Why is fun always the first thing to go? The first thing that tends to get cut from the budget when money gets tight are the things we love the most, like eating out, entertainment, or coffee from a favorite coffee shop. But while it might be necessary to make some adjustments, don’t let it be at the cost of joy in your life.
A few years ago, I was working with a couple who were new parents. They quickly realized how expensive it was to add a baby to the family, so they cut back in every way possible until they were able to consistently make ends meet again. Still, as I looked through their budget and spending history, I realized these new parents hadn’t been on a date in months, and they had no extra wiggle room to have fun together. I recommended they set aside $30 per month for fun, and I required that they spend it every month. I also told them it would be one of the first things we checked in on during our financial coaching sessions.
It took a few months for them to catch on, but they finally began to let go, trust their budget, and enjoy themselves again. They began to take walks to eat at their favorite neighborhood café. They began going to the old budget movie theater near their house that offered cheap matinee tickets. And in the process, their intimacy as a couple and their joy in being a family of three began to grow.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to have fun that don’t cost money. But I’m convinced that every balanced budget includes a little meaningful non-essential spending. In fact, it’s necessary to avoid the resentment and burnout that can often come from living with a constrained budget for too long. Check out these tips to see why — and how to make it happen:
1. Taste the Future: When your budget is tight, it’s easy to feel like you’re living a spartan existence while everyone else is out having fun. Adding a little fun money into your budget can give you a taste of what your life will look when you’ve met your financial goals and give you the courage to press forward knowing that this tight budgeted time will benefit you in the future.
Tip: When you’re on a tight budget, it often seems like the word “no” rules your life while everyone else is saying “yes.” Find a few small ways that you can say “yes” to things that make you deeply happy. Save your “yeses” for those things that really matter to you — it’ll be easier to remember why you’re saying “no” to just about everything else. Plus, keep in mind that others who seem to always be able to say “yes” may just be digging themselves into a hole. Don’t follow their lead.
2. Find Your Fun: This may seem silly, but be intentional in naming what kind of fun you want to have. Is it something active like going mini golfing as a family, something relaxing like taking your partner to a night out at your favorite brewery, or something creative like going to a gourmet grocery store to get ingredients for your favorite dish to make at home? The sky’s the limit!
Tip: If you are in a partnered relationship, find a way for you to spend at least some of your fun money together. You’ll create shared experiences that you can look back on when times get tough.
3. Set Your Limits: Create a budget for your fun — whether that’s money you’re allocating for each of you individually, or to be spent as a couple. Decide on this number together so you can hold each other accountable. In graduate school, I gave myself $20 a week in cash to spend on any “wants” like going out with friends or weekend entertainment. Once I ran out, I ran out — but knowing my limits helped me be more discerning with my dollars and gave me the excuse to have a little more fun during a particularly tight budget season.
Tip: Yes, frugality can be a virtue, but this isn’t the time. Make yourself spend it! Have extra at the end of the month? Don’t stash it away in savings or give it away; roll it over into next month’s fun money.
4. Don’t Get Carried Away: While I’m all for the idea of “treating yourself” in a way that really aligns with your values, it is possible to overindulge. Even if you aren’t in a budget crunch, there’s no excuse for frivolous spending. Part of what makes fun money “fun” is it’s a break from the traditional ways you use money — and, because it’s part of your budget, it’s guilt-free.
Tip: Worried you (or your partner) might go overboard? Spend your fun money in cash only — no cards allowed!
5. Enjoy! Spending your fun money should be fun! Challenge each other to find new, frugal ways to live it up. Get all dressed up to go out to a swanky restaurant … for dessert. Head to a jazz club for drinks and a show. Get $10 in quarters from the bank and hit an old school arcade.
Tip: Up the fun factor by putting one partner in charge of the fun money each month. Trade off planning dates and see how you can maximize the fun while minimizing the dollars spent!
What’s your favorite way to have fun with your money? Comment below.