You’ve started a budget, and you’re coming to terms with that feeling of scarcity. You have fewer dollars than you’d like, and something’s gotta give.
Keeping a roof over your head is priority number one. Keeping the lights on? Yep. Stocking the refrigerator? Definitely. But what about grabbing that extra hot, double-shot, triple-pump, skinny-no-whip vanilla latte? Or going out to eat on Monday after a long, er, Monday?
Let’s face it, lattes and restaurant tabs probably aren’t priorities, at least not if you’ve just started budgeting. You’ve probably even been told that dining out is the very first thing you should cut back on—but doesn’t that make you cringe? It did me. But, if you’ll hang with me for a bit, you’ll see that budgeting doesn’t mean you have to give up what you love.
This is the story of how my budgeting journey began with eating Ramen at home and landed firmly in guilt-free gluttony …
Chapter 1: Bills > Food
The most important thing you’ll ever do when it comes to budgeting is figuring out what matters to you. Then you decide what to do with your dollars based on those priorities. You do that until you run out of dollars to give jobs to.
I didn’t have a lot of dollars when I started my budget. I set some aside to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to start digging myself out of debt … and then I promptly ran out.
There wasn’t any money left for fancy coffee or Chinese take-out. Some of you may be right where I was, and it may feel a little tight. It’s important to be realistic—to know that heating your home is probably more important to you than Starbucks. That’s okay, and it won’t be that way forever. Your financial situation is going to change, and so are your priorities.
Chapter 2: Cha-Cha-Changes
A new career opportunity popped up for my soon-to-be partner and we took a hard look at the budget. Well, we actually nuked the whole thing and started fresh. More money and changing priorities meant our year-old budget wasn’t giving our dollars the right jobs anymore. So, we splurged on celebratory drip coffees and tackled the hard job of brainstorming—for the second time—all of our priorities.
We talked about how important food was to us and set aside way more money for dining out. Then, we decided that having good food at our wedding was more important than going out to eat. Once again, our ‘Dining Out’ category lost in a battle of competing priorities. But hey, our wedding guests were in for the brunch of their lives!
I also decided to quit my job and finish school. The extent of my culinary extravagance became a weekly Snickers from the vending machine. That was okay with me. Graduation was on the horizon, and my appetite for a degree was satiation enough.
Chapter 3: Eating for Fun
Graduation brought a new job and, with the wedding behind us, our priorities shifted, once again. We moved to a (slightly) more expensive place and buckled down on debt payments. Our goal was to pay them off, as quickly as possible, without sliding backwards.
When we sat down for our third fresh start, we did something pretty drastic. We looked at the big pile of money set aside for our honeymoon and decided to use all of it (yes, all of it) to pay off our debt and get a month ahead of our expenses. This meant that our honeymoon would be delayed by about three years as we saved up—it was a big leap of faith, and I haven’t regretted it once.
The further we got from the financial edge, the more comfortable life became. We had less stress, more clarity and more pride. And, after that pesky debt was gone, our cash flow improved substantially. It was time to celebrate, and we went out for a night out on the town—dinner and a show.
… actually, we had a lot of nights out on the town. We became regular movie-goers, attending shows before or after a nice meal at a restaurant near the theater. Brunch became a go-to every weekend. And, takeout? Sure, we’d order food a couple times a month when we just didn’t feel like cooking.
Chapter 4: When Restaurant Owners Start Baking You Birthday Cakes
The year after the wedding brought even more changes, including promotions and another move. We still went to occasional movies, but we’d decided by this point that our real passion was in seeking out new restaurants and trying ALL OF THE FOOD.
We quickly identified our favorite spots and became the type of regulars that diners aspire to be. We knew all the waiters and waitresses. We tried all the entrées. Menus? What menus? Our coffees were ready before we even reached the counter.
Our ‘Dining Out’ category was getting plump faster than we were and, inevitably, there came a tipping point. A budget is a map of your priorities and, while food was really important to us, it wasn’t everything.
We hit a couple of months where we just spent too much. Thanks to YNAB, we rolled with the punches and learned from our follies. We reduced our ‘Dining Out’ budget and started saving a lot more. Big things were on the horizon …
Chapter 5: Next Stop, Food City
In what had now become an annual tradition, we sat at a coffee shop sipping honey lavender lattes. We pushed the fresh start button, once again, and started planning our biggest budget change yet—a cross-country move to a much more expensive city.
We set out by assuming the worst, budgeting more than we’d truly need for expenses and bills. We took advantage of a deal (two months, rent-free) to stockpile cash. And, with only the best intentions, plus a gross overestimation of our willpower, left our ‘Dining Out’ category just as it was. Big. Mistake.
The first month in our new city, we burned through cash like it was going out of style. We ran out of ‘Dining Out’ money in the first week! It was a horrible feeling that left us pretty discouraged about our now-irreversible decision to uproot. So, we sucked it up and reined in our spending, rolled with the punches and did what any good budgeter does—we sat down to reassess our priorities and give our dollars some new jobs.
Don’t Worry, This Story Has a Happy Ending
With city life came some pretty big changes. We sold both of our cars and reduced our grocery budget, substantially. We also decreased travel savings because we had this whole glorious new city to explore (don’t worry, we kept saving for the honeymoon!). And, by the end of our budget meeting, we were back on track, invigorated and ready to take on the world!
… and our “Dining Out” category was higher than it had ever been before. We actually broke the $1,000 per month mark, which still makes me sweat a little.
Is $1,000 totally frivolous and maybe even a bit ridiculous? Definitely.
Do I feel guilty about it? Not a bit.
We’re still saving. Still covering all our bills. We don’t have a penny of debt, and our Age of Money is increasing, steadily, month-over-month.
My partner and I genuinely love food. We don’t eat to live, we live to eat! Dining out is an incredibly important priority for us, at this point in our lives, so we budget for it. We buy coffees, daily. We brunch every weekend. We get takeout whenever we don’t feel like cooking or going out.
And, most importantly, we never feel guilty (and neither should you!).
Your Money, Your Choice
What you do with your money is completely up to you.
As long as you know what’s really, truly important to you—and you’re brutally honest with yourself about how many dollars you have—the world is your oyster. Prioritize your spending based on what is best for your complete financial picture and your happiness.
Your life circumstances will change. Your priorities will change. And, your budget will evolve through all of your different phases to give you the power to live your best life—whether it’s dining out every day or retiring when you’re 35.