Updated on 06.11.10

Cutting Yourself Some Slack

Trent Hamm

Karen writes in:

Over the last six months, my husband and I have paid off $11,000 in credit card debt. It feels great. But it’s also really, really hard. In order to do that, we’ve stopped going out and doing a lot of the things we used to do. I feel like I’m missing something from my life and overall I think I’m unhappier now than I was when I was juggling all of that debt.

Karen is going through something that a lot of readers go through – and I went through. At first, making radical financial change in your life feels great. You see tremendous changes in terms of the debt situation that scared you in the first place. Your retirement savings are in better shape, too. You get a thrill out of all of the opportunities to save money in your life. Everything is good.

At some point, though, the honeymoon is over and you find yourself in Karen’s place. The memories of the way you spent money before stick with you and you feel deprived.

There is one word that sums up the solution to all of this: balance.

I don’t know the specifics of Karen’s life, but based on her email, I’m guessing that she and her spouse used to dine out very regularly – probably several nights a week. Now, they’re not dining out at all and are preparing meals at home. They seemed to also engage in a lot of nightlife activities of some sort and have eliminated a lot of those.

My advice to Karen is to bring some of them back into your life.

If you get a lot of personal value out of eating out with your husband, eat out with your husband. The balance part of the equation comes in when you look at how often you eat out together. If you used to eat out together five nights a week, try eating out one or two nights a week instead. When you do go out, just choose the best places – the ones that will make for a great experience for you (keeping in mind that best does not equal expensive).

Don’t just sit at home, either. Go out and do some of the other activities you used to do – again, choosing the best ones. For the other nights, look for free stuff to do out and about. Community festivals. Free open air concerts. Volunteerism. Block parties. Dinner parties. There are many, many things that you can do in the evenings that don’t involve buying tickets or pouring out cash.

If you’re unhappy, eventually you’re going to rebound back to the very place where you were to begin with. The key is to make small steps that you’re genuinely happy with and keep them in place. Even if you just cut five dinners out a week down to four, that’s still an improvement. Three is even better. Two is great!

If you make a mistake, cut yourself some slack. Don’t get caught up in a sense of guilt over one bad choice, because that kind of guilt and self-resentment usually builds into throwing your goals and plans into the drink. We all mess up sometimes – I certainly do. The best thing to do is to simply move on with your plans and goals, treating your setback as mere water under the bridge.

Never forget that you do have a life to lead right now. Just keep in mind that the specifics of that life don’t have to be exorbitantly expensive or over the top to be really, really enjoyable. Fun things with people you love are the best parts of life and you don’t need to shell out the cash for them.

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  1. Evangeline says:

    Dave Ramsey uses the concept of ‘blow money’ which is used for this very purpose. The intensity of Karen’s determination is to be admired but, like a diet that is too strict, the deprivation will cause misery and the old habits will just seep back in. It’s good to have something to look forward to. It is what makes the hard work worth while. I’m with Trent on this one.

  2. kris says:

    A lot of times though, its not the things you guys used to do that you miss but rather the time you spent together doing them. Most of us get into a rut when we are at home… we watch tv, constantly clean up, play the wii… and we hardly even talk to each other. It’s definitely a lifestyle change going from entertainment consumerism to entertainment at home, but for me it is worth it.

  3. MP says:

    She and her husband may be paying way to much of their disposable income on debt repayment. It’s great to try and accomplish that but there needs to be balance. Is enough going into an emergency fund? Clearly there’s not enough going into entertainment as they’re beginning to resent the austerity program they’ve put themselves on. It’s like crash dieting, then getting so depressed about being deprived you end up binging…

  4. WendyH says:

    Karen and her husband may need to sit down and identify what exactly they feel like they are missing out on. As an example, my husband and I have determined that it’s not the actual food that we miss from eating out, but the chance to sit down with friends and visit. Eliminating eating out never worked, now we try and do happy hour with half-price appetizers instead of a full meal, or go someplace inexpensive like ice-cream or coffee instead of an expensive restaurant. We are planning a picnic in 2 weeks for about 10 friends that are all on limited budgets, same amount of socializing for much less money.

  5. Kathy says:

    I am experiencing the same thing right now, and it’s hard — as you said, the honeymoon is over. The hardest part for me in paying off debt is it takes time. I agree with you in that there needs to be a few things sprinkled back into their lives to balance things out, or else you’ll get back into very bad spending habits as a reaction to the uber-abstinence. Good luck!

  6. First thing—congrats to you for starting on the debt-reduction path. Asking for help and suggestions is one of the best ways to stay on the right path!

    For most people, myself included, it’s harder to maintain a drastic change over a long period of time than it is to make several incremental changes that add up. For debt-reduction to be successful, longevity is more important than the initial change. When I want to change how I spend, I choose one thing. I focus on changing that, and, as I’m comfortable, I add more changes.

    For going out on the cheap: Instead of turning down friends, I try to suggest another alternative, such as meeting for dessert or drinks rather than paying for a full meal. In the summer, I suggest free concerts and other local events. I often host potlucks.

    With close friends, I’ll say, “I want to hang out and need to trim costs. What’s another activity we can do?” Most people are okay with an alternative activity, especially if they help suggest it. ;-) Also, they’re probably happy to spend a bit less cash.

  7. Rachel says:

    If Karen is now confident in her willpower, how about slowing down your snowball?
    If paying down 11K has at least halved the minimum payments (which it may well have done), she could perhaps reclaim at least part of the entertainment budget, and let the snowball run on its own momentum.
    Go back to paying roughly the minimum payment from the starting debt, which is what they were doing at the point you turned it around (which would provide some blow money), and this will already be more than the current minimum payment, so the snowball can continue from there.

    The power of the snowball is very impressive, and it builds up momentum very fast, but I think that if you slow it down just a little, you can get the best of both worlds.

  8. deRuiter says:

    If eating out one or two times a week will make Karen feel better, than it’s OK to do that. Use an airlines credit card (pay it off in full twice a month online, so you are using it like cash) and dine at places which are in the idine program. Get online coupons when they’re $2. for a $25. gift certificate (you then get a $50. meal for $27.) at one of the idine restaurants. You get a nice meal, the price is inexpensive, and you rack up free airline miles for an eventual trip. If the restaurant serves large portions, or you need to shed a few pounds, skip appetizer and drink tap water with lemon slice and ice. If the food’s the thing, and not the social experience, then order the rest of the bells and whistles. Frugality means getting the best bang for yur buck, and having a good time doing it! Frugality is not the end, it is the means to an end (having a good life without financial worries.) In order to succeed in life, a person must practice self control, but for doing so, you ought to get the occasional reward.

  9. cherie says:

    pat yourself on the back and realize that you aren’t probably remembering how you really felt back then – half the time giddy with spending money and the other half panicked and ill LOL.

    That said, I totally agree – time to put some wiggle room back in the budget to reward yourself for staying ON the budget! Enjoy!

  10. DivaJean says:

    There are times when you do get to a point where you need to start spending again.

    Case in point- my clothing. I have seasonal outfits that I brought out this year that are over 14 years old. They are servicable enough, but really! Fabric has a life of only so long, it does wear thin over time and look less than professional for work. And I am not a size that is easy to find for at 2nd hand shops, etc. I can tell you that over the past 10 years, I probably have not spent more than $200/year on clothing (including shoes). This year, however, my clothing allowance needs to move up a bit to allow for wardrobe rebuilding of epic proportions (compared to my historical past of spending on clothes). However, there will be a budget. And I used some found money (extra birthday money I did not expect from my mom) to buy some of the pricier items I’ve been needing.

    I would well imagine that this concept of times of lean and times of spending would apply to other areas of money use as well (lean spending on entertainment in summer months when kids can play outside or go swimming for free versus more during birthday times when kids want to go to the movies as a treat). It’s just that as a family, we need to keep the overall balance towards keeping the budget and saving for emergencies.

    As for the eating out portion of our budget- this was neglible for a long time- and remains low. Our kids are not exactly well mannered in a restaurant and its something we are working on at home to improve. I can easily estimate that we have gone out to dinner maybe 6 times in the past year- and that was to family friendly places like the IHOP. We do get takeout maybe twice a month- but for the most part, we cook and eat from home. I do get one lunch a week out at work and bring the other 4 days to keep the balance.

  11. Crystal says:

    It was extremely hard for me to ever spend on myself until we started “fun money” accounts.

    Now we have a small amount every month that allows us to be able to pay for the hobbies that aren’t free. Since we really enjoy inexpensive activities like board gaming and potlucks with friends, we can also afford hobbies that cost money – my husband is really into Curling (the ice sport) and I enjoy going to the comedy club across the street as often as possible. Our $75 a month of fun money can cover those habits.

    Just prioritize and take it from there. Good luck!

  12. Brent says:

    I still have a hard time spending money. I’m not very tight on my finances. But I’ve been ramping up my future planning. I started maxing out the 401K, then bought a house with 10% down. I started maxing out a Roth IRA. I payed off the other 10% to remove PMI. And have been working to build a years worth emergency fund. But I was neglecting to make major purchases for myself. So my next step isn’t more money in the emergency fund. Its to replace my horrible excuse for a couch.

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