Debt-Freedom & Back to Basics: Budget Dates

DH = dear husband

It was 3:12 am one early morning last week, and I’d woken up. By 3:40, it was clear that sleep just wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I reached over in the dark to pick up the novel I had almost finished reading, and I walked out of the room as quietly as possible – not wanting to disturb DH’s sound slumber.

When I turned on the lamp by the guest room bed, I realized I’d brought the wrong book. Instead of The High Mountains of Portugal by Jann Martel, I had Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover in my hands. It’s the book that gave us the wake-up call, the inspiration, and the steps that DH and I needed to get ourselves out of chronic debt. We had both listened to the CD version and read the print version in May of 2012, and now that we were approaching total debt-freedom in September of 2018, I had taken the book out again – a sort of “This is how it all started” looking back thing – and clearly left it beside my novel.

Would I go back and get the right book? I decided not to. I continued re-reading Ramsey’s book from where I’d left off.

Budget basics

“Most people concentrate on the urgent in our culture,” I read in chapter 4. “We worry about our health and focus on our money only after they’re gone … John Maxwell has the best quote on budgeting I have ever heard … ‘A budget is people telling their money where to go instead of wondering where it went.’ You have to make your money behave, and a written plan is the whip and chair for the money tamer.”

And then from one of the featured testimonials towards the end of the chapter, “We have made budgeting and planning our future together enjoyable and fun. It’s like dating again!”

Time to go back to the basics

I don’t know what time it was when I turned off the lamp and sleep finally came to me, but I do know that before drifting off, I recognized that I hadn’t reached for the “wrong book” after all. Ironically, with our total debt-freedom only weeks away, DH and I were off our game. Was it a case of summer vacation sending our money-smarts on vacation too? Or were we getting sloppy and complacent because the finish line was just around the corner? We needed to get back to basics.

Sure enough, in the days to come, DH made reference to the abysmal state of our finances.  Ugh! This was all too familiar – the speechless incredulity at how much money was leaving our account and how little was left. As if we were bystanders to it all and not the ones in control of it! Hadn’t we been dealing with this very issue for the past 6+ years? Why the resurgence of what we absolutely didn’t want? “A budget is people telling money where to go instead of wondering where it went.” What were we doing “wondering where it went”?

Our history of “budget date” fails

I think that at some unspoken level, DH and I figured we had “graduated” out of the need to budget. But clearly we hadn’t. Clearly, we still needed the “whip and chair” of a written plan – a “money tamer” vigilance.

“I want us to meet tonight,” I said to DH Thursday afternoon. “We need a budget date. What time works for you?” DH accepted, and 8:30 was to be our time. A bit of a stiff interaction, but “budget date” was probably a trigger for us both – because we’d never managed to make the “date” part happen.

In 2015, 3 years into our journey out of debt, I wrote a post about my frustration with our “budget dates”: “We knew this was going to be a ‘clean up the mess’ budget meeting. And it ended up being – well – messy. I won’t go into details, but at a particularly low point, I said, ‘Now you’re just being an a**hole.’  As soon as we had finished with the budget, I marched upstairs in stony silence to get ready for church (the irony does not escape me), and when DH came up to do the same, we just looked at each other and laughed. When will we get this budget meeting thing right?!”

Getting it right

Thursday evening, I wanted things to be different. Budget dates of the past had always involved us huddling over a computer spreadsheet in DH’s office space. This time, there would be no computer, and we would meet in our living room. I poured two drinks. I dimmed the lights and lit a candle. DH chuckled when he saw it all, but he sat down like a good sport … and we stared at each other awkwardly.

With a pointed effort to reach that essential balance between civility and transparency, I said that I first wanted to discuss the long-term. We’d been following a plan, and we were close to enjoying the culminating success of it – with our September mortgage payoff only weeks away –  and we needed a new plan for the next chapter. We laid out our priorities:

  •  continued investment for retirement
  • filling up our emergency fund (depleted from the recent demise of our ’99 Dodge Caravan and subsequent purchase of a new-to-us vehicle)
  • a full-on sale-prep-reno plan for our home over the next few years
  • more generous giving
  • more discretionary money for us

We decided upon the basics of our budget moving forward on all counts. It was good to give dollar-amount definition to everything!

Next, we faced our current mess. What would we do to deal with it? A mortifying thing, but we got it figured out. Throughout our discussions, I remained on the look-out for rising tensions, and when they surfaced, I very intentionally avoided reaction – instead choosing to respond with both respect and strength. DH must have done the same – because neither of us gave way to irritation, and we capped it all off with a toast to our future.

That’s verging on romantic, isn’t it? Is it possible that we’ve finally got it right? And that included in the future we toasted will be bona fide budget dates?


Do you keep a written budget? Have you ever thought you had “graduated” from the need to keep a budget? Have you ever tried a budget date? Your comments are welcome.


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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Our budgeting spreadsheet has gotten a free pass the last 2 months with the move and all. Starting this week, we’re back to tracking spending and making sure we’re still staying in the lines of our budget. It’s easy to put it off, see it as something negative, and generally avoid it, but if you do like you did and make it a more positive setting and keep a non-reactionary mindset while discussing it, I think it’s a good way to defuse any built up tensions.

    We sort of keep a written budget… Meaning we aren’t as hardcore as we used to be, but we know what things “should” be costing us. Now that we’ve moved and have new house, new utilities bills to get used to, new grocery stores to adjust to, and more, we’re back dealing with things tighter. Also, we’ll be down to one income in 2 more months so we need to make sure we’re good to go with that from a spending standpoint as well.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Mr. SSC. I know that MMM and the Frugalwoods don’t budget, so it’s good to know that another FIRE type (or FFLC type:) does budget. You really do have a lot of change going on, and I can see why you’d want to get “hardcore” again – at least until you’re more settled. All the best with this amazing transition you and your family are taking on!

  • Once I get settled with my move, I’ll really have to go back to budgeting basics. It gets blown out of the water with moving. So many things add up. ugh! I see a lot of people doing the whole thing about worrying about money and health after it’s gone. So true, and then it’s harder to get back at that point.

    • I find our budgeting basics get “blown out of the water” whenever something disrupting happens – whether it’s positive or negative. A move is hugely disrupting, so I understand where you’re at. All the best in your move and in figuring out your new money-management for your next chapter!

  • After repeatedly asking my wife to sit with me to do the budget when we got paid only to be groaned at, I would try telling her what I was trying to do. 2 weeks later queue arguments along the lines of “why do you always do the money and never involve me” or “when did we agree this?”. Now we sit down twice a week and discus our budget in front of us and there are no more petty squabbles!

    • That must have been frustrating to hear those arguments after you’d tried to meet – but it sounds like you’ve resolved the problem. Honestly, if you think of a trajectory from the stubborn-lack-of-communication mode that you were dealing with, you just might have saved your marriage by proactively confronting it and reaching a solution. Well done! Too many couples avoid the messiness of relationship – which seems to surface big time when it comes to managing money. Thanks for your comment, Tom!

  • Congrats on “getting it right”! My wife and I definitely have a budget (how can you graduate from a budget unless there’s no more money?) and we have regular budget “meetings”, but I wouldn’t call them dates. In fact we had one yesterday that should have been a cinch…after paying off the car and finding out I had a small pension, we have more money to allocate. Yay! But after going over our list of what could be done with that money, and estimating the cost of some of those elements, we stalled out having a disagreement on how soon things to do in the short term would actually be. Tensions rose and we decided to meet again another time. I guess we still need to figure out how to make it a date.

    • Thanks for that, Gary! There’s a comfort in knowing we’re not the only ones who sometimes still have to deal with unpleasant disagreements about the budget. You were wise to leave it until another day. And it’s interesting to note that your better financial position – with less debt and an additional stream of passive income – didn’t make your next-step decisions easier to make. There’s a real hurdle involved in adjusting to a new normal – even if that new normal is positive. I hope that you and your wife manage to come to an agreement when you try again.

  • I wish it was easier to be proactive than reactive. Easier said than done. Glad you are seeing the warning signs. We do have a budget in a spreadsheet but don’t follow it exactly every month. I don’t think we’ll ever graduate from needing a budget or keeping a close eye on our money. The discretionary money is important for everyone and certainly for couples. You never want a purchase to spark a raised eyebrow or worse even a fight.

    • Thanks Brian. I don’t think we’ll ever graduate from needing to keep a budget either – and that’s not a bad thing! It just sort of slipped off our priorities without us really noticing – until our money got messy. Ugh! So back to budgeting basics for us – hopefully with a continuation of that proactive look-out for warning signs – and hopefully with the “date” part of budget dates 🙂

  • We never have the energy to do a sitdown talk like this these days, and that was never really our style for some reason, so we do snippets of catching up. I text PiC minor updates of our status (no more spending this month, X amount of spending is ok, doing well on Y savings, etc) and where we are in relation to our goals. He doesn’t have the whole picture but he trusts me to steer us correctly overall and follows my guidance for spending so we’re never totally out of control. We have bad months where the higher spending is unavoidable of course but I tell him so and that we have to adjust for it the next few months.

    I give the big picture perspective as needed but he’s pretty disinterested in the medium view details. Since he has no objections to my spending guidance, he can afford to be! 🙂

    • I think we would have had a hard time managing to have sit-down budget meetings when our kids were young. For us, it would have been worth it though. Your system clearly works for you, and all of the ingredients are there: communication, a high level of awareness, shared details, transparency, trust … Does PiC ever propose a modification to your plans? I actually hope that he does – simply because I had to learn to do that and it was a good thing.

      • He surely must, it just doesn’t stand out in my memory. Probably because it’s generally a non-event if he wants us to adjust something and not a huge fight like it might have been in the early days when we had less well formed trust and clarity on common goals. Back then I would have been (wrongly) affronted at his gall for questioning my judgment 😀

        • Thanks, Revanche. We’ve had to work through a similar change in relationship pattern. And you’re right – it has to do with trust and clarity. I’m glad it’s a non-event now. I believe we’re well on our way in that direction too.

  • We’ve tried having a monthly budget meeting for about two months and felt like it wasn’t the right format for us. However, we do check in periodically about changes to our annual budget. I think because we share a similar financial personality–frugal & spreadsheet-loving–we don’t have a lot of conflict about it. However, it would be good to have more structure about how often to discuss updates.

    • Hmmmm… Debt-free in your early 30s on a single income? I think that whatever system you’re using is working just fine 🙂 And more structure is very hard to achieve with an infant on the scene. The need for different degrees of structure makes me think of friends who have lost weight with Weight Watchers and then needed to continue the program to maintain their healthy new weight. We need to “continue the program” with our finances. Thanks, Kalie. All the best as your husband returns to work and your older children return to school.

  • I have had similar issues with my wife. Fortunately she is both frugal and a hard worker. But, she hates having the budget or really any financial discussion. I caught the FIRE bug in earnest a few years ago, about half way into our marriage, and in the last year, she has started to come around. What I generally do is just to handle it, with one question here, or one there when things come up. Lately though, I think since I have been blogging, she has started to find a genuine interest. We are actually spending time in front of the computer. Granted, I only can hold her attention for about 20 minutes, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish in that time.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gen X FIRE. Interesting that even a frugal spouse hated to budget. I have linked my own previous dread of budgets and tracking to a desire to keep my head in the sand and continue spending thoughtlessly – but perhaps it’s not so simple. It’s great that your blogging as stirred up a greater interest in your wife, and that this interest has drawn her towards “budget dates.” I wonder if candles and chocolate would get you beyond that 20 minute threshold 🙂

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