This exchange just happened in our house.
Micah asked to play a game on the computer, to which we said no, because our rule is that kids don’t play on computers until after lunch.
He asked again, and I said “Kids don’t get to play on computers in our house till after lunch, or in very extreme circumstances like if Mum and Dad are sick, and can’t be bothered, and let you do whatever.”
Darrin said, “Careful, don’t say that or Caleb will start poisoning our food!”
Caleb: “No I won’t, because I might get the dosage wrong and kill you, and then who would fix the computers?”
Yep. Definitely our kid.
It sounds scary, and sometimes it is. And we don’t have coupons in Australia like they have in the States. But I have a few tricks I use to feed everyone without going over budget (most of the time).
First, I set a weekly budget based on what Jordan Page recommends. Her rule is to budget $100 per person per month, starting at $300, and then break it down by week. So a family of 1-3 people would still get $300 to spend each month, and about $75 each week.
Now Jordan Page lives in Utah, and there’s quite a difference between the cost of living there and here, not to mention our currency isn’t worth as much. So I plugged $600 into x-rates.com and use that as my monthly grocery budget. When I first did it, it came to $900 a month. Which was about $300 less than I was used to spending, but I thought I’d give it a go. Ever since starting to listen to Dave Ramsey, I’m always on the lookout for more ways to cut spending and save money. 900/4=225. So $225 is what I give myself to work with every week.
Here’s another tip I learned from Jordan. She says before you go shopping, make a meal plan from the food you already have in your kitchen, and write the shopping list based on what you’re missing in the meals you’ve planned. This has been a game changer.
Example: I find ground beef and cheese, and half a tub of sour cream. This screams tacos to me, but I don’t have taco shells or tortillas. So I put those on my list, along with any other taco fixings we like.
Another example: there’s most of a roast chicken in the fridge that needs to get used up. I dig around in the freezer and find a bag of broccoli. There’s a yummy chicken and broccoli casserole that I make, so that goes on the meal plan. But I can’t find any bacon to garnish on top, so bacon goes on the list.
See how that works? It’s made a huge difference to the grocery budget, and in turn, our overall budget.
Another thing I do is look for marked down meat. If I have space left in the budget after I’ve got everything on my list, I’ll stock up on sale meat or marked down meat, and keep it in the freezer for later. We bought a chest freezer when Caleb was born, so we have a ton of space for that kind of thing.
And I shop at Aldi as much as possible. Their prices are usually about 10-20% lower than Coles and Woolworths. When I do shop at the big supermarkets, I scan my loyalty card to earn points and money off my shopping. I try not to get sucked into the bonus offers, unless it’s for something I need anyway.
I also use an app called Receipt Jar, which lets you scan your receipts and get points. When you get enough points, you can redeem them for gift cards or a bank deposit. I’ve already redeemed $30 this way (the first time I used $15 to put toward a new car battery when we needed one, and the next time I got Coles gift cards).
I’d like to say I only go shopping once a week, but I often go a few times for emergency chocolate runs. Which is totally a thing, by the way. Don’t judge me.
I’ve been thinking about writing this one for a long time. And I just listened to a Dave Ramsey video where he was talking about advice, and whether people are going to listen to you based on how you give that advice, and he said that hardly anyone is bothered by you just telling your story. So here we go: the story about how we stopped being ‘normal’ and paid off our debt, and built up our emergency fund.
Once upon a time, we spent all the money that came in to us. Whether it was Darrin’s pay, or the family tax benefit, or the tax at the end of the year, gifts, whatever – we spent it as soon as we had it, and it was gone. I could go shopping on payday or the day after payday, and spend everything without thinking, get home, put it all into my finance app on my computer, and go, ‘oh crap, how am I going to buy petrol this week?’
So what would I do? I’d shuffle bills around, so that the transfers I’d set up wouldn’t go through. I learned a long time ago that it’s better for me to make fortnightly installments on quarterly bills like gas, electricity, and water, so missing one of those payments wouldn’t be a big deal – I’d just make up for it when the bill came in.
If I couldn’t shuffle the bills around, I’d login to Centrelink and get an advance on my family tax benefit. Or if an advance wasn’t available, I’d transfer some money from my business account (back when I had it) and use that for the petrol or whatever I’d forgotten to account for when I spent all that money on too many groceries.
Elijah was born in November 2018, and so we got an increased Centrelink payment for about 13 weeks. And we needed a new fridge, as ours was on its last legs, so I started saving up some of that money to buy a new fridge. Boxing day 2018 (that’s the day after Christmas for you Americans who don’t observe it), it was stinking hot, and I knew the crowds would be insane, so I ordered our new fridge online. With saved money. I thought I was the coolest because I’d prepared for this. Our new fridge was AWESOME.
The very next day after it was delivered – I kid you not – our washing machine stopped mid-cycle. It was a front loader, so if I opened the door, water everywhere. I eventually worked out how to drain it so that it didn’t flood the laundry room, but I still had that half-washed load of nappies to deal with.
I started looking at washing machines online. A brand new one of the size we needed was around $1000. I desperately searched for an appliance store that would accept Afterpay. I had zero luck. So my next port of call was Radio Rentals. I don’t think they exist anymore (or if they do, in a different capacity), but they would let you ‘rent’ a product and pay it off over time. Their prices weren’t great, but we didn’t have another option – or so we thought.
Radio Rentals turned us down for a rental. So we said rude things about them and I started thinking, ok, NOW what can we do? We had learned years ago that credit cards were a bad idea for us, so we didn’t even have those anymore. We didn’t have any savings. We had a new baby and needed nappies, but I didn’t want to spend $27 a week on a box of nappies for him. And a toddler as well, who was still in nappies, at a pricetag of about $27 every two weeks. I needed to use my cloth nappy stash. But if it was going to cost me as much at the laundromat as it would for disposables, where did that leave us? We NEEDED a new washing machine.
So at some point, I looked at Gumtree. Prior to Facebook Marketplace, this was THE place to go if you wanted to buy or sell anything secondhand in Australia. I found the size washing machine we needed. It was in Craigmore, which is only about 20 minutes away (maybe 15 in good traffic). And it was a price we could afford. And he would deliver. So I arranged all that, and we still have that washing machine to this day.
March 2019. My car’s brakes were grinding BADLY so I booked it for a service. As expected, it needed a lot more than just a service and brakes. I was getting anxiety over not being able to sign up myself for the credit that the mechanic offered. So Darrin had to sign up for it with his income details. My mom arrived for a visit about a week later, and we didn’t have any money to do anything for the first few days. (And then we all got sick anyway, so the only thing we did during her visit was go to the last ever Brickalaide/Kidz Gigantic Day Out, which was actually pretty pathetic compared to the year before. But that’s another story.)
Somewhere in all this, I signed up for Audible. Because when you’re in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, of course you need to pay $16 a month for an audiobook! I had a list of books I wanted to listen to, because it was easier to listen to an audiobook than sit down and actually read one with four kids in the house. Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover was on my list since the beginning. It was just on there as ‘oh yeah, I should read that one sometime.’
July 2019. I’d done our tax, and we were expecting a refund, as usual. One night I was looking through my Audible list, because I had another credit to use, and saw Dave’s book there, and decided to get that one. So I started listening. And everything he said made sense. I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I wanted to be FREE from money stress.
Darrin & I sat down one night after the kids went to bed, and we came up with our new plan (or rather, I showed him the spreadsheet of the plan I’d made and he said ‘yeah, whatever you think is best’). And so we went to work.
(Yes, writing it that way sounds like Darrin doesn’t care about the financial situation, but that’s not true. He’s just not interested in managing the budget and where all the money goes. But he’s happy to discuss something when it’s relevant and come up with a solution we can live with. He’s good at coming up with alternate solutions that I may not have thought of.)
We were planning to sell our house and move to a bigger one after our tax came in and we paid off a few things. Sadly, but actually not sadly, because of this, I realised that if we tried to move house at that point, we would have been shooting ourselves in the foot. Because when you buy a new house, and the water heater dies the next week, and you don’t have any money because you just spent all your money on buying the new house, moving expenses, lots of takeaway while you get the kitchen in order – you can’t afford a new water heater! So painfully, we decided to wait. And I’m glad we did, even though this house SUCKS BEYOND BELIEF! (actually no – the other day when the rain was bucketing down, I realised that although this house sucks in a lot of ways, we’ve never had a problem with the roof leaking. So praise God for that!)
So…I cancelled my Audible subscription. And Prime. I started using cash in envelopes – yes, actual envelopes! – and when the money in an envelope was gone, that was it till the next pay. And that actually wasn’t as hard to handle as I thought it would be – because it was only ever 14 days till the next time I put money in the envelope.
I started delivering catalogues – you know, the store ads you get delivered to your house. The money wasn’t great, but it was money. And I could take the baby with me if Darrin wasn’t up yet in the morning. I’d listen to the Dave Ramsey Show while I walked. Still miss that part of it – I don’t miss the putting catalogues together every week and having them take over my house, but I did enjoy the walking.
I sold some stuff around the house that we didn’t need anymore. I realised at some point that those FTB advances were actually debt, so I added those to the debt snowball. I printed out a debt payoff chart from Debt Free Charts (all their debt payoff charts are free to download – if you have other goals such as savings, decluttering, even Bible reading, those cost).
We all enjoyed looking at the Debtris chart on the fridge. And whenever I’d colour in some blocks, I’d play the Tetris theme song on YouTube. We heard it so much, the kids were singing it to calm Elijah when he was crying in the car. I kid you not. ‘Bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbubbub bub bub bub.’ And it worked.
Before long, the only debt we had left was a loan from a friend who helped us buy flights to get overseas for my dad’s funeral in 2015. And one day when I was talking to the friend about it, they said not to worry about it anymore. So we were officially debt free.
So what did we actually DO? We followed Dave’s advice. We followed the Baby Steps. We built up $1000 in an emergency fund first, and didn’t touch it except for ACTUAL emergencies (like getting the kitchen light fixed after it tried to burn down the house one Sunday morning).
After we had our $1000 starter emergency fund, we threw ALL extra money at the debt. The smallest one first, then the next smallest, and the next, and so on until everything was gone.
The budget was key. Making a plan for our money BEFORE we spent it made a huge difference. I’d already been keeping pretty good records, but that’s only half of the equation. So when I was working out our budget for different categories, I looked at how much we had actually spent in the last year on each, and broke it down by month/pay cycle. I noticed some categories were INSANE, so we either cut those out, or cut them down significantly. If there wasn’t money in the budget for something we wanted to do, we either waited till we did have money in the budget, or came up with something different to do.
Once we had the debt paid off, every extra dollar went in our emergency fund. It slowly built up, not quickly enough for my liking, but it was growing. Our goal was three months worth of expenses. (Dave recommends three to six months. Three was fine in our case – he recommends six months if you’re self employed and in some other situations).
In the middle of this, Covid happened, and although Darrin still had work as a public transport driver, his work became uncertain. A new company was taking over the bus depot where he worked, and he’d heard unflattering things about them. So he wasn’t optimistic about being able to stay in the conditions that he’d heard about. But we were preparing for just this kind of situation.
In September 2020, he gave his notice and left. He got his payout from work with all his unused annual leave and long service leave, which more than finished our emergency fund. But we had to live off of that money till he got a new job, so it went down again.
In January 2021, we applied for (and had approved) payments from Centrelink while he job hunted. So I based our budget off of JUST what was coming in, and tried to leave the emergency fund alone unless something came up that we needed. It would still go down slowly, but much less than before.
July 2021, our tax came in, and it was TWICE what we’d been expecting (due to Darrin’s huge payout from his last job taking more tax than was actually relevant based on his end of year income). We spent some of the money on stuff we’d been waiting for, but the rest went to the emergency fund. And finished it a second time!
We just had to have our drains cleared, which used emergency funds, and now Darrin’s off work due to Covid, so it may go down again. BUT it’s there. It’s for us to use in exactly these circumstances. We’re ok. A few years ago, this would have ruined us. I shudder to think where we’d be if we’d actually moved house two years ago, and then all this happened. If we’d never changed our habits. It certainly wouldn’t be pretty.
If you’re in debt and struggling to get ahead, don’t panic. Just go find yourself a copy of The Total Money Makeover. Library, op shop, borrow from a friend, or even buy new if you can’t find it cheap. It’s totally worth it.
Edited to add: Sometimes I feel like our story isn’t that dramatic, because we only had a few thousand dollars of debt. No credit cards, no student loans, no car payments (we’d paid that off just before we started the Ramsey plan). But the big difference is the mindset. We won’t borrow money again. We’ll save up for big purchases. Debt is not an option anymore. And the peace I have just knowing that I won’t have bill collectors coming after me, late payment notices, debt that never seems to go away, that’s something you can’t put a price tag on. We still have a house payment (which is the only debt Dave doesn’t yell at you for), and whenever we have extra money to throw at that, we will.
Can you do this if you have more debt? Yep, it just might take you longer. But once you get going, and you see the progress, you’ll start wanting to push yourself harder to get it gone quicker. I’ve heard the same story from many other people who have done this.
You know when you have a band aid on your arm, or leg, or wherever, and it’s time to peel it off? Which way do you prefer – to peel it off slowly and carefully so it hurts a little for longer, or just rip it off so it’s one short sharp pain and then it’s over?
I rip it off. Almost every time.
And that’s what I think we should do with this COVID stuff. Australia has been trying to stop the spread and eliminate it. But that’s impossible to do. It’s unrealistic to think that we can stop a virus that’s (supposedly) very contagious when we can’t even stop the common cold.
But people are afraid. I get it. Because all we hear in the news are the horror stories of people dying on ventilators. We almost never hear about the people who test positive and get through the virus on their own at home, with little or no medical intervention. The ones who say it felt like a cold or a flu, and not like they were going to die suffocating.
This is a virus with a 99.7% survival rate. Yes, SURVIVAL. The vast majority of the people who have died from this virus have been over 70 years old and/or had a compromised immune system already. And that’s not to say they’re not important, or that it’s not sad when they die, but logically, of course a virus is more likely to kill people in these circumstances than normal, healthy people. That’s just a fact.
And yes, we should do what we can to protect these people – within reason. Washing our hands, keeping our distance if we’re unwell, making sure they have the supplies they need to get by without having to go to the shops, sure. Locking down 90% of society just so that the minority are protected? No.
If you’re concerned about catching the virus, by all means, stay home and look after your health. Ask for help from friends, family, and community groups if you need it. But don’t insist that the rest of the world should put their lives on hold just for you. That’s selfish.
Rip off the band aid. Let’s get on with life.