Cash Corrals or Free Range Dollars?

Our goal in 2016 was to live on 50% of our income and put the other half toward savings and travel. We saved quite a bit and paid off some big chunks of my student loan but we didn’t really travel the way we thought we would. We just didn’t have time. We were too busy trying to keep our income high enough to reasonably live off half of it. Go ahead and laugh, I find it pretty amusing too.

I know that most financial experts will say that you need to track every dollar, give each one a name and a job to do, and make sure they are all working productively toward the goals you’ve set. When you say it that way, it almost sounds like we’re talking about employees instead of money. If I remember correctly from my days in the corporate world, I had to set goals, give my employees jobs that helped us reach those goals, and track their progress every day. And as I recall, it was both time-consuming and well, downright boring. Yes, we got results but man, did we ever lack creativity in doing it!

I think we will call this one "Groceries".
I think we will call this one “Groceries”.

Since mid-December, I haven’t really been tracking our finances. At least not in the way we once were. I’ve sort of let them become Free Range Dollars. They are all out there, like chickens in the backyard, pecking and playing, growing and waiting for the day when we pick them up and give them a purpose. Some will provide for the basics in life. Some will be called to exotic locales. And others may just grow old right where they are. The point being, by not micro-managing our money anymore or trying to corral it into labeled boxes, we’ve actually found ourselves spending a lot less than we did last year.

Again, I’m no financial expert, but I think that by giving every dollar a name, we set up an expectation that the dollar has to be spent for that purpose. For example, if we set aside $400 for groceries, we’ll usually spend the entire amount and often even a bit more on groceries. Why? Because we’ve already labeled those dollars as grocery dollars and granted ourselves permission to spend them that way.

Earmarking money for it’s intended purpose is necessary for some people in order to prevent overspending or to encourage saving for a specific goal. The opposite was true for us. Labeling our money encouraged spending and discouraged saving. After spending a year trying to wrestle our dollars into boxes that weren’t made for them, I realized what works best for us is simply leaving our money alone and focusing instead on other aspects of our daily life. We’re minimalists after all, not financial planners.

The role of money in minimalism is very simple, because everything in minimalism is geared toward simplicity. Money provides for the essentials in life – rent, transportation, food, basic clothing, and health insurance. Beyond that, every remaining dollar should indeed have a purpose and that purpose should be to add value to our lives. For us, experiences – from taking a walk in the park to enjoying a day at the zoo – are what we value most. Acquiring things – including money – doesn’t make us happy. We know this because our year of working a full time job and every side hustle we could find – all in the name of money – was the least happiest year of our life together.

Trying to live on 50% of our income was a great experiment and I think we had the right idea, just maybe not the right equation for our situation. Our goal should have been simply to work less and live within those lesser means.

With that being said, I got my annual contract/salary letter on Monday. It looked something like this, minus the boxes and stars.


I’m sure some of you will see the salary portion first. For me, I was most excited to see all the time off. If you factor out weekends, Wednesdays, holidays, and PTO, I will only have to work 183 days this year. Holy cow! When you look at it that way, I have HALF of the year OFF. I’m fairly certain that I can work the equivalent of half a year for $41,000 and who knows, I might even enjoy doing it. Why? Because earning a living is not the primary focus of my life anymore. Our actual life is.

November Progress to Goals

The results for November are in and it looks like a pretty successful month. Despite the purchase of a new box spring, a couple of sweaters to brace for the colder weather, and our part of the Thanksgiving potluck, we still managed to keep our absolute expenses under 60% and our flex expenses around 11%.


November was a great month for income. We earned more than $800 in side hustles, without putting forth a huge amount of effort. We sold a few items from our tech decluttering project, we cashed out a few unwanted gift cards at CardPool, and we spent just 2 afternoons doing some merchandising jobs. We put ALL of our side hustle income into savings AND…wait for it…

We paid off another student loan!

This is me paying off my 2nd student loan of the year. Woohoo!!
This is me paying off my 2nd student loan of the year. Woohoo!!

We paid the smallest of my student loans off in May and made a promise to have the 2nd smallest paid off by November. I missed my deadline by a day but the check went in the mail this morning. Our goal is to pay off the next two loans in 2017 and spend all of 2018 aggressively tackling the big one. After reading a post last week called How I Crushed My Five-Figure Student Debt on a $25k Salary, I took a look at Public Service Loan Forgiveness. I’ve been working full-time for a non-profit for the past 6 years but have only been paying on my student loans for 4. To qualify, I’d have to remain in full-time employment with a non-profit for the next 6 years. While this is a great option for some, it wasn’t a good fit for me. Like the author of the post, I’d rather be frugal and self-sacrificing and kick the debt to the curb as quickly as possible.

November was also the final month of our current budget before we transition to a new income and expense structure. For the past 11 months we’ve made an attempt to live on 50% of our income while allocating the remainder to savings and travel. Overall, we didn’t do too bad. Over the 11 month period, we managed to keep our living expenses (or absolute expenses) around 56% of our income. This allowed us to save 25% and put 9% toward travel. Our flex expenses were larger than we anticipated but included two big purchases for my mom earlier in the year – a new washer and gravel for the driveway.


I’m pretty happy with the results of our experiment. Since January, we’ve had a net income of approximately $35,200. From that we paid off $4,020 in student loans, saved $8,800, gave $1,700 to help others in need, and spent just a little under $3,200 visiting 10 states (including our new home state of TN). Not a bad year for two minimalists who started out with no particular goal in mind except just to see if we could do it. Living on less has taught us a lot though and I plan to reflect on those lessons in another post sometime soon.

Today we started our un-jobbing adventure (and the launch of my self-imposed ban on visiting retail stores for the month). The new job is no different than the old one, except that I’m wearing only one hat now…and working a lot less. I have only 13 work days scheduled for this month (yay!). This will be the first time in a very long time that I’ve had so many unscripted days to look forward to. What will we do with all that time? Don’t worry, we have a few ideas…but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what they are 🙂