How to be happy on a budget

Living from paycheck to paycheck is a stressful, frustrating roller coaster ride. No matter how much you make, there never seems to be any extra to set aside. But even in the toughest trials, happiness is possible if you look for it.

Katie Nielsen

Dec 10, 2012   |   467 views   |   10 shares
  • Payday: my two most favorite days of the month. All of a sudden, the bank account is showing triple instead of double or single digits. I feel so rich. I suggest to my husband we take the family out for ice cream, and we can get anything on the menu. I go grocery shopping and buy a cartload of what I hope is two weeks' worth of food, toilet paper, and diapers. On the way home, I recklessly fill the gas tank all the way to the top. Finally, I sit down at the table and write out the checks for rent and utilities, seal the envelopes, and stick them in the mail. Then, I check the bank account again and my heart plummets. It’s back down to the single digits, and we still have 12 days until we get paid again.

    Living from paycheck to paycheck is a stressful, frustrating roller coaster ride. No matter how much you make, there never seems to be extra to set aside. It raises tension levels in a relationship because often one spouse will be less worried about finances than the other. He will suggest spending money on things the other spouse finds frivolous. It makes you feel like you can’t go do things you enjoy — like seeing movies or eating out — because that would leave less money for the necessities of life.

    In the midst of all this, it’s easy to feel like you’ll be happy later when you have more money, a bigger house or a nicer car. But if you keep waiting to be happy, a day will come when you look back on your life and will be filled with regret that you didn’t find joy in the moment. Joy is possible, all you have to do is look for it.

    Look for free local activities

    Not everything costs money. For instance, in the town where I live, there is a free splash park open throughout the summer that allows children 12 and under to slide, splash and play to their heart's delight. The splash park is adjacent to a carousel that costs just 50 cents per ride per person. Nearby is a tennis court and playground, all of which the public is free to enjoy. Cities will also sometimes have free events, like free lunch in the park for school-age children, free concerts at the park or local schools or free crafts or other activities at the library. Do your research and you're sure to find other ideas of fun, free things in your area.

    Mix it up at mealtime

    Fixing dinner every night out of the same limited budget with the same limited ingredients is a real drag. Instead of letting the monotony drag you down, choose a night once a week to fix something different your family has never tried before. It doesn't have to be fancy, just different. Or, you could choose a night where you let everyone help out with dinner to make something fun. One thing my family loves is making homemade pizza. You can mold the dough into whatever shape you want, add your own toppings, and let the kids help add the cheese and sauce.

    Play together

    You don't have to leave the house to have fun. Dust off an old board game if your kids are old enough to play. Have a family-wide session of hide and go seek. Have a picnic in the backyard. Make a fort out of the furniture. You'll be surprised how much you enjoy all these games when you can play them with your kids. They'll also think it's more fun because mom and dad are playing with them.

    Make chores more fun

    Like Mary Poppins said, "For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun." You can apply this to any mundane household chore. When it's time to sweep and mop, turn up some tunes and make it a dancing competition: Who can dance with the broom the best (while still cleaning at the same time)? Picking up toys can become a race. Dusting can be a competition for whose rag can get the dirtiest. All of these tasks have to be done anyway, but it's possible to find joy in the moment by looking for the fun in everyday things.

    Laugh about it

    If you want to survive the tough times in life, learn how to laugh. So the baby’s diaper leaked on your brand new pants? So you don’t have an air conditioner and your house’s temperature is 88 degrees Fahrenheit? So your refrigerator’s defroster drips water all over your food and your floor? (Yes, those things have all happened to me.) You might as well start laughing about it now because these are the memories you’ll look back on someday and smile about.

Katie Nielsen is an adjunct English faculty member at Brigham Young University - Idaho and mother of one.

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