Happy Budgeting – How do you do it?

Nothing makes me feel better than setting a budget and sticking to it. I feel so pious when I make it to my next paycheck with a few dollars to spare. I get a major rush from saving up for something I want and purchasing it with cash, without it affecting my next three paychecks. Living within your means is a wonderful thing. It’s also exhausting.

For me, budgeting everything down to the penny is difficult to sustain as part of a regular lifestyle. It’s about constantly deciding what needs to be bought NOW and what can wait another week or month. Do I pay a little more toward an outstanding bill, or do I buy new socks for my kiddo? Should I get an oil change or new underwear? Stupid stuff. I’m not  budgeting for vacations or an IPad. It’s stuff I will have to get around to spending money on someday.

My husband and I have made some progress this year that I am truly proud of. I have been faithfully putting away a little of each paycheck into a savings account. I am contributing to a retirement account again. We have been diligent about grocery shopping regularly and cheaply, and have cut down our weekly food spending by about $50 or so per week. It seems like I am still doing something wrong though. I often run out of money before the next payday and have to use my credit card for gas or something. I can’t ever seem to get ahead.

The first rule that any financial expert would tell me is to cut out unnecessary expenses. I am not even close to an extreme couponer, a garage-saler or even a good bargain finder, but I don’t spend money on the things most people around me do either. The only items I regularly spend money on that would fall into the unnecessary category are cable tv at $75 a month and lunches or lattes a couple of times a week. Yes, I could take that $3.50 latte twice a week and put that money into savings and end up with an extra $30 a month. Big whoop.  We don’t go out to dinner anymore. We don’t go to movies. We don’t go out for drinks. We don’t pay for entertainment or hobbies. When you consider that, the little luxuries of cable tv, lattes or a bottle of wine on the weekend become necessary rewards in the daily stress of working to live.

I know these times call for serious penny-pinching, and some people would consider me lucky to have food to eat and a roof over my head, so I hope I don’t sound too ungrateful. I’m just having a problem with budget burnout. If you are constantly depriving yourself of anything fun, how long until you go on a spree? I read an interesting article today comparing budgeting to dieting. The premise was with budgeting as with diets, you can’t go crazy for long-term results. Sure, restricting your calories or purchases to extremes will yield impressive results right away, but rarely is it sustainable over the long run.

How have you found a sustainable way to budget while not feeling deprived?  Are there little treats that help you get through your day while staying on budget? Sometimes the only thing that keeps me trudging through 8 more hours of work is the reward of a latte break, but is that going to be the death of my bank account?

The Last Luxury

Today, my co-worker and I were jokingly telling our boss that we were going to file a religious discrimination complaint against our company because they provide coffee, but refuse to purchase us a water cooler. My co-worker is mormon and doesn’t drink caffeine. My boss says “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you guys, they’re getting rid of coffee too. The company is no longer paying for it. You’ll have to buy it yourselves.”

Wow. So I knew last week’s all company conference call with the CEO was serious when he told us we were $10 mil in the red, but cutting out coffee? Really? Listen, I’m all for tightening our belts. I do think it’s time we all started being more responsible with our money.  BUT, there is a point at which it’s taken too far. If you look at some of the most successful companies, companies who have been able to hold on and maybe even prosper even in the worst of times, you usually find that they also have happy employees. I think the CEO of my company has failed to take into account the tremendous benefit to a company of taking care of its employees.  The most obvious, of course, is low turnover.  But there are other benefits as well. Studies show happy employees take fewer sick days, are higher performers, and speak highly of their companies outside of the workplace.

A more grateful person would probably be happy with my job.  I have a 401k and health insurance. I am eligible for a small raise once a year. I get two weeks of paid vacation and 6 days of sick leave. I make twice the minimum wage and have a nice boss. I am incredibly lucky right now just to have a job, I know that. I was unemployed for almost two years, and I know how much it sucks. Unfortunately for me, just collecting a paycheck isn’t going to sustain me for very long.

Greg Smith, president of Chart Your Course International, researches employee satisfaction and helps business leaders create better workplaces. In his research, he has found that there are 5 keys to increasing job satisfaction and retention among employees:

  • Provide a positive working environment
  • Reward and recognition
  • Involve and increase employee engagement
  • Develop the skills and potential of your workforce
  • Evaluate and measure job satisfaction

I would add one more to this list, at least for women and mothers: 

  • work/life balance or job flexibility

 My company does not get a passing grade in any of these categories.

Provide a positive working environment – No drinking water, no break room, no radio, no coffee. No perks. On my first day, my manager said my job is to be in the office every second of the workday because there’s a one in a million chance we could get randomly audited. When I asked about the lunch hour, he kind of hemmed and hawed and basically told me (disdainfully) that the law requires employees get a lunch break, but it’s important for someone to be here all the time. I said “well, what do my counterparts in other offices do for their lunch hour?” He said “they mostly just eat at their desks.”

Reward and recognition – Well, last month we did get an email from our managers saying we did a great job exceeding our numbers, immediately followed by 3 paragraphs of what we are doing wrong. 

Involve and increase employee engagement – If this means keeping employees in the dark on everything going on with the company until we hear it from the mouths of our customers, then we get an A+!  I’ve never met anyone else in a company of 3,000 except my direct manager and the three guys I work with, and no one has ever asked my opinion about anything.

Develop the skills and potential of your workforce – See above re: employee engagement. We seem to operate on a “not your job description, none of your business” mentality. Weird. Most companies love their employees to be interested in other aspects of the company beyond their job description. Not this one.

Evaluate and measure job satisfaction – This one is so desperately needed and could probably solve some of the other problems above. Once a year we are required to fill out a 2-page evaluation with each answer limited to space for 3 or 4 sentences. The questions are all geared toward how we are contributing to the company. There is no opportunity to write open comments, suggestions or opinions, and I’m pretty sure human resources doesn’t even play a part in this process.

Now granted, I don’t even drink the office coffee unless I am super desperate (we don’t have a dishwasher to wash the coffeepot which I find utterly disgusting). However, it’s the principle. That can of coffee represented the one tiny luxury this company afforded its employees. I suppose I should just be grateful that I am in a comfortable, climate controlled office and that I get paid reliably every two weeks. Well, it’s semi-climate controlled. The air conditioner doesn’t work when the temps get above 90 degrees.

But my feeling is that I am sitting in this office for 8 or more hours a day 5 days a week – I need a little incentive to dedicate 3/4 of my precious few hours of the day to lining someone else’s pockets (cuz let’s face it folks, I ain’t gettin’ rich on a 25 cent yearly raise). Job happiness is about so much more than pay. I wish my company’s decision makers realized that. Instead, they choose the reactive route so many other companies ascribe to as well: Provide employees with the absolute minimum to do their jobs. And what do you think employees give back? The absolute minimum to keep their jobs.

If I had any other options, I would leave in a heartbeat and never look back. I would much rather be at home watching my son grow up than spending most of my week at a company that doesn’t even know I exist.

I’m curious about other people’s opinions on this topic. Do you think work is just work and it is wrong to expect anything more than a paycheck? Do you think an employer’s only responsibility to its employees is to pay them for the work done,  or do you think employers should provide more “human” benefits? What makes or would make you happy at a job?

September

Many people see January 1st as a new start for their lives. Toss the crap from the previous year and move forward, get it on the calendar, make a change. I’ve tried to make resolutions and goals and adopt a positive attitude come January 1st. It doesn’t work for me because January is an absolute dreadful time of year where I live. I am constantly cold and tired, it’s dark when I get up and dark when I go to bed.  Everything is shades of brown and gray, and we are often plagued by a valley phenomenon known as an inversion – when the pollution, fog  and freezing air gets trapped down in the valley for days on end. There is seemingly nothing positive about January. Winter seems infinite, the fun of the holidays is over, and I have to go back to work with no vacation in sight.

Today at lunch, I walked out into the September sun, which felt delightful –  not scorching as it has been for the last month – and was reminded how very much I love September. For a lot of people I know, September is depressing – summer vacation and all the fun activities that go with it is over, winter weather is on its way, and there is nothing to look forward to. For me, September is my “new year.” I associate it with a new start. Maybe I’m still living in my glory days, associating the change of seasons with the new school year, a chance to start fresh with new friends, new activities, and renewed sense of focus for learning. I love the shift in sunlight that seems to happen overnight, the cool mornings that smell of campfires, and the still warm days that are perfect weather for any activity under the sun.

Today I felt happy, inspired even, to make a change. I’m not sure what that change is. I have a growing list of interests to “look into” someday. Or maybe it’s a change in mentality. My life has become stagnant and unfulfilling (except that of my family, thank God for them), and my emotions have been on a roller coaster for two years. Make that a super loop. Roller coasters at least have ups, my emotions just go round and round in an endless circle. I need a change.

Regardless of what that change is, as summer shifts to winter, something in me shifted today too. I have a hopeful heart when I think about the future. I’m excited for the holidays, for growing my family, watching my son get older. I’m not feeling dreadful about the endless days of meaningless work or the fear of not having enough money.  I know something in my life will shift, and the pieces will come together.

Happy New Year!

Working Mom Misery – Stuckness

I have been struggling with work big time since I had my son two years ago.  I can’t wrap my head around how other women do it – working full time and being a mom while staying happy, that is. From reading around the web, I see I’m not the only one suffering from “stuckness” – physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, maritally…

I have one little boy who is almost two. I work full time because I have to. I’m a college grad with almost 10 years of work experience, but the best I could find after being laid off a few years ago then having a baby was an entry-level administrative job that is so boring I want to blow my head off. But I don’t see any other options right now. I’m stuck. I’ve driven myself crazy trying to think of other viable ways for me to be home with my son more often (not to mention I want to have another), but it all comes back to the same thing – right now, I need to stay put or we go without food, shelter or medical care. What really REALLY sucks is that even though I am away from home 40 hours plus (commuting time, lunch hour, etc), my husband (also a college grad and underpaid full time worker) and I are still just short of making ends meet. Yes, I do have wonderful health insurance and other benefits through my work, but is that worth being miserable and STILL having to pick and choose which bills to pay? After all, don’t we work so we can provide a good life for our children? If I can’t afford to buy my son the things that he needs, or things to keep our house nice, or at least have some financial peace, then what the hell is the point? I feel as though I am robbing myself and my family of any benefits that come from working full time. I don’t love what I do, my salary is just above the poverty line, there is no opportunity for advancement – hell, there aren’t even social benefits!  I am alone in an office for most of the day and only work with a few men who I rarely see.

So here I sit, miserable and depressed, unable to be the mom and wife I long to be because I am so tired all the time.  I feel like I’m balancing on a fine line between happiness and insanity because all day long I go round and round in my head with the same miserable thoughts and no way out.

 The only thing that gives me hope is that I do believe something will change, and things will improve for us. They always do – I have faith.  I know I’m in the majority when it comes to struggling with this, and other people seem to come away with it happy and well adjusted. In the meantime, maybe I’ll come up with a brilliant plan in all these hours I’m wasting away bored out of my mind at work.

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