Spending Habits: Then and Now and Setting a Budget

If you are one of the lucky ones to have kept your job during the pandemic, you might be like me and are saving more money than you thought possible. Although the pandemic has devastated everyone in many ways, it’s important to focus on some of the good that’s come from it. More time with loved ones, the slowness of life, and what this post is about: realizing we can save more money. I picked two months where I had my normal spending habits and two months of us in quarantine and compared. I already have good spending habits and I’ve always done a decent job of saving money. I don’t buy expensive clothes, I’m fairly good at avoiding impulse purchases, and I just sort of know when I’m at my limits for the month without keeping tabs on everything. But I know I spend too much at restaurants and I go on a couple of unnecessary coffee runs a week. With restaurants closed and the general fear of social activities, my husband and I had to get creative on how to make the weekends enjoyable. And many times, those activities were way cheaper than what we normally do.

I’m hoping as things get back to normal, whatever the new normal will be and whenever that happens, we can take some of the things we’ve learned to enjoy during these months and combine them what the normal things we love, like spending time with friends at restaurants and traveling. The rest of this post digs in deep to where I spent my money, things I did for free, and what I plan on doing once it’s normal for us to dine out, travel, and do anything else in crowds.

Comparing What I Spent

I picked December 2019 and January 2020 as my two ‘normal’ spending months. December was higher than normal, because of holiday shopping and January was a little lower than normal because we did a (semi) dry January, limited alcohol. Then I picked two quarantine months to compare: April 2020, our cheapest month, and June 2020, where we were over the shock of the new normal and had what I feel a sustainable spending month, something I could see us achieving after the pandemic.

I separated my spending on the following categories that made sense for how I spent. I didn’t include bills, like rent, Internet, or insurance since those are the same every month, but I did include subscriptions as those would be things that are although consistent, can also easily be taken away.

  • Going out: This includes going to restaurants, picking up from restaurants, bars and going to the movies.
  • Travel: Includes plane tickets, Ubers, metro fare, and gas. Sam and I share a car and only drive about 3 times a month (for trips and sometimes groceries).
  • Groceries: self-explanatory
  • Coffee: I kept this separate from going out because I wanted to see how much I actually spend at coffee shops. This would also include the times I got food at coffee shops.
  • Amazon: Anything we purchased from Amazon, which could also be a part of other categories, but to keep it simple, everything stayed here.
  • Pharmacy & Beauty: This one is also a little skewed. We live a block from a CVS, so although this is mostly doctor’s visits, getting my hair done, and beauty products, it also includes any snacks and other BS we end up buying at CVS out of convenience.
  • Subscriptions: Spotify, non-profits, Disney Plus, SkillShare, Audible, and others.
  • Laundry: Our laundry is not in our apartment and we have to reload a card to use the washers and dryers. With both of us working from home, we don’t need to wear a large variety of clothes each week.
  • Other shopping: From bookstores to gifts to personal shopping; a catch-all category.
A pre-pandemic coffee. Ahh the simple times.

One more note: Sam and I have three credit cards between us. One we share for all our shared expenses: trips, groceries, things for the house, gifts from both of us, etc. Then we each have a card for our expenses. The below numbers include my personal card plus the total of our shared card. It excludes Sam’s personal, which is usually about the same as my total, but more or less in different categories. So the totals you see exclude his purchases and our bills. The point of the comparison is to see how our spending has changed.

CategoriesDecember ’19January ’20April ’20June ’20
Going Out$985.97$572.05$101.32$266.72
Other Shopping$704.58$53.36$147.87$105.90

A Few Thoughts: After seeing this comparison, I was immediately shocked that our grocery bill was fairly consistent, even though we went from Sam eating lunch at work to Sam eating at home every day, and us going out 4-5 times a week to us picking up food a few times a month. I got really into cooking about mid-April, but I really felt that I was buying so many ‘fun’ ingredients that our grocery bill would be quite high. I was really happy finding out that was not the case.

I knew our shopping would be quite high in December, but it’s nice to see the actual number. We do a pretty good job at creating a budget for holidays and although it was quite a bit, I’m okay with the amount. I was also comfortable with what we bought from Amazon on the other months. I would like to not default to Amazon for many items, but I felt keeping it under $100 was pretty good.

Then, of course, the large drop in what we spent going on. Beers, $13 cocktails, tips, appetizers; they all add up. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting to go out for a good meal and a couple of drinks, but I realized doing it less often makes it feel special. I gave more attention to the process of picking the places we got food from and we started to make many more dishes that we love to eat but never made at home. The simplicity of that is something I want to continue. And easily saving an extra $500 a month doesn’t hurt either.

Things I Do for Free Now: With few social plans, restaurants, museums, concerts, etc. all not being open, I’ve had a lot of free time. And many of the activities I did were free by default. There are a few free activities like that I haven’t gotten to do in a while that I’m bummed about, like hanging out at a library or going to the National Zoo. But there are other free activities that I picked up or increased during these past few months that I’ve really enjoyed and plan to keep. Some of these include:

  • Facetiming and calling friends and family more often. I text my family and friends way more than I call them. But I really like talking on the phone. Now that I know most people have time just like me, I am more comfortable setting up calls and Facetimes with family and friends. Being able to chat with my grandma in Missouri or a friend in a different country really makes my week.
  • Reading outside. I haven’t read nearly as much as I thought I would, but I still read a couple of books a month. Instead of my normal routine of reading before I go to sleep, I’ve been taking my books on walks and finding a park to read in. My husband and I went to Delaware recently and we woke up before the crowds arrived at the beaches and read in the sand. It was such a nice, calming experience that we probably wouldn’t have done in more things were open.
  • Hiking, hiking, and more hiking. Or just being outside in general. We wake up earlier on the weekends now and have more time to spend 3-4 hours on a hike. We are lucky to live in an area where that’s easy to do.
  • Doing research on random things. We all have a list of things we would like to learn more about that don’t necessarily improve our lives. I’ve been reading a lot more about geography, food politics, wars, and the history and science of food. These may not be helpful bits of knowledge for my everyday life, but that’s okay. I have time to indulge in areas like this now, and it’s so calming to read for leisure and still learn something
  • Experimenting more in my kitchen. I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I’m finally cracking open again. Taking the time to dive deep into a cuisine has been so enjoyable and not nearly as hard as I always anticipated. Researching ingredients and cooking styles, then spending extra time at an international grocery store to explore even more is basically a hobby of mine now.

Setting a Budget: Although I always have a budget in my head of what I would like to spend overall in a month, I have never broken down the categories like this to see where my money is going. Whatever you’re trying to save for, I think it’s really important to see what you naturally spend money on before you create a budget. We all have different habits and hobbies and knowing where we want to give in a little to make us happy is important in creating a budget that we will use. I know I would be so bored if I set my budget off of April’s numbers, but I know I would be really disappointed in myself if I always spent as I did in December. So I picked the two months in the middle and averaged out the numbers as an overall budget. We typically include travel (hotels, Airbnbs, and plane tickets) as a part of our short-term savings, and I know that number will go up and down depending on trips. But I kept it in the budget anyway to help set guidelines. So our new overall budget (excluding rent, bills, insurance, and car payment) is $2,000 a month, or about $1,000 a piece.

For August, I will try two approaches. One, I’m going to use my bullet journal to track my daily spending. I’ll have to do a little math between what counts for my personal spending and what’s shared, but my plan is to keep my spending per week at a quarter of my monthly budget. If I go over one week, then the next week I will spend less. I won’t really pay attention to where the money is going in that approach. The second approach is in the middle of the month and the end of the month, I’ll tally up the categories again and see if I’m within budget in all the categories. It will allow me to dive deeper in the categories where I spent too much, why I did it, and deciding if it is a habit I need to focus on correcting. I will also record some items I want to buy in August. I plan on not purchasing those items until the end of the month to ensure I stay within my budget.

Going Out$450.00
Other Shopping$300.00

Notes and Details: The grocery budget makes it about $75 per week. If I do my budget week where I usually spend $30 that week, that gives me $90 a week for the other three weeks. Coffee will be enough for one coffee run a week, plus one if Sam wants something, which he usually turns down. I like to get coffee on Mondays now as an easy way to make the day feel nicer. I would like to get Amazon down, but that will take a little time for us to get out of the habit of buying from them. As more stores open up, it will be easier. Pharmacy: with me being pregnant, this number might be different. But expecting an average of $150 for baby things and $50 for other needs. For subscriptions, I was really surprised by how high this was, but we have so many small subscriptions that added up. August should be better and we can reevaluate that budget. We already combined our Spotify accounts and I got rid of my Audible subscription until I listen to the five books I’ve already purchased. Laundry is enough to do one-two loads a week, which is plenty. Other shopping will vary from month to month, but it will be good to keep an eye on things. We probably won’t be buying many clothes over the next couple of months, but we are expecting a baby in November so we will be buying things for him.

Rules We Put in Place: Some of these are rules I’ve had on and off for years and some are new. You can read more about some of my spending rules here.

  • Amazon once a month: Often I choose convenience over the actual item I’m looking for or ignore the fact that I’m paying $5 more on Amazon than what I could get if I went to an actual store. So limiting the Amazon purchases to just one larger haul a month will help with both issues.
  • Shopping list: I create a list of items I want to buy (non-reoccurring and usually more than $10) so I remember what I need and then I take the time to research these items before purchasing. I keep this list in the Notes app on my phone, but in August I’m taking a few of those items and also putting them in my Bullet Journal to organize my overall spending for the month.
  • Reviewing our budget together: This will be new for us. We both do a pretty good job at staying within a budget, and we talk about what to do with our savings often. But we don’t usually go into the details of our credit card statements, shared or not. So this might take some practice to figure out the best method.
  • Dinner for two: When we do go out, we will try to implement the appetizer or two entrees rule. If there’s a really good appetizer we want, we will share an entree. Otherwise, no appetizer and two entrees. This give and take concept usually shaves off $15 per tab (thinking about tax and tip as well).

3 thoughts

  1. This is such a great post!! I am an absolute budget nerd haha. What a huge difference before & after covid for going out! One thing we try and do is time our meals out for during their happy hour. Often we can get the same drinks & dishes for half the price! We also have a movie theatre subscription which costs around $20 a month, but unlimited viewings and we don’t get snacks. I set a $0 spend goal for this weekend, so little goals like that help. Have a great Sunday!


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