week and keeping ready meals and soup in. Concentrating my shopping in one weekly shop really helped, and that was a direct result of getting a cookbook with weekly meal plans.

    I am going to disagree with the captain’s advice about recording everything. I just check my bank balance when I find myself worrying about it. For me, the stress of trying to remember to record everything makes me more likely to comfort-spend.

    I haven’t yet managed to get much money into the inaccessible account, but my plan is to start automatically sending a small amount there once I am definitely saving regularly, to build up a fund that can only be raided in true emergencies.

    Also, celebrate any victory! The first amount I managed to save was £20. I’m so proud of that £20. It signified a huge change in the trajectory of my life.

    Sorry for the absolute essay. I hope you can extract at least one tip to help you in your life 🙂

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] In defense of CA, it was actually me who gave the tip to record everything. The primary purpose of this is not to budget (or know what’s available), though. It’s to increase our consciousness—moment to moment and overall. It works like magic for lots of us! I acknowledge, though, that not every approach is a fit for everyone. You are very right that each of us will find the path that works best for us as individuals. I wholly support that. This guest post was intended to supply LW with (a) compassionate understanding of LW’s very common experience, and (b) a few key starting points. There is, of course, so much more to it, hence the plethora of books and blogs. (My own tends to explore the unique challenges faced by folks who experience overwhelm, stress, fear, disability and other kerfuffly challenges.)

      1. Sorry, the captain usually introduces guest bloggers before the post so I was a bit confused. Also that was phrased badly because it was late here. I do think that presenting it as a numbered list made it seem like these are The Steps that you must take, but that’s probably my own issue.

        I forgot to mention that I do like the suggestion to make a list of free self-soothing activities, even though my depressed brain is having trouble thinking of any beyond “have a five-hour nap” right now.

  39. I’m very afraid to track what gets spent in my household. I know I don’t make enough money to support it. For e.g., I don’t have a clothing budget. My mom gives me money every now and then and that’s when I’ll buy clothes. I feel a deep sense of shame because I’m over 50 years old and worked 7 years in night school to get a degree, and I still don’t earn enough. I used to track everything, but it kind of points up the ugly truth of not earning enough. That said, I’m pretty much debt free and I do put money aside for some things, like the car insurance. And I know things could be way, way worse.
    Thanks for listening to me.

    1. Hey strangerontheearth, you’re pretty much debt free and are putting money aside for future needs? YOU ROCK! Really, this is already a really big deal! Sometimes tracking does indeed show us we’re earning less than we need even for critical items like housing and nutrition. In this crazy economic system, this is a terrible fact for many smart, hardworking people. My book and blog are devoted to helping folks in situations like this sort out other approaches. For example, accessing stuff (like housing!) for free so we can afford the rest, obtaining grants to increase savings, and so on. Feel free to visit me over there 🙂

  40. I actually stumbled across a pretty delightful new podcast called “Bad with Money by Gaby Dunn.” Not only is Gaby pretty charming and thoughtful, she is also, like many of us, bad with money. She explores the root of her issues with money while providing helpful links and tips for those looking to get their financials in order. I find it pretty refreshing to hear someone speak so frankly about their money issues, and to hear how successful they have been fixing them. I recommend that you give it a listen!

    (Find it here:

  41. A wonderful resource might be the finances/budgeting guide on the tumblr “How to Grow Up…and Act Like an Adult”:

    The guides there tends to give very straightforward step-by-step starting points for learning how to do different adult things from finances to apartment renting and mental health. There are also days where people share stories of adulting wins and failures, which is very reassuring to hear about.

  42. Okay, LW, let’s start with the basics: money management is not something which is instinctive. It is a learned behaviour. Which means if you’ve never had anyone teaching you this behaviour or modelling it for you, you will fall down at it, and you will find dealing with it to be stressful as all get-out. The good news, however, is money management is a learned behaviour, which means you can learn how to do it.

    So here’s how I do it, starting from a position of 1) having gone bankrupt in Australia; and 2) being on the dole in Australia (and trust me, there is nothing quite like being on a sub-poverty allowance to teach the importance of learning how to handle money quickly).

    First rule: if you don’t know what you have, you don’t know where you’re starting.
    Second rule: if you don’t know what you need to do with what you have, you don’t know where you’re going.
    Third rule: if you don’t know what you’re actually doing with what you have, you’re going to have problems.

    So the most important thing I’ve discovered for money management is this: track everything. Keep track of debts – how much do you owe; how much is the minimum amount you can pay; how often are the payments due; which bills are scheduled, how much do they usually come to, and when do they land; how much money do you have coming in, and from where; how much are you spending, and on what; and so on. How you do this is up to you – I use a spreadsheet in LibreOffice, with various pages for various things. You might choose to use a special journal or a piece of specialist software, but be aware you don’t necessarily need these – all you need is some way of keeping track of what’s coming in, and what’s going out.

    As per Mr Micawbier: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds one shilling and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” The big trick of financial management (at any scale) is to keep the amount coming in higher than the amount going out.

    I would really stress starting by tracking what you’re spending (easiest way to do this: ask for a receipt with everything). Think about where you’re spending money and what you’re spending the money on, and whether this is good value for the money you’re spending – are you going to be able to get a lot of use out of what you want to purchase? Do you have somewhere to store it? Also think, to a certain degree, about why you’re spending money in certain patterns – if you’re running through your entire paycheque each pay period, think about how you’d feel if you were to keep hold of some of it (I used to find if I was in a job I disliked, the money I earned from it was very hard to save – it was much easier to spend every cent and turn the money into things). If something is genuinely helpful for you, then it’s probably a good idea to set aside money every month to cover the costs of that.

    Also, have some money which is set aside just for you to do whatever you like with. I pay myself “pocket money” for doing the housework (10c per chore, comes to about $10 per week) and this is my “fairy money”, for spending on treats for myself and stuff I want (or need – I tend to be breaking into this account to pay for things like glasses and the like). But it’s for spending on me, rather than anyone else. I tend to save this up toward things I’m after – at present, I have a whole heap earmarked for a PS4 and the Final Fantasy VII re-make when that comes out.

    One other point: it seems like a lot at first. But as someone else pointed out up the page, you can start by just doing one thing at a time. So start by just tracking what you spend, and see where that gets you.

  43. The blog really helped me- it’s not updated as frequently these days, as the blogger wrote a book and a lot of her advice is consolidated there, but it takes a kind of all-or-nothing approach, called a “Spending Fast”. It’s basically no spending except on necessities (as determined by you). This helped me pay down $6k worth of credit card debt in about a year, where previously I’d barely been able to make the minimums. And she didn’t start from a lovely clean slate- if I recall correctly, she paid off something like $25k in 18 months while making $33k annually.

    I do worry that now that I’m done with the fast, my bad habits will get the best of me again, but it’s been about 4 months and so far, so good.

    1. The book’s called The Spender’s Guide to Debt-Free Living: How a Spending Fast Helped Me Get from Broke to Badass in Record Time, and I checked it out of the library recently. It’s pretty good! I’ve never read her blog, but I found the advice pretty compelling. It deals with the practical aspects of How Not To Spend All Your Money and based on the LW’s letter I’d recommend it highly.

  44. I’ve found two pages on Squalor Survivors helpful for this:

    – Financial Squalor:


    – The SSSSSS files:

    That being said, I find most financial advice (including the above two links though not as severely as many others) to be Condescending As Fuck and thus for my brain to go “HAHA NOPE FUCK OFF”. I know I probably need to change my mindset on that but I’m not sure how best to re-wire that. Just that I need to.

    1. Thanks for posting. I’ve read stuff on physical squalor that has really resonated and been useful to changing my attitude to house cleaning, so maybe the idea of financial squalor will be useful to me, too 🙂

      It’s so subjective, isn’t it… like I found ‘squalor’ a useful term, the idea that there was a name for this thing I’d encountered, but others might find it judgy. Equally, there’s stuff out there that other people find useful that I might find aggressive, or that you might find patronising, or whatever. I guess what I’m saying is it’s ok for some styles of advice to just be not for you.

  45. Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s budget worksheet is easy to use (just pop in the numbers) and her blog has a TON of information around budgeting. She’s a well known financial writer and television host on financial matters here in Canada, but her budget worksheet will work for anyone.

    Here’s the link to the budget worksheet:

    She’s also a big proponent of using cash only and uses the envelope system (in her case, jars) for allocating cash into categories for the month. Here’s some info on it:

    Using her budget worksheet and going to cash only has made a huge difference for me. It’s easy to implement and maintain, that’s been the key.

    1. Yes, I was scrolling down to recommend Gail too – I’m also a You Need A Budget devotee. Gail’s site and worksheets are great, and so are her books – if you can find “It’s Your Money” or really anything of hers in the library, I recommend them. Old episodes of her tv show might be online too somewhere? The start of It’s Your Money goes through evaluating your money management style – posters upstream talked about how all of this is learned behaviour, we’ve inherited certain narratives about money and our habits and our emotions are all tangled up – the book has a sort of checklist quiz for you to start to peel back the layers and see what your habits, narratives and feelings are.

      The other thing to keep in mind is that these were looong term habits to develop and they’ll be loooong term habits to shake. I think when we think about managing our money we imagine other people are not spending any excess cash, buying things they don’t need, going out when they could cook or doing whatever the Specific Thing that fills you with guilt when you do it is. But they are, nobody is perfect, nobody is a machine, nobody isn’t human. The ideal future for me was one where I could make those purchases but have a sense of the picture of my money enough that it didn’t actually fill me with guilt or fear. YNAB was key in this – because I looked at my money when it went into my account and had a plan, and prioritized and saved a bit, and made some commitment to debt repayment and groceries and whatever else, I know that buying that giant chocolate marshmallow (this very specific example brought to you by yesterday’s grocery shopping while hungry…) isn’t inconsistent with my priorities or my plans. I still go over budget sometimes, and I still have lots of habits to shake, but I am mostly always living within my means these days and that is a HUGE improvement. It means every month is a step, even if it’s a teeeny tiny step, towards being debt free and having a little more of a safety net, rather than a step further into student loan and credit card hell and stress. Maybe it’s weird but I do find my attitude to food and weight a helpful analogy when I think about changing my feelings and narratives about this stuff, mostly because unhealthy or self-punishing attitude become a little easier to see, and so do unhelpful or upsetting comparisons to others. If I wanted to lose a little weight I gained over the winter, or regain some fitness I lost while I was curled up all february hiding from the snow, I would recognize pretty quickly that expecting to do it in a week or a month would be an an unrealistic and probably extreme goal. It would be mean to myself to feel like I had failed when I had not achieved my goal immediately, and an austerity plan that did achieve that goal immediately would probably be very unsustainable and involve depriving myself and unbalancing my life. Debt’s not different. Other people might be fitter than me, but i started where I started and all I can do is make incremental progress that is sustainable given the rest of my life, and towards a goal that feels good for me on my terms given my needs. I don’t have their bodies, I don’t have their histories, they don’t have my life, they don’t have my pressures. The same is true for my debt and financial goals. Best of luck to you ❤

  46. LW, you are not alone! There are so many of us who struggled and/or are still struggling with how to money.

    What worked for me was Dave Ramsey, but let me warn you that he’s got an evangelical, boot-strappy bent. As a life-long citizen of a Red State, it’s all background noise to me, but anyone who is triggered by that kind of thing, or thinks that they perhaps just could not even might want to look elsewhere.

    What I’m currently using now is YNAB, which is simple, user-friendly, and doesn’t make you feel dumb for not being able to do a bunch of fancy formulas,and is totally forgiving if you screw up (my bent towards perfectionism really sandbagged me with a lot of financial software.)

    Best of luck, LW! You can do this!

  47. Perfect money course: At first glance it seems like typical budgeting, but the philosophy behind it is sheer genius. You don’t have to subscribe — watch videos for free, you can do a free trial and set up your own spreadsheet to follow the program. It’s easy and changes your beliefs about money. Also: check out for graduate-level money management!

  48. LW, one thing that I did recently was look at WHERE I was spending money. There are two supermarkets within about a mile and half of my apartment, and because of the neighborhoods they’re in, they have vastly different price ranges for a lot of the same or similar stuff. The more expensive one isn’t even a high-end or specialty market, it’s just in a richer neighborhood. It didn’t really occur to me that just switching supermarkets could make that much of a difference, but it did. Depending on your area, and how mobile you are without a car, that might be a really easy first step.

    I didn’t grow up middle class, but my parents did, so my family has some middle-class cultural assumptions about what makes “good” food and when it’s acceptable to buy something new rather than fix it (or maybe realize it’s redundant and we don’t actually need a new one). It has helped me a lot to reexamine some of those. To be very clear, I’m NOT doing the whole infantilizing, “Just stop buying so many expensive things.” Sometimes our spending habits are more expensive without us even realizing, because of where we buy things, or how we perceive “freshness” in food, or because we don’t realize what kinds of things can be repaired or repurposed. Everybody else on this thread has very good advice about budgeting programs and things, and I think that as you start to implement those, you might find it helpful to occasionally (I really do mean occasionally–none of us change our habits overnight, and we usually sabotage ourselves when we try) see if some of the assumptions you have around what you buy are still useful to you.

  49. I found this book to be so kind and helpful. It says stuff like it’s ok to not “optimise” the crap out of every choice. Being nice to yourself is great! Lots of specific, easy suggestions. It’s called Frugality for Depressives by Abigail Perry

    I love YNAB too. It has a little bit of a learning curve, but if you get through it (and there’s lots of help), it can be revolutionary.

  50. Lots of great success stories here. I’ll add a few things that have worked for me. Even when I was coming up short paycheck to paycheck, I started digging myself out of the hole by doing these four things:

    1. I joined the credit union at work and had them auto-deduct a small amount to go to savings, where I never saw it. (Most employers today in the US will do a direct-deposit of your paycheck to your bank account if that’s better; most banks will allow you to split it into at least two accounts).

    2. Whenever I got a raise, I added at least half the raise to that auto-deduction for savings. (Yes, it made sense to put money in savings even when I felt strapped by debt. Because if I paid myself first, I recognized that I have value).

    3. When I finally decided I had to ‘do something,’ the first thing I did was to stop carrying the creditcards with me. Or at least, I only carried one — the one that charged the lowest interest, and I only used it for emergencies. (yes, in the first few weeks that included a few ’emergency’ self-indulgent purchases, but limiting those to small and infrequent worked better). Leaving the others in the desk drawer helped me not keep adding to those debts.

    4. I gathered up all the debts and listed them in order of Interest Rate (NOT how big the debt, only how high the interest). Then I paid minimums on everything every month, if I could, but making sure to always pay at least a few dollars extra on the debt with the HIGHEST interest rate. Some months I couldn’t even pay everyone, in which case I would take the debt(s) with the LOWEST interest rates and phone them to ask for an extension this month. Every month that I paid extra on that high interest debt (and never ever added to that one), I was whittling it down. Eventually I could count on a fixed amount every month that could go toward that ‘extra’ payment. As soon as I retired the first debt, I put that fixed amount – plus the amount of the ‘minimum’ on that retired debt – as the ‘extra’ payment on the next highest interest rate debt. And so on.

    Something I didn’t learn to do until much later: CELEBRATE. It’s amazing how much easier it is to stick to this work when I pat myself on the back for having paid another creditcard down to zero, or replaced the unexpectedly broken couch with a nice one from Freecycle.

    1. Point #4 is a good strategy, but it depends on the way your debt is structured and the way your brain works. I found it a bit more satisfying to pay off the smallest debt first. Rather than slogging through minimum payments and watching the interest tick up on four debts, I put my money towards making sure I had only three debts. It was a, “Oh wow! I can really do this!” moment that set the tone for getting the rest of things back on track. YMMV of course, and maggiebea’s strategy is smarter than mine in terms of money paid on interest. But if you need a quick confidence boost, there’s nothing like seeing a zero balance statement to do it.

  51. I come from a Good With Money family, but I still thought I could offer tips of little ways that I save money in case it was helpful to someone.
    1) Discover (yes, the credit card company) offers online banking that’s surprisingly good. Their checking accounts are cash-back: you get 10 cents for every debit card transaction, check written, or bill paid (through their system – ACH withdrawals don’t count). And their savings accounts have a 0.9% interest rate. I don’t know how they are with penalty fees as I’ve never had to deal with that, but I do know they’re in several ATM networks, so nearly every ATM is fee-free with them, plus they don’t charge fees for out-of-network ATMs anyway so in that case you’d only pay the other bank’s fee. Also, I’m almost certain that the banking is available to everyone, but I do have a Discover credit card as well so I can’t say for sure. Even if you don’t want to go with Discover, there are probably some other online-only banks with good deals. Not having to operate physical branches lets such companies save money so they can be better for their customers in other ways.
    2) When it comes to basic but pricey purchases like clothes, shoes, and electronics, it’s often possible to save quite a bit of money by ordering online directly from China. There are some drawbacks here – clothes and shoes are typically only available in smaller sizes (for example, I’m XS-S in US women’s clothing but I’m M-L when ordering from China), almost none of the big savings are on brands an American consumer would recognize, and shipping typically takes 2 weeks to 2 months. (Although, that last one was actually a benefit for me. My biggest financial weakness was always getting upset and going to Claire’s and buying way more jewelry than I could really afford. Right after I discovered buying from China, I did basically the same thing online instead of from Claire’s. But the items took so long to arrive that it sort of decoupled the spending and the reward for me and I was able to drastically cut down on my emotionally-driven impulsive spending.) I’m not going to name any specific websites because I’m not sure if that’d be in bounds, but it should be fairly easy to find some sites if you’re interested.

  52. I use a program called Digit to help me save money. It takes a few weeks and tracks your spending and your income, and then it will deduct small amounts when it knows you wont miss it. $5 here, $12 there. Over the course of the last year I’ve saved a decent sized “Rainy Day Fund!”

    The things I like about it are.
    1. It guarantees that it will not cause an overdraft.
    2. It sends me a text every day with the balance of my checking account. I’m USUALLy pretty on top of this, but it is super helpful when I go through a period where I’m very busy and distracted to be reminded.
    3. The money goes into a separate account that I can’t see. I actually had to send a text just now to find out how much i’ve saved, and transferring it requires some additional steps that I need to look up. (My plan is to transfer every 500 I save into a money market account) This means that it is actually getting SAVED and not just “put into a savings account until I am about to overdraw my checking account because I spent too much money on GrubHub.”

    I’ve also used Mint in the past just to see where my money is going, and my Discover card will also break down purchases for me. Mint helped me see just how much I’m spending on food which is by far my biggest expense.

    On a more personal note, I’m the breadwinner in my family and I’m in a very similar place. I make a very good living and yet I never have any money because my expenses always go up as I make more money. I’m ashamed of it but also Not sure how to break my habits. I am checking out all these links and definitely keeping this advice in mind.

    1. I totally understand your last paragraph, S. Over the summer, our landlady raised our rent by $75, a significant amount of money to me. I was happy to learn we were getting raises at work in September. But guess what? The raise is exactly $75, so I’m not any further ahead. I too am going to check out all these links. Just know that you’re not alone. Once upon a time, I had a very well-paying job, and I was fired from it. I’m embarrassed that where I ended up pays at least 1/3 less. I’m going to try and get over that shame. Lots of people are in the same boat.

  53. Responding to point #5 – something that really helped me move past feeling overwhelmed by having to record every single spending transaction was the Pocketbook app (works on iPhone and Android). The idea of having to write down every single spend as it happened, or remember them later, seemed exhausting. So this tool seemed really useful – basically you link the app to your main spending bank account and it tracks the transactions for you. It can categorise some things into broad categories like “groceries” or “bills” or “eating out” and you can even teach it to recognise future transaction types by tagging them in the app. It allows you to set a spending limit and track how much you are actually spending on different categories (which to me is always more than I realise for food or eating out etc), so you can get an overall sense of your spending habits.

    Anyway, just thought I’d mention it in case it’s helpful to the LW, as sometimes technological tools can help simplify things that might otherwise be overwhelming. 🙂

    Good luck, we are rooting for you! ❤

    1. Seconding the Pocketbook app. I think it’s Australia only, but it’s pretty useful if that’s where you are. You can hook it up to multiple accounts and see what’s going on – in my case I eat out way too much and I seem to be able to justify to myself spending way more than I can afford on random decor and clothing items. >_<

    2. [Guest Poster Here:] Hi kmcdonell: Using software to track is something I strongly recommend in the book…after one has first spent some time recording every penny manually. This is because, initially, the tracking isn’t “to know what we have available,” etc, but to increase our consciousness about how we’re moving through a day, how we’re interacting with ourselves, and so on. The best tracking software companies recommend the same 🙂 So, we start out jotting down as we go. At a point, we move to software to automate the tracking for knowing where we’re at. Absolutely agreed that tech tools can make all the difference! I do recommend them—just at a specific stage, for a specific purpose. More at my blog linked to at the end of the post!

  54. So a book that I have read and found helpful, WITH some caveats: “Securing Your Financial Future: Complete Personal Finance for Beginners” by Chris Smith. What I found helpful about this book was that the author did a good job of explaining at a basic level the way finances work and helping me to understand the financial world. He gives good references to other sources, provides useful stories as examples (stories are the best!), and starts off by giving one principle to stick to if nothing else works for you: always save at least 10% of everything you earn. (I don’t always hold to it, but at least it’s something I can see and remember.) He also (this was important for me) recognizes that not all of the world’s inhabitants are men, and so he has women in his examples as well and it is directed towards us as well. Huzzah!

    The thing that I didn’t like is that he assumes a certain level of affluence that is not always available, and comes from a middle-class perspective that can assume things that aren’t true for everyone. This got old for me at times. He also is a fan of the cutting everything frivolous (back to the no buying coffee out or anything like that) which drives me crazy. If you think you might feel triggered by that, I would recommend reading the first few chapters where he lays out a foundation and then stop reading once he gets to the specifics (which are buying a car, buying a house, and preparing for retirement). But the beginning part I found to be solid.

    Here are a few ideas of my own that have helped (not always as much as I’d like, but they’ve helped). I have the bank automatically transfer money into my savings account each paycheck. When I was doing it myself it almost never happened. Now it happens all the time, and although I sometimes have to raid it, I at least have a decent amount squirreled away for emergencies now. I also have what I call a short-term savings account, which covers two things: a) bills that are on a quarterly basis but that go into the account monthly (so I have the money handy when the eye-popping bill comes), and b) $25/paycheck that goes in and then goes towards what I call equalizing my bills (so that if something over $75 comes up [renewing my passport, buying that new jacket I’ve been needing that’s finally acceptably on sale, vet bills, etc.] I can spend without knocking everything for a loop).

    I also sat down and figured what I consider my biggest “discretionary” spending needs and budget around that. For me the biggest thing is dancing. I take expensive dance lessons that are a huge chunk of my monthly income; they are also one of my main physical outlets, one of my main social outlets (the studio is open 6 days/wk, so if I’m feeling lonely [I live with 2 cats but no other humans] I can go in and have some people I know and am comfortable with), and I get to have people touch me (see: live with no other humans. Also, I am cuddly). For this to work, I live in an older, cheaper apt (although not run-down, our building is comfortably shabby); ride my bike to work to save on gas; own an older car that I bought significantly second-hand (well over 100,000 miles when I bought it); etc., etc. My other main splurge is that I believe in buying local food, so I spend a fair bit of money on food at the farmer’s market near me, and try to buy ethically when I can. I have decided that one of my core values is to support local farms (it’s a big deal here right now since they’re considering getting rid of MORE local farmland for shopping centers, and I want our farmers to succeed), and so I’m willing to spend money on those things.

    Now, these don’t have to be YOUR values. In fact, at least with the dancing, I’m guessing probably not (although if you do love to dance, awesome! Kindred spirit!!). But the important thing to me is that I sat down and figured a few places where I am willing to spend higher amounts because of my priorities. Not only does that make my budget feel less punishing, but it makes it easier to say no to myself if it’s something else. Saying, “It’s wrong to spend all of my money on frivolous things and I can’t afford this anyway,” tends to make me feel lousy. Saying, “I think I need this money for dancing this month, and I was going to buy a big batch of berries at the market to make some jam, so I can’t afford this other thing,” makes me feel better. I’m spending in line with my values that I already established. It doesn’t work 100% of the time (I am currently struggling with the fact that 5 of my bills all went up at about the same time [seriously, all within a month of each other], and my income did NOT increase as much as the bills), and I can still overspend or dip into my savings, but this helps.

  55. I found the comic book Poorcraft to be very helpful. Before you get turned off by the name, it’s about living well on less. Each chapter discusses a different aspect of life, starting with simpler easy stuff and getting advanced at the end of a chapter. If I felt overwhelmed, I would skip ahead to the next topic/chapter. The art is really cute and the panels are jammed with small visual jokes. It’s a little older now, but still has great concrete advice.

    If I knew your library system, I’d link to the book there. FYI, even if the library doesn’t have something you want to read or watch in their catalog, they will probably be able to get it for you via a program called interlibrary loan. Normally still free to you!

    Good luck, LW. You have lots of people pulling for you.

    1. Poorcraft’s PDF is also Digital Rights Management-free (purposeful choice by the creators) so if you know someone with the PDF, they can email it too you and you won’t be breaking any copyright laws.

  56. I see mentioned above, so I won’t reiterate too much about why it’s helpful except to say that I’ve used it for about six years now and despite its bugs it’s still SUPER helpful for me to work toward my financial goals month by month.

    I like the book I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. It’s very no-nonsense, so it may not be great for someone with anxiety about finances, or it may be perfect — I’m not the best judge. But it’s a 12-week (IIRC) plan that’s basically like, “OK, here’s what you should do about retirement. OK, now here’s what to do about credit cards.” And he helps walk you through every part of your finances while also thinking about what’s important to you and what you want money FOR. (So a lot of places will tell you to cut out your daily latte because “here’s how much you could save!” But Ramit’s like, “If you really love lattes and not having one is going to make you miserable, what’s the point of cutting it out? Find something you care about less and cut your spending there so you can still afford your lattes.”)

  57. LW, let me just note that a lot of financial advice focuses on a “virtuous” model that tells you to focus on discipline and self denial … but if you follow the Captain’s suggestion and track all spending, I recommend putting your focus initially on the larger recurring bills. Can you lower anything like a cell phone plan, cable subscription, or insurance by shopping around? Switching to a month to month cell phone plan or changing candle companies is a lot less painful than punishing yourself for each latte. It depends on your spending style – maybe you really do splurge on luxury items, your list will tell you – but canceling some subscriptions I wasn’t using and spending an hour rate shopping for insurance saved me hundreds over the years and wasn’t some kind of personal fortitude test.

    1. Even things like budget billing on your utilities can help, just by stabilizing the amount you pay instead of having a surprise when a seasonal change jacks up your bills. Also, check with your student loan servicer to see if there is a different repayment plan you can access that will lower your payment amount.

  58. The book that helped me change my (and therefore my family’s) relationship with money is “Your Money or Your Life”.

    So many good ideas have been shared here! My contribution is The Sinking Fund. First step is listing all the big periodic bills that tend to hit us hard. My list is property taxes, life insurance, dental insurance, car insurance, renters/homeowners insurance. Add it up and divide by the frequency with which you get paid. Then when you get paid, very first thing put that amount into a savings account. This is called “pay yourself first”. When those big bills come in, just take what you need to pay them out of savings, knowing that you are continually replenishing your Sinking Fund. Losing that chunk out of your take-home is tough at first, but the first time one of those bills comes in and you can pay it in full without affecting your cash on hand for rent/food/etc., you are going to feel a rush of relief and satisfaction. If you can round up the amount you put in The Sinking Fund a bit, you will gradually build your savings to have a proper emergency fund.

    All the best to you – you can do this, and greatly reduce the stress in your life.

    1. LW I would also add – review that list of big bills that hit you hard, and see if you can shop around and reduce any of them! Anything recurring should be viewed with suspicion … Are you really getting your money’s worth out of the yearly total? Would another company or another plan save you money? Don’t assume these huge bills are fixed in every case.

    2. [Guest Poster Here:] Love that one, too, Anita!! This is one of a few resources I recommend in my own book. In fact, I had a pretty trippy story about its effect on my life! That one’s a classic, for sure 🙂 Mine goes more into the unique struggles faced by people with tricky circumstances, and strategies for those.

  59. I don’t know if you would find this helpful for your situation specifically, but I’ve personally found that having 3 separate bank accounts has helped me enormously with both financial tracking and peace of mind (with the caveat that, as a student, in my country I am able to access fee-free bank accounts).

    1. SPENDING: A general spending account. This is the one linked to my debit card. Wages are paid directly into this one, and essentials (known bills for the month, etc) are moved immediately into account #2.

    2. BILLS: An online only account. Set up for bills only. Money in this account does not get touched unless it’s to pay a bill, or an ABSOLUTE emergency. I tend to try and put aside a little extra into this where possible as well, or pay some of the smaller bills from my primary account if I know that I’m able to afford it.

    3. SAVINGS: Another online account. Some banks will also allow you to open an account that earns a higher interest rate when a minimum amount is deposited (go for one with a small amount, like $10)/no withdrawn money each month. I try to put aside 10% of every paycheck into this account where possible. If it’s not, I might take 10% of the leftover discretionary spending after subtracting bills. When even this is impossible, I’ve set up an automatic transfer of the minimum deposit amount from either account 1 or 2 so that at least I’m still earning the extra interest on whatever is in there.

    Having 3 accounts isn’t suitable for everyone, but I’ve found that – for me at least – that having a separate account for bills allows me to better track how much and where my discretionary income is disappearing to, while also knowing that the money I’ll need to pay all of my expected bills is safely set aside. By transferring extra over sometimes as well it’s helped me navigate a few unexpected bills with much greater ease, plus there’s the knowledge that if something catastrophic comes along I’ve still got the savings to dip into.

    Good luck LW!

  60. LW, I used to have a bit of a money problem. Not quite as bad as you’ve described, but enough that I had to sit down and figure some shit out at some point. This is what I did – My bank has a feature where you can download your entire history for several months, so I sat down and figured exactly how much I was spending on various things over the month. It may be painful to go over once, but try to not be judgey at yourself. I sorted the spending into various bin – rent, bills, gas, grocery, eating out, etc. Once I figured how how much just living cost, I could see how much money was left to spend and where I was spending it.

    For me it was kind of revealing to see how much I was spending buying lunch every day, which goaded me into bringing my lunch and that saved me money. Or how much money going out with friends costs. I literally had to not go out with certain people because they always wanted to do things that I actually couldn’t afford (and I was going in debt trying to keep up. That group of people was making a huge amount more than I was so it didn’t really impact their finances, but it did mine).

    At the time I was being paid bimonthly, so I designated the first paycheck as rent and bills, and second paycheck was spending money and savings. I tried to make it a game sometimes – see how much money I could leave in my account at the end of the month. At the end of the month any money remaining in my checking account got transferred over to savings. If its sitting in your account it starts whispering “spend me”. It took a while but I managed to get ahead and start savings by putting a hard limit on spending money for the month.

    With credit cards, I took advantage of the lower interest on balance transfers several times. For a couple of months I paid off each credit card with a balance transfer to another card until I was able to pay off one of them, and then increase the amount I was paying on the others. Depending on how able you are to keep on top of it this can really help, but in the end carrying balances on several cards was too much of a headache and I consolidated all the credit cards onto the one with the lowest interest rate.

    Finally, I thought I was pretty bad with money because I never seemed to get ahead, but in some ways I just had a run of bad luck. It seemed like for a while every 6 months I would have some financial catastrophe that would eat up a ton of money and it would take ages for me to get back on my feet, and at some point those things just stopped happening. Maybe there is some of that happening with you (you mentioned a car accident, maybe you should cut yourself some slack).

    If you’ve already done all this, and the problem isn’t that you don’t know where your money is going, but that you can’t stop spending money you don’t have, then you don’t really have a money management problem, you have another problem.

  61. Another thing that I’ve found useful is food box deliveries. I use Marley Spoon in Australia, but there are many others (I’ve heard of Blue Apron in the USA). If you don’t really enjoy cooking or don’t have the time/energy to plan meals and do grocery shopping, these services can help take some of the hassle out. Sure, they’re not as cheap as buying all your own groceries, but they are almost always cheaper than eating out or ordering take out food (Marley Spoon works out at about AUD$10 per meal). They offer different meals to choose for the week ahead and deliver all the ingredients and recipe to your home. If you tend to eat out a lot and want to cut down spending but don’t want the hassle of meal planning, it could be an option. 🙂

    1. We’ve been using HelloFresh (in Australia as well, but I think it exists in the US) and I’ve been SHOCKED in the best possible way about how much easier it’s made weeknight meals. As well as a fixed cost and not having to plan or shop, it’s also been a blessing for my relationship, as my newbie cook partner is now able to cook proper meals without having to rely heavily on me for assistance. We eat more veggies and less takeout now, which also helps with feeling positive.

      I really thought it was just a gimmick, but yeah, meal boxes could be good for someone who is unhappy with their food spending, has half an hour to cook each night, lives within delivery range, can afford it and can find something that accommodates any dietary requirements.

      Was thinking of trying MarleySpoon, as the recipes look delicious and interesting, but I love that HelloFresh does a box just for vegetarians 🙂

      1. Marley Spoon do have several vegetarian options each week and you can select the vegetarian filter for weekly menus so they always send you veggo stuff 🙂

  62. Dear LW, you are so not alone in this. Not at all.

    When I was in my 20s, I decided I was going to move from New York to California. I saved up $10k over the course of a year with automatic transfers from my checking account to my savings account every payday. I also never went anywhere except to my partners’ homes (via public transit), barely ate anything (well into disordered eating territory), and occasionally splurged on weird As Seen on TV stuff from catalogs that I didn’t need and rarely used. Just because I saved up money doesn’t mean I had healthy financial habits; I really, really didn’t. So please don’t conflate the two–you can absolutely have a good sense of how to use your money and still be in debt.

    I moved to California with that $10k in the bank and a solid job offer in hand. Three and a half years later, I moved back to New York with $40k in credit card debt and both my arms disabled. After being in a VP-track position before my arms were injured, I was relieved to get a job as a receptionist because at least it was steady pay. That is a pretty big slide. I could have controlled some of the variables in that slide–I no longer lend money to anyone, ever, though I give it when I have it to give, and I have a much better idea of how to run a business now than I did then–but a lot of it was just bad timing and bad luck: the economy crashed, the people I lived with lost their jobs, I had my own trouble finding and staying in jobs, I had mental and physical health problems. These things happen.

    My partner J also had a hard time finding a good job, and he and I were paycheck to paycheck (or UI check to UI check) for a long time. I tried every financial trick in the book to keep us afloat. What worked for us:

    Debt and credit

    * Doing big one-time scrubs of our credit reports: chasing down every debt that was listed as outstanding and either paying it off or writing to the company reporting it and asking them to clear the record with the credit report agencies. It was painful and exhausting and a lot of paperwork, and totally worth it. If this seems very daunting to you, ask a friend to help.

    * Being absolutely meticulous with debt payments to improve my credit score. This brought in lots of 0% balance transfer offers, which let me radically cut how much I was paying in credit card debt interest. You can’t make those transfers too often because of the sneaky 3% transfer fees, but anything you can do to pay less interest is worth doing. Once your credit score is decent, personal bank loans can also be useful.

    * Creating a debt snowball and paying off highest-interest debt first. The best thing the snowball did for me was create a single budget line item of “money we put toward debt repayment” rather than considering each debt to be its own thing. Thinking of it as “how much can we afford to put toward paying off debt” rather than “what’s the minimum that we’re required to pay on this and this and this” was a very important shift that led to paying the debt off much faster. We’ve gone from -$42k net worth in 2010 to $-8k this month. The end is in sight!

    * Putting all our household spending on a “cash back” credit card and paying it off at the end of every month.

    * Freezing our credit reports to safeguard against identity theft.


    * Giving each of us a personal checking account and creating a fourth account for the household. Citibank checking is free as long as you get one direct deposit and pay one bill (through Citibank’s website) per account, so we all get our paychecks deposited into our personal accounts and immediately transfer the funds into the household account, and then the household gives us a weekly allowance. Once a month we pay $5 from each account toward a bill and the household account transfers in $5 to reimburse it. Ta-da, free checking. The weekly allowance keeps us from feeling like we don’t get to spend anything on ourselves, and the household covers all actual necessities like food and clothing and transportation and utilities so we don’t have to wonder whether an unexpected bill means that today’s self-indulgent Starbucks run will cause an overdraft.

    * Checking the bank website every day so that I catch discrepancies and overdrafts right away.

    * Setting up free savings accounts with Ally Bank and automatically transferring funds into them. It’s important to have savings of some kind even if you’re paying down debt. We’ve cleaned out that Ally account twice in the last couple of years when we really needed to, and it felt so good to pay for things out of savings rather than racking up more debt. This month we used it to pay off the last of a loan and cut our monthly outgo by $500.

    Household finances

    * Adding another income to the household when my partner X moved in. X did bring some debt, which J and I added to our debt pool when the three of us combined finances, but the benefits of the third income far outweighed that downside. If you don’t happen to have a bonus partner handy, consider a roommate situation with a very close friend whom you trust enough to be financially entangled with. You don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) combine all your finances the way you might with a romantic partner, but you can create a setup that saves you both some money. Everyone I know who’s saved a lot of money or paid off a lot of debt has done it in part by sharing a household with a partner, a friend, or relatives. No one really talks about it as a personal finance solution because it’s not wholly under your control and can be quite risky, but with the right person or people, it’s a game-changer.

    * Budgeting in fairly loose but well-grounded terms. If penny-tracking sounds horrible to you, it’s quite possible to do without it–but don’t go full seat-of-the-pants. I have a good head for numbers and am very careful to round expenditures up and income down when I’m making my estimates. I have a budget of our regular income and outgo, including an approximate grocery bill, and I eyeball the rest. Tracking every expenditure for three people is impossible, and honestly I found it impossible even when I was only doing it for myself. But if I know that income minus outgo equals $N per month, I can then subtract the month’s anticipated big one-time expenses (all-day babysitter for the day that daycare’s closed, car rental to visit relatives, annual vet checkups for the cats) from $N and know about how much we’ll have left over for ordering in or buying shoes. And I create general spending guidelines, like “try not to spend more than $10 on lunch out or $15 on dinner out”, to help us all stay within budget without getting too nitpicky.

    * Using to automatically categorize our spending. This goes very well with doing most household expenditure via the household credit card. Mint’s guess isn’t always right, but it comes close enough in most cases, and you can teach it. (My landlord’s last name is Apple and Mint kept categorizing rent payments as spending on computers until I told it how to identify and correctly categorize them.)

    * Sending a monthly finances update to the household. You can do one for yourself if you live alone or don’t share finances with anyone. The format of mine is pretty simple: “Last month we ended the month with $A in the household account; this month, after paying off the household credit card, we ended with $B. (The difference is because XYZ.) Last month we spent $C on the household card; this month we spent $D. (The difference is because LMN.) Here’s the status of our debt repayments and our anticipated debt-free date if we continue making payments as we have been. Here’s what’s in our savings accounts and how much we’re automatically transferring in every month. Here’s the list of expected big one-time expenses and windfalls for the next six months. Here are our current financial concerns and our plans to solve them.” The subject line on each email is “Monthly no-doom finances update” and it really is very soothing and reassuring to put it together and send it out, even when we’re facing financial uncertainty or big expenses, because making plans to deal with problems and forcing myself to live up to that no-doom label helps everything feel more manageable and under control.

    I hope some or all of this is useful to you. Hang in there! You can find your own way out of the debt maze and reach fiscal comfort and happiness.

  63. I find it curious that all of your readers appear to write in your exact same articulate and exaggerated style!

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Huh? Yes, she maintains this blog by posting and then coming up with dozens of aliases to reply to herself on the topics.

        1. To be fair, some of us attended the CA Commenting Style Guide training courses to allow us to share the workload.

    2. Isn’t it great? The commentariat here is one of the most kind and erudite bunches I’ve found on the internet!

  64. I love the financial help website “The Simple Dollar” because the owner and biggest contributor, Trent Hamm, started exactly where the LW is now– good income, but poor financial skills, debt and bad credit. His advice is clear, generally easy to implement (and his overarching philosophy is if a frugal strategy makes you miserable or is too hard for you to maintain, don’t do it! He believes there isn’t a “right” way to be frugal and that everyone needs to find out what works for them) he also has tons of advice for improving credit, for paying down debt and in genera keeping financial stuff in order. It’s really helped me and I highly recommend it to anyone at any financial state!!

    1. I love the Simple Dollar as well. I like his discussions of relating what we value to how we spend. For example, I may value reading books, but do I have to buy the latest best-seller every time? Can I wait until it hits the library? I like spending time with my friends, but do we have to eat out every time? Or, if we do eat out, do I have to get beer and/or dessert, making the meal even more expensive? It’s made me rethink some of my automatic “spend spend spend” behaviors.

  65. Before I started using a real budget I had a very similar pattern as you, it sounds like – I would just spend every cent I had, even if I kind of new I needed to buy this or that big thing next month. I was making enough money to make ends meet, as you do, so it was a spending issue rather than a “not enough money” issue.

    Working on the emotional stuff and getting used to a real budgeting strange will help over time, in my experience. I used a couple of “life hack” type techniques in the meantime which might help stop the late fee/credit card cycle while you work on the other stuff.

    First, I had a small portion of my paycheck direct deposited into a completely different bank than my checking account and credit card. I don’t have checks or a card for that account, but I can access the money through ACH if I need it in an emergency. While you’re learning to money, that emergency might be your six-month car insurance payment. Once you’ve gotten more comfortable, you’ll need it less and less and some of it might even be able to be fun trip money or something.

    Secondly, I put all of my recurring bills on a separate calendar. Every Friday when I got paid, I sat down and spent 30 minutes paying all of the bills that were due until the next paycheck. I didn’t always have a ton left over, but I knew the lights would stay on.

  66. I wonder if it might also help to block out some time in your diary that is just dedicated to doing financial admin and planning? A lot of the ‘financial flailers’ that I know tend to operate in cycles of shame/fear and avoidance, followed by last-minute panic at the end of the month or when final demands come in. Even when they know the theory of how to get themselves out of the hole (budgeting, debt payment plans etc etc), they still struggle and I think it’s because they’re missing a behavioural step that tells them to make proper time for doing this. If all of your financial dealings are done in a reactionary, last-minute panic with big stakes (e.g. scrabble X amount together and pay bill NOW or phone gets cut off), then not only is it going to reinforce the idea of money being stressful, it’s also going to mean that you’re always firefighting and never have the time to take control by getting organised and setting up proper systems that will help with taking the stress out of your financial dealings longer term (a la, for example, the housemates I’ve had who waste hours every month going back and forth with each other for (often late) payment of fixed monthly amounts for rent and bills, but can never find the time to set up a standing order.)

    I would suggest the following:
    (a) put some time in your diary for working on your financial admin, maybe an hour a week until you feel things are in better shape, or a couple of hours if you fancy tackling a larger chunk in one go
    (b) acknowledge that this is probably going to be an unpleasant task that gives you the heebie jeebies
    (c) do it anyway, trying to make your approach methodical and calm, and setting yourself realistic goals as to how much you are going to get done in that time
    (d) reward yourself with some fun/relaxing downtime afterwards

    Good luck, this stuff is hard and anxiety inducing, but it is learnable and achievable!

    1. Space to breathe is one of the things that goes unacknowledged so often in budgeting advice. Money is a loaded topic, earnings are somehow tied to your moral worth, finance options are complicated and not presented well, and heck, a lot of us have straight-up math anxiety.

      Getting yourself to the point where you feel, if not ready to take it all on, at least not running on empty when you start your baby steps, is just as important as the actual steps.

  67. I’ve found myself in a very similar cycle and the thing that was most damaging to me is that when my depression was at it’s worst, I wasn’t paying bills. I’d go to work. I’d usually have the money; but, I just wouldn’t take the last step and pay the actual bills. So, I set up my bank account to pay out those bills every other week when I got paid. This works particularly well with bills that don’t fluctuate much (phone, cable, and a minimum credit card payment) and with the rent/mortgage which I would set aside half of from each pay period. I found it really helped me to avoid late fees. It didn’t mean that I didn’t have to keep track of what I was spending. It did mean I wasn’t going to screw myself if I that was a spoon I didn’t have for a month or two.

  68. I’ve really liked SmartyPig for monthly withdrawal of a designated amount to put into savings. I also use Mint to track spending, but I don’t really use it as a budgeting tool.

  69. About a million years ago, I worked out what I needed for rent, bills, food every month, added some on top for ‘fun’ then made the rest of my paycheck disappear out of my bank account and into savings before I even saw it. Every few years after that I’d adjust the numbers as rent/salary fluctuated and so on.

    I’d spend ‘fun’ money on a credit card (reasons of online security) and pay the card off in full every month.

    Now this didn’t stop me spending way too much on the credit card sometimes, and having to dip into savings to pay the bill off. But the ‘oh shit’ of having gone over the allotted amount meant that I *have* to notice each time I’d gone over. If I’d just paid off the credit card each month out of my main account without having had to ‘run out’ of funds, it would have been easier to get into overspending habits.

    This is still relatively lazy advice though, and I know I was lucky to not start out in a financial hole. I know I could do better by tracking all my spending, and I really do know that even if something is 75% off in the sales that still doesn’t mean I need it or can afford it, but as long as I keep track of my ‘fun money’ total in my head and stick to it I can buy ridiculous things without guilt. Which is all I wanted in the first place.

    It both helps and hinders that I really like things being on sale, so on the one hand, I tend not to buy things if they are full price, but on the other hand ‘it’s on sale’ is not always a good reason buy buying something.

    Lately I’ve noticed that it’s the act of shopping in sales that I find really soothing, so I’ll fill up an online shopping basket full of carefully selected things – and then just leave the basket and go make a cup of tea. Most of the time I manage to ‘forget’ to go through checkout.

    Bottom line, it’s more fun spending money than budgeting it. But if you can get the thing you want from the spending experience, without actually spending (in my case, a nice walk and looking at lots of tiny curated things and pickig which I like the most) then it doesn’t feel like a self sacrifice.

    I love the idea from on this thread of re-knitting hideous luxe-wool jumpers. Totally going to try that.

  70. LW, I was (am?) in a very similar situation to yours – complete with the well-earning family who somehow STILL lives paycheck-to-paycheck and the intense feelings of shame. If you can manage it at all, I highly suggest counseling/therapy. I am ashamed to admit that I let a couple of my student loans go into default, severely damaging my credit. Turns out I have some underlying mental health issues that were making it more difficult for me to deal with my finances. I wasn’t making my student loan payments because I was thinking, “what’s the point? the future is already so uncertain.” Once I got into therapy to deal with underlying mental health stuff, it became much easier to get back on track with my finances. I am happy to report that I called my loan companies and was able to get on a reduced payment – my loan term has increased, but at least it’s not damaging my credit anymore.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] Dear Elizabeth, yes! This is the piece that is so true for so many of us. The underlying and subconscious stuff is so BIG. Even when we know about the popular money blogs and all the “do this” advice, if our underlying processes are struggling, so are we. It doesn’t matter how smart we are or how many money blogs exist. Like you, that “future is uncertain” piece was a major stumbling block for me. Finding affordable (including free!) therapy is one of the pieces in my book, a step before “spend less, save more, get rich!”. Thank you for this 🙂

    2. Yes! Even if one doesn’t have underlying health issues, counselling can help. Extended periods of financial instability, particularly if they existed in one’s childhood, reinforces emotions and behaviors around money that make it hard to budget and save even when you are flush. Counselling can help untangle some of that and give you tools to to help you cope with the reactions when they come up.

  71. I don’t like to think about money, so it really helped to auto debit everything. I only remember the date that all of the payments are taken out, including debt and savings, then what’s left is free to spend on whatever I want. If it’s nothing, then lots of reading and ramen noodles for me.

    The second thing that helped (so much help) was an account for short term savings that is for stuff like car maintenance, professional fees/school fees – regular lump sum payment stuff that I know comes up but I never used to save for so always set me back and stressed me out. Now I save a bit a month to cover what I can reasonably predict will come up so I have it handy.

    Finally, a separate X-mas savings fund – 20 bucks a month but it really helps me start January off with way less stress. Also, I put the credit cards in the freezer and ended my paypal account.

  72. Read The Billfold. They approach money from lots of different directions, and they have lots of real talk about saving and spending, not Millionaire Next Door-style “eat beans on toast and never do anything nice for yourself and someday you’ll die rich!” advice. They make me feel inspired to save, but their different features are also a good reality check on what real life is like when it comes to money.

    1. Glad to find another Billfolder! It’s one of the few blogs I read every day. I really appreciate that it’s not so much about how to do money, but how we all experience money 🙂

    2. Yes! The Billfold is very realistic and non-judgemental place to learn about and commiserate over money situations. Though I miss the original author.

  73. LW, a lot of good advice here. You said you sometimes go without food by the end of the month – so, when you get paid, estimate your food expenses for the last week of the month, and set that money aside. DO NOT touch it, until you’re out of food money with a week before payday. Or buy ramen and beans and stock your pantry the day you get paid. Put your basic needs first.

    I’ve been where you are, I save 80% of my pay check now. Every few years, when I build up a chunk of savings, something always happens, and wipes my balance out (3 root canals without insurance? a family member’s health troubles? unplanned relocation for exciting new job? a routine procedure that suddenly cost 4 times what I’d planned? a holiday that stretched the bank balance?- It all costs money!). I used to get bummed each time my savings got depleted- after months of saving, it’d be gone in a flash, with nothing to show. Then I realized that my saving habits helped me bounce back each time, and each time I did it, I felt more confident in my ability to stay afloat.

    I’m terrified of loans, and will do anything to avoid debt and finance charges, so the fear of having to take a loan or incur any charges leads me to squirrel away every penny I can. Good luck!

  74. Oddly enough, the podcast that has helped me with financial things is Planet Money. None of the stories really address my particular situation, but I’ve learned a lot about how money works overall in society, and that has helped me look at my own finances with a different perspective. Listen to their archives, especially some of the recession ones–they are interesting and eye-opening, at least they were for me.

    I personally loathe the ‘bootstrapping’ blogs, podcasts, etc. If I want someone to tell me what a horrible person I am, I’ll just go listen to my parents (who are no paragons of financial security, ha!), but Planet Money helped me look at money differently than the pattern I had been in.

    I still have credit card debt, but I’m working on it, and don’t feel so wretched about finances in general. Count me in with the people who don’t carry cash very often. Cash floats away, even when I’m trying to track it, but using the debit card, ouch, that’s spending, and I think more about what I buy–even items that I do actually need, I consider which one is the one I like the most, but still meets the need *and* the budget.

    I don’t have enough income to have multiple checking accounts, but I do mentally divide my checking account into two parts–bills and Other. Not as tidy as the online tools, but it works for me. Also, saving–sometime I only save $5 a check, but $5 is $5, and it’s a place to start.

    Also, both my sister and I have talked about some of the money stuff–she has worked at it from a different angle, but both of us are feeling good that we have tried to improve our finances instead of just floating along. So it might be that once you try whatever steps you think will work, it will make you feel better enough that you can take more steps, if that makes sense?

    Good luck, you can do it!

  75. I skimmed the previous comments, so please forgive me if I’m repeating someone else.

    My husband’s parents used to be financial planners, so he is A+ Excellent Amazing with money. My parents are good with money, but not so good about communicating those skills to their lovely children. So I’m with you, learning how to be better about money and trying not to Buy All the Things.

    We use EveryDollar from Dave Ramsey. Hubby LOVES Ramsey; I don’t agree with all of his advice, but the app has helped us a lot. You create your budget at the beginning of the month and then, like Joon suggested for #5, record every dollar you spend. The hardest part for me is remembering to record everything. The budgeting part is hard for the first few months — it takes a little bit to adjust and create something realistic — but once you get into the groove, it’s really great.

    I also started saving every five-dollar bill that came into my possession. I saw the advice online somewhere, and ended up saving close to $100 in one semester. It’s not much, but it’s more than $0! You’d be surprised how quickly it adds up… and how infrequently you REALLY need five-dollar bills.

  76. I found Mr. Money Mustache very helpful!

    It’s target audience is people living paycheck to paycheck on middle class salaries, and once you really get into it, it’s much more about a philosophy of happiness than about finances. I recommend taking several hours and really getting into the archives! It’ll help you to think about money and spending differently, and save money by living happily, rather than by depriving yourself.

    1. I also love MMM, but beware that he’s got a libertarian bent and a tendency to blame and shame anyone who doesn’t follow his (kinda draconian) advice. There was one particular post that was basically like “Nobody REALLY needs health insurance. Just exercise and you’ll stay healthy!” No acknowledgement at all that some people might already have a long-term health condition, or might develop one through no fault of their own. In general, no acknowledgement that he has any privilege or that other people might face obstacles that he has never encountered.

      On the other hand, he helped me question a lot of my assumptions about what I need to be happy. I save thousands of dollars a year because of his advice!

    2. Mr Money Mustache really helps put things in perspective. Oft it’s purposely controversial with the aim of making you really think about whether want X. He also gives solid advice for what to do with the money once you have some left over at the end of the month.

  77. Oh, LW, I feel your pain so much. I have been where you are, and the shame of feeling like you have to hide your financial situation from your peers, and feeling out of control and drowning. I get it. I so get it.

    I tried Mint and some other budgeting apps to try and get myself on track, but none of them were ever granular enough for me. I need to get down to the nitty gritty – I need to have that $8 for Netflix set aside, and to write down each time I spend a dollar for a Diet Coke at McDonald’s. Otherwise it still feels nebulous to me.

    I’m kind of a list junkie. So what worked for me in the end is just a basic spreadsheet. I’ll explain in case anyone would find it helpful: I have a tab for each month, another tab to add up all months across a year (or more), and another tab where I track paying down my debts and building up my savings.

    For each month I write down absolutely every tiny little obligation I have – from biggies like rent all the way down to the aforementioned Netflix, $3 to Skype. If it happens every single month without fail, it goes in the list. I then take what’s left of my paycheck and divide it between food, savings/debt payments (aside from my credit card minimums), and fun money. I keep track of which items post to my account automatically, and which ones I have scheduled for the month. (For example, when I issue my rent check, I put a little “s” for scheduled next to the amount.) This gets a little complicated, so bear with me: when something posts to my account – it’s paid for the month – I move the amount from that first column to a second “posted” column. Then I sum each column. So the sum of the first column will show me how much money I need to have in my account in order for everything to clear, and it’s a way of making sure I’m still on track.

    This gets even more complicated, but it’s crucial: I keep a separate itemized list (on the same tab) of food spending and fun money spending, and put absolutely every little item there. (I update the list daily against my bank account.) Then I sum all of those into the “posted” column, and subtract that sum from the original amount budgeted in the first column, so I have an up-to-date view of how much money I have left for the month in those categories.

    The tab I use for all months across a year or more helps me plan ahead for any changes to my bills or income. For example, my electricity bill goes up in the summer, so I estimate it higher and adjust my spending/savings amounts accordingly. You could do the same for anticipated medical/pet expenses, tax returns or payments, etc.

    The third tab is where my math nerdiness is really on display, as I track each of my credit cards and how much I’m paying on them each month and how the balance is decreasing over time (I calculate the interest and then subtract my minimum payment plus any extra I paid.) It helps me both in seeing progress and reminding me how slow that progress actually is (knowing how long it actually takes to pay off, say, $500 in credit card debt makes me rethink whether I can’t just live with the sofa I have, for example.) I track my savings, retirement balance, and car loan as well. I don’t track my student loan since I’m going to be paying on that for another 20 years and that just seems too depressing to track. Ha.

    If anyone actually read this novel and would like to see my spreadsheet, I’d be happy to share it. Just let me know.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] kristinwitha_k, your level of detail is one that comes highly recommended. I too found I absolutely needed detail at the beginning (first eight months). After that, I was good to go with broader categories, but “the granular” was critical for me starting out. I detail that journey more in my book. I promised there to post more detail of my categories on my blog ( so I will! Anyway, thanks for your comment and generosity!

  78. Thing That Helped: We use the app “goodbudget” in my family. I like it because it doesn’t hook directly up to your bank account (a little paranoid about that around here), which means you have to actually manually record expenses, which helps with awareness throughout the month. It uses an envelope system, which is pretty intuitive. It syncs across multiple devices, and has an android and iOS version. I recommend it to a lot of people.

  79. LW, here’s my newly-honed old-school strategies. Apps and online banking hold no appeal for me. At the start of each month, I create a grid in my Journal listing every month’s reoccurring expenses, their due dates and amounts. Next it’s a fun game to fill in the columns of what date I paid and noting whether it was debit or credit or a check. I highlight medical expenses and total them separately. A paper clip on last month’s page is handy for flipping.

    When I put in a new entry, I let myself sit for long moments and just savor that feeling when each debt is paid on time, and when it’s left a zero balance. I feel safe and loved and cared for.

    Writing it all on a big composition book page is working when nothing else has. I have lots of room for notes and as it’s part of my Journal, I can easily access related information. In the lower section I can use the same columns to note other expenses, like buying a shredder. I also write down upcoming expenses, like registration renewals.

    This has done so much to calm me about my financial state. Because I can now look at all of it, rather than wondering if I’ve forgotten something, I’ve bumped up my credit card limit to give me an emergency cushion for car repair. The credit card gets used instead of cash or debit, and it’s paid off every month. I’m saving that steady trickle of bank debit card fees and feeling empowered.

    This is how I noticed that I spent $75 on food deliveries one month. Rather than shaming myself over it, I decided to circle it and write to myself thank you this treat! -but, in the future I’d rather buy groceries with that much money- with an XO and a smiley.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] So beautiful, Deborah P! I love that you managed to find your way through the tall, wavy grasses of All The Options to find (create!) the one that works for you. It’s not about attaching to a guru; it’s a personal journey that needs to honour oneself, whether we use software or a pen. So good to hear your words!

  80. Though there are a lot of budgeting apps out there, and I’m sure many of them are great, just wanted to mention that it’s also okay to go a more old-school route: what works for my husband and me is a simple Google Docs spreadsheet that we can both access and edit. There’s a column for each month, which is broken down into three big sections – income (from his work, my work, and other miscellaneous sources), regular bills (phone, Netflix, mortgage, etc.), and purchases (broken into categories groceries, eating out, entertainment, gasoline, etc.). Every single time we spend money, it goes into the appropriate area of the spreadsheet, and at the end of the month, we see how much we had left over from our income and transfer that amount into savings.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] So true, meadowlark! Different people love different systems. For one person, all cash/envelopes. For another, all debit (card). For another, Mint. For another, YNAB. And yep, some prefer a spreadsheet (OpenOffice is also free) or even pen and paper. Key is to give ourselves the love and room and time we need to experiment, try something else, experiment some more. It takes time to sort out the approach that works for us as an individual. Lots of self-forgiveness along the way… In the process, we discover more of our true self, which is a pretty big bonus!

      1. Google sheets doesn’t have as many features, but it has more than enough for just doing a budget, and you can just use it in a browser if you have gmail/a Google account.

  81. You are not alone! There is a finance guru here in Canada called Gail Vaz-Oxlade (now retired) who devoted three whole television series to helping people with their finances. Some of them were doctors and other high paid professionals who just couldn’t budget and were deeply in debt despite earning high salaries.

    In fact I think it may actually be harder, in a way, for people who grew up always having enough money because they’ve never had to really think about it. I grew up poor and learned early to set a budget and stick with it, because I was personally acquainted with walking through the snow in regular shoes due to there not being enough in the budget for winter boots.

    One thing that seemed to make money disappear for the people on her show – the debit card. They would take out cash whenever they were short, spend it on things like coffee drinks and… well, most of them couldn’t even account for what they spent it on. She got them to take out a set amount of cash each week and divide it up into things like groceries and entertainment – and when the money ran out, they had to wait until next week.

    My husband is one of those people who always chaffed about setting budgets – it wasn’t until he was retired and on a fixed income that I *finally* talked him into doing a simplified version of the Gail Vaz-Oxlade jam jar thing. Each week we take out the same amount of cash and put a set amount into jars marked “pets”, “transportation”, and “groceries”. Then we each have a set amount left over for personal spending, from which comes clothing, restaurants, movies, etc.. Once he got used to it, he was astounded how much money he had left over at the end of the month. Before, he’d simply run to the grocery store whenever he felt like getting something exotic for supper or stop into a cafe and buy lunch instead of making it. I still have a little trouble convincing him to plan meals ahead of time and just buy ingredients for them, but it’s coming.

  82. My post has disappeared. Oh well. Check out the Gail Vaz-Oxlade blog site. She’s a Canadian financial guru, now retired, who has helped many people with the bare bones basics of budgeting.

  83. What has worked for many people: taking out a set amount of cash each week for non-fixed expenses such as groceries, transportation, clothing, pets, etc.. (Fixed expenses are things like your mortgage and utility bills). Don’t use your debit card to buy a fancy coffee here, a pastry there, a magazine somewhere else… the money disappears like magic and you don’t even know where.

  84. For the past 6 months, I’ve used an app “DailyBudget” (iOS only). I tried YNAB and Mint, and while I still have Mint to track my finances, neither helped me actually *budget,* because I am so irregular in my spending patterns that envelopes/categories don’t make sense to my life. I wanted all cash that’s not designated for recurring bills to come out of the same pot (from food to hobbies to gas $ to entertainment) so I know at a glance how much I can spend at any given moment. If that’s how your brain works, try DailyBudget. I know other people need to say to themselves “that’s my grocery money for the month, don’t touch it,” and there is a way to do that with DailyBudget as well (big spendings), but it could get cumbersome, so an envelopes-based system might be better for that person.

    With DailyBudget, you enter income and recurring expenses, generic savings targets, plus any “big spendings” you want to save for over time, then it tells you how much you can spend per day. If you don’t spend all the money that day, it rolls over to the next day. You can set it to roll over month to month or you can bank that money as extra savings at the end of the month (that’s what I do). I found it very helpful for spreading out spending over the month. It also really helped me avoid little purchases–when you only have $15/day for ALL non-fixed expenses, a $4 latte feels like a lot more money.

    Level Money is a similar app (Android and iOS), but hooks into your bank accounts like Mint, and so doesn’t require manual entry. That’s a downside for me, but probably a plus for others.

    1. Oh, that sounds like just what I need! I was starting to feel like the only person here who *doesn’t* like YNAB…

  85. LW, you mentioned feeling overwhelmed – and you might also feel so by all these comments!

    Here’s a quote I love. It’s ostensibly about writing, but I think it stands for any large, complicated project:

    “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
    ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

    I think about human life in general as learning to work one’s own Personal System. For example: the Virginia System requires a bedtime earlier than that of many elementary school students. It’s stupid, and I resent it, but if I’m not laying in the bed by 9 pm most nights, insomnia becomes my new best friend.

    You don’t know what your Personal Money system is. But there are tons of excellent ideas here, and you’ll figure it out. I hope you’ll be able to be more gentle with yourself than otherwise while you figure it out.

    I’m ten years out of being in the same situation. It was a long dang slog, and it wasn’t for a long time that I felt like I was making any appreciable progress. But you can do it. You can. Pick a tool and try it out, see whether it fits in your hand. If it doesn’t, try another, until you find your system.

    You can do it.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] Virginia, Bird by Bird was the book my therapist urged me to read for me to get the courage and oomph to finish my book and post it here! lol. It truly is wonderful 🙂 I hope my own work does Lamott’s justice!

  86. My FAVORITE financial advice blog is — just a lot of real stories and tips and advice from people of various levels of privilege and resources. It’s a completely judgment-free zone. It was one of the safest places for me to start dealing with my finances, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  87. Hey LW. I am in the saaaame boat. Like, 150K of student loans and 50K of consumer debt coupled with me being an impulse spender (hey, I need tweezers! Let’s buy them on amazon right now along with three other things from my wish list because buying *just* tweezers is ridiculous) means I am constantly struggling to stay above water. I’m hella rich now compared to what I was when I was growing up/under employed, but I still have all those poor person spending habits to top everything off. (like, why bother save money? It will just get et up by the next catastrophe, so hurry and spend it now on something nice before it disappears).

    The worst part is that I know, I *know*, that the money won’t disappear. If I can keep from spending things, I can actually save up some cash! I make enough to do that! This is ridiculous!

    So, here is the thing for me: If I write everything down, I just feel shitty. Like, look at all this bullshit I’m buying, if I were a Better Person I wouldn’t feel the need to buy things like grub hub or a hot chocolate or or or on and on forever. Like, thumbs down, self, you are crap and will never be out of debt so why bother trying to get out of debt you should just etc etc which results in my Mental Illness getting worse which results in my comfort spending more which results in more debt.

    So! What I have done that is sort of working in a way:
    1. Don’t carry my credit cards. They are for Emergencies, and in an Emergency, I will be able to leave something for collateral like my license or whatever and go get one. Worst case scenario is being on a road trip and something bad happening, in which case I can pay for it with my debit card (ty, overdraft protection, I will take your $30 fees over bouncing checks all the time) and do a cash transfer from one of my credit cards when I get home.

    2. Remove as many credit cards from as many accounts as I can. Like, seriously, if your credit cards are, say, up in your room and you are in the living room on amazon, or grub hub, or whatever, you’re not going to be willing to get up and go find one if you’re me. idk maybe you are less lazy than me so this won’t work. Point is: the only credit card that is associated with my amazon account is my amazon card because it gets The Most cash back. And is constantly maxed out so I can’t buy anything with it anyway.

    4. Write out a budget that includes every bill, literally, every expense that is the same month-to-month (i.e.: I have therapy four times a month, so that’s $100, and I fill my gas tank once a week, so that’s $120 over the month), then “savings” and “misc”. Fill out the bill columns first, then the same month-to-month columns. Add it all up, subtract from your *actual* monthly income. Not your gross pay, what you’re actually gonna see in your bank account.

    What you have left is split between three things: savings, misc, and debt snowball. Here is the complicated part: list every non-monthly expense you need money for and figure out how much you need to save per month. Like, water bill is 120 every three months? Every month you need to sock away 40 bucks. Once you’ve done this for everything (and I do mean everything. I put my $15 pet microchip fee on there even though it’s, you know, only $15 a year), that becomes your monthly savings amount.

    Figure out through trial and error what you can live on (like, I eat like I’m still poor and neurotic, so I only need $100 a month for groceries. Add $50 for Whatever. This is misc.

    And then, everything that’s left can go into your debt snowball/avalanche/whatever. I don’t put it in until the end of the month? But you do you.

    3. Open a “bills only” checking account. This is the account everything bill comes out of. If it’s a once a month expense, it comes out of here. Don’t even carry a debit card for this account. Don’t even own one. It’s literally just for bills that you can pay online (and you can pay everything online, I have discovered. I literally have my bank automatically send my landlord a check every month. It’s magic.) That way, when you look at your bank account balance, you don’t actually have a shitload of money in your spending account. You know?

    4. Set everything to autopay (out of your bills account!) the minimum balance every month. That way, you don’t have to go in and *see* how much credit you have left. As soon as I know I’ve got, say, $100 in credit left, it’s gone. But if I can stay out of my account for months at a time, I’ll have managed to “save up” $500 of credit or whatever for emergencies.

    5. I don’t think there’s a five? I think that’s all I’m doing right now? Point is: detailed budgets make me want to kill myself in a literal fashion, credit cards are the devil but necessary if you’re A Worrier, and “debt avalanche” is the best name I have ever heard for anything.

    Good luck my friend! And let us know how it goes.

    1. I identify with, like, EVERYTHING you’re saying here. Except I do actually like the granular detail of tracking every little thing I spend, otherwise I find myself halfway through the month having inadvertently frittered my food budget away 2 dollars at a time. I, too, had to go in and remove any saved credit cards from tempting sites – Amazon, Grubhub, Paypal. They were sucking away all my money from my cozy little spot on the couch. It’s dangerous to be able to rack up credit card debt without even having to put on pants. I’m still not perfect (I apparently really needed $200 worth of supplies this month to make Japanese bento lunches every day for work) but I’ve also massively improved my credit and am close to being ready to buy a townhouse/condo next spring. And the bento lunches are helping me actually bring food every day, which was something I struggled with, so I’m forgiving myself for this one.

      You (proverbial you, not you as in the_wanlorn) don’t need any one particular method, but you do need A method, whatever seems to work best for your money strengths and weaknesses.

      1. Off topic, but OMG I love bento lunches as well! Can I ask what kinds of things you bought and which store? 😊

        1. Yay bento!!

          I bought some boring supply necessities from Amazon – a Zojirushi rice cooker, a BentoHeaven bento box, and two bento cookbooks that I am really enjoying (The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh and Effortless Bento from Shufunotomo).

          Then a bought a few other accessories from Bento USA: an onigiri mold, a sandwich press/cutter, some cute little animal sauce bottles, various small containers, some silicone baran. And I went to my local Mitsuwa and loaded up on Japanese cooking supplies: nori, ginger dressing, umeboshi, furikake, black sesame seeds. There was more, but that’s what I remember.

          I now actually *enjoy* making my lunch and then eating it at work, and that has been a struggle for me for years. Maybe it won’t last, but I’ll take it for now!

          Do you make bentos? Any suggestions?

          1. Yes Just Bento is the best! It was my inspiration too. I go in and out of bento phases, but when I’m into it I love researching different types of finger foods that I can then make a gazillion of one Sunday and freeze. Even non Japanese foods. I think the freezer stash was always the key for me in simplifying making the lunches. I just had to cook some rice and take some dinner leftovers then add a freezer dumpling, tofu squares, BBQ bun, frozen spinach or green beans, and some miso walnut paste, quick pickled vegetables etc. My favourite bento box is the shikiri box from Bento Land ( because it has so many little compartments, and I also love Bento&co online store. Now I wanna check out the Just Bento cookbook too!

            I really should get back into bento making. 🙂

  88. LW, I have no advice or resources, but I have boundless empathy and love. I too, cannot money. I, despite making more money than anyone I know, do not even live paycheck to paycheck because I eat into my overdraft so much my next pay is half gone before I get it.

    I took some very scary steps to address this last month. All steps to address money trouble are scary steps because of the pain and emotions tied to money. But you can do it. We can do it. It is a doable thing, and you can improve your situation. I wish you all the best.

  89. First, I’m the proud mom of Abigail Perry, whose book (“Frugality For Depressives: Money-Saving Tips For Those Who Find Life A Little Harder”) was mentioned above. I’d like to suggest that the letter-writer ask her local library to purchase a copy so that she and others can use it as a resource.

    Acknowledging your issues is a good start. That’s what my daughter did, after years of trying and failing to use the traditional frugal hacks. She writes about them frankly, and explains the ways they inspired her to create workarounds.

    Having experienced depression and anxiety myself, I know that the societal narrative is “Aw, suck it up, you whiner!” There simply isn’t enough help out there, and typical financial advice doesn’t always work for those whose lives aren’t typical.

    I wrote a book myself recently about specific frugal hacks that will help you make it through tough times. (Declining to share the title because it looks too promotional and that’s not what this site is about.) I would be happy to send a PDF to the Captain and then you could choose whether or not you want her to forward it to you.

    As evidenced by the tremendous outpouring of support here (which IS what this site is about!), people do want to help you. Count me among them.

  90. I come from a very poor background, with a mother who had some erratic spending habits (and who actually stole my identity and rang up thousands of dollars of debt in my name), and oddly enough, my husband’s mother is very bad with money, too, so we taught ourselves. It’s taken a lot of work, but we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t carry a CC balance and never get finance charges.

    It took me YEARS to break the habit of spending extra cash whenever I received any, because, hey, I can actually afford a fun thing now! I still have moments of guilt/panic when I buy a new outfit or something that I need, but that’s a side effect from being poor. We’re fortunate to be comfortable now, but I’d be lying if I said everything is awesome. (I’ve been stressing all day about us purchasing a replacement car, even though we need one. My brain is screaming DRIVE IT UNTIL IT DIES, but that’s just not good advice.)

    How we did it was by pulling our CCs, and then dealing with black marks. I fought to remove the accounts that my mother took out, illegally, in my name, and my husband had to deal with a collections account from something his mother did. We also were paying the minimums on our cards, which doesn’t help pay them off. I missed a few payments, candidly, and so did he. So … we bit the bullet and just started with paying down the highest APR cards first.

  91. I’m not a particularly organized person and I’ve never used a budget per se. What works for me is to get everything possible on debit so that at the end of every month I can get my statement and see what I spent and earned – how much did I spend total, and how much on different things. So then I can notice – hey this month I spent more than most months, this is what was different. Or, hey, it seems like month after month I spend a lot on groceries – if I made a bigger effort to buy things on sale and look for cheaper stuff it would actually save me a significant amount.

    It helps me find patterns and figure out which things I want to change, which things I wouldn’t really mind not spending for and which things are really important to me and I want to prioritize.

  92. I feel you, LW. I really really feel you. I’m going to second a lot of the advice here: find a way to track your spending (whatever system works for you); set up an auto-deduct if you can to establish an emergency fund (start with any amount you can conceivably manage–$5, $10, whatever) and then only use it for emergencies. (I would count needing to eat as an emergency.) Find things you love to do that are cheap and that you can “reward” yourself with. Here are my two additions to the conversation:

    Take it day by day, or even hour by hour. Things that are overwhelming to do in the long run are easier to do in the short run. Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes.
    Learn to cook well, if cooking is a possibility for you. There’s a huge difference in energy between cooking and not-cooking. Relative to that, the energy difference between cooking well and cooking passably is quite small. The more you like your own cooking, the more eating it will become a pleasurable experience. Develop some “comfort” recipes that are cheap and easy to make and that you think taste awesome. Me, I love a baked potato with “stuff” on it. Heck, I like a baked potato without stuff on it. I like Yukon Golds the best because you can do anything with them. Give me some potatoes, a some onions, maybe some garlic, some oil, salt and pepper, and I can make a mouth-watering pan fried dish. When leeks are affordable, I make a mean potato-leek soup without much more than potatoes, leeks, and a little butter. YMMV, but I really like cooking these meals because I know I’m going to enjoy them.

  93. As another paycheck to paycheck person who would run out of food money before the end of the month, this website honestly helped save my life: – it’s written by someone who has been there and gets it too. The prices are in £s but the recipes and tips should transfer well. A lot of the newer recipes are vegan but there should be something for everyone there,

  94. Not sure how my advice helps, I’m very lucky because (1) I work 30 hrs /week, out of which 10 fully flexible /overlapping even with my long commute so, on a decent hourly payment, ( 2) I never had any serious debt in my name, and I was lucky enough to have free uni education +scholarships and (3) I really enjoy cooking, but here are a few tidbits that helped me personally save money here and there.

    1. Writing down everything I spend for a month. Looking at it and identifying : ok, what is it that I spend a lot on?
    i) Are these things I actually enjoy? What do I enjoy about them? Could I get the same effect on the cheaper? (Ex : having friends over and cooking something nice instead of going out to a restaurant)
    ii) If not, is this about convenience? Less than stellar deals I’m still carrying through out of habit? Am I only spending on necessities?

    2. I gave myself a budget slightly below my expected monthly earnings, based pretty much on necessities only , with a little bit of leeway. If at any point (such as on my payday) my bank balance is anywhere above the monthly budget, the surplus goes straight into a savings account. For Important Things, or if due to unforeseen circumstances I’ve spent more than my budget, I can take money from savings, but then as soon as I get paid again & get a slightly above budget balance I put them back. Basically I use a savings account in the same way other people use planned overdraft. My savings haven’t grown much in the past few years but I maintain a decent balance.

    Now if you find food /groceries are a major expense for you, here’s what helped me :

    1. Packing my own lunches instead of eating out while at work (that actually can add up quite dramatically)

    2. “Recycling” meals : for example just now : I had roast chicken thighs a few days ago. I kept the bones with a bit of leftover meat on them, and today I put them in a pan with an onion and some root vegetables to make stock. All leftover meat, that I picked from the bones, went in the couscous salad for packed lunch tomorrow and tonight I ate some of the stock with dumplings. I froze the rest of the stock for later and the boiled vegetables will go in a cheese souflé later.

    3. Don’t cook by recipes ; improvise instead. During my broke grad student days I became an expert in cooking “whatever meat is discounted to clear, a la whatever cheap veggies go with it”.

  95. I’ve reread the original letter and note something that needs mentioning: Expect pushback. I’m looking in my crystal ball here. That financially strapped family that doesn’t know how to do money? Get ready for them to come crying. LW, it’s not going to happen overnight, but you’re going to use the resources mentioned here and get on track. You’re going to start to relax as your debt goes down and your enjoyment goes up. As this happens, your family is going to see a change in you. They may ask you what you’re doing. Keep in check your inclination to tell them about this great new plan and way of approaching money. No problem saying that you’re on a budget as long as you keep the explanation that brief, like one word, but when we’re excited about something that’s working for us and bringing us joy, it’s natural to want to talk about it and go into detail. Do that, and I guarantee you they’ll decide you have money now and are now the source of gifts and loans because you have money and they don’t and why are you being so mean that you won’t share. The pushback might take the form of inviting you to dinner at an expensive restaurant you’ve decided isn’t worth it, and when you refuse by saying that you’re enjoying home cooked meals more now, deciding that they’re eating at your place because you obviously haven’t got anywhere better to spend your money than feeding a family of 6 4 nights/week and besides didn’t you say you enjoyed it. Be prepared. You might even refer them to this column, but whatever you do, don’t try to make converts of them. It doesn’t work.

  96. I understand exactly the feeling you have, LW.

    A few years ago I had a huge car loan, massive amounts of student loan debt, credit card debt, no retirement savings (or any other savings) and I was barely able to make my monthly bills. I knew I needed to get out, but I had no idea where to start.

    I started following a financial blog targeted at people in their 20s who weren’t making tons of money. I found that a lot of the information out there was expecting me to be able to max out my 401K contributions, which was totally overwhelming.

    I started by tracking my spending and seeing where my money was going.

    I created a budget listing out what all of my monthly expenses were and the dates they were due, I use this spreadsheet to determine what gets paid from which paycheck so that I’m not late on bills.

    Once I felt secure that bills were getting paid on time I created a direct withdrawal from my checking into my savings to make a small bank account buffer, just in case I overdrew my account. I keep about $500 in this account to cover accidental overdrafts and any emergencies that I might need cash for right away.

    Gradually I started putting more and more into savings and opened an account at an online bank. I’m less tempted to touch this money since it’s harder to get to, but it’s there if I need it. I make my deposits directly into the savings account from my paycheck.

    I’ve been at it for a few years now and I’m still working on paying off my debt, but I’ve paid off a good portion of my credit card debt and I have some money in a 401(k). I was able to put enough away in savings to pay off my car loan a year early and I just took a vacation, the very first I’ve ever taken and paid for by myself (I’m 32).

    For me, it was definitely something that I had to break down into steps. Looking at it all at once was too overwhelming, but working on just one thing at a time until I felt stable and could take another step worked for me and I’m still working at it.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] Laura Doerr, that’s it, yes. The overwhelm, hence the need to start at the very beginning, break it down into tiny steps, and start with the very first one. Well said!

  97. Two little things that worked for me:

    1. When the urge to self-soothe by shopping hits (and I know from where I speak: I bought dozens of pairs of $80 sweatpants in the months after my mom died, whoops), I click “add to cart” on every single thing I crave, and then close the browser window when it’s time to “proceed to checkout.” With Amazon, everything stays in the cart, and I can go back the next day, move a bunch of stuff to a wishlist (or just delete if it’s really ridiculous), and then buy the stuff I might actually need or want. A large chunk of the time, I don’t end up buying anything. That short timeframe helps me sort the emotional spending from the stuff that’s worth it.

    2. Look for ways to get non-essentials to pay for themselves. For me, this looks like “I don’t want to give up weekly yoga, but I don’t want to pay $65 a month for it either. Does the yoga studio need something I can provide? Yes! They need someone to make fliers/clean yoga mats/build a spreadsheet/water the plants.” Getting into the habit of thinking “how can I get this to pay for itself?” instead of “can I afford this?” is a lot less stressful to me.

    Speaking of habits, one of the cool things I’ve found with my own financial journey is that little habits add up to big values over time. Not just monetarily (though saving $10 a month by switching to a different cell plan has its place), but emotionally. A thing that started as “I want to spend less money on eating out” turned into “it’s so much more fun when I invite people over for a potluck.”

    So let yourself take it slow and let it build. And know you are awesome for even thinking about how to get better at money!

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] jenscaffidi: Right?!? When we catch that critical moment between “need to self-soothe” and the action that comes immediately after, we’re sailing! Your strategy in relation to shopping online, as well as the others you shared, is awesome!

  98. This is kinda me – very, quite close to me. I’m still in school, so I don’t have to worry about the debt until mid next year, and I’m living with a family member, so… But spending because I can spend when I’ve the money… I hate when I do it, but I do.

    The thing is I used to be so very good at saving when I was a kid and *really* didn’t have any monetary worries. I came from a lower middle class (I guess? I never felt that way? I’m only labeling it as such in objective retrospect) childhood, living with a single mother who had a disease that could sometimes be debilitating, but I don’t know where these bad spending habits are coming from??

    I’m always like, ‘If I could just get a head start, of like, xyz dollars, then I’d be good’, but like, I have had that opportunity, and it all went to the wind (or CC debt). Soon I’ll be adulting all on my own, and don’t, DO NOT!!!, want to keep these kinds of habits. Because they’re tolerable right now, I can somewhat bounce back from them, but when every financial thing will be in my hands, I know for sure I’ll be down the creek without a paddle, without a boat, without any swimming skills.

    I’m sorry. I didn’t contribute anything at all. But thank you for asking this question, and I hope the answer and the advice in the comments get you closer to where you want to be!

  99. I want to back up Clary a few comments up because there is a TON of good advice in this post and comments, but I’ve known too many people who’ve followed all this advice and done all the right things and are still drowning, because they are surrounded by other people who have poor money skills.

    You finally saved up an emergency fund but end up spending it on buying your boyfriend a new laptop because he can’t afford it himself. You were about to pay off the car loan early, but the roommate you’ve know for ten years needs you to cover their rent this month. You spend the money you were going to use to pay off that ambulance bill on your mom’s cat’s x-rays. Your friends finally talk you into joining them for that week at the beach that you’re all going to have to put on your credit cards, because friend time is so important. Your sister doesn’t want to ask the parents to help with the unexpected taxes so she comes to you instead, and there goes your refund money. You send your entire fun-for-me fund to the internet person across the country who needs to get out of the apartment with the cockroaches and black mold.

    You don’t mention anything like that specifically, LW, but you mention your parents also had money problems, so it’s really, really worth taking a look at the people you’re close to, and looking at the ways they might actively reinforce your bad habits or screw up your plans, and to work that into your strategies.

    It might be that they have issues and can’t stand the idea that you’re figuring it out when they can’t and actively or subconsciously sabotage you, and it might be that they’re drowning and think you’re going to be their savior when you’re still learning to swim. But it might also not be about you at all, just that they’re still bad at this – the person who asks you for money the month you finally saved something up might be the person who asks every month and this is just the first time you’ve had anything to give them; the friends who talk you into splurging are the same ones who have always talked you into splurging. And it might be that they just really do need the help and you’re the one who has to give it; there’s only so much budgeting you can do when your partner is having major health issues, for example.

    Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer for this, except: don’t let it blindside you. That might mean actively including “Mom’s next crisis” in your budget and keeping it separate from your emergency-fund-for-you. That might mean Dump Him (note how many success stories above include ‘my new partner was really good with money’ and how few of them include the opposite.) That might mean practicing saying “no”, saying “If you want me to be able to come along we’ll have to be in my budget”, saying “I have to put on my own oxygen mask first, I am sorry”, telling yourself “the money for the savings/debt fund is just as inaccessible as if I’d already spent it, and that applies to giving it away, too, even if they need it more than me.”

    It might mean having to decide that as long as you want keep this person in your life your money situation will never be stable and that’s okay too – it can help a lot to realize it’s not you being a failure, it’s a choice you made that you value those people over your financial security.

    1. Yes! I’ve seen so many people sabotaged by their friends/family, both because they genuinely want to help and because they’re so used to lurching from crisis to crisis as being “normal” that it doesn’t strike them as odd that everybody they know needs their assistance.

    2. I learned the hard way not to give other people money I did not have. In my early twenties, I thought it was my duty as a friend to give money to friends when they asked for it without expectation of repayment. As a result of my stupidity, I had to declare bankruptcy a while back. Since then, I have never given money to anyone unless I can afford it. I also NEVER let anyone know my ATM pin or use my card. Now my credit is fine. I keep other people’s hands far, far away from my accounts.

      1. [Guest Poster Here:] commensally, goddessoftransitory, and jennylinskyb: YES! This piece gets a lot of weight in my book because it is one of the primary pitfalls, especially in caring, compassionate people. I know it was my own main one—I gave away my money as fast as it came in, was chronically broke, and ended up on the streets as a result. Captain Awkward’s advice in various posts over the years, offering scripts to deal with unboundaried companions around money stuff, is always spot on. All of your words here, too, are likewise.

        1. Thank you! I had to learn to tell some people, “No, I am not letting you borrow my debit card. No, I don’t have any money to lend you.” I did not care about being polite to these people, because if they cut me off for not being an ATM, I was better off without them.

  100. LW, I have nothing but love for you – money is emotionally fraught, and financial literacy is something that, in my experience, you’re either born learning or end up learning the hard way. I learned the hard way, and I suspect that’s where you’re at too.

    The concrete steps that worked for me were these: taking out a set amount of cash per paycheck, and using that *and only that* to pay for things like gas and groceries – it’s a lot easier for me to wind up overdrafted when my money’s plastic. The other was to snowball my debt payments: I took a look at the balance on each, and focused on paying off the smallest one by moving any amount above the minimum I’d been paying to the rest onto that smallest one. When that one was paid off, I took the *total amount* of money I’d been throwing at it, and applied it to the next highest balance. The third was to begin putting a tiny bit toward savings each month, and then eventually each paycheck. Over about two years, I was able to pay off some of the worst debt, and establish the very beginning of a real savings account to boot.

    Of course, life happened, and as much as I know intellectually that savings are for emergencies like medical expenses and unanticipated vehicle maintenance and bigger stuff like moving … well, let’s just say we’re basically back at zero, and I’m not really happy about it but there’s nothing to do but to keep on keepin’ on. We’re back to using cash to pay for groceries, setting aside a bit each month in savings, and snowballing those ridiculous medical bills.

    Best of luck to you. You’ve got this.

  101. The has great articles about money and life. The writers on the site acknowledge that money is never just money. It is tied up with family and emotions and weird things you thought were true when you were a kid. Reading that site has increased my financial literacy.

  102. One of my worst habits is buying food I don’t need – just popping into the shops on my way home, and oh, that looks nice, that’s reduced to clear, why not? The thing which has really helped me to get a handle on that was doing Live Below The Line. (If you’re not aware of it, it’s a charitable project where you spend 5 days spending a minimal amount – equivalent to the amount the world’s poorest people have to live off – on food and drink. I believe the US amount is $1.50 per day).

    It helped me because it showed I could break the habit of overspending on food, and since it was only for 5 days it was an achievable goal – there wasn’t the pressure to change totally forever, just a commitment to change for a few days. And, because it was for a good cause (I was being sponsored, and also donated what I would normally have spent on food over that period) there was an external, positive incentive to stick with it. Since doing that, I’ve been able to set a (higher, but still fairly small) food budget per week and actually maintain it.

  103. My best advice, since you say you have a decent salary already, is to automate your spending as much as possible. E.g. Your rent is the same each month, yeah? Set up an automatic withdrawal for that amount as soon as you get paid, either to your real estate agent ir to a seperate account if they have set rent days. This means you no longer need to make any decisions about keeping money for rent or spending it, because you have already made that decision. if you can set up automatic payments for bills, rent, some savings, then you can keep the rest as a slush fund you can do whatever with. Like, you spend out your slush fund and can’t afford a restaurant? No worries, past you has arranged grocery money.

    I really like this approach for my money management because it doesn’t involve a lot of effort. I have made my good financial decisions already and they take care of themselves now. I don’t have to spend time and energy budgeting.

  104. My bank has a “bank the rest” feature. Every time I use my debit card, the bank automatically rounds up my purchase to the nearest $5 and puts the difference into a daily-interest savings account. My husband’s been very ill and his income has been very spotty as a result, and that daily-interest account has provided a bridge for us a number of times. If $5 is too much, you can choose to round up to the nearest $1, but I don’t find I miss the extra money, and it really helps. The other thing that has worked for us is that we’ve arranged with the bank to do an automatic transfer of $100 into a (different) daily-interest savings account, every month. There have been a few months when we’ve had to transfer it right back out again, but when things are good, that money does accumulate, and it provides a contingency fund for moments when the car blows up, or the hot water heater stops working, or [insert crisis here].

    We were pretty surprised about how much money we were spending on little nothings — newspapers, coffee, lunches and dinners out, going to the movies — it all added up to a lot. I was, for instance, spending $3 every day for coffee at the local coffee shop. So that was $21 every week, or about $80 every month! Eighty dollars! For coffee! Now I make coffee at home and bring it to work in a go-cup, and not only am I saving at least $60 every month, I’m drinking higher-quality coffee. Ideally, I would be putting that $60 into my daily-interest savings account, but I’m not that smart.

    I guess the theme is that little things that happen while we aren’t really looking — the odd $3 for coffee, or the odd couple of dollars the bank puts into my savings — are what make the difference for us, for good or ill. And the reality is, none of the changes have affected our lives in any significant way, except that we have that emergency money (or fun money, sometimes).

    Good for you, LW, for recognizing the problem and being willing to take steps to fix it!

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] Miki, you said you are “not that smart,” a silliness which filled me with a joyful laugh! Thanks for that 🙂 And: You are SO SMART. I just love that you found and honoured the way that works best for YOU. Maybe it’s not moving the money into a high-interest account, but it’s a whole lotta other really intelligent moves to get that $60 difference happening. Right on!

  105. I’ll share my money management strategy, in hopes it will help:

    1) Make a list of all the money you receive each month (or two weeks, or week. But most bills are paid monthly, so I find it’s helpful to add up my monthly income so I have an apples-to-apples comparison). If you don’t know exactly what you will receive, use your best conservative estimate. Meaning – about what you will receive 60% of the time. If it’s a range, pick the low end of the range. This should be the amount of your paychecks; don’t mess with gross vs. deductions vs. net vs. whatever. Keep it simple.

    2) Make a list of all the cash that has to go out the door every month. Rent, cable, Netflix, utilities (Just guess – look at your last couple bills), phone, payments for student loans or insurance. Don’t do food or gas here yet. That comes later.

    3) Subtract all the payments (#2) from the cash (#1). This is what you have left.

    4) If you want you can budget for food and entertainment and gas and whatever, but that doesn’t work for me. If I try to budget any further, I sink into the abyss of detail and dividing receipts between “food” and “supplies” …. not good times. I just take my “what I have left” for the month, divide it by two, and that’s how much I have per paycheck. For everything. Whenever I spend money on anything, I just keep a running total on a text file on my phone.

    Steps #1-#4 are about information. If you do these, you will never be surprised at your financial state. If you are, then something is wrong and you need to investigate. Maybe there’s a charge in your account that shouldn’t be there, or something else.

    5) Your “what I have left” number is your break-even number. If you can consistently spend less than your break-even number, you can make more payments on debt or save up for something you want. If you spend more than your break-even number, then it’s time to look at what to cut. If you’ve been doing step #4, you should have easy access to what you have been spending so hopefully it will be relatively easy to figure out what to cut.

    Good luck!

  106. At the end of each day, after you have recorded all your expenditures, note down how you were feeling/what was happening at the time. This way your data will tell you not only where your money goes, but also why it goes. This will help you plan your strategies. Let’s say you notice that you frequently make impulse purchases after you talk to Bob. Maybe you choose to limit your time with him, or maybe you can plan a self care activity for just afterward. It’s easier to follow a plan than it is to realise you need to care for yourself and decide what to do in the moment. Plus, if you see a therapist, you will have a list of things you need to explore.

    On a strictly financial, a debt consolidation agent can help you negotiate better interest rates so more of your payments go to the principle instead of being eaten up by the interest on your debt. This helps reverse the debt spiral.

    I hope this helps.

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] Kimbeaux, you have really effectively nailed the reason I urge people to write the expenses down, in the moment. Later, we track so that we can “know what we have” but at the beginning, the magic in recording each expenditure is this piece. In noting the outlay, we became magically aware of our emotions, our internal stories, our psychological defenses. THIS is the key strategy inside #5. You speak it well 🙂 Thank you!

  107. Hello, LW. I haven’t seen anyone mention Springboard, which is a link I actually found on this website in an earlier column. I called them when I was at my wits’ end, having just had my bank take $300 away from me in overdraft fees. I’m a freelance musician and I live in an expensive city. Also, I’M DISORGANIZED.

    I put that in caps because a lot of great financial advice depends on organization, and the ability to keep that up. Like going on a diet, for me it was a constant struggle. I’d follow the great advice to write every expense down in an app but I’d forget and then abandon it. I also don’t have a steady income – freelance work is feast or famine. And I have student debt.

    Springboard, and actual therapy, has helped me to make MAJOR progress financially. I’m not rich. I still have debt. I still don’t really have savings. But, I’m handling it now, and that actually makes me feel good and proud, because I wasn’t before. I’m making slow and steady progress.

    When I called Springboard, they asked me a lot of different things about my situation, and I told them everything without trying to cry. The man on the phone was kind to me, and he made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and he also helped me to see that it wasn’t as terrible as it all felt.

    He sent me links to a simple spreadsheet on their website – totally infancy- and told me if I could to start tracking my expenses. If you know where it’s going, he said, you have CONTROL. Even if you’re still spending and it’s all going away. You now have CONTROL, you know what’s happening, that that is a major, major factor in controlling the terror you’re feeling right now.

    He then evaluated the money I did have coming, which wasn’t much, we discussed my deficits and surpluses – I had more of the latter than I realized. We looked at my debts and discussed the first ones to tackle, which were the ones with the quickest, highest amounts of interest – credit cards.

    This is a slow process. I’m not perfect at this. Sometimes I forget to track things, for a whole month, more, but I do go back and do it. Since last year, I’ve now accomplished the following:

    – I’ve raised my credit to a “good” status
    – I’ve paid off two credit cards, and am paying the balance of the last one, on-time, more than the minimum amount
    – I cancelled my useless, $100/month gym membership
    – I started cooking more at home, and making sure I lived an environment which would make me want to do this, meaning clean. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars that I used to spend on coffee – and I now enjoy the morning ritual of waking up to make it, relaxing by my sunny window. I used to roll out of bed, hate myself for being late, and buy a coffee and muffin at Starbucks. Every. Day.
    – I downloaded all the apps to parking meters because I was always getting tickets and not paying them on time and then spending hundreds – literally hundreds – of dollars
    – I have started shopping around for grants and fellowships that will let me do what I want as an artist
    – In therapy, I worked on, and am still working on, the cycle of hating myself for what I consider “failures,” financially and organizationally. A LOT of unexpected baggage was attached to it all. It was hard. But it was crucial. For the first time in my life – I’m in my thirties – I feel like I’m beginning to have control.

    I’m not perfect yet and I think it’s a long road. But I believe in you LW, because I’m doing it. And there was a time I never could have ever, ever, believed in myself.

    Love to you

  108. I highly recommend Geneen Roth’s Lost And Found:One Woman’s Story Of Losing Her Money And Finding Her Life. Her previous work centered more on emotional eating and how it connects to how we love, and I’ve read and liked them all, but this book really spoke to me.

    It centers on how deeply invested she was in remaining “unconscious” about money–that is, deliberately not focusing on how she spent, how to invest, etc. That worked fine until it turned out she invested with Bernie Madoff.

    Losing her life savings (luckily she and her husband still had income streams so they didn’t lose their house) forced her to think about how much she didn’t want to think about money, how deeply money represented love and power and control in her family, how astounding it was that she and all her female friends, all educated, intelligent, aware women, could not have a five minute discussion about money without breaking out in hives.

    This book really moved me and made me uncomfortably aware of how much I HATE thinking about what money is, what it does, what it means. But it also made me realize that I didn’t do anything “wrong” in feeling that way, that thinking about and concentrating on money doesn’t make me bad or shallow or Donald Trump. (Talk about somebody who’s invested their emotional life in their net worth…) Well, well worth a read.

  109. So much great advice here! I now have some new things I want to try out to better manage my finances. I think the best advice everyone else has already said in one way or another: find the money management methods and tools that work for YOU, find the things that help manage the thoughts and emotions surrounding money (so much guilt, judgement, shame, etc!), and forgive yourself for spending money on things you think you shouldn’t buy, but really need and/or help you in some way.

    What I would add: keep in mind the crazy, consumerist culture (very much a thing here US, but seems to be growing in many cultures) and the subtle cultural push to spend money you don’t have on things you don’t actually need to demonstrate that you’re a “real person” with social value. It operates at an almost unconscious level, and is absolutely insidious. The results include: eating out too often and for too much money in order to be part of the the work group or the friend group, spending money on activities you would normally not do alone for social reasons with aforementioned groups, (too much) money spent on obligatory birthday and holiday gifts because it’s expected, the upsell on just about every product and service in existence, and marketing and advertising designed to convince us that we would be better people with better lives if we just bought XYZ.

    All of that is very difficult to minimize, let alone escape from. And the more ingrained a certain money-spending tradition is in a culture, the more pushback you get for not complying with social norms, even if you literally cannot afford to. It’s hard to deal with, even for those good at managing money. I was about to say “good luck” to you, LW, but a better sentiment would be: “May the Finacial Force be with you” — with all of us, really!

    1. [Guest Poster Here:] AndTheRest, this is such an important piece! That cultural push to spend more, more, more—to fit in, to facilitate “spontaneous” meetups, to show our care and love. We absolutely have the option to do the reverse, too: encourage and support each other to live in alignment with our own values, while still having fun, connecting, playing. I find most people to be quite receptive to my “slowed down” ways. If we can summon the courage to say, “I don’t have internet at home, would you be willing to text me?” groovy people are awesome about it. So much of the money stuff is about our relationship and comfort with ourselves, healthy boundaries with others, and active support for each other’s limits. Great comment!

  110. Great comments all around. Nothing much to add, other than that I too use Mint, and that despite the off-and-on bugs — you get what you pay for with a free product! — it’s been great. But this got me thinking about what a weird narrative we have in U.S. mainstream media culture around financial advice. People like Suze Orman, whose advice is often solid, but often falls on the overly piecemeal end of the scale (“Can I afford X item, yes or no”) not to mention is given in such a strident way that if you are already in a fragile place, well, whoa. Money often stands in for a lot of other difficult things in our lives, and working on how we handle that is not so simple and involves emotional labor.

    I do read Michelle Singletary’s columns and chats in the Washington Post, and she can be a bit no-nonsense too, but she gets a lot of big-picture questions like this and, I think, deals with them in a thoughtful way.

  111. LW, I’m sure you’re feeling super overwhelmed, so this recommendation is for frugal food options only. is a blog with some really, really cheap meal options, just poke around the pages at the top. The author is British, so the prices are in pounds and there are a bunch of posts about British politics, but they are easy to ignore! This is for when you have to stretch very little money into enough meals to make it those last few days. I hope it helps!

  112. Cash, Credit, Debit? And debt. And debt compounding into more debt.

    The thing about debt is that interest payments eat up your income like there’s no tomorrow.

    Dumping a bunch of debt into a no-interest-for-several-months credit card and then NOT USING THAT CARD but paying off $X every month can be a real life-saver for many people. Because paying between $50 and $500 just on interest means you still owe as much as you owed last month, and where is all the money going???

    If you can pay amount-owed/months-of-no-interest each month, you might actually end up with no interest left and almost no debt. (cue Disney’s Cinderella Stepmom smirking and saying if…) That is, if you don’t accumulate more debt on this or other cards. But at least you’ve got X months of no debt….

    I don’t know if that will work for the LW but it really has worked for a lot of people.
    Caveat, check the rules to make sure X months of debt don’t kick in all at once if you don’t pay up on time. (good grief, never heard of that before! many thanks to Moth for pointing that out.)

  113. The key to changing any habit for me personally has been to do a short period (3ish months) of intense tracking before making a plan. Tracking every little thing, but without making any major changes or getting judgemental during the tracking period. Data is important! Some good data on your monthly spending + professional debt counseling (like other commenters suggested) has the potential to tame the chaos and the shame-spiral, giving you some clarity and a path forward that’s specifically tailored to you.

    I also have to give a shout-out to couponing. I mainly do it as a hobby, but it’s enabled me to pretty much eliminate the cost of basic toiletries from my budget, and greatly reduce the cost of stuff like paper products, first aid items, and certain foods. It can be a trap for some people because you spend a lot of time thinking about shopping and going to stores, but if it works it really works.

    1. I tried couponing for a few months, but I never had the time and energy to get enough out of it to make it worthwhile. Aldi’s is where I make my stand- you can get almost everything dirt cheap there, and they have a lot of stuff for special diets (gluten free, vegan, nut free, etc). Recently, they’ve begun carrying ingredients from different cultural traditions too. It’s generally good quality stuff, and you get some pleasant surprises. Last week I picked up a $2.99 chunk of Transylvanian cave aged cheese that probably would have been double that easy at the grocery store, and I spent about $26 on food for the week on top of that. And on top of everything else, they pay their people a living wage, at least around here. Gotta bring your own bag, though.

  114. I love Mary Hunt’s Debt-Proof Living website. Helpful, folksy, non-judgmental. A tiny bit religious but not overwhelmimg.

    Good luck and be kind to yourself! It makes perfect sense that you don’t know how to do finances. Who even teaches us? Nobody, that’s who.

  115. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I work as mortgage recovery specialist for a bank and deal with customers from when they enter collections till they either recover or we repossess. Financial counsellors are the best thing in this scenario. In 90% of cases you don’t need additional income but redistribution of income is necessary. The thing is money is a terrifying feel embarrassed and isolated and feel like admitting you’re still struggling means you are a failure. Please know that people on my end never judge you. If you are struggling in other situation you go to someone who can take an objective view and whenry it comes to money most of us can’t be objective. Speak to a counsellor and they will help not join a budgeting program that you pay anday it handles your money for you.they are only good for people who are not struggling and make things worse for people who are-looking at you my budget. Also please be very wary of the snowball method.People following this method incorrectly are the biggest cause of repossessions. The idea is good make your minimum payments on all debts and my extra payments on the smallest debt clear it than move to the next in line. Most people focus on paying the small debt without making their payments on all accounts. In addition your minimum payments may be different if your account is behind. Talk to your providers and if you are a polite and decent human being they will go out of their way to help you.I have manged to get whole mortgages written for struggling customers because they were lovely people.their is no harm is asking for fee removalue or lower interest and if you are kind it will very likely work.also never take a payday loan- they are the Umbridge of the finance world

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