Our Attempt at a $20-a-Day Budget

Louder Than Words

I am a 29-year-old woman, married for four years. I am a playwright, actor, blogger, screenwriter, tutor, and babysitter. My husband is a software engineer. My money-making schedule is varied and inconsistent and sometimes I will just freak out about it—especially now, because I’m pregnant.

If you’re like me, getting pregnant means you immediately start Pinteresting and reading magazines about pregnancy and you start thinking that you need a lot of Things. The baby needs lots of Things and you need to buy them. Your baby needs his own room, his own thoughtfully organized closet, his own bookcase and nightlight and humidifier and small appliances that warm up various items. These things all cost money.

Not only do baby things cost money, but my husband and I recently made a big financial mistake, which required us to take a hard look at our finances. We recently bought a condo. There are a lot of things you have to do as a property-owning adult. One of the things one must do on a yearly basis, in the town we live in, is reapply for a residential tax exemption (ugh so boring. So boring! I know). But listen: I live in a city where enough people rent out their property that the city likes to encourage owner occupancy, which means our local government created what is essentially a property tax discount if you live in your own condo.

We learned this year that we missed the deadline for the residential tax exemption, which means we are at a deficit on our taxes, which means we have to pay an extra $500 (roughly) a month to catch up. I tried to fight it for a while, but it was more trouble than it was worth. It would have involved me having an argument with the bank that handles our mortgage payments, and as a pregnant person, I was not up for that noise. And when I actually crunched the numbers, even with just my husband’s income, not counting anything I might take in for writing for a blog here or there, tutoring pay, and the odd commercial, we should be able to survive and also pay our big tax bill every month. It just requires that we buckle down and be careful with our money.

I thought a good way to get both of us involved in saving money would be to put a limit on how much we can spend in a day, and make it sort of like a game. I looked at how much money we spend every month without realizing it (all our bills automatically come out of our bank account, like magic) and how much we should have left over. It appeared that a conservative amount of money to spend, per day, for each of us, was $20. That had to cover everything: food (restaurants and groceries), train passes, gas for the car, parking, clothes, and incidentals like dry cleaning and concert tickets. Anything I was handing over cash or a credit card for had to come out of my $20 a day allowance. Maybe it could be like a game in that we get points for having extra money left over at the end of a day or week. My husband will participate in almost anything that he perceives to be a game or that may involve points.

I guessed that we could survive on $20 a day, each. I also guessed that it would be hard. And in order to not freak ourselves out too much, I established that this $20 a day thing would be on a trial basis—to see if we could do it.

Now, that’s not really true, because we had found ourselves in a real financial bind. We still needed to convert our guest room/office into a nursery, and I needed new clothes every month because my body is changing. And we needed to buy more food because I am a constantly hungry food monster, consuming everything in arm’s reach. So this wasn’t actually something we were “just trying out” to “see how it feels”—we had to do this so that we would survive and not go bankrupt and not have zero dollars when I left all my jobs to care of this baby full-time, which is likely to happen as none of my jobs pay enough to cover day care. We had no choice.

Sometimes if you phrase things like they are a choice, it makes the pill a little easier to swallow.

I started our “experiment” on June 5, 2014. Everything was going fine until June 11th, when I had to pay $100 for a follow-up visit from a dog trainer. This was the first of our “not-bills, not-$20-a-day” expense. It was presumably a one-time thing, and we deemed it necessary, so we put a note about it on a spreadsheet and decided we’d not count it in our daily tally, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to eat for a week, which wasn’t ideal. The reason we needed the visit is because our beagle has separation anxiety and rips our house apart when we leave her alone.

We spent a lot of time deciding if something was a bill or an elective expense. We decided my therapy copays are a bill, but my visits to the chiropractor were an elective (though not so much if you ask my right hip joint).

On June 12, I found a desk/shelf unit on Craigslist for $200 and decided this also needed to come out of the auxiliary fund. This was the first in a long line of expenses related to making the guest room/office into a nursery. Expenses related to having a baby are farther-reaching than I had originally expected. We decided to keep house updates and baby stuff in a separate budget, which might even mean we dip into savings to cover it.

On June 13 I sold a bunch of old books and made $28. This was cause for celebration! We went out for a date at a Mexican restaurant and had $28 worth of fun (after using a coupon)! One thing that made having a strict budget easier is that I’m pregnant and, therefore, don’t drink. This saves a lot of money. Cutting out alcohol is one of those things that saves money and helps you lose weight like nothing else, but is so annoying and lifestyle-changing for lots of people that it seems like an extreme solution. But that decision has been made for me, so I’m just riding this out, saving the money I can by not drinking, and deciding to reevaluate once I can drink again. Will it be worth it? If I buy two bottles of decent wine, even cheap wine, that’s maybe $16. I can probably stretch two bottles out for a week, so that’s not prohibitive. But forget about it in a restaurant. $10 for a glass of wine, plus food. That’s astronomical now that I’m the cheapest person alive.

On a related note, my husband and I had to have a tough conversation in which he told me he really wanted to buy a limited edition whiskey from a local liquor store. He said it would cost $45, but they only made a few cases of it! And it’s local! And I told him that was just clever marketing and this was the kind of thing that we’d have to limit ourselves on, now that we are cheap budget Nazis, and that this was exactly the sort of sacrifice we’d have to start making. He replied that I was right, and, anyway, he had an unopened bottle of whiskey at home. I hated being the kind of person who had to tell him that he couldn’t have something he wanted, but what was the alternative?

On an emotional level, this whole thing was starting to feel pretty challenging for me. I want to be easy-going and fun. I don’t want to sell books so I can go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner where I won’t even get a margarita and we will pay with a buy-one-entrée, get-the-second-free coupon. This new person is not fun. This new person is kind of an asshole.

On June 16, I made a note in the spreadsheet saying this was getting really hard. My chiropractor wanted to keep seeing me twice a week, which meant $50 in copays per week, and $200 a month, even though I told her I’d like to start coming less frequently. What I didn’t tell her is that part of me kind of thinks chiropractors don’t really do anything? It’s the same part of me that thinks yoga is for idiots. I do yoga every week, but sometimes I roll my eyes while I’m doing it.

Dog food costs $25. I didn’t know this before I was keeping track of my daily expenses. Has it always cost $25?! That seems like a lot!

On June 17 we were so negative it was ridiculous. I had run out of Tylenol, which is one of the only medications you can take while pregnant, and was the only thing that was alleviating my allergy-related sinus headaches. Was I just supposed to have a headache until the next day when my budget had room in it? No. I would go farther into the red because it had to happen. I was also hosting a play reading at my house that night and had told people I would be feeding them. I agonized for HOURS about what kind of food to get, and settled on pizza (and salad for the lactose-intolerant among them), but not before trying to get away with chips and salsa. My husband said I needed to feed people real food because they were doing me a favor and even though we were on a budget, I needed to not be a dick about it. In the end, nobody ate the salad and most people didn’t even want pizza. I felt a little smug satisfaction about that—until I looked in my wallet after everyone had gone home and realized I had dry cleaning to pick up from a month ago. How was I going to afford to pay for dry cleaning?!

Ultimately it worked out okay, but mostly because we were lucky. My husband won a $500 gift card to a local grocery store in some kind of confusing and embarrassing sweepstakes he entered and it helped us make our budget in June. Our auxiliary fund came to $791.15 for the month, which is under the $800 I calculated we can afford in extra costs per month. Ideally, we wouldn’t spend very much of that money every month, so that we’re actually putting money away for the future (but one thing at a time). By the end of June, my husband was over his $20 a day budget by only $3.59 and I was over by only $1.57. So I won. Yes, we were still over, but it was so close that I count it as a win.

The conclusion I came to is that it’s not as impossible as it seems. We are continuing the $20 a day challenge for July, and I am continuing to call it a challenge so that it seems like more of a choice and less of a requirement, though it is 100% a requirement.

This kind of endeavor also makes me look really hard at my choices and at the luxury of being a playwright/actor/blogger/screenwriter/tutor/babysitter instead of a person who works in an office and takes home a regular paycheck. I am lucky to be able to afford to do what I love, and I should appreciate that this budget is a sacrifice I have to make.

But you guys: This is actually pretty doable, if you’re interested in saving money. Here are some tips.

1. If you drink, try stopping (ugh I know, horrible idea, but it just makes CENTS *barf*).

2. Go to the super cheap grocery store that is too crowded with elderly eastern European ladies and stresses you out. The deals are worth it.

3. Realize that every event you want to attend has expenses attached to it. Train tickets, gas money, food at said event, movie tickets—these all cost actual dollars! My town has free movies outdoors on Thursday nights in the summer and you can bring cheese and beach chairs and I dare say it’s just as fun as going to a bar (no it’s not, but I can’t drink anyway and it’s something to do and it’s free).

4. Don’t let marketing fool you. You don’t need that limited edition whiskey and you probably also don’t need so many appliances to warm baby paraphernalia.

Try it! Tell me how it goes.


Emily Kaye Lazzaro is a playwright, actor, and blogger from Somerville, Massachusetts.


39 Comments / Post A Comment

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I too have done this experiment at various points in my life when I wasn’t earning a lot of money. The first two times, it worked pretty well primarily because I just moved to new cities both times and didn’t have any friends. I went home and ate ramen and stared at television shows and felt superior and depressed at the same time. The third time, when I had friends and hobbies and commitments and a full life, it worked NOT AT ALL.

@HelloTheFuture The great thing about being pregnant is that I never go out because I am too tired. I also heavily suggest that my husband not go out because I’m a jerk. I’m not sure how this will work once I’m not pregnant, but at that point I’ll have a baby so maybe I’ll never go out again! Bye friendships!

laluchita (#2,195)

Pizza seems like the cheap option but actually isn’t? Pasta dude, Pasta. You can make a scratch spaghetti and marinara plus a nice salad and even garlic bread for a lot of people for almost no $. Like $20 or less. I’ve recently gone back to a super cheap budget ($80 a week on fun and $60 a week on groceries, so essentially $20 a day by your standards), and it’s been going pretty well so far. I’m over on some things (I give myself $30 a month for art/craft supplies, and I’m way over this month) but also way under on food. Not drinking helps a lot and so does eating veg and not eating out.

@laluchita Pasta IS cheaper but also pregnancy=too tired to cook. Makes you think about when our grandmothers were pregnant (6 times, in my case) and they were poor and had to just do everything, like hang their clothes on clotheslines and stuff and I complain about having to make pasta every once in awhile. I’m just glad it’s 2014, is what I’m saying, basically.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

Don’t buy baby stuff!!! People get really excited about new little humans and will give it to you.

@LookUponMyWorks While this is mostly true I have found so far that people will buy CUTE baby stuff for you like stuffed animals and onesies and Sophie the giraffe but will not buy un-glamorous but totally necessary things like bottles and baby carriers and towels and diapers.

EmilyStarr (#4,035)

@JNC Musings Factory Yep. I got the cute stuff (and the baby carrier, to be fair to my relatives), but the bottles and towels and diapers – all us.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@EmilyStarr @JNC really? I am doing baby showers all wrong then. I have definitely given a lot of boring practical things like towels (they were super cute, though!) and cloth diapers (whhhyyyyyyy) and diapers and diaper cream and baby soap and baby monitors. In addition to some damn adorable onesies and shoes. Not that babies need shoes, but they were too cute to pass up.

In fact, the last baby shower I was at was pretty much exclusively practical gifts. New trend?

EmilyStarr (#4,035)

@LookUponMyWorks You are doing baby showers exactly right, then. We really, really appreciated the more practical stuff (although I, personally, think that new parents might want to wait on registering for a bunch of diapers and bottles, specifically, until they figure out what works for their kid – we almost had to buy one of each kind to test them out).

theballgirl (#1,546)

@LookUponMyWorks We registered the shit out of the practical stuff because I just did not want to bother. Then we got a few gift cards too to purchase some fun things! Between that, some Craigslist scouting, vintage/antique stores, and friends who were done with babies, we spent very little $$ prepping for our kid.

bgprincipessa (#699)

I keep trying to convince myself not to buy drinks at dinner, because it is literally half the check!!! Such a waste, but then it’s always so tempting. And then I wonder how my eating out costs are in the triple digits every month.

My biggest issue with the “$20 a day” idea is that I usually group errands together, right? So, hit Target, hit the dry cleaners (in theory but really I never go to the dry cleaners because I’m lazy), but you get the idea. I guess the $20 are supposed to carry over from day to day in this scenario though? So I could accumulate my dollars for weekend spending? Because I’m usually pretty good on weekdays, having no life as I do.

@bgprincipessa Yes, we carried over the $20 day to day. So some days we’d spend nothing and some days we’d get gas and groceries and spend $60 and then have to sit tight for a few days for it to go back up. And sometimes it just stays negative every day for awhile. The main thing was learning how to be conscious of what we were spending, and even if we went over we still spent wayyy less than we used to.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Hilariously, I was just thinking that my local cheaper grocery store probably isn’t crowded with Eastern European ladies…. except it probably is the same one, since I also live in Somerville! (But I shop at the expensive grocery store because I am a monster.)

@Lily Rowan The little old ladies in Market Basket are the meanest ones. Also Market Basket is having ISSUES right now so I don’t even know where to go for groceries anymore! I used to go to Whole Foods all the time, because I am also a monster, I get it. I guess I’m just going to try to eat through my pantry until Market Basket works itself out.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Emily Kaye Lazzaro I actually go to Star, because it’s closest to my house — I am just as glad not to be involved in the MB drama!

amaeve (#5,095)

I just did the math, and I live on about $20 a day after rent and utilities just because that’s how much money I make. (Not categorizing therapy and medical expenses as bills there.) So basically I will never save any money! Ugh.

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

Hi Emily! It’s Emily. I enjoyed your article. I was wondering, too, if you carry over anything not spent one day to the next day, or if you reset back to $20 each day and save whatever wasn’t spent the previous day?

@Tripleoxer I do carry it over because sometimes it’s kind of a convenience thing. Like if we need groceries, I might as well save up for a few days and then spend $50 all at once, rather than going every day. That would be tedious.

theballgirl (#1,546)

Even though microbudgeting appeals to me on a visceral level (“OOoo I have $25 ALL DAY!”) the reality just doesn’t work: some random expense meant that I was constantly borrowing money days ahead. The annoying calculations were too much so I went back to monthly budgets. Boring but it works for now.

Unrelated but: I am confused about the $500/month tax exemption you gave up on fighting. This amount seems insanely high to acquiesce, (assuming anywhere from $3-6k total)? Call the city! File an appeal! Seriously that’s like.. 200 bottles of formula or 800 diapers or 2 mamaroo’s.

@theballgirl Right?? I thought it would be like, a hundred a month, max, but $500 ?!?!?!?!?!??! I cannot imagine a life where fighting for that is not worth it. Especially as a freelancer – if I wanted to fight it I’d probably have to take vacation days to be on the phone, visiting the bank, fighting with people, etc.

@theballgirl The microbudgeting IS very satisfying, and we carry over extra day to day. My husband made a thing in Google Drive that does the calculating for us, which is an incredible help. I think it’s also doable in Excel, but it takes some forethought. Also I got oddly obsessed with this and would probably do the calculations daily even if I didn’t have a formula doing it for me.

So the tax exemption. I did talk to the city, I was working with the city treasurer for awhile and he was super cool about it. But it would have required me to convince my bank to let the city handle escrow directly, which is a stipulation in our mortgage and would have been a long shot. I tried filing an appeal. The only thing I gave up on was the bank arguing. I also thought this would be a good kick in the pants for us to figure out how to quit being MC Hammer and enter into some grandparent-level lean times so that we can get good at saving. Then next year when the exemption does go through, we will have so much savings. It also felt a little gross to fight really hard with a bank and have the city working to help us and on and on, when in fact, it was just to help us maintain a lifestyle that we didn’t really need to maintain, you know? Like, we can handle it, I would rather the city treasurer work hard for someone who is really in dire straits, rather than help me keep going to whole foods and buying buffalo mozzarella.

diplostreetmix (#4,472)

@theballgirl @Emily Kaye Lazzaro So… you are paying $6000 for a not-very-good budgeting class?! Or is it that you will essentially receive a double-exemption next year and this year will be kind of tight month-to-month? If it’s the second case, fine, it’s probably not worth it. But if you make a small enough amount of money for $500/month to push you to the edge, you have really got to figure this out.

jquick (#3,730)

@theballgirl Being an adult and parent means you suck it up and do boring things. Especially when it saves you a bunch of money. No more whining when you blow money foolishly.

Sureok (#7,242)

@theballgirl @emily kaye lazzaro
this article is actually insane. Somehow $500 a month is throwaway money (even though it puts her and her family at great financial risk) and she just didn’t want to talk on the phone anymore?
Also, you guys have chosen to have a dog??? And you’ve chosen to have a baby?? And you don’t even make enough money to pay for the child’s care? In what world did these seem like sound choices? And just in case it wasn’t clear from my indignation, having a baby and a dog in 2014 are actual choices. Big BIG life choices that are actually luxuries and maybe not luxuries you can afford if you are interested in pursuing a career as a playwright, actor, blogger, screenwriter, tutor, and babysitter. That’s the thing about luxury lifestyle choices, not everyone can afford them.

Darley (#3,822)

@Emily Kaye Lazzaro Or you could keep your “grandparent-level lean times” behavior and also have 500/month saved that can be an emergency fund to take care of your baby if something happens to your current income.

ellabella (#1,480)

@Sureok “And you don’t even make enough money to pay for the child’s care?” Many many women don’t make enough money to pay for childcare. For many women continuing to work while paying for childcare is an investment in future earnings/career benefits, not a way to actually make enough money to justify paying for childcare.

They can live on her husband’s income without her working, so I’m not sure why this wasn’t an okay choice in your book.

Also, she never said she was interested in “pursuing a career has a playwright, actor, blogger, screenwriter, tutor, and babysitter.” To go out on a very short limb, I am going to assume that babysitting and tutoring are jobs she does to make money; I’d imagine her career focus has more to do with the other creative pursuits. It doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to take time off from the majority of her income-earning pursuits to care for her child (babysitting someone else’s kid and then paying someone else to babysitting your own child would be a strange choice) and then use the rest of her time to focus on perhaps not-very-lucrative but important steps that will help her career trajectory in theater and film as her child gets older and goes to school, especially if her husband makes enough money to make this plan feasible.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Emily Kaye Lazzaro Well, I see your point but disagree. The treasurer is there to work with all citizens, regardless of their wealth or non-wealth. You are owed that money due to your living situation, which the city feels justifies a return. Just a warning: you will need to do this shit A LOT for your kid (esp as they get older). That is, deal with people and argue and whatever because kid needs [something]. It sucks, but it is part of parent life.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@Sureok Wow, this is super incredibly rude. It’s insanely irresponsible and luxurious to have kids and pets on one full-time plus one less predictable income? God forbid that anyone who has children “responsibly,” in your book, ever suffers from unemployment, wage cuts, or disability later in life – now THAT would be irresponsible. You’re right, only couples in which both parties are earning above median salaries, and have accumulated enough savings to weather unanticipated financial disaster at ANY point in the future, should be allowed to own pets or bear children.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@eatmoredumplings AGREED. That was a very judgeypants and rude response.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Just to clarify, you each get $20 a day? So $40 a day combined? Hm. That works out to just $1 under what averages out to be everything except internet/rent/electric over a 31 day month for us. Interesting.

@andnowlights Yup, $20 each.

crenb (#6,486)

I do $20 a week because I’m very broke and it is hard as hell.

@crenb Girl that is crazy hard. You are kind of my hero.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@crenb Including groceries?

tw0lle (#4,354)

Yeah I tried this and it totally didn’t work for me (although in my case it was $13/day when my rent suddenly went up astronomically). I’m doing a “no spending 2 days a week” plan that is a somewhat helpful compromise.

So many comments! I will start replying, friends!

samburger (#5,489)

I love this (beautifully written, also!) and I started trying to figure out what it would look like if my wife and I did $40/day for the both of us because it sounds HARD.

…And then I realized we already average $23/day for both of us. Our whole budget excluding tuition but including rent/utilities/insurance/etc comes out to $71/day. I feel like a mad budgeting genius.

My secret is three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s (and living in the midwest, probably?).

Darley (#3,822)

I would reconsider not trying to work this out with your mortgage company. It’s worth 500/month to avoid an argument? Would you take a gig that paid $500 an hour (assuming it could take 6 hours of your time?). Heck if it took 30 hours, would you take a gig that paid 100/hour?

boringbunny (#3,260)

Why don’t you hire someone – like a lawyer – to contest the tax bill for you? If you do it based on contingency, even if they take a third, you are getting $4000 for very little effort.

It doesn’t make financial sense to spend a lot of effort to save a few dollars here and there when you could make thousands of dollars with very little effort. I understand that you want to rein in your spending -$20/day for non-bills seems high to me and I don’t even consider myself to be living in deprivation mode – but as someone pointed out earlier, there’s no reason you couldn’t do both.

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