On one recent work day, I found myself searching for help. I typed into Google: “How much is a good annual budget for a family of 4?” and clicked through every result.
The truth was, I needed a metric for how we were doing as a family of 4. We were spending a record $7,500 plus per month, based on my tracking via Mint.com. I had no frame of reference for whether this was “normal” or not.
I was curious about why our spending had drifted so high (we spent $7,000 a month in 2020, which even then, felt high). Was it the excessive amounts of artisanal cheese my family eats (ahem)? Or perhaps the one-off sport camps I was signing my son up for? What I found surprised me.
The answer to my budget woes
I discovered we were hemorrhaging money on food, gas, and travel expenses (after a year of no travel, we went a little crazy with our travel budget). Pretty much everything was more expensive, including our utilities (inflation, anyone?), plus we had loosened the reins of our spending post-COVID. Visiting friends across the country and plunking down cash on plane tickets after being vaccinated pushed our yearly expenditures even higher.
It was time to get to work. I needed to reduce our spending, and fast. For those in a similar boat, here are some of the the ways our family of four has decided to work our budget, and hopefully they can work for you, too!
Tracking is the name of the game
The only reason I knew that we were on track to spend $10,000 more in 2021 than in 2020 was that I had been tracking our income since 2017. This has given me a huge leg up on when to reduce our expenditures and whether we are trying too hard to “Keep up with the Jones’”.
Every time our budget expands its waistline, I check our budget categories via Mint.com, often comparing them to the previous year’s expenses. If we are trending too high for the month, I restrict our spending for the rest of the month (i.e. no more pillow purchases or Target runs for us)!
Olivia Christensen, a personal finance columnist for the “For Love & Money” column says that the word “budget” refers to both your ‘spending plan,” and “record for spending.” In other words, it’s not just important to plan for spending — you’re tracking how your spending actually occurs. She notes, “tracking how we spend our money month-to-month is how we get a clearer idea of our financial realities, and working with these realities leads to manageable habit shifts to grow financially.”
Get a firm grip on top category expenses
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has a handy-dandy run-down of a budget for a family of 4 in U.S. metro areas. I plugged in our metro area, and it spit out some numbers.
My comparison of our top categories? We spend a lot less on healthcare and transportation than other families, but that savings is eaten up by the amount we spend on food and housing. We don’t plan to move, so the biggest category our family can work on is food.
As a take away, we’ve switched to the cheaper grocery store and primarily shop at Aldi now. I also like to think we are saving in the healthcare bucket by eating quality fruits and vegetables at each meal. Per the Economic Policy Institute, the yearly average budget for a family of 4 in our area was $89,000 (but this includes taxes). While we don’t account for taxes in our yearly spending since taxes are above-the-line expenditures, we spend closer to $95,000 a year. That means we could still work harder to get our budget in line.
Take a (very) hard look at subscriptions and recurring outlays
We checked our subscriptions and figured out that our monthly subscriptions were hurting us. We whittled it down to sponsoring one Patreon each for my husband and I, and deleted all but our favorite three streaming services (Netflix, HBO, and a .99/month Hulu deal we get each Black Friday).
Christenson suggests discretionary funds are a great place to cut first. “You can’t cut your electric or telephone bills, but you can cut things like cable, streaming services, or how many times you get take-out a week. Once you figure out what you need to cut, make the cut, but stay intentional with the money you’ve freed up,” she says.
I shopped around for our house and car insurance and was unable to find a better deal to pull the trigger on, so that stayed the same. But we did rid ourselves of a few subscriptions we’d had on auto-pay. Also, I figured out our higher spending at Amazon could be attributed to our puppy, who was living high on the hog on expensive treats. We switched to peanut butter Kongs, cheap and reusable again and again — and hopefully our pup will be just as happy.
Realize that certain budget items are more important, and make room for that
Like many American families, we hunkered down in 2020. Travel was not advised, but we were itching to get out and see family again in 2021. A few trips later, our normal $5,000 per year budget for trips has already been exceeded. That said, our kids are getting older and it’s a huge priority for us to travel as we only have a few years left to give them that experience. Since we didn’t travel in 2020 at all, we can stomach this increase for 2021. Similarly, you may have an area of your budget that’s discretionary, but that really gets you fired up about life. Figure out what’s most important to you in life, and if you need to spend a little more on it than you’d originally budgeted for the year, you’ll be inspired to cut back in other ways in order to make it work.
Keep up the habit of checking in
Lastly, If you’ve never used an app like Mint.com or You Need a Budget (YNAB) to track or edit your spending patterns, you may be missing out. Fundamentally, you want to budget in a way that works for you, otherwise it won’t become a habit. The bottom line: make it work for you.
I’m more of an old school, track-it-as-it-happens type of girl, and then I go forward by re-adjusting the plan. And I’ve truly learned to love it.
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