Family Finances: Where do you spend and save?

Amanda Gibson isn’t ALWAYS saving her money. She allows herself to spend too…but there’s a balance!

Photo by: Steve Snodgrass

I always love hearing how people spend their money. People are just so interesting, and understanding the choices they make can send you on your own journey of self-reflection. In the interest of continuing that conversation today, I am sharing with you the areas in my own life where I prefer to tighten my belt and those in which I’m comfortable spending a little cash. Let me be clear that I’m not saying YOU should be frugal or spendy in these same areas. You do you, and Imma do me. But maybe you can get some ideas.



The first area in which I excel at being a first-rate cheapskate is entertainment. My preferred forms of entertainment are taking walks, listening to podcasts, and reading library books. I do enjoy the occasional PBS show as well. My husband and I used to like to see movies at the Byrd (and one year we indulged on completely free tickets a coworker passed along!), but now we have kiddos still too young to sit still for even a kid’s movie. Our budget no longer includes $2 movies, but I’m not the only one in this family, so I compromise with my connoisseur-of-TV husband and pay for Netflix and Hulu Plus each month.


I’m a full time grad student, so I really don’t need a lot of clothes. And I’ve never been a big shopper anyway. I keep my expenditures on clothing low by shopping at thrift stores and keeping a small inventory. I have so few items of clothing that I long ago gave up our one small bedroom closet to my husband. I keep my clothes in an armoire I bought on Craigslist. And that includes the storage of my entire maternity and postpartum wardrobes. Am I dressed to kill? Not unless you count being bored to death.


I’m not sure what to call this area of spending. By “accessories” I am referring to all the things we buy and maintain and store to accessorize our bodies and houses. I don’t wear jewelry or makeup, I don’t do interesting things to my hair, I tend to wear the same jeans and T-shirt “uniform” each day, and I have never had a manicure or a pedicure (like, in my entire life). Luckily for both of us, this isn’t a beauty column. I’m sure my appearance would be improved by the addition of some of these articles, but the older I get, the happier I am just being me.

Just like I do for my body, I spend very little accessorizing my house. I don’t buy candles or throw pillows or picture frames. Most of the things in our house that aren’t purely utilitarian (and many that are) I made, we purchased on our travels, or were gifted. We were married for ten years before we upgraded our toothbrush holder from a free plastic cup for goodness sake, and that’s only because I found one at Goodwill.


And now for the fun part! The spending! In my world, here’s what I allow myself to spend money on.


Travel is my biggest indulgence. Every single trip I’ve taken has changed me as a person. I enjoy learning to understand the people in this fascinating world, and I want that experience for my children as well. But travel ain’t cheap. You can buy all the Goodwill toothbrush holders you want, and it won’t pay for airfare to Sweden. So my husband and I work hard to be able to afford to travel. And we do travel cheaply. For years, we have been home exchangers, which means we stay in someone else’s house for free. Staying in a home means we have access to a full kitchen, so we tend to grocery shop and cook instead of going out to eat, which saves our dollars for cultural experiences.


Speaking of groceries, this is another area in which I am prone to indulgence. We don’t eat out often because of the expense in money and calories. Plus, I write a meal plan each week, which means that often we can have a meal on the table faster than we can go pick it up or wait for delivery. So because we cook at home, I take that as license to eat salmon every week. We eat lots of hormone-free chicken, shrimp, and fresh vegetables too, which is a whole different level than beans and rice. I’m not really a steak person, but if I have a coupon for grass-fed beef, it makes my sweet husband’s day.


As with travel and groceries, my philosophy with housing is “get the good stuff cheap.” We live in a one-hundred-year-old row house in the Fan. So in other words, my dream home in my dream neighborhood where our kids will attend my dream school. It would be much more frugal to find a little rancher in a ’60s suburb somewhere or to forgo the city entirely and live in Southside Virginia where homes are so cheap it seems like some sort of Amanda fantasy world. But oh boy, I love this house. It has original wood floors, pocket doors, and the old-fashioned layout I prefer. I love the idea that we are just the current family to call this house home, and I love to wonder about the lives of those who came before us and will come way after us. How did we make this dreamboat of a house affordable? We bought a smaller row house on the edge of the Fan. Our property value is a shadow of those Hanover Avenue beauties, but we are close enough to the center of the neighborhood to wander aimlessly among architectural gems maintained by someone else’s dime.

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How do your own preferences compare to mine? Do you explore distant cities wearing Goodwill jeans? Or are you an “armchair traveler,” preferring to experience the world through books instead of in person? Do you have a beautiful wardrobe full of carefully curated items? Whoever you are, I think you’re super cool. And can I come see your closet?

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Amanda Gibson

Amanda Gibson used to teach folks about money at the Fed. Now she spends her days reading history books, raising kids, and thinking of ways to rule the world.

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