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Reader Case Study: “Help! Where’s all my Money Going?!”

Last updated by on December 20, 2012

A friend of mine (and loyal reader), “TC”, sent me an email with an interesting proposition for a new post: review a reader’s finances, give suggestions, and open up a forum for other readers to chime in and learn.

It sounded like a great idea to me, one that I’ve been toying with for a while. I just needed a little kick in the pants. And that came in the form of him volunteering to be the first victim… er, I mean, case. TC needed a little kick in the pants himself, you see.

So we had a fairly detailed exchange, I asked him to fill out a copy of my free budget spreadsheet, and everything started coming together.

And now, I’ll share his financial picture with you, give my thoughts, and encourage yours in the comments as well.

If feedback on this becoming a new series of posts is positive, I may open this up to other readers. So please leave your thoughts/feedback in the comments, and if you have interest in becoming a future case, add me to your circle on Google+ and send me a note (hey, do that anyways, even if you don’t want to be in a study!).

Here’s TC’s background:

G.E. –
As you know, I have a wife and two young kids and we just moved into a new home. I want to get myself out of debt and begin investing with my monthly savings so that I can breathe a little easier.  For the last 3 months I have felt like I had a cinder block around my legs while I was swimming (financially speaking).  All of that pressure has been due to a move/rehab projects.  Based on what I am seeing in my budget, I should be in a better situation than what I feel like I am currently in.  One of our largest struggles is sticking to a budget.  We tend to eat out more often than I would like because we haven’t gone grocery shopping, or (insert excuse here).
Ultimately, I know that being financially independent by the age of 40 is certainly within the realm of possibility, but I need help to get started.  I don’t feel like I have truly gotten a good start.

Here’s what my monthly finances look like:

  • Take-Home Income: I bring home $3900/month (after taxes, insurance, and retirement), I also receive an annual bonus of $5K-8K, and my wife brings in about $2000/month (after taxes).  Note: My employer match is 100% up to 6% of my salary, I currently put 10% in the 401K.
  • Mortgage: $955/month – Currently owe: $134K Current value approx. $155K.  It’s a 30yr fixed 3.38% no PMI. Note: moving where we did; our car insurance has been cut in half and the property taxes halved as well.
  • Home Insurance: $67.00
  • Life Insurance : $65.00. $250K policy on my wife and $300K policy on me.
  • Auto Insurance: $121.00
  • Auto Loan: $569.00 – 2007 Chrysler Town and Country (owe $7K) and 2012 Ford Fiesta (owe $16K).  The van is necessary due to family size and activity, but I admit we could drive a cheaper car.  Going to one car is most likely out of the question though due to our schedules and transportation needs (I have done my homework here).
  • Student Loan: $165.00. Balance of $14K. We are currently paying $500/month toward tuition for another degree for my wife on top of the student loan payment.
  • Cell Phone: $121.00. Currently 1yr into a 2yr contract on 2 iPhones
  • Cable: $0
  • Internet+VOIP phone: $60. Note: it’s $7 more for just internet alone.
  • Trash: $12.00
  • Daycare: $376
  • Savings: $0: we had been putting $700 a month into a “high-yield savings account” (.82%), but that was recently gobbled up due to purchasing and renovating a house (primary residence) and some rental property repairs.
  • Gas & Electric: $120.00
  • Groceries/Household Consumer: $750.00
  • Credit Cards: $560.00. Balance is $16,100 spread across 5 cards.  Highest EAR is 15.68%.  I had these paid down to a $1,200 balance on one card 2 months ago…then we bought a house.
  • Transportation costs (fuel): $300.00
  • Eating Out: $500. This is average for us, however we have been closer to $1000/month for the last 2 months due to us not having a stove in the new house while renovations were taking place and we celebrated a milestone anniversary.

I’m not sure where the rest of the money goes each month.  I do know that the last 2-3 months have really been in flux simply because we had renovations to the new house, several repairs that had to simultaneously be done on two of the rental houses, and now the holidays are upon us.  I know that the CC payments are the first thing that I need to cut.  I also know that there is plenty of other area’s where I could cut back as well.

It’s not often that you get to try to help a friend “right the ship” and have them be receptive to it… so this should be fun.

On the Good Side

Let’s start off with what TC is doing well.

  • The mortgage: $955/month is not bad at all, particularly when you consider it’s at a 3.38% fixed rate, with no PMI. When you stack this up against a take-home income of $5,900, the mortgage-to-income ratio is only 16% (before interest tax deductions), which is pretty damn good. Anything under 20% is very solid. TC happens to live in a low cost-of-living state (Michigan), which opens the door for opportunity to jump start his savings.
  • No cable: Excellent! I’ve previously calculated out the lifetime cost of cable, and it’s fairly sickening. Getting rid of cable would have been one of my first recommendations, but he’s already beat me to it.
  • Daycare: $376 per month with two young children, allowing both him and his wife to work (seemingly a necessity, given the expenses) is great compared to average child care costs of $18k+ in Michigan.

Now… the fun part.

Stop the Bleeding!

cutting credit cardTC has got to go to work. And FAST. This is not an optimization, it’s an emergency!

He says he doesn’t know where his money is going. I’d venture to say he does, and the real problem is where it’s going. This looks like a case of lifestyle inflation to me. Costs have gone up to meet income and until buying the home, debt hasn’t been a big concern because food has always been on the table.

TC’s average monthly expenses are about $5,181, compared to his take-home income of $5,900. If you include his 10% contribution to his 401K, which we could round down to about $350, his family is left with about $369 of wiggle room per month ($4,440 per year). Of course, life happens. And I’d be willing to bet that $4,440 would not even begin to cover his “shit happens” costs (vehicle maintenance, appliances, home repair), one-off expenses (school costs for kids, an occasional family vacation, clothing, medical bills, etc).

First priority should be to kill the credit card debt. In his case, I’d actually recommend cutting up the cards and not using them again until they are paid off (and then only using them to charge essentials). Erasing that debt would free up $560 in cash flow per month alone – a 151% increase over current levels. Freed up monthly cash flow that can then be applied towards savings: $560.

So how does he do that?

  1. Cut the 401K contribution from 10% to 6%. Keep paying in the 6% to get the 100% match (100% > 15% that would otherwise be applied to your credit card debt). The remaining should go right towards paying off the credit cards, which would essentially result in a 15% return in saved interest payments (hard to beat that in even a bull market). You won’t hear me recommend to people to cut their retirement contributions often, but this is one example where it makes perfect sense.
  2. Kill the dining out: dining out can cost 3-4X what a home cooked meal costs. $500/month on average with some months around $1,000? There’s huge savings to be had there. Ban dining out completely, no exceptions. Get some cookbooks or take a cooking class if need be. Put together a meal list for the entire week and then go out and buy the stuff you need. Make cooking and eating at home with the kids fun. Monthly savings: ~$500.
  3. Cell phone: iPhone’s are great, but they are purely a luxury. And it does not appear that they are a luxury you can afford. Do what you can to get out of your contract or downgrade it, switch to a cheap prepaid talk/text plan for $10-15 per month, and use wifi, if you have to. You have internet and VOIP at home, so this should be super easy. Here’s a list of MVNO’s you could switch to (you may even be able to keep your phones, but selling them might be better). Monthly savings: $100.
  4. Autos: having two newer vehicles, particularly one that is almost brand new? Also not a luxury you can afford. The Ford Fiesta, which is a great, economical car, is just too pricey given your situation. Sell it, use half the proceeds to pay off your credit card debt, and the other half to purchase a small, used 2004-2007 vehicle that is fuel efficient. Monthly savings: $200.
  5. Auto Insurance: when you switch to an older vehicle from the 2012, you can downgrade your coverage from what I’m guessing is broad collision to something basic. This will likely cut your insurance costs in half. Check out my post on the various auto insurance coverages for more details. Monthly savings: $60
  6. Fuel: $300 per month seems VERY high. With a round trip commute of less than 10 miles or so for both of you, it seems unreasonably high. The good news is that with a round trip of less than 10 miles (and a kickass bike trail that takes you both right to work, btw!), at least one of you has the potential to bike to work. Cut back in other areas, and you should be able to kick this down by 50%. Monthly savings: $150.

6 small changes that could result (after paying off your cards) in monthly savings of about $1,570 (annual savings of $18,840)! There are additional savings opportunities on home, life insurance, and grocery expenses as well that probably total another $150-$300 per month if you make a few calls and put more work in to planning. But for the time being, focus on the big ones.

You’d pay off your credit card debt within a year. And then you’d quintuple your monthly cash flow and kick your savings in to high gear. You would boost your personal savings rate from roughly 5% to 30%. The result? You could be at least $200K wealthier over the next decade with your new-found discipline and mental framework, and you don’t even need to boost your income!

The Silver Lining

Consider yourself lucky, as I see very little sacrifice here. There is enough base income and low enough housing expenses to improve things greatly. All you are doing with my suggestions is giving up luxuries you cannot afford, particularly given your ambitious goals. If you’re sure you can’t get rid of a car completely, then don’t – just swap out the new one. Switch to basic prepaid phone plans – you’ve got internet and VOIP at home. Feed your family well – just at home vs. a restaurant. And don’t stop driving – just drive less. Easy stuff that could ultimately take you from hanging on by the skin of your teeth to killing it. You’re bleeding money in unnecessary ways that only hurt your financial situation. Stop the bleeding!

You have to work at changing your mental framework around what is necessity (and you need to be on the same page with your wife). These luxuries can be saved for when you’re a millionaire, not a family in debt. If you don’t? The dream of financial independence will never be achieved. You’ll work through your golden years and still have little retirement savings to show for it. What do you value more: financial freedom and decades to do whatever you want with your time or marginally nicer stuff now? Only you can answer that question.

You just gave yourself the greatest gift of all this holiday season, my friend: accountability. Let’s check back in a year from now to see where you’re at.

Reader Case Study Discussion:

  • What else would you recommend to TC to help him improve his financial situation?
  • Do you like this case study format and would you like to see it become a regular series of posts?
  • Interested in having a case on yourself? Circle me on Google+ and send me a note!

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • Kyle says:

    Some of your suggestions and subsequent amount of savings are not realistic. First of all, they could not save $500 a month by cutting costs related to eating out. Cooking more at home, especially elaborate meals that call for numerous ingredients would still be somewhat costly. Their savings there would probably be more like $250. The $1000 he referenced is not the norm for them.

    Secondly, $300 a month in gas is not that high. That’s approximately 5.5 fill-ups a month for a family ($3.20 a gallon x 17 gallons). With kids come a lot more driving. This is an area where monthly savings would be very hard to come by, especially if he has rental properties that he needs to check in on.

    Another area where you are unrealistic is with their auto coverage. Downgrading to collision coverage only could put significant strain on their finances if they did get into an accident. That could leave them in a worse position than they are now. If they can swing the full coverage, they should keep it.

    Based on that, I believe you are off on your estimates by at least $460 a month. Cutting costs, especially with kids, is very hard and often impossible. Plus, when you live in areas of the country where public transportation isn’t really an option, cutting costs in fuel and auto-related areas aren’t likely either.

    • Fat Chance says:

      Wow Kyle, I find your post pretty pessimistic. I was spending money at a clip like the case study. I work 8 miles from home. I was filling my car up at LEAST once a week. I now ride my bike to work. Alone I save $234 a month in gas. I have 2 kids who wanted a ride everywhere. Now I insist they take they bus to school and only give them rides when they ask me a day in advance and have a very good reason. If they are going within 3 miles I make them ride their bikes. My wife is now on board and saves even more on gas.

      As far as food. When I drove to work I would drive to lunch. $4 in gas and $8 in food. Every day. I packed my lunch and it cost me $20 a week. That is $80 on my lunches alone (yes I know I am double counting gas savings here). Fancy food from home cost no where near fancy food out.

      Bottom line is that the case study is spending like 80-90% of America and has HUGE room to improve. I chuckled the whole time reading this post as it could have been my budget 2 years ago when I had a saving rate of 6% compared to the 38% of my gross I spend now (the rest going to taxes, savings, healthcare etc). G.E. gave exactly the advice I would have given anyone at my work who asked me the same thing.

      GE, funny how you noticed “very little sacrifice”. Those who are frugal and have larger savings rates see very little sacrifice with these 6 suggestions. Those hanging on by the skin of their teeth never seem to see cutting back as even remotely possible. I see it every single day at work.

      Guys with a truck and boat and $335K in student loans
      Guys with house, 2 cars, 2 time shares and aguing over money with their spouses.
      Guys making $80K, wife makes $45K and cannot make ends meet in low cost living areas.

      Why dont you sell your boat? “Need family time”
      Why dont you sell your truck and get a civic? “Need to go to my hunting lease 2 x a year”
      Why dont you sell your time share? and on and on. Always an excuse.

      Not too long ago I was $242K in debt, $0 savings, negative net worth and 2 months from losing my house if I lost my job. Now I am saving $40K a year with $0 debt other than what is on my credit card this month. I still go to the lake on weekends. I still hunt, I still run and ride my bike. In other words I really have not cut back on anything that I find fun, I just do not spend my money on useless crap and interest.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      @Kyle – I think you’re thinking in terms of average results here.

      I don’t have average recommendations and I don’t think TC wants average results either.

      I think the grocery expenses are high as well. The two could be consolidated without adding much, if any additional grocery expenses if some time/effort was put in to it. Kids are super cheap to feed at home (and even when dining out), it’s the adults that need some work.

      $300 a month for gas is high when only one parent is working full time, one kid is not in school, and the commute is about 10 miles round trip for the full-time parent (200 miles a month, or about $21/mo. on 30 mpg). Where’s the other $280 being spent? No doubt room for improvement there.

      And with his newfound savings, having an older car with collision-only becomes a reality, even if he were to get in an accident.

      It is all very realistic, in my opinion. Just depends on how bad he wants it. The fact that he wanted to share his entire financial picture with all of us leads me to believe he wants it pretty bad.

  • Emily @ evolvingPF says:

    I won’t quibble with G.E.’s suggestions as they are solid (if radical for non-PF people). I just have a couple questions.

    1) Are all the renovations done on the houses or are you at least going to stop?

    2) Do you have an emergency fund? Any liquid savings whatsoever? I’d build up a bit of a buffer before tackling the credit card debt or else you might not be able to cut up the cards.

    3) Where IS the rest of your money going? Is it going toward necessities you didn’t categorize above or is it being wasted? Start tracking every penny either by hand or using Mint or similar software. This simple act will definitely reduce your discretionary spending.

    4) I’m not sure what goes into “household consumables” but it’s crazy to spend that much on groceries and still “have to” eat out. I bet you can eliminate the money you spend eating out and still reduce your grocery spending by being strategic.

    Good luck, TC! As you said, you have sufficient income and your base expenses are actually quite low. Just exert some discipline in your discretionary spending and cut back in a few areas and you will be golden.

    • TC says:

      1. The renovations are complete except for a roof that will be put on in the spring. This unfortunately is not an optional renovation, it is necessary to continue my homeowners coverage.

      2. The emergency fund was gobbled up by unforeseen costs with the new house as well as a few items that needed to be taken care of at the rental properties (water heater, furnace). When it rains it pours…

      3. Some of it is being wasted, but most of it (recently) was going into renovations, christmas shopping, and paying for a milestone anniversary trip out of the country.

      4. When we bought the house we had to purchase all new appliances since the house had none, we converted an electric range to gas during this time. However the house was on propane, and natural gas is at the road. We chose to convert the house to NG and obviously didn’t want to convert the range to propane only to convert it back to NG 2 months later, so we ate out a lot for the last 2 months.

      Side Note: When you convert from propane to NG you usually can’t convert the hot water heater, so replacing the heater is necessary. Also as I recently found out, it is against state laws in many states to run two separate fuels to your house. We tried to run the range on NG while keeping the furnace and water-heater on propane until we could pay cash to convert both. Subsequently our natural gas was shutoff once they realized we were doing this.

  • Mike says:

    G.E, you took the words right out of my mouth, with shopping around for home, life and auto insurance. Easy money can be saved by calling around. I’d also suggest dropping VOIP and switching to a cheaper/slower internet connection. I currently have a 3 MBPS connection (suitable for internet video streaming) for $35 from Time Warner in Ohio. Finally, $750 a month sounds unbelievably expensive to me for monthly groceries and home supplies. I think that could be cut to about $550 without too much trouble.

  • Brian Anderson says:

    unless TC is somehow bound to his internet service, there are usually multiple options for service, cable, DSL, etc. I would also be willing to bet there might be a way to reduce the gas & electric bill too, especially if it is a newer home. Plenty of resources around that can help with that, even if it is just turning down the thermostat a few degrees and putting on a sweater in the winter. It might not be much, but every dollar adds up.

    Just switching to an older car with the same coverage will likely reduce the insurance bill each month. If you can’t go down to one car, how about exploring options for carpooling with your spouse? Even one day a week could add up. I did this with my wife two days a week for a couple of months. She went in early and stayed late, then picked me up. Bonus she was able to get a lot of things done in the extra time that she would have otherwise spent almost twice as long to do at home with distractions. Did she want to go in early or stay late? No, but it was silly not to.

    Pay close attention to sales at the grocery store. When something is on sale, stock up. My wife does this, then does a lot of prep cooking once or twice a month, then not only do we have inexpensive meals, the prep time is reduced to near nothing when we cook. Fill up that freezer!

    • TC says:

      We are in a way tied to our internet. We only have one option where we live if we want high speed. And since I am now working from home most days (recent development) I will need the speed that I have.

      We have a programmable thermostat that is set to be 62 degrees at night and 65 during the day. It only goes up to 68 at any time that we are here in the evenings.

      My wife works 2 days a week, and I now spend most days working from home. This will reduce our commuting costs considerably, however we do not have good public transportation nearby and my children do not receive busing service to school. We will need 2 vehicles, but selling the new car is a very real scenario that we are currently exploring.

      We are also looking at changing our diet to a more plant based diet that involves among other things dried beans. Much cheaper than processed foods.

    • RS says:

      I’ve checked maps on ISP availability for my area, and they are wholly incorrect. My area shows up w/ 6 options available for internet service! But there are only 3 (actually recently just 2) – VZ Fios, VZ DSL (no longer allowing new subscribers), and Comcast.
      The cheapest plan on “naked” Fios is $65/month, cheapest Comcast plan is also $65, and the no longer offered DSL is $27 (for 1Mbps max because the lines are so chewed up in my area).

      To keep within my budget, I’m going with the DSL and deal with the slow speed, but I know it’s only a matter of time before they discontinue the service. And it scares me that there are no other options that fit my budget.

      I don’t understand how people making less than me afford it. I assume they are living off of credit and it annoys me that their business keeps rates high with no incentive for the ISPs to even offer slower less expensive plans.

  • Emily says:

    I just stumbled upon your site because I was researching pensions vs. 401(ks) and ended up here. I think this (and your entire site, which I posted to FB) is a great resource and you should definitely have a series of posts because that will generate more and more ideas.

    I don’t know if this would relate to TC’s situation since he lives in Michigan and I live in D.C. (I share a 3-BR apartment with roommates and my share of the rent is greater than his mortgage). Food prices in D.C. are ridiculous, so I probably spend $75 a week to get lunch and bring it back to my desk every day, which may be a low estimate since it doesn’t count Starbucks runs, sodas from CVS, and the occasional breakfast or dinner. You did already tell TC never to eat out, but I think one of the biggest challenges is that people are tired and don’t want to cook when they get home or have to make lunches. So tricks for making bag lunch less annoying are more likely to result in better food-savings habits.

    I literally just bought a 4 cubic meter mini-fridge for my office (the shared fridge here is too small and full to do what I want to do). I got it at so after tax and shipping it was about $140 and it’s a good brand with high ratings. If I spend $25-35 a week to stock the fridge and make lunch at work I can eat healthier, tastier meals for less than half the cost. I can make dinner at work if I’m going somewhere after. I brought in a real plate, mug, fork, spoon and knife from home.

    The fridge will pay for itself in one month, and after that I will save well over $2000 a year – even if I cheat every once and a while. Incredible. I can store things to make beautiful salads and sandwiches, plus healthy snacks and milk for cereal. I can also buy 2 liter bottles of soda or boxes of cans and still enjoy them cold instead of paying for individual-sized bottles of soda every day. I actually think this is an improvement, not a sacrifice.

  • Beatrice says:

    Both need to have more in life insurance.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      I’m not so sure about that. At $250k, each would entirely cover their home, credit card debt, and $100k to spare. And they both have jobs. I think they are fine just where they are at, however, they are paying a bit much.

      I wrote more on this topic here:

      • TC says:

        I agree with GE here; My wife’s 250K policy allows me to cover our principal residence, plus one of our rental properties (which will provide income) leaving about 50K left over for whatever is needed.

        Our potentially new diet should reduce our waistlines and cholesterol levels which would help us to snag better insurance rates in the near future.

        • Ben says:

          Did you consider the $3,900 of income if you pass away (or the $2000 of income if your wife passes away)? I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” amount of insurance… but I would agree with the previous poster that it APPEARS you may be underinsured. My wife and I have a fairly similar financial snapshot (minus the kids and CC debt) and have 500k each.

  • Ryan says:

    Great post, and I agree – this should definitely become a series!

  • Julia says:

    I think your suggestions are solid. FYI–most major cell phone carriers make it SUPER SIMPLE to downgrade plans. And plenty of people have old phones lying around that they don’t need anymore. The carriers just want your business–they don’t care what you pay them, just that you pay them and not their competitors.

    Love the case study idea G.E.! You could also host case studies of before and after stories too — just an idea.

  • Beth says:

    Great post.

    I’m guessing selling the rental property is out of the question, given the housing situation in MI, and it sounds like there is no worry about it becoming a money suck instead of a break-even investment (since there was no talk about rental property income, unless that was lumped in with the take-home pay).

    Two big things: The annual bonus could be put directly toward debt and the monthly school payment sounds like it’ll end within the decade (don’t most degrees have a completion time limit?). Also, unless clothing is put on a budget clothing expenses can add up. I bet the adults in this situation could go on a no-new-clothes diet for a few months, or a fewer-new-clothes-a-month diet, if it’s actually a problem (it may not be). With kids, I know it’s harder, since they do nothing but grow.

    A tip: It’s SO helpful to make food for the upcoming week before the week starts. I don’t know your schedules, but if cooking in a batch on the weekend doesn’t work, alternate who has to prepare the meals at night (dinner and lunch the next day, maybe breakfast, too) otherwise one will feel like they’re doing all the work and it will be easy to quit. Or make it an outright team effort, because that’s definitely more fun. One side effect I noticed of cooking once a week: fewer dishes to clean. And the few hours it takes to cook are savings compared to the gas you spend to get to where you’re eating out and the time you wait for your food to arrive after you order it. I do think “cheating” once a month and eating out somewhere reasonably priced would not be the worst thing in the world, if you need the motivation to cook at home the rest of the time.

    • TC says:

      Even though I bought the rental properties in the upswing of the RE bubble, I bought them cheap enough that I am only at about a breakeven point if I were to sell today. Unfortunately, that leaves me with no real incentive to sell right now.

      And yes the bonus (paid out in Q1) will be used to pay down the CC debt.

  • Ornella @ Moneylicious says:

    While I’m an advocate for splurging (when it makes sense), you need to make serious adjustments no matter how small they may be. When your tight with your money and your looking to free up (and the possibility of earning extra money is not feasible at the moment) you have to make adjustments anywhere you can. Therefore, based on the scenario G.E., your suggestions are solid. They may seem tedious, but it’s about doing what you can with what you have.

  • Mike says:

    The Mustachians here will be proud

  • Ginger says:

    I would stop paying extra down on the student loans until you pay down the credit card debt.

  • Kim says:

    Great post, G.E.! My husband and I were discussing debt recently and how it is like a sharp peak (one side being debt-free and the other side being in debt). Once you’re on one side, it’s pretty tough to get on the other side. When you’re in debt and have mortgage payments, car payments, student loans and credit card bills, it’s really hard to imagine the light at the end of the tunnel b/c your whole paycheck is eaten up paying for the lifestyle you borrowed. LUCKILY once you suck it up (ditch your cell phone in college, drive a 14-yr old domestic car, furnish your house via Craigslist and hand-me-downs) and make it to the other side of the peak (debt-free), voila! Paychecks are actually usable again – you get to decide where that money goes, you don’t owe it to your debtors anymore. Our family rule is “only take on one form of debt at a time, if even that” – that meant we didn’t buy a house until student loans were paid off. Your story is an inspiration, and we are particularly fond of you biking to work and sporting a vegetarian diet 🙂 Keep it up!

    • Ginger says:

      You may not want to make hard and fast rules like “only one debt at a time”, it worked for you but may not work for everyone. In my case, we had student loan debt but it was mostly deferred because my husband went into a paid PhD program. We had the ability to buy a house with a mortgage about the same as rent in the area. And, that was right when the government was offering the stimulus. For us, buying a house, even with the mortgage was a better idea than renting.

  • Fin says:

    First and foremost get rid of the credit card debt. You mentioned the interest on the debt was over 15%. When you lower your 401K percentage down to 6%, I would use this money right away to pay off the debt as soon you could. If you think about, the standard return for the S&P 500 is around 10% for the past 20 years or so. To me, it does not make sense to invest your money and possibly earn 10% when you are paying interest that is not tax deductible (like your mortage and student loans) on 15% interest.

    Also, slash the eating out to a weekend every other week. If you really think you can cut it out completely go for it, but you have to treat yourself once in a while. If you completely cut it out, you might be prone to splurging and getting back into old habits. For the cookbook, I would look up recipes online that get the most amount of food for the least amount of money. Remember, every meal you cook at home does not have to be a “Pinterest” meal that has 20 ingredients.

    Finally, you mentioned that you did not know where the other money went. Try tracking every expense you make on excel. This can be done by looking at your debit card (since you will be cutting up your debit card) statements. When you enter them into excel, enter what category (Mortange, Utility, Out to Eat, Student Loans) the expense would be and then in another column enter place where you bought the item or service from. You can then use sumif function by category to track the total expenses you have for each category. You can then compare the amounts you spent to a budgeted number. It sounds complicated, but once you have it set up it does not take too long to do. Once you are able to track all of your expenses you can see what you can cut back on.

  • Ben says:

    I am not sure I agree with the “sell the car” advice. My guess is that you may be upsidedown on the loan as it is… so taking “half” of the proceeds to pay down other debt and the other “half” to buy another car doesn’t seem plausible. All other advice is good, though.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    Excellent study. I look fwd to the results of changes 1 year later.

  • slinky says:

    One thing that caught my eye was the comment about not having time to grocery shop. It sounds dumb to a lot of people, (make the time!) but we have this problem too. Not that we couldn’t find the time, but we just don’t. We solved this problem of eating our too much just because we havn’t gone grocery shopping by switching to using peapod. We weren’t sure about it at first, but decided to try it and see if it helped. It did. We now eat out less and spend less on food and save time. Sometimes better but not perfect is better than trying for perfect and totally failing.


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