Think getting by on a budget is impossible? These tips will help get you started.
Do you want to improve your quality of life, but are worried you won't be able to make ends meet? Or are you one of those many families for whom, despite having two incomes, the end of the month always comes too soon? Where does all the money go? And is there a way you can do more with less? For over ten years, Saskia Scheerlinck and her family have been proving that you really can manage on less income. And who knows, maybe her tips will finally win you over too!
Less money, more time & less stuff, more peace
In 2009, Saskia Scheerlinck quit her job following the birth of her first child, instantly halving the family budget. Getting by wasn’t going to be easy, particularly if you consider the costs of raising children! But she manages triumphantly and documented her experiences in her book ‘Crisis survivalgids’ which was published in 2014.
Today, eleven years later, she still stands by that decision and remains true to her principles. Saskia Scheerlinck: “I often heard people in my social circle saying that they didn't do the things they really wanted to do, because they were worried about the impact on their finances. Things like staying at home to look after the children, working less, or taking a few months off to go travelling. I felt that many of these people could succeed in doing all the things they aspired to, just like we had done. That's why I started writing my book in 2013. The key message is: are you really going to deny yourself the opportunity to do the things you value and appreciate, 'purely' because of money? Obviously, money is important if you don’t have enough, because it can land you in serious financial trouble. But if you do have enough, like those people in my social circle, then it shouldn’t be a deciding factor. And ‘enough’ is actually much less than many would have you believe. Managing with less and enjoying a better quality of life is not an unattainable goal.”
Step-by-step plan for managing on a budget:
Step 1: Make a detailed overview of your outgoings over several months. Include your annual costs for insurance premiums, property tax, road tax, school bills, etc.
Step 2: Identify items of secret spending: things you spend a lot of money on every year, but don’t actually enjoy. These are expenses you can easily scrap or cut down on. Find a sustainable alternative and change your day-to-day habits. Perhaps invest in a sturdy coffee cup and make your favourite coffee at home. Or make a packed lunch from last night’s leftovers, instead of buying a sandwich.
Step 3: Try buying second-hand and incorporating the sharing economy into your lifestyle. These days, there are countless online channels and platforms that can assist you.
Step 4: Appreciate what you have, not what you don't have. Focus on the things you can change, rather than the things you can’t. Saskia: “You can only achieve success once your primary needs have been adequately fulfilled. My grandmother always used to say, ‘There is no richer man alive than he who is content with what he has’.’’
There’s no better recipe for disaster than slashing your family budget overnight. “Like crash diets, this approach just doesn't work. After three days of soup, you'll be gorging on French fries and chocolate on day four (laughs). Saving money and managing on less requires a mindset shift. If you love shopping or are used to travelling three times a year, then you’ll certainly have your work cut out for you. It's a process, and managing on a budget requires careful planning and thought. You have to work towards your goals gradually.”
The mentality switch was relatively easy for Saskia. “I don't mind managing with less. In fact, it’s in my nature (laughs). We were already very conscious about the environment and sustainability. We bought local, second-hand goods wherever possible, and did our best to avoid wasting food, etc. All things that are equally important if you want to get by on less. But even I had to make some adjustments. Buying second-hand clothing for my children, for example, took some getting used to. After all, ‘don’t my kids also deserve the best?’ Which is nonsense of course, because second-hand products are also clean, of a high quality and, in many cases, as good as new. If you can make that mental switch, and at the same time learn to focus on what you have rather than what you don't have, you’re on the right track.”
Do you want work less next year by taking parental leave or time credit? Then you may be entitled to a social allowance on top of your child benefit. You can check whether this applies to your personal situation at KidsLife.
Identify your costs
Of course, you can only make the decision after doing your sums. Only once you’ve identified your outgoings, can you determine where and how much savings can be made. Saskia advocates the following golden rule: “Make a list of all your outgoings. We also started by keeping track of all our expenses for a few months: groceries, clothes, insurance, car-related expenses, and incidentals such as takeaway sandwiches and coffee etc. These days there are several apps to facilitate this, such as Spendee and Buddy, etc. It’s a frustrating, but also a comforting exercise. Because you finally realise just how much money you spend on things you don’t really enjoy. It’s important to also include minor expenses, like your daily takeaway coffee or sandwich. I call this secret spending: expenses that don’t have an immediate impact on your finances, but still add up to a considerable amount over the year. Suppose you always buy a sandwich for lunch, that quickly adds up to more than 800 euros a year.”
There is no one size fits all
One person’s habit is another’s pleasure. For some, takeaway meals are a habit born out of convenience, for others enjoying good food is the ultimate indulgence. “There is no one size fits all. What works for you might not work for someone else. If you enjoy going to restaurants, then by all means keep doing so and set money aside for it. But if you pick up takeaway meals purely because it's more convenient, you need to start planning your weekly food shop more carefully, buy the ingredients you need and make life easier on yourself, whilst simultaneously saving money.”
You’ve identified your outgoings. Now what?
Saskia: “That depends on your goal: do you have something specific in mind or simply want to get by comfortably from one month to the next? If you have a concrete savings goal, you’ll need to do your sums and see what you can save on over a specific period of time. If you want to structurally spend less money, you need to carefully look at how to tackle this sustainably. In my book I link each month to a particular theme: clothing, food, mobility etc. You can explore how to save money per individual theme. What themes do you spend the most money on? This is probably where you can make the biggest savings. How you save money is personal and depends on your interests. My husband and I thought long and hard about giving up our car for example. However, since we both love driving and the alternative at the time, with two young children, was too much hassle, we eventually decided against it.”
The spirit of the times is on your side
This phase is relatively time consuming, Saskia admits. “It's not merely about searching for alternatives, but rather identifying alternatives that suit you and your lifestyle. We saved a considerable amount on insurance for example: by requesting and comparing quotes, we were able to save 300 to 400 euros a year, without sacrificing our standard of living. But that costs time and energy.”
A new way of life requires more planning and time. “Such as preparing your own lunch, coffee or picnic in the morning for a day at the theme park, for example. You don't buy second-hand children's clothing on a whim, but mix and match based on what your children need now and the next size up.”
Don't be discouraged, because the spirit of the times is very much on your side. Saskia: “In my book I refer to the Vrekkenkrant (a non-moralising magazine for 'penny-pinchers' with tips on how to save money), which was virtually all there was at the time. Sustainable living is now all the rage and there are countless platforms and social media groups dedicated to buying second-hand goods and the sharing economy, from shared cars to shared scooters.”
Involve your family
Don't risk family rebellion by introducing a drastic savings programme overnight; discuss it with them beforehand. Including the children. Saskia: “In Flanders, we’re not used to talking about money. Yet children are often creative and can help you find solutions. If you don't include them, they may think something more serious is going on. Explain your reasons for taking that picnic lunch to the theme park, and why your teenager can’t always wear the latest fashion trend. It certainly doesn't hurt to teach your children the value of money from a young age. It helps them to understand that choices must be made on how to spend it. That's why I’m such a firm believer in pocket money. It teaches them to choose, and to save for bigger purchases.”
Eagerly anticipating the birth of your baby? Request your Maternity Allowance or Starting Amount in plenty of time. That way you can already start searching for second-hand toys and clothing for your little one!