2018 February 06

Adulting 101: Cash is the Real Secret to Managing Money

2018 is the year of really becoming an adult (for me, anyway). My thirties are over, really over, and I’m done playing around. I want to focus, I want to deepen, and I want to direct my life, my work, and my attention. As always, while this sounds like some deep, metaphysical metaphor (and it kinda is), it also means dealing with some boring life junk, like how I spend money, how I take care of myself, and how much time I waste on the internet and video games and stuff.

I’m gonna talk about money today, y’all – CASH MONEY.

The Backstory

We have two big expenses coming up this year – 1. the adoption of our son Ji and 2. the expansion of our house to accomodate Michigan’s requirements for housing adopted and biological children of different genders. In short, we need to spend less and save a lot more money than we have been.

To free up cash, we did three things: we sold our 2014 Crosstrek, paid off the loan and bought a 2009 Tribeca in cash; we paid off another loan in full with savings; and we set up a fixed cash budget for variable monthly expenses like food, entertainment, gas, etc.

Making all these changes was sucky at first. Letting go of the Crosstrek was hard – it was great and we loved it. Fortunately, we love the Tribeca too. It was a relief to see the instalment debt paid off but it still hurt to see how much of our savings is now gone. By far, though, the biggest challenge has been not just staying within our fixed cash budget, but also just learning to shop with cash locally again.

Before meeting and moving in with my husband, I lived and taught English in a small town in rural Japan. I paid for nearly everything in cash, except utilities and housing, which were deducted monthly directly from my bank account. It’s very easy to budget when most of your expenses are tangible and cash-based. I kept track of my monthly budget in a “household account notebook” (家計簿). In a rather metaphorical but also quite literal sense, I *felt* the cost of things with my hands and my eyes as I handed money over at a store or tallied up receipts later at home. It was easy to be disciplined with my spending when I always knew how much I had to spend and I liked the simplicity and rhythm of my paper-money tracking system.

I ditched all that pretty much immediately when I came back to the US. Paying for everything with cards is so easy! Tracking all your expenses online is so easy! Yeah, maybe but finding a budget program that both an Apple & a Linux user could and wanted to use was nearly impossible. Reconciling and categorizing every little expense across several bank and credit card accounts was massively time-consuming. Moving money between imaginary cash accounts and our actual bank accounts was complicated. Balancing our budget weekly was a nasty chore that took hours.

And worst of all, none of these “convenient” tools let me do something I could easily do before the advent of smartphones and wifi everywhere: know just how much money I had to spend on food or cough medicine or a lazy Sunday brunch out with the family.

10 years later, I’m done. So we scrapped all that.

Most of our fixed expenses (mortgage, healthcare, etc.) are still paid through direct debit or online. Food, which is our third largest expense behind healthcare and our mortgage, we pay for in cash. Every week, we take out a fixed amount from the bank, and we use it when we eat out and when we go to the grocery store. Necessary non-recurring, non-fixed expenses, like gas and cough medicine, are paid for out of a fixed weekly cash envelope and non-necessary expenses like new clothes and hobby-related stuff (running shoes, swim goggles, etc) are allotted a fixed amount monthly that can be paid with cash or online. I keep track of our expenses on a paper spreadsheet by riffling through the few receipts that fall outside of the food and miscellaneous category. Now that the spreadsheets are set up, it takes about twenty minutes every Sunday morning.

The Results

First, we eat out a lot less. Our weekly food budget is $240, which breaks down to about $11 per person per day. Once we’ve bought ingredients for food for the week (tempting as processed food is, we’re still cooking with gas here), we usually have enough left over for a trip to Dairy Queen after the kiddo’s swim class and one inexpensive meal out over the weekend. Usually something along the lines of Taco Bell or whatever the roller rink is serving.

Second, we don’t really need anything NOW. Boring as it is, we consider purchases a lot more carefully. And we look for ways to buy them locally with cash. Surely this is more expensive than shopping around for the best bargain? After two months of living this way, I don’t think so.

We recently bought two pairs of shoes for the kiddo locally in cash for about half the price they are on Amazon*. Boring, I know. BUT the best part isn’t just that we saved money but that, in going shoe shopping together, I got to watch my little girl run and jump around in a variety of cute shoes and she got to try on everything I won’t normally buy her – cowboy boots, sandals, light-up sneakers and more. Instead of a “one-click”, “easy” experience, shopping becomes a far richer experience that allows for conversations about price, value and practicality. And buying locally in cash helps ensure that I will continue to be able to buy locally in cash.

I also don’t have to deal with having to sift through millions of lookalike options to find the right one for me. I replaced my nine year old computer this year and needed to get a USB-C hub. I decided to buy it from the local Apple store because they had only two options and I could take my stuff to the store and make sure it all worked together. The same hub actually turned out to be cheaper at the Apple Store than at Amazon* and I didn’t have to sift through the specs and reviews of 50+ slightly different hubs built with what is obviously the same circuit board at 20 different price points.

The final result is less stress and way more time to do anything else other than shopping. I don’t feel compelled to shop for items to meet shipping thresholds, buy things on sale, spend hours reading reviews or monitor supply levels of things we use often because we don’t buy things we don’t actually need right now. And, surprise, surprise, things can still be had for a good price when we do actually need them.


*Amazon is absolutely the last place I shop for a multitude of reasons (the aforementioned overwhelming glut of lookalike, probably counterfeit goods, Amazon’s bully tactics to publishers, how they treat their employees, their dynamic pricing strategy, etc.). That said, an overwhelming number of people seem to believe that they are the merchant with the lowest prices and so I’ve included them for comparison.