Before I had a baby, my spouse and I were pretty organized with our money (we split most of our bills down the middle and handled our personal expenses separately). Now our baby is 9 months old and we’re all over the place. Part of it is that we’re spending money on a bunch of new things — diapers, child care, miscellaneous baby stuff that I order in the middle of the night when I remember that we’re almost out of wipes or whatever. But I’m also having trouble budgeting the way I used to. My credit card bill is a huge mess every month. We can afford it, technically, but we’re not saving anything and it all just feels really disorganized.
I feel like we’re barely making ends meet and I hate feeling this way. But at the same time, I don’t really have the bandwidth to be more thoughtful about my spending. Before we had our baby, we made a budget for our projected child-related costs and were very intentional about it. Now that almost seems laughable, and it’s making me anxious. How can I be more proactive about managing our spending and get things back under control?
Full disclosure: I relate to your question almost too well. I used to be someone who made expense spreadsheets and paid off my credit card every week because it felt clean and good like brushing my teeth. Now I have a 14-month-old, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I looked at my Visa bill. I wish I felt less sloppy and more on top of things, but trying to shoehorn my new life as a parent into my old budgeting methods feels like waving a dollar bill at a freight train. So when I reached out to experts about your letter, I wanted guidance for myself, too.
We’ll get to their concrete tips in a minute, but first, I think it’s important to accept that you may never get back to exactly how you managed finances before. Personally, parenthood has changed my attitude toward money in huge and conflicting ways. On the one hand, I’m now financially responsible for someone other than myself, and that affects my decisions profoundly. On the other, I don’t care about money nearly as much as I used to. Sure, I care, but I’ve lost the drive to be meticulous about it. Sometimes I miss that tidier, more scrupulous version of myself, but I’m just not that person right now, and that’s okay.
“My best piece of advice is to have empathy for oneself during the early stages of parenthood,” says Megan McCoy, a financial therapist, parent, and professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “It may take a few more months or even a year, but things will get easier, you will get more downtime and sleep, and you and your partner can redevote time to making sure your finances are in good shape.”
In the meantime, you don’t want money to contribute to the anxieties and uncertainty parenthood can bring. If you’re like me, it can be a little scary to feel as if your spending isn’t under control. So you need a plan — but a loose and forgiving one that makes your life easier instead of giving you one more thing to take care of.
To start, make sure you have some emergency savings you can access in a pinch; the last thing you want is a big surprise bill (or even the threat of one) that could tip you into rollover credit-card debt. If you already have about six months of living expenses set aside, you should be fine, says Farnoosh Torabi, the editor-at-large of CNET Money and a parent of two. “But if you’re still working toward that, then set up an automatic transfer to savings each pay cycle or every month,” she adds. “This way, you’re saving before you spend, and you can still buy random baby stuff at 4 a.m. without doing it at the expense of your emergency fund.”
It’s worth automating other things too. As a firm believer in using technology to save me from myself, I have all my bills set to auto-pay so I don’t have to remember when they’re due (or risk a late fee when I inevitably forget). “I automate whatever I can to free up brain space and make sure the money is where it needs to be on time,” says Jamie Bosse, a financial planner, the author of Money Boss Mom, and the parent of four (!) kids. She even set up a joint checking account with her husband to auto-pay their child-care expenses. “We figured out how much child care cost each month, rounded up a bit, and made sure that our paychecks direct deposit enough money into this account to cover those bills,” she says. “Then we never have to think about them.”
I also use Digit, an app that takes a small amount of money out of my checking account every day and squirrels it away in savings without me noticing it’s gone. I treat it like a special backup-cash fund and dip into it whenever my checking account gets tight.
It may also be a good idea to sit down with a financial adviser. “It sounds to me like what you need most is reassurance that you’re not neglecting other big financial to-dos like saving, investing, securing life insurance, and saving for your baby’s college education,” says Torabi. “Working with a certified financial professional to get organized and create systems for those goals can be a worthwhile investment.” Many certified financial planners are used to helping clients adjust to big life changes (marriage, a baby, etc.) and can work with you on a project or hourly basis until you feel confident you’re on track. (For more on finding a good one, read here.)
Finally, I think it’s worth looking more closely at where your money is going. I’m not saying you should comb through every Amazon order line by line, but it might be helpful to take 15 minutes — set a timer if you want — to get a rough estimate of what you’re spending on groceries, baby stuff, and other significant expenses. (If your baby-related expenses seem wildly high, this baby-cost calculator from BabyCenter is a good tool for cross-checking what’s normal.)
I tried this myself last night after my son had gone to bed, and while I dreaded adding up the bills from Whole Foods (my son eats entire cartons of raspberries each day), it was ultimately comforting to see I’m mostly buying stuff I consider important — good food, books, plane tickets for the holidays (plus some nice moisturizer and a haircut for myself). Between inflation and other weird price fluctuations, I often feel as if my money is leaking out of my bank account, and doing a rough inventory helped me feel more in control. Maybe someday I’ll have the energy to do more about it, but for now, that’s enough.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org
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