On money and failure: a budget emergency, but not that kind of budget emergency


Some things I have:

  • a full-time job with a good income
  • just over $20,000 in personal debt
  • great credit nonetheless
  • some counterproductive neuroses about money

In other words, while on paper my income should slightly exceed my expenditure, in reality, I usually spend at least the last few days of my pay cycles living off my credit card. Of late, that period has been extending itself, which is doing me a concern.

I’ve always felt a lot of anxiety and helplessness around money, and coped by not thinking about it. I’ve taken it for granted that I will always be in debt, always be just short of having enough, because that’s just how life goes.

BUT. Lately I’ve also been examining other assumptions about my life, and realised that they’re not written in stone. For example:

Assumption: Physical fitness will always be beyond me.

Reality: Since recovering from my broken foot, I’ve been walking a lot more to exercise it. Now I can walk up hills without breaks! Now I’ve started going to yoga classes as well.

Assumption: I am too uncoordinated and fat to do well at any organised activity, and everyone would just laugh at me if I went to a class.

Reality: Friend of No Award Zoe introduced me to Chunky Yoga, which is extremely beginner friendly, full of adaptations for fatness, fitness and movement issues, and completely free of body shaming. The instructor encourages me to try challenging poses that I thought would be too hard for me. It’s delightful.

Assumption: I am just incapable of keeping plants alive.

Reality: I’ve kept a catnip seedling alive for ALMOST A MONTH! There are also some strawberry seeds in a pot, but who knows what they’re doing down there.

It turns out that certain immutable aspects of my reality are in fact wrong! This has been an amazing, life-changing revelation. And it has nothing to do with putting energy out into the universe or bootstraps — more the opposite, in fact: I decided to try things I’m not good at, and told myself it was okay to fail.

It turns out that you can achieve amazing things when you abandon perfectionism and the procrastination that accompanies it. You might literally fall on your face (I … don’t have great balance yet), but it turns out that your life won’t actually come to an end. Failure is not a reason to quit.

Which brings me back to my financial issues.

Recently, Alison at Ask A Manager (one of my all-time favourite blogs) did an interview with a budget and money coach. Although her work is mostly with freelancers, the comments — which are nearly always worth a read — made me realise that my financial situation and attendant neuroses are actually pretty common. It turns out that the internet is full of budgeting and debt-reduction blogs aimed at young women with white collar jobs and substantial debts.

Of course, most of them are terrible. Common features and lowlights:

  • More inspirational graphics than actual content
  • The ultimate frugality role model is, apparently, Kate Middleton, because she recycles outfits and decided not to hire a stylist. Also, you know, her day to day needs are paid for by the British taxpayer.
  • Making your own soap and clothes will absolutely save you money. Really.
  • Obviously you already have a side hustle, but have you considered … a third job?
  • You need to sell that car you definitely own.
  • And stop buying $500 shoes, which is indeed a thing that all women, everywhere, do.
  • Weight loss metaphors.
  • You already hate yourself for eating, right? But what if you also hated yourself for spending money?
  • Shame: the ultimate motivator!

Sooooooo … I’m taking them all with a few grains of salt. Instead, I’m creating my own plan, based on my own needs. Here’s what it looks like:

  • I created a budget. No, I didn’t have one before. (This is a judgement-free environment, people!)
    • There are lots of budgeting and money management apps out there, but I decided to go with a basic GoogleDrive spreadsheet. For one thing, most of the apps are US-based. For another, I do most of my bill-paying and so forth at work, so I’d rather not have to pick up my phone to look at my budget.
    • I have several worksheets: one overview of income, expenditure and debt, a monthly breakdown, a fortnightly breakdown (in line with my pay cycle), and a fortnightly budget that includes one-off expenses.
  • I considered rolling my credit card debt over to a card with a 12-month interest free period, or consolidating it into my personal loan, but decided against that. My current card has a very low interest rate, and I’d actually like to keep it after it’s paid off, in case of emergencies. (Proper emergencies, like my MacBook exploding, my fridge or washing machine dying, or the cat needing surgery. As opposed to, you know, “I just bought cut flowers and then realised that I don’t own a vase.”)
  • One of the areas where I struggle is in putting money aside for monthly direct debits. Especially if it’s a bigger expense, where I really should be allocating money fortnightly.
    • Solution: I’ve changed all my direct debits to be taken from my credit card instead of my bank account.
    • In my budget, I highlighted everything that’s coming from my credit card, and created an entry: $$ for CC. That’s the total I’m putting on the card each fortnight, including an amount considerably in excess of the minimum monthly payment.
  • I’m being realistic about my needs. For example, I often don’t have the energy to cook during the week, so I’m including some frozen or convenience meals in my grocery budget. I’m also not cutting things that are important to me, like my Netflix and Spotify subscriptions, or yoga. (But I am taking advantage of deals, like Chunky Yoga’s “unlimited classes for $39” offer — that’s September paid for right there.)
  • I also accept that there are going to be fortnights where I won’t be able to put so much money towards paying off my credit card — for example, the soles of my work shoes are wearing out, so I’m going to need new ones soon. I also need at least one new short-sleeved shirt for work.
  • I’m cutting back on “fun” spending, like art supplies, books, DVDs, nail wraps and homewares. But I’m not cutting them out all together.
  • am cutting back on impulse purchases, though, which are a really serious weakness of mine. No more diversions through Kmart on the way home!

One piece of advice the blogs get right is this: learn what your spending triggers are, and find strategies to deal with them.

I spend a lot of money on eating out. My spending triggers there are:

  • Socialising
  • Hanger and low blood sugar — especially after yoga
  • Engagements that take place around meal times, especially evenings after work


  • Gave my friends a heads-up that I’m doing this, and may accordingly decline invitations, depending on my budget. My friends are great, and promptly moved an upcoming brunch from a cafe to someone’s home, but I don’t expect them to do that regularly.
  • Carrying snacks in my handbag and yoga bag
  • …I’m still working on this one

The problem with the third trigger is that I already take my lunch to work, and I don’t relish the idea of carrying two meals.

I’m contemplating things like “discounted sushi from places that are about to close”, but I’m also open to suggestions if anyone has any! Alas, my gluten intolerance has been problematic lately, which rules out a lot of cheaper options.

If I stick to this plan, and my fortnightly budgets, I should have my credit card paid off by Easter next year. Possibly by Christmas, but I’m trying to be flexible — and the holiday season is traditionally a busy time for my credit card anyway. But once the card is paid off, I can double the amount I’m putting on my personal loan, and still have a fair amount extra. I might even be able to pay off my loan in another year.

But I’m also open to the possibility that I’ll fail at some point, and that it might take longer. And that’s fine! My bills always get paid (mostly on time, even!), my credit is good, there’s no financial emergency here. And, if I keep this up, there never will be.

(Touch wood, something might still explode, or the cat might burn down my flat. Just because I know I’m catastrophising doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen!)


2 thoughts on “On money and failure: a budget emergency, but not that kind of budget emergency

  1. I learned a lot about budgeting when I started in on Newstart, because one of the things about Newstart is that every single cent counts (and of course, every single cent you get is deeply, deeply resented by a certain percentage of the population, who will be horribly nasty if they see the chance to reprimand you for spending it “unwisely” or “wastefully”). So, for anyone starting out with budgeting, my number one tip is this: keep track of how much you’re spending, and what you’re spending it on. Be obsessive about this, especially if you’re on a low income. Don’t worry so much about where the money is coming from – you don’t have that much control over it. But you do have control over where it’s going, so watch this side of things like a hawk.

    My second big tip: If you bought it to “save money” or “economise” and you never use it or eat it, you didn’t save money. This is particularly the case for things you buy to “save money” on food, which wind up getting thrown out untouched.

  2. Making your own clothes is cheaper? I wonder where they shop if they think that. Making your own clothes isn’t cheaper, but they can be nicer, made from nicer materials. But, yeah. I only tended to make my own things for cosplay.

    ONLINE BANKING. Makes it easier to pay for things. Also, you can set it up so that it automatically pays a set amount into, say, your credit card, so that you don’t forget to. (Me, I have a separate “emergency” account which automatically gets money chucked into it monthly, which means I don’t have easy access to the money, so I won’t spend it. That’s the theory, anyway. It mostly works.)

    Gluten intolerance sucks. Because wheat is EVERYWHERE, and wheat-free alternatives are usually more expensive.

    How big is your freezer? Freezing things is good. But I expect you’re already doing that, if you’re pre-making your work lunches (and bravo for that, you are a better woman than I am in that regard). Making your own meals is a money-saver, definitely. Hmmmm.

    Meals that don’t take much effort to prepare, that I actually like eating:

    * Canned mushroom soup (Campbells), with fresh extra mushrooms (pre-sliced if possible).

    * Minimal-effort stirfry: pre-cooked brown rice (you get it in a vaccuum-packed packet, Coles brand is about $2.50), one packet of coleslaw mix (that’s pre-cut cabbage and carrot and various other veggies), meat of your choice (e.g. tinned tuna, kangaroo mince etc). Optional: pre-sliced mushrooms, or snow peas, or frozen veggie of your choice. Brown the meat (unless it is canned tuna). Add the veggies, stir them around. Add the tuna if you are using tuna. Let the stuff cook a bit more. Add the rice, with a generous dollop of soy sauce. Stir it all in, and keep flipping it and stirring it until the rice is hot. Makes two generous serves; one to eat now, and one to eat tomorrow.
    An alternative to the pre-cooked brown rice is vermicelli rice noodles, the really thin ones. The advantage of these is that you don’t actually have to cook them. Just soak them in hot water for five minutes. Basically put them in the water (in a collander) before you start cooking the other stuff, and they will be ready by the time they are cooked.

    * Egg-and-mushroom porridge. Plain quick-oats, mushrooms (I like mushrooms), egg, and grated cheese. Add boiling water and cook for a minute or two in microwave. Basically watch it like a hawk until it starts boiling, let it cook for another 5-10 seconds, then stop. The egg and cheese bind it together so it’s a bit more like pudding than porridge. The cheese and mushrooms make it tasty.

Comments are closed.