Learning to Spend Less: From $376.25 to $0

From our first month of marriage, my husband and I started tracking every expense. The first month as newlyweds was eye-opening. We weren’t living an extravagant lifestyle; we didn’t even have air conditioning or a television! Yet when we sat down and looked at our spending, we were shocked. Especially when we looked at how much we'd spent on eating out alone.

This was the category on our budget that we have had to wrestle the most with. And not because we’re foodies who love to eat out at fancy restaurants or are too lazy to cook. It was more out of habit: After church on Sunday, we’d swing by Qdoba or Subway and grab something to bring home for lunch. We’d spend a Saturday evening at the coffee shop and sip cappuccinos. We were used to socializing over meals with friends, and so that’s what we did together as we settled into our new life together as Mr. and Mrs.

As we looked at the numbers after that first month, we could hardly believed that those little eating-out trips racked up to $376.25! The most expensive meal that entire month was when we took a friend to Mellow Mushroom and spent just over $30 for pizza, and pretty much every other receipt totaled $10 or less. (I have kept itemized Excel spreadsheets of my spending for years, so I have the records to prove it.)

Lest you think that all we did was eat out, I’m sorry to say that wasn’t the case: Our grocery budget the same month totaled $386.29.

That kind of sticker shock, combined with the uncertainty of how long we’d have paychecks coming in, was enough to convince us that we needed to get our spending—even as little as it seemed to us at the time—under control.

I thought of all this today when I walked past our budget, tacked on a corkboard in our kitchen that is always out in plain view to see whenever we walk by. I glanced at our eating out category for the month so far: $0.

Oh, how far we have come!

We haven't starved to death, and we haven't felt denied. We simply have made different decisions. Yesterday, my husband told me how a bunch of his coworkers went to IHOP for some food. What did he do? He carried in his packed lunch and ate it (pb&j sandwich, carrot sticks, dip and all) in the midst of their eggs-and-bacon meals. He didn't have to do that, but he decided that it was worth it, to save the money that he could have spent there for a meal somewhere else that he would enjoy much more than what you can find on the IHOP menu.

It’s been a slow transition of us learning to scale back and find our footing with our financial resources. And sometimes that’s how it is; you can’t change things overnight. You have to create new habits and new ways of thinking. But, slowly (isn’t that the way things always work?) they take hold and you look back and wonder how it was ever any different.

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  1. Carmen, I totally love this. I recently started rearranging how we track our spending (staring at our bank statements online and trying to navigate the complicated world of Quicken just wasn't working). I'm a kindergarten teacher by trade so anything with numbers above 100 sort of freak me out. Haha...this month, I've committed to tracking my spending on my icalendar and color coding our withdrawals. It has been really really awesome and also really, really scary. We struggle with eating out as well. Tim will spend $12 at 3 different fast food places over the course of one day while I will spend $8 at Starbucks alone. Ha. We also struggle with just plain eating out, like what you mentioned. $12 at Chipotle....$20 for Chinese...it adds up. I'd love to read a post about HOW you conquered this habit. The crockpot? Freezing meals to eat later? Etc. sorry for the long comment, I just loved this post! :)

  2. i love this! my husband and i did the same thing not long after we got married - almost exactly. we weren't crazy overspenders but we realized we were spending more than we wanted to, so we started tracking everything. bulletin boards, excel spreadsheets, etc. then we cut our eating out budget entirely for awhile. and now, two years later, we have found our happy medium of about $60 a month. it's crazy to think what we were spending. and it's nice to know that if we need to make changes about what we're doing we can. and it's okay.

    i really enjoyed reading this post! it's so encouraging to hear things like this when so many people don't seem to have a handle on things like their finances and budgets these days.

  3. Oh the drama of spending money for food.

    I eat out so much, it's so bad!!! I hate that I do it and I keep promising myself it's going to change. I have you beat because one month our bill for restaurants was well over 600!


    Good for you for realizing that it's worth it to save now and reap the benefits later.

  4. I know what you mean! The few months before & after our wedding has caused a lot of picking up quick meals. When you have a bizillion places to go, finding the time to cook can be hard. Luckily things are finally starting to slow down a little bit, so I'm hoping we can get our spending back under control.

    We've never been completely out of control, but money has been tight with unexpected expenses & issues with DH's unemployment.

    Thanks for sharing your story because it gives me hope that some day we can finally get it under control.

  5. @ Holly - Haha, maybe I'll have to work on that post just for you :) Yes, I think it's been so helpful to find a tracking method that works for you, whether it's on paper, some program, whatever. Because I know that when it comes to trying to remember how much we've spent, I always, always underestimate!!

    @ Steph - Ah, that's so awesome to hear! Thanks for sharing your story--and your budget. We probably could cut our budget back more but anything we don't spend we end up piling into our savings, which is SUCH a nice feeling!

    @ apockylypse - It's taken us about two years to finally figure out what kind of spending and routine works for us. But I do find that it's much easier now for us to say no or to wait than it ever was at the beginning! Fortunately, we're able to see more of our money go into savings now...instead of just into our stomachs!

  6. You're inspiring me to work on my budgeting skills. This summer has been a free for all in terms of budgeting, and let me just say: I' scared to look, haha.

  7. Wow! That's definitely inspiring! :) I'm thinking it would be a good idea for me to try and cap my coffee date spending and such, too. I don't eat out a whole lot, but lately I feel like I have. (Lunches at work, coffee with friends, dinner with friends...) I'm probably going to set a cap for the week and do my best to stick with it and see how that goes. I figure if I can do that now, it'll be easier down the road when the Lord puts my Mr. in my path. ;)

  8. My husband and I have recently cracked down on our spending habits too. Food seemed to be one of the most expensive things for us. So we've watched how much we've eaten out and I've been scouring the internet for good and stretchable recipes. Now, we're able to cook 2 or 3 times a week, and it will last most of the week! Thanks for sharing!

  9. What a great and encouraging post! My husband and I also fall into the "spend way too much on food" category. Part of our problem is never having time to cook a good meal at home. We've been learning to make a lot of casserole type dishes and beans and rice - quick and easy. We should also think about making "big" portions and freezing for later. But I just love hearing about how young newlywed couples can bite the bullet and learn how to manage their habits better! It give us lots of hope!! :)

  10. You're right! It is such a great feeling to know all that extra money is going to savings. To have that security and know you're getting that much closer to your goals is totally worth the sacrifices you're making now.

  11. Carmen, you give great advice. My hubby and kids and I had to break the "eating out too much" habit a few years ago and it's one of the best things we ever did.

    I'm so glad you've joined The High Calling blogs network, too. :) I'm one of the welcome editors and look forward to getting to know you as you have time to participate.

  12. i've always felt that saving money is a learned behavior since it involves adjusting your life style and needs/desires in order to achieve your budget goal but once you've adapted to saving, it's hard to start spending!

    good for you both that you've kept your eating out budget at $0 because eating out whether that's lunch or dinner or just going out for drinks/snacks can get very expensive.


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