When Budgeting, Don’t Forget the ‘Fun Money’

When Budgeting, Don’t Forget the ‘Fun Money’

The results are in from the Chu-Wall Money Makeover. And they’re nothing to bank on.

Over the past few months, Jonathan and I have made far fewer changes to our financial lives than most of the five couples I’ve profiled for this series have. We’ve had one major accomplishment: getting those blank checks from credit-card companies to stop coming. Well, we hope, anyway. But more on that later.

The main reason we didn’t achieve more drastic changes was lack of free time. And though we had the public eye on us, we didn’t have the guidance of a financial planner, as the five couples in this series did.

Not that financial planners haven’t written in to offer their services after reading this financial diary. We weren’t sure how to take this. A compliment? A bid for publicity? Or did these planners just pity us, thinking, “That couple really needs help?”

Whatever the case, while we’re flattered, we like managing most of our own money — for now at least. Jonathan says he gets enough here’s-what-we-should-do-with-our-money ideas from being married to a personal finance writer who’s constantly probing to see what needs to be improved.

“It’s like being married to a financial proctologist,” he says.

He was a good sport in agreeing to make three financial resolutions as part of this series. Here’s where we stand on them:

Tried, unsuccessfully, to update our budget. We abandoned this effort shortly after we started. That’s because this resolution spurred erratic behavior: We found ourselves cutting out coffees and lunches to keep our daily expenses at a low, and somewhat unreasonable, level. Jonathan even abandoned his regular wine-buying habits and limited himself to a less-than-$10 bottle of wine here and there.

Don’t get me wrong. These changes in buying habits are great — but not when they’re done artificially, to tamp down our spending temporarily, while we’re writing about it. A few good things, though, did come out of my dishing about the oatmeal I buy for breakfast or lunch, Jonathan’s weakness for wine and our unsuccessful efforts to find a reasonably priced co-op in New York City.

A work colleague gave me a free lunch. Well, it was a bag of granola, but she insisted it was just as hearty a meal as the oatmeal I often eat. And she gave me a money-saving tip about a $3 falafel meal that could be found at a nearby street vending cart in Manhattan. Another colleague offered to take me out to drinks. Both their ideas will help me save money, so I can’t complain.

Readers also wrote in with their own money-wise suggestions:

• Al and Joanna Viviano of Louisville, say they’ve learned not to buy expensive items on impulse. It’s a common and simple principle, but it bears repeating for others: “Wait one week and see if the burning urge to splurge is there,” wrote Al Viviano. “Many times, the urge goes away.”

• Robert Tock of Chicago believes people can save money by starting the day with only single dollar bills in their wallets. “This way, a person is inclined to spend only what is desired and not register add ons,” Tock wrote in an e-mail. (He was responding to mine and Jonathan’s unorthodox and haphazard savings method — detailed in my May 15 diary entry — for take-out food: We stuff single dollar bills into the front flap of a book we keep by the door at home.)

• Jules Coco, a New Orleans man displaced to Cary, N.C., by Hurricane Katrina, suggests paying attention to the prices of every day products because “we’re all getting nickeled & dimed daily.”

“How about the half-gallon of ice cream that is now 1.5 quarts but sells for the same price that the half-gallon sold for 6 months ago? Or the restaurants that no longer offer tap water, but they will SELL you bottled water?” he laments.

Got credit-card companies to stop mailing us those blank checks. I e-mailed each credit-card company to ask to be put on the “no-mail” list for these checks, which always come with a letter encouraging you to tap your available line of credit to pay off your bills.

In my e-mails, I told them I didn’t use these checks, and that I feared a fraudster would get hold of them, since they came so regularly.

I was pleasantly surprised. Each credit-card company responded within days, saying it would take note of my request and that the checks should stop coming.

Well, eventually. It’ll take up to 12 weeks to get these mailings to stop, one company’s customer-service rep wrote, because some marketing materials and lists may have been created in advance. Another company’s rep, while assuring me in an e-mail that the company would no longer send these checks, wrote that even if a fraudster got hold of them, I wouldn’t be liable for “unauthorized charges.”

I’m not comforted by this assurance. After all, it’s not just the money, but the wasted time. If someone stole these checks, I’d still have to take time to report it and follow up on the matter.

Still, Jonathan and I have something to look forward to: No more blank checks in the mail. No more shredding them into tiny pieces and stuffing them deep in the garbage can.

Automating our bills. The idea was to automate all our bills, by having them paid out of our one joint account instead of paying them piecemeal out of our joint and separate accounts, as we’re doing at the moment.

This is a work in progress. We’re in the process of canceling some of the automatic payments from our separate accounts and having everything taken out of the joint accounts. We’re committed to finishing this task, but it’s going to take a little more time.

Besides our financial goals, Jonathan had a “side” resolution, to get in better physical shape at the same time. And after six weeks of morning sit-ups and push-ups, he has good news.

“I lost four pounds,” Jonathan says. “But I would have lost more if my wife didn’t cause me to eat dinner after 9 p.m. I read somewhere that eating before 7:30 p.m. helped Oprah trim down. Therefore I would have lost more weight if I was married to Oprah.”

He’s right. A hectic schedule at work has meant late dinners for the past few months. Not the most effective way for Jonathan to get in shape. And, not the most efficient way to get our finances in tip-top shape. But the Money Makeover did get us to try.

May 31, 2006: Making sure you get what you pay for

Nothing makes Jonathan and me angrier than getting nickeled-and-dimed.

That’s why our missing “extra white rice” last week was particularly upsetting. It sounds ridiculous, I’m sure. But stay with me — I have a point.

Last Thursday, we got home late from work. So instead of cooking, we ordered Thai chicken curry and noodles for delivery, with our typical side: a pint of extra white rice.

Having to pay for rice with your entree is maddening enough. Asian take-out joints — at least those in our neighborhood — give you a small container of rice with every order, enough for, well, about 10 bites of food. Jonathan and I are convinced they do this intentionally. Rice is one of their lowest-cost products, so the profit margins are probably much higher than for, say, an order of beef and broccoli.

The bottom line is that, if they can get everyone to order an extra white rice, they’d make a lot more money. But our extra rice, even after we ordered it, didn’t come. It was the third consecutive time that it’s happened to us at this restaurant.

I know, I know. We’re like lab rats who can’t learn to change their behavior, right? But the reason we’re reluctant to switch Thai restaurants is that this one makes one tasty curry.

In a call to the restaurant, Jonathan spelled out our frustration — very clearly, concisely and passionately: “There’s NOT enough rice … we need MORE rice.”

That led to a prompt delivery of the extra rice we ordered, although I think the restaurant didn’t really understand the extent of our frustration amid my peals of laughter.

I wasn’t laughing at Jonathan’s request. Rather, I couldn’t contain my glee because between the two of us, I’m usually the outraged consumer: calling the phone company to dispute a $10 charge or expressing outrage when a magazine subscription continues to be paid out of our bank account — even after we’ve canceled the order.

Jonathan is usually listening from the sideline, shaking his head as if to say, “Is it really worth it to spend an hour on the phone to get a few dollars back?” But he does come around to seeing the need to speak up as a consumer, as with the rice delivery.

We’re not cheapskates. Really. We just want what we pay for, nothing else. We also want to know what we’re paying for upfront. So even if it’s a mistaken phone charge of 50 cents, it’s still worth disputing, right? (Well, that assumes we can find the time during business hours to do so.) After all, it’s the principle of the matter — as well as the satisfaction of getting something done — not just the eventual savings.

As I see it, if we don’t dispute a small financial mistake now, then the next one could be much bigger, and more damaging to our wallet.

I think it was some form of this reasoning that led to a decidedly unromantic start to mine and Jonathan’s honeymoon in Italy three years ago. On the first full day we were in Venice, I spent most of the time calculating exchange rates, instead of taking a leisurely gondola ride down the city’s serpentine canals or joining other tourists on their search for “real Venetians,” that small, nearly invisible population of city residents.

We had exchanged American dollars to euros that morning. That I remember. I also recall recalculating the rate we had gotten. Fretting about whether we’d been shortchanged, I did the math on a napkin given to us by the gelateria where we’d gotten an ice-cream cone. And again on a stray receipt pulled out from the inner depths of my purse. And again, while waiting for a vaporetto, or water bus. (You’d think, being a finance writer, I’d be able to do the math right the first time.)

I probably should have been reveling in being a newlywed, instead of worrying about exchange rates. I did eventually drop the matter, if only for the sake of not sounding like a broken record (and because the money-changing office had closed and we were nowhere close to the area anymore.) Thankfully, Jonathan put up with me. I think it’s because we’ve been together for a long time, and he accepts what I think — and hope — are lovable quirks that probably would exist whether or not I wrote about personal finance.

Says Jonathan: “Neurotic economics definitely put a damper on the day, but we ended up laughing about it; otherwise, I was jumping a gondola for Greece!”

It’s always hard to find free time to make sure we’re getting what we pay for, on everything from cellphones to utility service, mutual funds, credit cards and auto insurance. We try to pore over the fine print on our bills and statements regularly, since the terms we read on these documents just a few weeks ago could change at any time. But during busy spells at work, these statements unfortunately get set aside for another day.

That’s probably why, when we do find something that sets our finances a bit askew — like having to pay for extra rice or not getting what we ordered — we get worked up (maybe a little too much). Every nickel and dime counts, after all.

Want to tell me how you and your mate keep track of your nickels and dimes? Write to me at kchu@usatoday.com. I may quote from reader comments and respond to them.

May 22, 2006: When budgeting, don’t forget the ‘fun money’

Take care of the luxuries, and the necessities will take care of themselves.

Jonathan is fond of this philosophy, which came from Frank Lloyd Wright, a fellow architect and legendary man who supposedly loved grand pianos, went broke a few times and, when he passed away, left us with his thought-provoking buildings and pithy one-liners.

“Unfortunately, I do understand what he means,” Jonathan says, “even though luckily, I don’t even have one of those fake electric Casio pianos with the built-in background beat. So no worries about excessive financial overextending on musical instruments.”

Here’s why Jonathan can relate: When we travel, he’s been known to try to book a pricey hotel, knowing full well that it nearly taps out our discretionary funds for the month. But he’s content to make up for this by surviving during vacation on necessities like a deli sandwich, eaten on a picnic-blanket comforter.

Most of the time, when I find out about the hotel booking, I try to downgrade to the cheapest place available, to save money. Jonathan has drawn the line, though, at some of the places I’ve booked for us. He points out that it’s been a long time since we’ve been students, and we can afford more than a youth hostel. So he feels fortunate if I reserve even a dilapidated bed-and-breakfast.

My usual defense is that it’s not only cost. You tend to meet more interesting people in tiny run-down places than in sterile upscale hotels.

But I’m with Jonathan on being able to relate to Wright’s philosophy — well, for the most part. Yes, saving and investing are extremely important. But once we’ve paid the bills and socked away a healthy amount for the future, we need some financial freedom. I think every couple does. And I’ve heard planners say the same.

For instance, take Dave Yeske, former president of the Financial Planning Association, the group that’s partnered with USA TODAY on this Couples and their Cash series. Yeske told one of the couples we’ve profiled that they need to set aside some money for fun, rather than just for paying bills and building savings.

Fun money. Mad cash. Call it what you will. With these funds, I can buy those cute but costly outfits I want for my three adorable nieces and two nephews, even if I have to go another few months without replacing my ripped jeans. For Jonathan, it means he can buy those pricey architecture books or canvases to paint abstract paintings. And we can both take family and friends out to eat, even if we have to cook dinner and bring lunch to work for the rest of the month.

We might be taking some liberties with the meaning of Wright’s words. But he’s not here to tell us what he was thinking anyway.

Jonathan and I think it’s perfectly OK if mad money isn’t always spent on something practical. That’s why it’s called mad money, after all. Here’s an example: This week, I bought five egg-sized “egglings” from the Museum of Modern Art gift shop in Manhattan. They’re herb plants — they come in basil and mint — inside a ceramic egg shell. The box tells you to “crack & grow” them.

In buying them, I reasoned that Jonathan and I did want fresh herb plants for the house (our last ones died of neglect, but we promise that these new ones will fare better) so we can throw a sprig of basil or mint into our pasta sauces and stir-fry dishes here and there. But I suppose it would have been cheaper if I’d bought the seeds and planted them myself, instead of getting an edgy egg-y herb plant.

And I didn’t really need to buy one for some family members and friends. After all, my brother, Chinh, might not find the act of cracking open the egg-covered herb plant as amusing as I do.

Jonathan’s splurges this week were minimal. He bought three bottles of wine. But he made sure to get them from the table reserved for bottles “under $10” at our local wine shop because, as he puts it, he “knew the blog was watching.” (If only I’d had the same thought when buying my herbs.)

Oh, and we bought plane tickets this week to go to Vietnam in October (it’s a trip we take every other year, for pleasure and to help out a charity). But we’ve been saving for that for a while. We got a great deal because we bought the tickets five months in advance.

The point is, we all have our “we-can-live-without-them-but-why-deprive-ourselves-if-we-don’t-have-to items.” Maybe, when you bought that Richard Simmons video with its companion step-by-step exercise manual, you were sure — even if it didn’t come to pass — that you would faithfully use it every week. Or you bought those knives because the salesman on the infomercial said they’d never go dull. Or you snapped up that high-tech cellphone because you wanted to surf the Web, take pictures, get e-mail and make a call — all at the same time.

We all have our financial follies. Jonathan and I look at them this way: If we don’t indulge in them once in a while, we could fall off the savings wagon and do something rash with all that money we’ve painstakingly squirreled away for years.

Yeske seems to agree: “If the diet is too strict, there’s a boomerang effect, and then you say, ‘Screw it,’ and then you go off the deep end.”

Mine and Jonathan’s philosophy is that we’re going to build up savings for retirement, save for our kids’ college education — well, once we have kids, that is — and for vacations, among other things. But we’re also going to leave a little room in our budgets for going out to dinner once in a while — and for those herb plants in egg shells that come around once in a while. We’re planning to stay away from the pianos that Wright held so dear, though.