“I’m so tired of comparing prices and going to three different stores to get the best deals on everything! When are we finally going to be at a place where it doesn’t matter if our tomato paste is 20¢ more per can than the store brand?”

This was my inner soundtrack on repeat for the first five years of life after college. The first year wasn’t so bad, we were… young and in love – what was a little bargain hunting to make sure we lived within our means? But year two it wore on me a little more, and year three it felt like a burden, and year four it seemed like nothing was ever going to change and we’d have to scrimp forever.

Even as I watched our best friends choose the hard road and live in sub-optimal conditions to pay off their loans as quickly as possible, I was prone to complaining. I didn’t realize that they were learning valuable lessons that money, no matter how much, simply can’t buy. The good news is, my perspective changed a lot over the course of those five years, to the point where I now share my budget sheet template with anyone I meet who is willing to be vulnerable about their finances.

Budgeting for your goals

You might expect this to be a post about budgeting – that’s what I was planning to write when I sat down and worked on my schedule of posts. But I realized as I began to work through my thoughts and feelings about our story that the real value we gained in those five years of learning how to live on a shoestring budget were some guiding principles that will be good for a lifetime.

What We Learned

In having just barely enough (and sometimes not enough) to cover the basics, we learned:

  1. Money doesn’t buy happiness: I might have thought at the time that a little more money for our date nights or enough discretionary funds to buy newer clothes or shoes would make me happy, but I learned that money is virtually disconnected from happiness and contentment. I can be content with little or with much, it’s all about my attitude and my choice of whether or not to be grateful for what I do have. My husband and I had just as much fun with our $5 or $10 date night budget every other week as we do now with quite a bit more leeway.
  2. You can do more with less: Keeping things simple is an amazing gift – it reduces stress, guilt, and a whole slew of other negative emotions, all while sharpening your focus on what is important. We took all of our Europe trips on a very tight tab, but that meant that we considered everything we did, said no to a lot, and savored the things we chose to do.
  3. Living lean is living free: So many times the urge to spend results in having things that only make us feel good for a moment and end up being a long-term drain on us either financially, emotionally, or both. More stuff is more stuff to care for and sometimes less truly is more. We aren’t currently, and might never be, true minimalists, but the more we purge, the freer we are to embark on life’s adventures without fear – or an expensive storage unit.
  4. What we have isn’t ours to keep: I think the biggest thing we learned is that generosity is key to healthy finances. We realized that the money in our care was just that, it wasn’t ours, it was just on temporary loan, so to speak. Even when our month ran longer than our money before we really learned how to budget well, we saw time and time again that God provided for every one of our true needs. An appreciation for His kindness and generosity led to a greater desire to pass on that generosity to others through being better stewards of the funds entrusted to us.
  5. Being a team is priceless: While money can be high on the list of things that break couples apart (definitely in the top five according to a random sample of Google search articles on the subject), it can also be an opportunity for learning how to tackle something together. After our wedding, we quickly learned that our mentality toward money and personal finance was quite different. Neither of us was totally wrong, but neither of us was totally right either. We finally learned how to communicate clearly and to define our goals such that we were tackling our problems side by side rather than trying to tackle each other.

A Free Budget Template

Learning to budget helped us to live these lessons as we learned them. We definitely don’t have a perfect system, we certainly don’t stick to it perfectly, but we’re committed to improvement. Here is the template we’ve got so far. We hope it helps you if you’re ready to start living leaner so you can do all you were made to do.