In the 14 years I've been with my boyfriend, Nick, we've weathered a lot of storms — from my parents' divorce to paying off $50,000 of debt.
Nick and I started dating in 1999 as poor 19-year-old college students. We didn't know anything about managing money at the time, but we learned together. After graduation, we both found full-time jobs, in finance for me and in IT for Nick.
Living off two full-time incomes was a huge change from being broke undergrads. We opened a joint bank account and finally started to live comfortably. We moved into a convenient (read: expensive) downtown apartment, bought a brand-new car, and furnished our luxury apartment with a big-screen TV and new furniture.
For a while we paid our bills on time every month, but eventually our frivolous spending got ahead of us — and we landed thousands of dollars in debt. I wasn't sure Nick and I could pay off our balances, and I went to see a bankruptcy consultant. As a financial planner, admitting financial defeat was one of the lowest points in my life. Ultimately, we didn't file bankruptcy — there would have been too many consequences for my financial career. But we immediately cut our expenses and readjusted our budget. I took a second job, and we upped our credit card payments beyond the minimums. It took us three years to get back on our feet — but we did it. With our financial lives back on track, we started saving money again and allowing ourselves some splurges too. We were in a good place.
Getting an unexpected pink slip
But in 2009 we suffered a huge blow. Nick's company was acquired, and they outsourced a lot of jobs, including his. After working there for five years, Nick went to work one day and got called into a team meeting … that turned out to be his entire department's two weeks' notice.
I came home from work that night and immediately sensed something was wrong. The vibe in the apartment felt very somber. Nick was sitting on the couch, staring at the TV, though not really watching. When I asked him if everything was OK, he looked at me and said, "I got fired today," then went back to (not) watching TV. I'd never seen Nick so dejected. It was truly heartbreaking.
I wanted to play the supportive girlfriend role, to tell Nick everything would be OK and he'd find another job quickly. But as a financial planner, my mind was racing: How could we adjust to living without Nick's $65,000 salary? Would we have to move? What could we immediately cut out of our budget — and would that be enough?
I didn't think we'd experience anything as a couple more stressful than paying off our debt — but I was wrong. Suddenly being forced to subsist on one income was another adjustment I never expected to make. We're well-educated people and hard workers. And yet, there we were.
Making a game plan
I imagine talking about a job loss is a lot like discussing divorce: It's the elephant in the room no one wants to bring up, though you know you should. I waited a week before I broached the subject again because I wanted to give Nick some time to digest the situation. In the meantime, I jumped into financial planning mode (or, more truthfully, panic mode). Though we had a small emergency fund, I was determined not to touch it and to figure out how we could truly live off one income. So I scoured our bills to identify expenses to trim. I knew little cuts would quickly add up.
Finally, I asked Nick to discuss how we could restructure our budget. Fortunately, we had always been open about our finances and were able to approach this challenge like a team. We didn't want to drastically change our lifestyle — at least not at first. We didn't know how long Nick would be unemployed, and we wanted to test our tolerance with more digestible adjustments to our budget.
Together, we examined our bank statements and credit card bills for obvious places to scale back, which was easy enough, considering all the small luxuries — such as dining out several times a week and paying for premium cable — we indulged in. This first round of belt-tightening freed up a whopping $600 each month. Think of all the money we could have been saving had we done this earlier!
How we made it work
Through this process, Nick and I began to realize that living off my $70,000 salary was indeed possible, provided we were willing to stick to our new-and-improved financial plan. With this reassurance, Nick and I plotted out our foreseeable financial future. Here's what we did.
We scaled back — but didn't cut out — the money we spent on eating out. When we realized we were spending upwards of $400 every month on dining out alone, we cut that down to $20 per week, which still allows me to grab a bagel and lunch with my co-workers once a week — small changes that add up. I began bringing my lunch to work the other four days and stocking my desk drawers with instant breakfast options. Let's just say that learning to cook was not a success, so I compensated by finding premade foods and snacks to eat at work. They taste better than anything I can cook, and it's much cheaper than going out every afternoon.
We found cheaper ways to socialize. Being extremely social, as Nick and I naturally are, is extremely expensive. Now we limit our restaurant dinners and after-work drinks with friends to once a month, instead of once or twice a week, and we easily save at least another $60 a week. Our friends were very understanding when we told them about our financial situation, and they even started hosting dine-in dinners in their own homes. This allows Nick and me to enjoy time with our friends without having to worry about whether the restaurant bill fits into our budget.
Our premium cable bill was killing us — so we killed it. Our cable bill was close to $350 every month and had always been a sore spot in our financial relationship. I thought it was too expensive and didn't like contributing to Nick's various sports packages, but chalked it up to the sacrifices you make in a relationship. So I was glad when Nick suggested we pare it down to the basics. We removed the extra channels and sports and movie packages, and also got rid of special features from our home phone and lowered our internet package. Although we felt the difference at first, we quickly realized our expensive cable bill was unnecessary. We learned to live without it.
We cut out vacations we couldn't take by car. The key to making budget cuts is to not feel like you're sacrificing too much. Traveling was really important to us because we didn't get to do it in college, so Nick and I were used to taking a couple of vacations every year — running us between $2,000 and $3,000 each. But when our income was reduced, we knew the money we put toward vacations had to be cut too. At least temporarily. But instead of eliminating vacations altogether, we decided to stick to road trips for extra-long weekends as the best way to save money and still have a couple's getaway. Instead of jetting off to Las Vegas or Florida, we'd drive six hours to Niagara Falls. Eliminating the need to fly cut our vacation costs in half.
We still prioritized retirement savings. As a financial planner, I knew how important it was to continue saving for retirement. After all, we still wanted to retire someday! I adjusted our $200 biweekly retirement contributions to $50 monthly in order to keep saving without straining our budget. I felt good knowing I was still building our future nest egg. (Plus, I was concerned if I stopped contributing completely, I may not start again when we had more money to spare.) So I stayed the course and only increased my contributions when we could afford it.
Thankfully, Nick was out of work for less than a year and is now happily employed again. Even though we're once again a dual-income household, we haven't fallen back into our old habits of careless spending. Although it's cliché, we really did learn (the hard way) that money doesn't equal happiness. Instead, we found happiness in being financially responsible and finding a balance between enjoying ourselves now and planning for our futures — even when the going got tough.
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