Our New Budgeting System

One of my goals for this year was to take our family budgeting to ‘the next level’.

For the last year and a half we have been using a reverse budget and tracking our spending as a family with the Smart Budget app.

This method was great because it gave us a good financial snapshot of our income and spending without being too demanding on us. There was just one budget number to stick to instead of a dozen.

I tried repeatedly to get into a set budget when we first started to pay off $82,000 in debt but I failed. I failed a lot.

No matter the method, Excel spreadsheet, fancy financial software or pen and paper notebook, I could never stick to a budget or tracking for very long.

I was repeatedly overwhelmed both with how many bills we had and the demands of entering all of them into one system. I’d try one system for a few weeks, fail, and then try another system and fail again.

Was I weak of will? Was I not choosing the right software? Was living within a budget and tracking expenses beyond me?

No. None of those answers are right.

What I can see now, after having found success with budgeting and tracking, is that I was trying to run before I could walk. I was trying to change everything overnight instead of a few small things at a time.

It wasn’t until we had paid off a lot of our debt, dramatically cut our household bills and spending, that we made any financial software, app or tracking method work for us.

We needed to take those small steps – cancel a few bills, give myself a ‘fun money’ budget each month, calculate what we’re actually spending on groceries every month and then try and stick to the average for a few months – so that we could eventually make the big leaps.

Why change if things are working?

The reason we are making this next jump is because we want to sharpen our financial skills.

We want to learn how to live within a set budget for each category of our spending and amortize our costs over the year. October through December is an expensive time for us for eating out and gift giving. We made it work last fall by saving a little less those months. This year we want to use a monthly budget with roll over to accommodate those expenses.

Moving from a reverse budget to a categorized monthly budget with roll-over.

We know our transportation spending for last year was £1100/$1600. That includes bus, cabs and passes for the trains and horse tram. So we have set budget of £100 a month and are allowing the unused budget to roll-over each month. This will allow us to accommodate months with bigger expenses such as when we take cabs to the airport or purchase annual passes.

Smart Budget vs. Home Budget

To make this change we had to switch our budgeting apps.

Previously we were using Smart Budget. This is a great app if you want to start tracking expenses and you need to sync the app from multiple devices. Good for people with joint finances that want to easily get a snapshot of their expenses and spending.

Why did we switch? Smart Budget doesn’t allow you to set expense limits and it doesn’t easily allow you to put expenses against multiple accounts. We tried it out for a month with our new system and it not only took a lot more time to enter expenses but we had to do some out of app bookkeeping to reconcile our budget and accounts.

Enter Home Budget. Home Budget, while not perfect, is allowing us to set category spending targets, have roll-over budget per category and easily assign expenses against financial accounts and categories. It also does some fun financial forecasting and has the all important Family Sync function for multiple accounts.

If you’re a financial software user yourself you might wonder why we aren’t using something that connects to our bank account and downloads transactions for us. We like entering our spending. The act of entering it helps us stay focused and resist purchases we don’t need. It keeps us honest.

Someday we might move to a system that downloads transactions from our bank accounts but as we have learned over the last three years: we’ll need the skills first.

A change is as good as a rest for finances too.

After a month using this new budgeting and tracking system we’re happy with the change. It’s challenging us a bit, for sure, but it’s also motivated us. I am feeling more resolve, even with a new baby at home, to defrost something from the freezer for dinner rather than call for take-out. And when we had multiple birthday parties to buy presents for this month I didn’t bat an eye at the cost because our gift budget is very healthy.

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver

Have you ever changed your budgeting or financial system? Why? Was it an easy change to make or did you struggle?

Families in Small Homes: 880 square feet for Kathryn’s Family of 5

This is the fourth in a series on families living a bit smaller in home size and/or possessions. You can read about Britt and her RV quest for the a new hometown for her family of four here and about Jules’s choice to have only have items with a purpose or memory in her home here. Last week Australian Brooke shared her beautiful home and story here
Want to share your story of downsizing or right-sizing with us? Email me at the minimalist mom at gmail dot com.
Today: Kathryn tells us about living in 880 square feet with her husband and three daughters on their urban homestead. Kathryn blogs about self-sufficiency and living a bit smaller at Farming My Backyard. P.S. Yes, these photos make me want to raise chickens too!

Tell us about your home and the family that lives there.

My husband and I live in Portland, Oregon with our three daughters, Libby (5), Julianna (3), and Éowyn (15 months).  We have an 880 square foot home with three bedrooms, and one bath on a 5,000 square foot lot.  We are also graced by the presence of two cats, a dog, eight chickens, and two goats.  Our oldest daughter loves to dance and bounce on her yoga ball and draw.  Julianna loves the animals and playing with her friends, and Éowyn loves playing with her sisters, especially if they are playing ball.  I try to keep our home spacious to accommodate their interests and physical needs, yet also make sure it’s vibrant and full of life and learning.  One of the ways I do this is downsizing my own personal possessions and choosing only to keep the most important things.

When we purchased our home it needed a lot of work and little by little we’ve been able to fix it up and plant the yard with edible landscaping and gardens.  It’s not a large home and it’s not fancy but everytime I see the things we’ve fixed or planted it makes me smile because it’s our handmade home where we’ve been learning to fix things ourselves.

You’re home is small but you are developing an urban homestead and rearing animals for self sufficiency. How does urban homesteading make your life simpler and how does it make it more challenging?

We are attempting to build a self sufficient (or at least as close as possible) urban homestead on our property.   We have chickens and goats and are working to increase our garden production using intensive methods, and are planning to add rabbits this year.   Some of the great things about this is we have a lot of our needs taken care of right on our own property.   Sometimes it’s like grocery shopping in the backyard.  We’ve been able to reduce our financial needs and our dependence on the car, which frees up more time to enjoy together.

The downside is it can be a lot of work and sometimes it takes some balancing on my part to make sure the animals and the kids all get their needs filled.  Sometimes it feels like everyone wants to eat at the same time.  Other days I feel like all I do is clean up poop.  I do really love it though, so for me getting out to the animals and the garden is worth adding extra things to feed and clean.

Three children at home full-time and your husband and yourself both work from home. Your house has so many functions and needs – how do you manage all of them without accumulating lots of things? Do you have a process for deciding what comes into your home?

I am ruthless about getting rid of things.  About once a month I go through the entire house and evaluate if we’ve used things enough to make storing them worth it, check for broken things or things we have duplicates of.  I try to only keep things that are beautiful or useful, but I prefer to make my useful things beautiful and cut down the only beautiful clutter.  I always have a box or bag in our shoe closet for give away stuff so it’s easy to drop things into it throughout the day.  Even the furniture and appliances get a critical eye if we don’t use them frequently!

If I have to replace something I try to make it as multipurpose as possible.  I also try not to go shopping in stores if at all possible.  When we go to the grocery store and thrift store we stick to the list, but I try to buy as much as I can online.  It’s harder for me to impulse buy when I jump online quickly to order something specific than if I am wandering through a physical store.

Right now my middle daughter is not okay with giving up any toys, but I feel very strongly that too many toys is upsetting for them and it takes my time away from them so we’ve compromised.  Four times a year I box up any toys they haven’t used over the past few months and put them in the garage attic.  The kids like to go shopping for “new” toys in the boxes that I pull down and it keeps the picking up and the putting away manageable.  I hope eventually she will be okay with my giving away some of the unused toys but until then I think a trusting relationship is more important than my personal ideals.

Name three things that make you happy.

My family, (including the furry and feathered members)

Reading fantasy books

Ice cream!

A 24 Hour Challenge to Unplug


I did it last year and I’m doing it again this year.

Last year I took a week offline. It was eye opening and restorative and challenging. I learned a lot. It was similar to a nutritional cleanse: at the end of it I felt ready to commit to better habits.

This year I am committing to 24 hours.

Not because I am not up for the challenge of a week but because I’m not feeling tethered to screens right now. I’m struggling to find the time, and motivation, to open my laptop. I’d rather be sleeping or reading if I have a few moments to myself.

I was using an app on my iPod to keep track of diapers, sleep and nursing with Wil but stopped when I found it kept me up more than I liked. That screen flicking on in the dark to record a feed or poopy diaper was waking me up more than the task at hand.  Also, Wil was gaining weight so I didn’t need to track his intake and outtake for medical reasons.

So this year I am pledging to unplug for 24 hours, from sundown on Friday March 1st to sundown on Saturday March 2nd, as part of the National Day of Unplugging.

No cell phone, no television, no computer.

I will use my Kindle to read. And I’ll be reading Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Fitting, right?

Anyone else up for the challenge? You can pledge here and I will make sure to put a reminder up on March 1st. 


Families in Small Homes: Brooke from Slow Your Home

This is the third in a series on families living a bit smaller in home size and/or possessions. You can read about Britt and her RV quest for the a new hometown for her family of four here and about Jules’s choice to have only have items with a purpose or memory in her home here. Want to share your story of downsizing or right-sizing with us? Email me at the minimalist mom at gmail dot com.
Today: Brooke from Slow Your Home. In Brooke’s words she’s an: Aspiring Minimalist. Blissful Gardener. Frequent Swearer. Passionate Writer. Inappropriate Laugher. Shit-Hot Dancer. Sometimes Exaggerator. Gin Drinker. On a Mission: To slow the hell down.

Tell us about your home and the people that live there.

I live in the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney, Australia. Home is a renovated cottage in the suburbs shared with my husband, Ben, and our two kids – Isla, 3 and Toby, 2. We also have a dog and three chickens.
The house itself is a 4-bedder, with en-suite and main bath, family room and a combined living/dining/kitchen space. It’s by no means small but it allows us to entertain (which we do a lot of) and means the kids have options when the weather is either excessively hot or cold and wet.  Plus, I can still vacuum the majority of the house while using just one power outlet – so it’s definitely not enormous!

I read that you decided to renovate and expand your home when you got pregnant with your second child. Now that you’ve pared down your possessions do you look at that decision differently?

You know, I was terrified of this question when I first read it. I was scared of what my answer may reveal – that we over-capitalised, that we fell for the myth of ‘bigger is better’, that we have more space than we need.
But the truth was the original house was too small for a family of four. It had two tiny bedrooms, no space for the kids to play, was poorly insulated and uncomfortable in both summer and winter. But we bought it because it was in a suburb we loved, close to family, close to good schools and close enough to the railway station that we could avoid buying a second car. So extending was the only option if we wanted to stay in the same place.
If it was up to me now, we would still make the same changes. The only difference is – since paring back and embracing a simpler life – we now have much more white space. Things feel calm, everything has its place and it feels like the haven we had hoped for.
What’s next for your family? I know you have ambitions to do some long term slow travel. 

Ben and I traveled a lot before we were married and we’re in the midst of plotting out our long-term travel plans right now. We definitely would like to live abroad in a few different places – taking time to live like locals and soak up the culture. We’re thinking a six-month stint in a few different places will be the way to go – namely Canada (the Rockies specifically), Thailand and Spain.
But it’s a delicate balance to strike between going while the kids are young and avoiding the complications of school transfers etc, but them being old enough to benefit from it. Plus there’s the issue of, you know, earning a living.
Most likely we will take a few shorter trips over the next year or two and then head off into the world come 2015/16.
Name three things that make you happy.
Just three?! I’ll give it a shot…
Gardening. Having my hands in the soil, coaxing seeds into plants, soaking up the sunshine and showing our kids where their food actually comes from brings me so much pleasure. It’s the ultimate exercise in mindfulness and a wonderful escape.
Snow. Growing up in Australia I didn’t see snow until I was 22 and working in Canada. Even after six months I marveled at it every day.
Curling up at the end of a long day, having a red wine with Ben or reading a good book.

Families in Small Homes: Jules from Pancakes & French Fries

As part of the Families in Small Home Series I asked Jules from Pancakes & French Fries to tell us about her reasons for simplifying and her William Morris Project. While Jules and her family don’t technically live in a small home, she’s done a lot of simplifying and pairing down. Lots to learn from her journey. Enjoy and thanks again Jules.

My goal is for everything in our home to have a memory, and if not a memory, at least a purpose.

Tell us a bit about the William Morris Project. I know you started it after helping a friend go through her parents possessions.

I did. My friend’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her mom heard the news and took to her bed. She stopped eating and drinking, and about 10 days later she passed away. Two weeks after that, my friend’s father died. June of 2011 was a nightmare. Going through her parents’ belongings was unbelievably disturbing. I remember standing in front of her mother’s vanity table and looking at the makeup, perfume, daily vitamin. It was all so normal! I felt like that character in a movie that stumbles into a city where everyone has suddenly left. I looked at her makeup and thought that if someone were to go through my makeup drawer, they would wonder why a girl who never wears makeup has two different green eyeshadows and 12 lip glosses in various shades of plum.

I decided right then that if anyone were to go through my possessions, they would touch each one without wondering what the heck I was thinking. “Oh, look! She loved these shoes.” “Do you remember how long it took her to find this perfume tray?” “She bought the fox lamp because her oldest son’s favorite movie was Fantastic Mr. Fox. It reminded her of him.”

My goal is for everything in our home to have a memory, and if not a memory, at least a purpose. (Sometimes a lemon reamer is just a lemon reamer.) I have no desire to be a minimalist, but it goes part and parcel with creating an intentional home. It’s hard to consider yourself thoughtful when you have a drawer full of old t-shirts! 


Has this ongoing project to ‘have nothing in your house that is not beautiful or useful’ changed how you shop/consume/buy things?

Absolutely. Limitations can be freeing, and so is knowing where everything goes in your home. I can see a pretty candle on a store shelf and want to buy it, but I know the cabinet where I store candles can only hold two, at most. Back goes the candle on the shelf.

You are a fan of Simplicity Parenting (me too!) and purge toys without input from your sons. Have you had any regrets over toys you donated? Do you see this style of decluttering for your children changing as they get older?

I have zero regrets. If I regret anything, it’s that I didn’t purge more and that I didn’t donate the toys immediately. I saved them for a mythical garage sale we were “going to have.” I finally admitted to myself a couple of weeks ago that we will never have a garage sale.

I imagine (hope) that as they get older, the boys will have fewer unreasonable attachments to broken toys and stuffed animals they ignored until they hit the donate pile. I once made the mistake of going to Goodwill for a drop off after I picked them up from school. They saw, through a white trash bag, mind you, a red and black buffalo check shirt with fleece lining. It was a great shirt that they both wore until they couldn’t wear it any longer. It was two sizes too small and they hadn’t worn it in over a year, but they cried as if I was giving away the family dog. 

They’ll also have fewer, but more expensive toys as they get older. iPods, iPads, Kindles–those are all items that contain data, and I’m not so crazy that’d I’d toss out an entire book and music library for the sake of more shelf space.

Finally, I would love to know more about your choice to leave your law career. What was the biggest factor for changing jobs? Yes, I consider home manager/blogger/everything else you do a job choice :)

I wrote about that at length here, but the short of it is that I was a research attorney for a family and criminal law practice. I was in the office on a Saturday preparing an argument for a man to have more visitation with his children–he only wanted it to reduce his support payments–when it hit me that I was taking time away from my son to win more time for a man who treated his children like pawns in a game of chess. I guess that means the biggest factor for changing jobs was cognitive dissonance. Or, to put it in internet speak, “What is seen…cannot be unseen.”

Name three things that make you happy.

A good book.

My family.

Chocolate ice cream with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups mixed in.

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