A few months ago our son came across an old video of ours in a box. It was taken in our house in Bethlehem, PA a few years before he was born. In it you could see much younger versions of Sage and I spending time on the computer and lots of footage of our old house. Looking back, I think that while it was not huge – a bit over 1400 square feet with additional storage provided by an unfinished basement – we had the least amount of stuff we’d ever owned. This is due in equal part to our just starting out as a couple and our terrible money management skills. At the same time it was one of the messiest times of our lives. This was in great part due to our having had eight cats but also in great part from the fact that neither of us wanted to do any household chores.
Things improved a bit when we became parents but there was still a great deal of clutter, and we still weren’t great at money management. We made good money, and always had enough just after getting paid, but the closer we got to the next payday the worse off we’d be. Rather than budgeting, we would just use our balance to determine whether or not we could spend more or go out to dinner. Fortunately for us we didn’t have any credit cards so we were always just a few days away from being completely fine and even reforming our habits by spending less. Possibly the worst example of this was when we suspected that Sage was pregnant and we were both very excited. On the other hand, we weren’t going to get paid for a few more days. We wanted a pregnancy test because we really wanted to know but we had spent nearly everything we had. And so, we grabbed a few CDs, headed over to the used CD store and sold them – then we went next door and bought the test. (and it was positive – in a few months we’d be parents and our lives would change forever).
In the intervening years our experiences with household management waxed and waned in levels of financial responsibility and avoidance of mess. For a couple of years we moved in to a 300 square foot yurt in the woods where even at its messiest we could have it completely tidy in 30 min. At that time, both of us were also working very little so we could both be at-home parents as much as possible. The result is that we were able to live on as little as $300/month. We lived without electricity, running water, heated with wood I gathered and cut, and without a fridge, we couldn’t buy lots of prepared foods so I cooked most things from scratch: dried beans, fresh veggies bought a few days before with occasional fish that would be cooked as soon as we brought it home since we couldn’t keep it cool. Many of those things we bartered for so we didn’t even need money for that.
In those years we did really well with money and household management in great part because we minimized the number of things we had to manage. It was the ideal path for us at the time as having little to manage and little need for work meant we could spend a great deal of time together as a family.
After that time, though, we eventually moved back in to a more conventional situation with an apartment and with my having a full time job. With all that came some of the old challenges, albeit much less severe. Money was generally better though with a small child, keeping the house clean was more challenging than ever.
A couple of things addressed both issues:
Much of our problem with keeping a tidy house had to do with our feeling there were so many better things to do together than clean. About 10 years ago, we came across a fantastic idea: We loved playing cards, backgammon, and other board games. We would now add gambling to the mix. We would sit down on an evening or weekend and start a game with the loser obligated to do a chore that was determined before the game. The person who wasn’t working would read aloud to the other person to entertain them. The chores wouldn’t be long, tedious ones – they would be small ones like “Sweep and mop the kitchen” or “clean the toilet.” The change was almost immediate. We love playing games and the “high stakes” made it more fun.
As for money management, this one is a relatively recent change. We’ve experimented before with each of us having an “allowance” – a set amount of spending money that we could use in a week. This is intended to keep our variable expenses – mostly dining out – to a minimum. In reality, though, it rarely lasted. One or the other of us would find ourselves out in the world with no more allowance left but ravenously hungry and head for a restaurant where we’d overspend and then the idea would just fade away for a while.
But a recent change to this has really changed this for the better. The tweaks we made are:
- Reduce the allowance to an amount a little below what we might actually spend in a week. Right now that amount is $25 but it may drop further based on the success of the other point.
- We created a list of routine chores from cleaning the fridge to washing the dishes to going grocery shopping and gave them small financial rewards. We get $0.35 added to that week’s allowance for loading and unloading the dishwasher, a full grocery trip gets the person doing it $2. Making dinner gets me (it’s almost always me) $3 – which is far cheaper than a dinner out would be.
- We encourage not spending by allowing us to carry over half of what’s left at the end of the week to the next week and then adding that week’s $25 to it.
The result is that we now find ourselves seeing where we’re at allowance-wise, seeing that if we want to grab a fancy coffee we might need more money and then doing a small series of necessary chores to get the money to do it. The house ends up cleaner, we spend less, and we have fun doing it. This combination of playing games for chores, having an allowance and then supplementing that allowance with more chores has resulted in our having the best home/money/leisure balance we’ve ever had.