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A Week In Montana On A $63,000 Joint Income

Photo: Courtesy of E.L.F.
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Today: a stay-at-home mom who has a joint income of $63,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on e.l.f. cleansing balm.
Occupation: Stay-At-Home Mom
Industry: Family
Age: 30
Location: Montana
Husband's Salary/Household Income: $63,000
Net Worth: $85,000 (Retirement accounts: $150,000, Paid off car: $10,000, Savings: $10,000, minus debt. My husband and I combine all of our finances. We've done this since we moved in together after college and it works for us. Over the past 11 years, we've traded off who is the breadwinner. Because I currently have no income as a stay-at-home mom, we put purchases such as our newer car and the home we bought last year into his name only, to get better loan amounts and interest rates, as my debt-to-income ratio holds us back.)
Debt: $85,000 ($30,000 each in student loans, $25,000 in credit card debt.)
My Husband's Paycheck Amount (2x/month ): $1,720
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Mortgage: $850
Car Payment: $350
Credit Card: $700
Student Loans: $500 (currently on hold)
Utilities: $175
Hulu: $6
Spotify: $15
Netflix/Disney+: $0 (traded for Hulu and Spotify access)
Curology: $40
Internet: $75
Car Insurance: $90
Phone Bill: $150
Savings: $660
Was there an expectation for you to attend higher education? Did you participate in any form of higher education? If yes, how did you pay for it?
I definitely feel I grew up with the expectation to attend higher education, although neither of my parents finished college. I excelled in school and I also went to schools where academics were highly valued, and it would have been very unusual to not attend any form of higher education. One unfortunate aspect of that environment (although I'm grateful to have grown up that way) was that I feel like nobody ever really talked about the expense of college. Maybe that's because many of the students around me didn't have to worry about that. My three closest friends all had their education paid for by their parents. For me, however, college ended up being a huge financial burden. I went to a small, private college which was sort of the expectation. I got a great education, but I currently have about $30,000 in student loan debt. It has only grown since I graduated. Sometimes I wish I had skipped it or gotten a degree in something with a more straightforward path to earning a good salary (my degree is in history). My husband and I both hold about the same amount in student loans and we both qualified for merit-based scholarships and heavy federal assistance based on being very low-income students. Thankfully my husband's job qualifies for student loan forgiveness, which he will complete in three years. That will alleviate some of our debt.
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
I don't feel that I ever had serious financial conversations with my parents, but in retrospect, I wish I had. I think sometimes they expected that I simply understood. I was a bright kid and almost like a third parent to my younger, special needs sister, and I think I was sometimes treated like a mini adult. My husband and I acquired a lot of circumstantial credit card debt in our 20s and I wish someone had sat down with me and laid out the numbers and explained high-interest rates to me before we did that.
What was your first job and why did you get it?
My first job was prepping to-go sandwiches at a local sandwich shop. I got this job when I was 16 because I was saving for some international trips through my school. I was able to travel abroad three times during high school. They were amazing experiences, but each one cost $3,000+, which was too much for my parents to afford. I actually took on two additional jobs to pay for all three, working as a carousel operator and babysitting on weekends.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Definitely. My parents had a bit of bad luck that left us in some dire financial situations growing up. My sister was born with a genetic disorder and my parents didn't have health insurance at the time she was born. The medical debt was insane and we actually lived with my uncle and cousins for a while. Although we did eventually get on our feet, we lived on one income going forward from there because it just wasn't worth the expense of hiring childcare for my sister, so money was always tight. My parents were great about it, though. They always managed to get us our one big wishlist item for Christmas and we took family vacations that were mainly road trips, cheap motels, and camping, and those are some of my fondest memories. In other words, I never really felt "without." But when I was younger, I did always try to hide how poor we were from my friends.
Do you worry about money now?
Yes, especially recently. We had our first child 10 months ago and we've always planned to have one parent stay home with our kid, even if it meant living paycheck to paycheck. We both had a parent at home growing up and it's a value we both feel strongly about. Our son is so awesome, and I'm really enjoying being a stay-at-home mom, but adjusting to one income is hitting us hard. It requires a lot of planning! I have us on a strict budget and allocate $50 a week for “fun” and $50 a week for groceries, which means I have to plan out almost every meal and cook often. I do miss being able to spend more freely. On the other hand, we are kicking ourselves for not paying off our debt when we had two incomes. Realizing now that we can survive on just my husband's salary is making us seriously question where all the money I was making before actually went each month.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
I was at least mostly responsible for myself when I left for college, at 19 (I took a semester after high school to work as an au pair). But during college, I took additional loans to cover some of my expenses and lived on campus all four years, so it didn't exactly feel like I was out on my own. I worked about 12 hours a week at the school for a little extra spending money and used it all on typical college kid stuff like drinking, restaurants, and clothing. I've never been a good saver, until the past couple of years when I started to become more frustrated by our financial situation.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
No, no inheritance here! I do have a couple of distant relatives who are wealthy, but nobody to “bail me out” of a financial situation. My parents would definitely welcome me and my family back into their home if it got to that point, but they couldn't assist me financially.

Day One

7 a.m. — It's Sunday morning and I was hoping to sleep in, but my son isn't into that idea. He sleeps in our bed, so when he is up, we are up. I get up with the baby, get his diaper changed, and start the coffee. We recently got rid of our Keurig — we received it as a gift years ago, but we just can't justify the environmental impact, even buying biodegradable pods. We bought a Chemex instead and are still adjusting to actually having to make our coffee in the morning. But the coffee is way better. I also whip up some baby oatmeal I have in the pantry for the baby and we have coffee and baby breakfast at the table together. My husband and I don't eat because we're feeling too lazy to make adult breakfast.
11:30 a.m. — After my son's first nap we head to the grocery store. We shop primarily at WinCo because they have the best pricing in town, and I use their bulk section to my advantage. Last week I bought a meal planning notebook from Amazon which was well worth the $10 it cost. For some reason, I do a lot better planning our week out on paper. Before, when I was just using the Notes app on my phone, things were disjointed and got missed. My plan is to meal plan each Sunday and shop only for the week ahead, which will hopefully avoid wasting food and buying things we don't actually need. I feel super accomplished when our total comes to $52. My goal is $50/week and that's a big adjustment for us. Although we could afford more right now, we are practicing for a tighter budget when student loan payments return in January. $52.03
1:30 p.m. — Our friends from out of town text us saying they're nearby today. We grab beers at the brewery with them to catch up. We sit outside to be safe. All of the adults are vaccinated, but our 10 month old isn't. And only about half of the people in our county have actually received the vaccine, so there's still a lot of risk involved in going out. We are constantly figuring out the line between letting our baby explore the world and get some socialization, and keeping him safe. For now, we are taking advantage of the warmer weather, in anticipation of pretty much being on lockdown again this winter. $12
6 p.m. — I make a double batch of Japanese-style curry for dinner (and lunch on Wednesday), and enough rice for three different meals throughout this week. After dinner, my husband makes cookies from some dough I made and froze earlier this month.
7 p.m. — We all go for an after-dinner walk around our neighborhood to get some fresh air before bedtime. Up until a few days ago, it was so smoky from forest fires that we could hardly go outside at all. A huge rainstorm came through recently and washed a lot of it out of the air. We're thankful that this opens up an opportunity for free entertainment. But I ruin the “free” part by grabbing a Vitamin Water from a gas station. I'm still nursing our son and sometimes I get hit with insane feelings of dehydration and cannot resist finding something to drink ASAP. When we get home, we give our son a bath and I go to bed with him. Since he sleeps in our bed, I have to go down at the same time, to make sure he is sleeping safely. He falls asleep quickly and I waste time on my phone for about an hour before falling asleep at 9:30. It's amazing what having a baby does to a person! On the plus side, we save a lot of money on our non-existent date nights. $3
Daily Total: $67.03

Day Two

8 a.m. — My son sleeps in a little and when we get up, my husband has already been working for a few hours and is excited to take a tiny break to hang out with the baby. He is still working from home, but will have to return to the office full time in two weeks. It will be a big change for us as he's been home since our son was born. I do my morning skincare routine, then make coffee and grab us a couple of oatmeal bars. I heat up some frozen baby pancakes for baby breakfast. He'd rather have my oatmeal bar (of course), so we share.
12 p.m. — I make a white chicken chili along with cornbread muffins and fresh broccoli for lunch. My husband has to help watch our kid a little bit because this meal is kind of elaborate for lunchtime. I'm trying to do this while I still can, knowing that once my husband is back at the office, making lunch will get way harder. I see my future of endless boring sandwiches and salads and savor this actual hot meal.
3:30 p.m. — Mondays are boring and we want to get out of the house. We head to our town's downtown, which has a large, outdoor walking mall. We window shop at the many little shops along the way and debate buying our son a toy he likes at a local toy store, but decide against it because we want to make today a $0 day. I make a mental note to add that toy to his birthday wishlist.
6 p.m. — I make salmon and asparagus with lemon and garlic butter in a skillet and then cook a side of barley. It's a super quick and decently healthy meal, and I'm excited to find that my son can now eat an entire piece of salmon himself. He's the opposite of a picky eater, which is making this whole meal planning thing a lot easier on me. We bake cookies again, eat quickly, and head to bed early because the baby is fussy. But we're happy that we managed the $0 day!
Daily Total: $0

Day Three

7 a.m. — My husband is working in the office today, so we FaceTime so he can say good morning to the baby. Then, I bundle up the baby and get him in the stroller. I don't feel like making coffee, so we are walking to the little bakery behind our house. I get myself a drip coffee and a peach muffin to share with him and we eat at the park a block away. $3.50
12:30 p.m. — My husband comes home for lunch. He only takes 30-minute lunch breaks, so it's a bit hectic — but it's still great to see him partway through the day. Luckily our kid is cooperative today and I'm able to make grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup for lunch. Grilled cheese is our son's favorite, so we've been eating it pretty often, which I'm not mad about.
5:15 p.m. — My husband works late on Tuesdays, so we usually get dinner out to alleviate the time crunch between him getting home and bedtime. Plus, we're usually both exhausted after these long days. We go to a local burrito place, order our usual, and for the first time order our son a baby burrito. He gets black beans, shredded chicken, and guac, and is stoked about it. There's lots of laughing at dinner tonight! $20

6:30 p.m. — We decide to stay downtown and grab ice cream. We're really bad about feeding off of each other when it comes to justifying unnecessary expenses. We talk about how we really need to be better about this in the future. We return home for bath time, story time, and bedtime. I'm super tired and fall asleep at 8 along with the baby. $8

Daily Total: $31.50

Day Four

7:30 a.m. — I grab an oatmeal bar and make coffee for my husband and myself. I also put together a bowl of baby oatmeal with prunes for my son. He's having an extra clingy day today. I attempt to do a John Benton workout while he plays in his room, but only make it through one round before he needs my full attention. Besides walks with the stroller, I'm barely getting any exercise, and I miss it! My husband is on calls all day so we try to play quietly. Our house is tiny and his coworkers get a heavy dose of unavoidable baby babbles throughout the morning.
12:30 p.m. — I heat up leftover curry and rice for lunch. I'm happy to have an easy lunch already cooked since I'm having a hard time putting the baby down, and make a mental note to not only plan but actually prep more lunch meals on the weekends in the future.
3:30 p.m. — My husband gets paid this Wednesday so I sit down to do our budget and pay some bills. I put $650 in savings. The savings is a combination of our $300 child tax credit and the amount that we believe my husband's student loan will be beginning in January. Because he is on the public service student loan forgiveness plan, we need to make sure we can afford on-time payments. To practice for this tighter budget, we are putting this amount in savings until student loans return, so I consider this an “expense” even though we still have the money.
6 p.m. — I'm feeling stressed and unmotivated so I don't want to cook my pre-planned meal. Luckily, we have two frozen pizzas. We chop up some fresh onion, broccoli, and jalapeño and dress up the pizzas to be a little fancier. We eat and then do bath time and bedtime right away.
8:30 p.m. — I got interrupted during bill paying earlier, so I finish up after our son is asleep. I pay $700 towards our credit card debt (in monthly expenses). I hate paying off our credit cards because it just gives me anxiety. Before I was a stay-at-home mom, I was a full-time nanny. I made good, but inconsistent money and my job ended abruptly when COVID came and parents began working from home. During times where I was in between families, we'd inevitably end up with some sort of urgent cost we couldn't afford (a broken down car, an emergency vet bill, a best friend's last-minute wedding) that would end up on a credit card. Over time, this added up. I feel like we are unlikely to pay it off until I can work full-time again. I fall asleep dreaming up ways to make enough money to pay off our debt within a few months. It's bad magical thinking, but at least it helps me sleep.
Daily Total: $0

Day Five

8 a.m. — Oatmeal bar, baby oatmeal, and coffee... If anything, we're consistent.
12:30 p.m. — I heat up some homemade spaghetti sauce with big meatballs, which I cook in huge batches and almost always have in the freezer. I melt Monterey Jack cheese on them, add grilled onions, and put them into a sandwich, and they're actually really good.
2 p.m. — I take my son with me to meet up with one of the moms I used to nanny for. She needs after-school care for her two kids this fall and offers me the job first. I wasn't planning to work, but this would only be a couple of hours in the afternoon a few days a week. And I could bring my son along (which is crucial)! We agree to $100/week as pay and she buys coffee. At home, I put together a debt payoff plan using that $400/month. It's not as quick as I'd like, but it's something, so I'm feeling a lot more hopeful.
6:30 p.m. — I make Costa Rican-style beans and rice along with sliced mango for dinner. During my nighttime skincare routine, I run out of my Tatcha Cleansing Oil and decide to google dupes for it, since I'm not sure I can continue to buy it. I have expensive taste when it comes to skincare, and also subscribe to Curology (actually the least expensive part of my routine) and would rather keep that if I can only keep one. I plan a trip to Target tomorrow to try a drugstore dupe and fall asleep happy about my upcoming new “kind of” job and another $0 day.
Daily Total: $0

Day Six

7:30 a.m. — We are out of oatmeal bars, so I just make coffee. My son eats Cheerios and half a banana. Sometimes I need these lazy mornings for my sanity.
10 a.m. — I buy an e.l.f. cleansing balm as a Tatcha dupe from Target and head home to try it. It's the cheapest one I found so I figure if it's good I can be done with my search. I don't actually have makeup on but want to see how it works anyway. It does the job and rinses clean, but is heavily fragranced which usually doesn't agree with my skin. I decide to give it a week to see what happens but fear I wasted $10. $10
11:30 p.m. — Every Friday, my husband gets off work early and we go to the public library to get three new bedtime stories for the baby and then let him play in the children's area. We are surprised to see they actually brought the toys back out, the first we've seen since the pandemic started, and are a little nervous to let him play because he loves to put everything in his mouth. I run into the children's librarian, who I know well from my years of nannying, and she tells me she just sanitized them right before we arrived. I trust her, so we let him play for 45 minutes before heading to lunch.
12 p.m. — We split a plate of nachos at a restaurant downtown for a low-cost lunch. We are trying out different places and different menu items in anticipation of spending less over the winter. We are finding our favorite $10-and-under options for days where we want (or need) to avoid cooking. $10
6 p.m. — I use the last of the leftover rice for a simple beef and broccoli stir fry with beef from the freezer. We head to bed early in anticipation of a busy day tomorrow. My husband is in a band and has a show booked for tomorrow. We're all in bed by 9.
Daily Total: $20

Day Seven

8 a.m. — We make extra coffee today, but skip breakfast. Our son has the rest of his banana but doesn't seem very hungry at all. I hope he is feeling okay. We pack the car and diaper bag for a long day at the ski hill where my husband's band is performing.
10 a.m. — We have to get gas on the drive up. It's about 20 miles, but it's a steep hill. $50
12:30 p.m. — Lunch is free at the race, and they have tons of good stuff. I eat two Nathan's hotdogs then continue to graze the snacks and candy for hours. Our son is in a happy mood after a nap in the car and is loving playing outside on the big grassy hill. I'm happy to get out of the house and have new people to talk to!
6 p.m. — Our son didn't nap well in the afternoon so we are rushing to make dinner and get him to bed. I abandon my planned meal and boil noodles and defrost some frozen homemade Alfredo sauce. We eat quickly and I head to bed at 7. I receive an offer for a pair of jeans I've been eyeing on Poshmark for $12 plus $5 shipping and decide to go for it. My main pair of jeans got a hole in the knee this summer — unacceptable in a Montana winter! I pass out pretty early. $17
Daily Total: $67
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