By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist
Earlier this year, my husband and I actually had to break one aspect of our financial plan—to always max out our retirement accounts before anything else. We found that withholding the maximum allowed amount from his paychecks made it impossible to make our student loan payment AND pay the daycare bill for our two young children. My husband, Brandon, is an early-career PM&R doctor working toward partnership in a private practice, and I teach at a local middle school.
We’re still maxing out my retirement account with pre-tax contributions directly from my paycheck, but we’re going to use his annual bonus to contribute to his retirement savings instead. His bonus is processed in July each year, so for now, we’re watching his billing. We feel confident the bonus will cover the $22,500 allowable contribution, and we hope it will also leave us some extra cash to keep paying down those student loans. It was a tough decision to make—and it feels a little like cheating to have broken our financial plan—but the bills had to be paid.
Twice a year, Brandon and I sit down for an in-depth financial meeting. He and I divide our household’s financial management. While we have monthly check-ins about our budget and investments, these bi-annual meetings are a more detailed conversation about our financial situation. Brandon oversees our long-term investments and retirement planning while I manage our day-to-day spending and short-term budgeting
We each prepare a report for this meeting. We’re not making a full-on slide deck or anything, but we identify a few numbers we’d like to highlight for each other. I ensure the budget software (I use YNAB) is up-to-date and clean up the reports to help guide conversations about household spending trends. Brandon updates our investment tracking spreadsheet and identifies critical areas of growth and loss for discussion.
Looking at the Short-Term
My report involves an in-depth look at our budget and spending trends. During residency and fellowship, when our finances were much tighter, I ran a super itemized budget—food, household cleaning products, and over-the-counter medications all had their own line. Now that we have more financial flexibility, I’ve found it unnecessary to break things down to such a detailed level.
The most significant change in our lives over the past year was the birth of our second son in the spring of 2022. For our meeting, I prepared two charts detailing where we were spending our money before he was born and how we’ve been spending our money since then:
The story that these graphs tell is so interesting to me. When reconciling the monthly budget, I had also been noticing that our household expenses were increasing. For us, this budget category includes anything we buy at the grocery store, Costco, or Amazon that is necessary to keep our house running: groceries, toilet paper, dog food, diapers, Band-Aids, etc. I am primarily responsible for household shopping, and I was starting to feel guilty about letting this spending get out of control. We were ending each month without much extra money left over, and it felt like my fault.
That’s not to say that our household expenses didn’t increase. They absolutely did—also by about 30%. I’ve had to increase our grocery budget a few times over the last two years—we have another baby, our older son eats more real food, and inflation drives up prices—but we do a pretty good job sticking to that budget. It’s also clear that I’m not itemizing our budget as thoroughly as I used to; the expenses listed under “kids” barely increased between the two years, but I can guarantee that I spent more on child-related items after adding a whole second baby. If I bought something for the kids at Target, the grocery store, or on Amazon, I’ve just been leaving it under the “household” category. Having a highly itemized budget was helpful when our finances were tighter, but it’s not necessarily worth my time anymore to sort out the expenses on our receipts.
Looking at these graphs, it became more evident that the real issue here is some of our fixed costs. Our daycare bill doubled. We refinanced our mortgage—thankfully, locking in a low-interest rate but increasing the monthly payment by nearly 30%.
Bringing these graphs to our conversation helped facilitate a productive discussion. We both got to “blame the chart” a bit. I didn’t feel as defensive as I would have without seeing this illustration of the impact of our fixed expenses; my husband and I both could see the big picture of our spending patterns. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m not sure there’s much to do about the increase in household spending. Still, I’m glad we sat down to talk through all of it together.
More information here:
The Long-Term Side of Things
Our bi-annual financial meetings usually involve more conversation about our investments and long-term goals. My husband is in charge of these aspects of our finances, but for this round of talks, there actually wasn’t much to discuss. His report didn’t involve any fun charts like mine—just an overview of our updated investment allocation spreadsheet. (Fun for spreadsheet fans, perhaps!)
Our investment accounts are moving as expected and in line with the overall market trends, and he had to rebalance our overall portfolio to align us with our allocation targets. It was kind of a boring update but a critical check-in so that we’re both informed about how things are going.
Decisions to Be Made
We did have a few decisions to make, though. First, the lease on my car is up in June. Living in the Motor City, we’ve always had access to automotive employee vehicle pricing, making leases incredibly affordable. However, the post-COVID changes in the automotive market have really shaken things up. We bought out the lease on my husband’s Jeep in February 2021 because it was a better deal than anything comparable on the market and available to us then. During this recent financial meeting, we decided to buy my Chevy Equinox once the lease is up, too. We’d love to get something a little bigger, but the prices we were quoted—for cars we don’t even like—were unbelievable. We plan to use my husband’s recent bonus to buy the vehicle outright. That money was originally allocated to be sent as a big student loan payment, but we’re trying to be rational about it. Our student loans have a 1% interest rate, and we’d likely get something around 7%-8% for a car loan. We’ve focused a lot of time and energy on paying off these student loans, and it definitely hurts to lose out on this big payment.
Our next decision was regarding a positive change to our finances for next year. We will send our older son to preschool at the private school where I teach. Faculty get a significant discount, so it will be about half the cost of what we’ve been paying for daycare. (A deal for the next two years, at least, until he enters kindergarten.) After looking at those charts of our spending over the last few years, I’m excited about getting some extra flexibility back into our budget. But, unlike daycare where we pay monthly, we need to make a full payment of $6,000 in July for preschool. We took some time during this financial meeting to discuss where we can find that money, knowing that we don’t have much flexibility in our current month-to-month spending.
Finally, we talked about our goal of wanting to travel more over the next year. This past February, Brandon and I went on our first vacation without our kids and spent a few nights at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. If you’d asked him before that trip, he would have said he’s absolutely not a beach person; it turns out the right amount of sunshine and relaxation can make anyone a beach person! We saw quite a few families with kids enjoying the resort while we were there, and call us crazy, but we think we’d like to travel with our kids to someplace similar next winter. (We hope to talk Grandma into going with us—we haven’t completely lost our minds.) During this financial meeting, we discussed a timeline for booking a trip and talked about how we would save for it.
More information here:
We’ll Meet Again Soon
Brandon and I check in with each other monthly about our finances, but these more extensive financial conversations are reserved for our twice-a-year meetings. We’ll sit down again this fall for a second meeting. Perhaps we’ll create a plan for the extra cash available now that we’re only sending one kid to daycare. And maybe we’ll take some time then to book a winter vacation somewhere sunny, too.
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What do you think? Have you recently had to adjust your financial plan because household expenses have increased? What did you do? Comment below!