Reader Q&A: 6 Steps for Getting Through the Tough Times

Reader Q&AI get many questions like this one from “Jenny” (she asked that I not use her real name)  and I always feel a bit funny answering them. While I want to give all of you encouragement to live your best financial lives, no matter where in that financial life you may be, I recognize that the only expertise I have comes from my own experience. So, please, take my advice with a grain of salt – and feel free to add yours to the comments section!

I recently heard about your blog and I’ve been reading through it (although I still have lots to read). I read your “honest discussion” last night, to which I have to say, good for you, you should be really proud of yourself.

About me for a minute. I got married my sophmore year of college, had my first kid the year after I graduated (while my husband and I were in Israel), and my second kid a year ago. Basically, since I graduated college I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. I watch our money and, thank gd, we’ve been okay. I have a rough budget and a general idea of what we spend and because we had my husband’s income, we were doing okay. Still living pay check to pay check, but able to pay our bills in full and on time.

As of a week ago, we uprooted and moved to a house that we bought (even with taxes and everything our monthly payments will be less than it would be to rent) so that my husband could go back to school. I’m pretty financially responsible but I’m scared of debt and as of right now, I’m jobless and my husband is a student. I know student loans are “manageable debt” but we’ll still owe over 100k at the end of the two years he’ll be at school. I need to look for a job, however I’m having trouble finding something as I don’t have that much experience. Additionally, it only seems to be worth my while to get a job if it covers more than childcare will cost.

And then there is the house. I think we got a relatively good deal for it. The sellers accepted our first offer, which we thought we were low-balling. The house needs some work, mostly cosmetic things though (eg. the walls had to be plastered to cover cracks so the whole house needs a paint job.) I’ve been painting myself to save money but the truth is, we can’t really even afford to pay for the paint. I’ve been trying to come up with a budget but even without house work, I can barely fit things in.

I know you are not a financial expert or anything but if you have any suggestions I’d appreciate it. I’m super impressed with your ability to not exceed $500 for your monthly budget (with three kids!). Sorry for the long e-mail but again, any advice would be appreciated!

It sounds like Jenny is in the “famine” mode of the feast-or-famine expression. Of course, thank God, those of us in North America are truly fortunate that even at our worst times, we are rich beyond measure in comparison to many in the world.

Even still, that doesn’t make it easy to negotiate these frightening waters.

I don’t think there is a single magic bullet for getting through these times, so I will, instead, highlight a number of strategies that can work.

#1. Build an emergency fund.

The greatest thing I gained from being on the Dave Ramsey plan is the financial PEACE that comes from having an emergency plan. He says to start with $1,000.

When we built that baby emergency fund, it was the first time in our lives (individually or as a married couple) that my husband and I had had any money set aside with the earmark EMERGENCY. Until then, we’d relied on credit cards… and the generosity of parents… to get through the tough times.

Three years ago, saving $1,000 changed our world. Will $1,000 get you through every major life calamity? Of course not. But it will get you through most of the every-day “emergencies” we encounter. It will cover insurance deductibles. It will cover repairs on heaters and air conditioners. It will cover trips to the emergency room (most of them, at least).

Once you save that $1,000, you can start on your debt snowball. Or if there is an impending emergency on the horizon – like a job lay-off – you might want to save a bit more.

If saving $10, let alone $1000, seems impossible, keep reading.

# 2. Increase Your Income

Yes, living on less is important. But if you’re already living on a bare bones budget (and even if you’re not), the quickest way to turn things around financially is to bring in more money. At this point, $1000 extra a month would change Jenny’s life. And most of us can earn $1000 a month if we put our minds to it.

  • If you’re a SAHM, you can babysit neighbor’s kids when they get off the bus in the afternoon before mom or dad get home
  • You can get a paper route
  • You can mow lawns, shovel snow, paint houses, do fix-it-jobs
  • You can consult or take on freelance jobs (that’s what I did when we decided to get real and get out of debt)
  • You can get a part-time job – Starbucks and Trader Joe’s even offer health insurance benefits to their part-time employees!
  • You can sell stuff – If your house feels too small, what better way to gain space than get rid of stuff you don’t need or love (I wrote yesterday about how I successfully did that on Craigslist with a bunch of baby gear)

#3. Make a Written Budget

Now that you’ve got some extra income coming in, it’s time to make sure that every.single.dollar is doing it’s utmost for your family. A written budget is essential for EVERYONE, but all the moreso for those of us living on the margin.

Even if you think you aren’t “splurging” or “over-spending”, odds are you are.. .somewhere. And, as I always say in my KOAB classes, even a small leak in your basement will eventually destroy your home’s foundation.

Sit down with your spouse (if you’re married) and make sure that “every dollar has a name” (as Dave Ramsey always says). Then, once you’ve made that budget, recognize it for what it is: A binding contract. That’s right! Binding!

If you spend money that isn’t on that contact, you are breaking your word. Once you stick to that budget (it may take a few months to get the hang of it, but it’ll happen – keep at it!), you will suddenly have more money than you ever thought you did. You may even find that saving and paying off debt isn’t as hard as you thought it would be.

#4. Make a Menu Plan

Coupons are fabulous. Stockpiling is amazing. But the single most important thing you can do to cut your food budget is to MAKE A MENU PLAN.

It doesn’t have to be gourmet – in fact, it shouldn’t be, if you’re struggling financially. Pasta, sauce and cut-up veggies is a perfectly acceptable plan for any day of the week. Chicken and noodle soup is a-okay for Shabbat dinner.

Just make your plan, and then make your shopping list. You will be shocked at how little food you actually need to buy to feed your family once you are shopping according to a plan.

#5. Prioritize non-essential expenses.

I totally get the burning desire to fix stuff in the house. But unless you have no heat in the dead of winter, it can (more than likely) wait. Rather than hiring a bunch of contractors, sit down and make a list: From most urgent to least urgent, with an approximate value assigned to each item on the list.

Start saving the money (after your emergency fund is in place – new windows are not an emergency). When you have the cash to pay for the first thing, get a series of bids – or did it yourself, if you’re handy that way. Check it off the list and move on to the next item. Rinse, lather, repeat.

If you don’t have house repairs, apply this same strategy to whatever “I wannas” are on your list. And be discerning – clarify wants from needs. And needs from basic necessities.

The basic necessities are (1) food, (2) utilities (no, not cable), (3) shelter – mortgage or rent, and (4) transportation. Everything else is a need or a want. Not a necessity.

#6. Focus on your family.

Times of financial stress can do a number of marriages. Ask me how I know! In fact, it’s one of the leading causes (the leading cause?) of divorce.

So, it’s all the more important to keep your focus on your family. Find creative, FREE (or extremely frugal) ways to spend time together as a couple – and as a family.

Rent movies from the library. Play board games. Go for a walk. Play at the park. Eat homemade pizza night on the floor in the living room. Have a dance party. Take advantage of free outdoor activities during the summer. Sign up for your local  library’s email list – they always have great free activities for kids and adults.

When all is said and done, the relationships that you have at home are your most precious asset – invest in those before all others.

(P.S. I’m not even touching the issues of student loan debt being “manageable” and buying a home when you have outstanding debt. I’ll let the Dave Ramsey Kool-Aid drinkers handle that one. ;-))

Well, as I said, that’s my 2¢ based on nothing more than the expertise of my own experience. Please add your advice, too, in the comments section!


  1. Excellent advice, Mara! These are fantastic principles. I’m going to throw in a few details of my own. 1) Even if it barely covers the cost of childcare, get a part-time job outside the home. It’s not just money coming in, it’s also an investment in your future. A not-so-great job now that barely covers the babysitting will lead to a much better job in a year that helps pay the mortgage. Building work experience is an asset in itself. 2) if you really, really don’t want to get a job outside the home, consider tutoring. You can charge upwards of $30-50 per hour for tutoring, resulting in some real money. If you have limudei kodesh or computer skills or speak French or Spanish, or have some other specialized knowledge, you can do very well. Ask local schools and colleges to refer you, or just put up notices up on bulletin boards. 3) If you’re doing any sort of home improvement, try to do as much of it as you can yourself. There are a ton of resources available on the Internet to help you. Go to the post office and ask them for a couple of change-of-address kits and take the Lowe’s 10% coupons that are inside and use one every time you buy anything at Home Depot. Buy paint with it. I don’t buy any home improvement items without that 10% coupon. You would be surprised at how much money you will save on large projects. 4) Join Freecycle in your city to get tons of free baby stuff, home improvement stuff, great furniture and any other things you might need. If your community has gemachs, take advantage of them and get some great kids clothes and whatever else they offer. 5) Keep following great blogs like KOAB. Times are tough and you’ve got a lot of company in the belt-tightening department. Hatzlachah and may your fortunes turn quickly.

  2. FrugalEngineer says

    All good financial advice. I have nothing to add there. But…

    Buying paint doesn’t have to be expensive. The Habitat Re-store combines all the paint leftovers they get and sell big buckets for about $5/gallon. Do you know what color you get when you blend a few dozen colors together? Beige/Ecru/Eggshell/Off-white. What better base color? Then accent with an oops can of paint. Or better yet, find similar oops paint cans and blend them yourself in a big bucket. Want a yellow bathroom? Find two similar yellows and blend. Paint your bathroom for $10.

  3. Get a copy of Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. Mara’s blog is awesome and full of practical info like this article, but there is no substitute for The Dave Man. (Yes, I am Kool Aid Drinker!)

    IMHO listen to the podcasts/radio show as well. Dave frequently has good suggestions when people call in with their financial difficulties. Also, it’s sometimes nice to hear you are better off than many. It could also be inspiring to hear people call in to exclaim “We’re debt free!” on the air, and hear how they did it in 18 months on $30k a year.

    I have to say the combination of “house” and >$100k student debt (for 2 years of school?!) sort of takes my breath away. Student debt as an investment frequently works, but not always. If it comes back to bite you, it does so with vengeance. Work down that debt as quickly as you possibly can.

    • Ditto, ditto and ditto! I love listening to Dave as I’m cooking Shabbat dinner – I save up all my podcasts from the week for those 2 hours in the kitchen.

  4. Mara- can you elaborate on your $500 monthly budget? Is that correct? Is that including mortgage, jewish education, food, insurance???

    • Oh no, no, no!

      $500 is what we spend on food on food, toiletries and household items such as detergents, light bulbs, etc. And in September and April, we bump up our budget a couple hundred dollars for the chagim.

  5. Taking change-of-address kits to get Home Depot coupons … Aren’t they designed to be used by those who are actually moving?
    I can see this idea gaining huge popularity through the blogosphere, ultimately resulting in Home Depot discontinuing the coupons in the kits, which will hurt those who really are moving. I am thinking this because a lot of my area stores are cutting some coupon perks, citing overly “enthusiastic” use.

    • I am fond of using True Value for home-improvement tasks and have found that they have a good rewards program. I addition to getting store credits for every X amount spent (x = can’t remember), they have a second program (Toby) that gives 10% on all lawn and garden purchases and they also sometimes send 5$ of 25% printable coupons. And all three can be used on the same purchase!

  6. Kathy, regarding the change of address kits, I can see your concern. I’m not suggesting any “Extreme couponing” tactic, G”f. it’s a question of moderation. Don’t horde twenty of them. Take two or three and if the postal worker behind the counter asks me what I need them for, I always answer honestly “I want the Lowe’s coupon,” and the response has always been “ok.” That coupon has been around for a long time, and Home Depot/Lowe’s consumers have been asking for them for a long time, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any depletion or pushback from the stores. As a matter of fact, I’ve written both Lowe’s and Home Depot asking if they have other coupons in circulation and they’ve both referred me to the USPS change of address kit!

    • Hi Susie: That makes sense to me; especially if the company itself tells the person to get the change of address kit. I hope everyone will remember the moderation part:) I am unhappy that the extreme couponers — and that TLC show — is causing us moderate couponers to be penalized!!

      • Kathy, agreed. Parenthetically, I hate that show and I think it has done tremendous damage to the frugal community, both in damaging our reps and in encouraging really bad behavior. The other day I was at Whole Foods and saw someone emptying high value organic produce coups out of a coupon machine. There’s no excuse for that kind of selfishness.

  7. Such a great post! My 2 cents is going to be scary–consider yourself warned. About 25 years ago we took out student loans for my husband to change careers. We thought long & hard about it and asked for advice and read and researched. We still owe a tremendous amount of money on the those loans. My husband has a very good job & loves what he is doing, so that is good. You can’t always see what will be in your future, though. We encountered unexpected (uninsured) medical problems among other things. My advice to my own kids is to not take out student loans. Although the interest rate may seem tempting, there is no guarantee it will work well for you. I think I will have my mortgage paid off before the student loan is paid off.

  8. Miriam in savannah says

    all great tips everyone! I would also just like to add a tip I hope will be of help to you in the job department. I have 5 kids, so working outside the home for me always involves a cost-benefit analysis on a number of accounts, but in particular what are you bringing home after daycare costs? Your answer may be “I have to work from home — online, telemarketing, home parties, etc.” or you can sometimes do fairly decently babysitting for others full-time, part-time, swapping days, etc. You also may decide that there is a monetary benefit to staying home, in that you have the time and energy to live more frugally (let’s face it, living frugal can be difficult); I am doing much better staying home and mothering my kids and cooking more basic meals and having time to coupon/sale search than I did when I ran myself ragged doing 3 different jobs and eating healthy or cheaply was “off the radar.” Just something to consider. You have to find the balance for yourself . . .

  9. Miriam in savannah says

    Another tip — while I’m on a roll in my verbosity — is to barter, barter, barter! Services, goods, whatever! Trade freshly baked challah for babysitting, or maybe you have a talent to share with a friend’s child or you can run errands . . . be creative and think outside the box!!

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