Money Diaries: The 20-something trying to pay for a wedding AND save for a house AND pay off student loans

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In today’s latest installment of The Money Diaries, Christine is paying down tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and paying for her upcoming wedding and planning ahead for a down payment on a house.

Read today’s diary and share your #1 tip for Christine in the comments below.

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Day 1

09:00 a.m.: “Breakfast” = Slim Fast shake. I have 2 months till the wedding and I am going to do my best to not gain weight. Losing a few pounds wouldn’t be bad either. I don’t need to loose any, but everyone wants to look best for their wedding day. Working from home today so I don’t think I will have too many temptations to eat out, but how to motivate myself to actually work out is another matter.
12:30 p.m.: $40 for deposit for wedding dress alternations, cash only and will have to remember to bring the rest of the bill when I come for my second fitting ($148 on Sept 8th). Never have cash on me, so it takes a big effort for me to actually remember to get out of the ATM. It semi makes me feel like this not the most legitimate business when they only accept cash.
04:00 p.m.: $138 for wedding favors, Tea Forte for everyone and another thing I can check off of my wedding list. Thank goodness Amazon has free shipping. We will print our own labels so we don’t have to go through an overpriced wedding website. Those places seem to love to gouge you whenever you specifically look for anything for a wedding.
05:00 p.m.: Utilities due ($51.73). My fiancée (MF) and I split the bills, but I usually cover the utilities and electric and we split the cost at later.

Day 2

05:00 p.m.: Yet more yeses on the response cards for the wedding. Is it bad that I want more people to start saying no to coming to the wedding?  I just would like to keep it smaller, but my mother added quite a few guests before the invites went out. I had wanted a 100-120 person wedding, but it might be closer to 150. Thank goodness my parents are taking care of the reception. Still, I need to cover the flowers and décor so I hope I have enough!
08:00 p.m.: MF and I discuss getting a house after the wedding. Frankly, I could live in an apartment for a couple more years and be fine, but he is two years older then me and feels it is time for a house. He does make some good arguments for a house, and supposedly the market is good for buyers. We do decide to live in the apartment for another 1 ½ after marriage so that will give us time to save, and find a good deal.

Day 3

10:00 a.m.: Out running errands, had to do a detour so decided to pick up an iced latte and some more coffee from the roaster. I am not a huge coffee drinker but when I do have some I like have some good beans on hand. ($7.25). I don’t feel bad paying extra for good beans, since I will have this during the week and it will prevent me from grabbing coffee on the way to the office.

Day 4

06:00 p.m.: My turn to pick up dinner and since I have been doing nominally good on the diet it is time for a splurge, so it is off to the golden arches ($9.07).
07:00 p.m.: Grocery shopping for the week ($43.59). We switch off making dinner each night. We are both trying to eat healthier so we don’t eat red meat too often, and I try to sneak in some vegetarian meals into to mix.

Day 5

09:00 a.m.: Still trying to find a pianist for the ceremony, I know this is a bit late to still be looking but my other musician I had booked can’t do it anymore. So I have a dilemma I can pay about $300 for a professional I found online, or keep looking for maybe a cheaper option such as a teacher or college student. Hmmm seems like this is going to be a quality over price debate.
11:45 a.m.: Looking over my budget (MF and I have separate budgets and maybe this will change when we get married) at lunch (leftovers) and looks like I am doing good. I have pretty much all my finances automatic (thanks Ramit) so there really isn’t much for me to do besides check and make sure everything is on track. My IRA, savings and wedding savings went through last week, and the only thing I need to manually do is my student loan payment. I have $13,000 outstanding student loan debt, but otherwise I’m debt free. I’ve already paid down the debt from $24,000 in 4 years and I’ve also paid off my car. I’ve got plenty of leeway in my budget, so I do a double payment on my student loan payment this month ($327.04).

Day 6

11:30 a.m.: Had an early meeting and now I am starving. Leftovers are just not going to cut it. I feel a bit guilty about buying lunch but the office cafeteria really isn’t too pricey. $3.50 for a chicken sandwich and veggies. Most days I bring leftovers, but lately I have been feeling kinda isolated because I then tend to eat at my desk. I think that I am going to start scheduling some more time and budget to eating out, so I get more time with my coworkers.

Day 7

10:00 a.m.: My friends and I want to start a long distance book club using webcams but my laptop webcam is not functional so I will have to get one for my desktop. CNET gives plenty of highly rated choices, but do I really need true HD for google chat?  Decide to go with a decent webcam on the lower price range end and also pick up a new mouse because mine has been really skippy lately ($43.05).
01:00 p.m.: Checked the checking account because it’s pay day ($1506 on 15th and 30th). I usually only check in on my account to make sure everything is running ok. Back when I first got out of college, I used to have worry about the amount in my account and if it was getting too low, but nowadays with my budget and automated withdrawals, I can keep a good eye on it without checking in all the time.
05:00 p.m.: Coworkers going away party at the local bar. Good networking opportunity plus a lot of former coworkers were around. It is always nice to see some of the guys who I used to work with. Just $4.29 for a beer + tip, I do like hitting the bars but I am just at a place where paying close to $5 for one beer seems a bit ridiculous.

In Sum

Total Credit: $667.52
Total Debit: $1506

I actually feel I did good this week. One of my trouble spots is impulse online shopping, and being an Amazon prime member doesn’t help be with this problem. I probably didn’t need a new mouse; the old one still works but it is getting to a point where it is getting difficult to use.

I am still pretty nervous about having too large of wedding, the food will cost more, and I don’t know if I have enough decorations. MF keeps on reminding me to look at the big picture, and as long as all our family and friends have a great time that is all that matters. I am at a point savings and budget wise that I am flexible if any sort of emergency comes up, but I know that if MF and I are going to be getting a house in a year or so I have to step it up so we can put a good chunk down on a down payment.

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The Money Diaries series is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. We collect stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymize them, and post them here. To be featured anonymously in a future Money Diary, click here.

What would you do if you were in Christine’s shoes?

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34 Comments

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  1. It’s hard to make many firm judgments here. Maybe a fancy wedding with 150 guests and a pianist is this woman’s lifelong dream and so for her it’s worth it to delay paying off those student loans. Maybe her and her fiancé are committed to living in the same place and buying enough house to last them more than a decade, and they relish the joys of homeownership. But, there’s very little in here about how she feels about these things. If she really values these things, then spending her money on them does fit in with Ramit’s ideas on conscious spending.

    However, people often spend on things they feel obligated or expected to do without even thinking about it. I can’t tell which position she’s in.

    The only suggestion I’d have is to take a look at the interest rate on those student loans and ask herself how probable it is that the return on her IRA is going to be greater than the interest accumulating on those loans. She might do better by paying the student loans off first.

    Her food choices raised my eyebrows, but this is a Money Diary, not a Food Diary.

  2. Christine seems to be doing well, especially paying off her car and a good chunk of her loans. The one thing that caught my attention were the (so far) mini disagreements with her fiance about financial things.
    -He wants a house sooner than she does.
    -He’s OK with the bigger wedding when she’s worried.

    Disagreements are fine, but I wonder if these little things are part of an overall different perspective on money that could be an issue for them going forward.
    (Or I’m overreacting and everything is fine.)

  3. Not much to quibble with here, if $40 for a new webcam and mouse is her big splurge for the week that’s not bad. The only thing I would watch is getting distracted from their big goal(s). I would sit down with the fiancee and figure out the priority of 1) buying a house or 2) paying off student loan and put a plan in place to accomplish one so both don’t get derailed by inaction. (It sounds like the wedding is already pretty well decided, so not much they can change now.)

  4. About socializing with co-workers: Ramit had a post about inviting people over for dinner.
    http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/tip-15-forget-going-to-a-bar-ask-people-over-for-dinner/

    To cut spending at restaurants, some tips I’ve heard: pre-eat, and order and appetizer; share an entree; take leftovers home; avoid ordering drinks.
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1015936/save_money_eating_out_at_restaurants.html
    http://yourwisdom.yahoo.com/your-money/ways-save-money-restaurants-article-acid.html

  5. I had a big wedding last year and a word to the bride that might make her feel a little better about the guest list: Not everyone who RSVP’s will show up! Pay the caterer the final RSVP number, but the day before you make your final deposit I would make a few phone calls, especially to out-of-towners, to ensure that they have made travel arrangements and are 100% going. In my case, 10 people out of 120 were no-shows, 5 had legitimate reasons, but at $75/plate, I was a little peeved that 5 of the no-shows didn’t have the courtesy to tell me they weren’t coming.

    Also, Costco sells BEAUTIFUL prearranged flower arrangements – I ordered the rose and calla lilly package online and was so pleased with how it turned out, and they were much more affordable than the local florist. All you have to purchase are the vases.

    Enjoy your wedding and keep the focus on getting debt free!

  6. End the Amazon prime membership. It doesn’t cost much, like she said, it makes it much easier to go for impulsive buys. I tried it for one year, and I end up buying several times as much as I usually do. Without prime, I tend to let things sit in my checkout until I crossed the minimum free shipping amount. The reason for that wasn’t to save the 4$ shipping (which is just latte), but because after a few days, I’d realize that most things I wanted I actually didn’t really want.

    Besides that, there is information missing that would make this more complete. Which city / state does she live in? Buying a house in San Francisco is VERY different from buying a house in Dallas. Does their credit score work in their favor? If not, what is affecting it the most – student loans?

    Finally, 3000$ salary (after tax) / month is kind of low. Maybe look into negotiating a raise at work …

    • Agreed on the Prime! I let it lapse because I got annoyed with Amazon for some reason, and found it saved me hundreds of dollars a year not to have it. Partly it’s the checkout issue (after things sit for a while, half the time I don’t want them), but it also made me look for cheaper used book options, even if they required payment for shipping. Often a lot less expensive than the new book sent via Prime.

  7. Where does she live? If close to $5 for a beer seems ridiculous, she must not live in a major city – I was thinking 4.29 + tip for a beer seemed like quite the bargain…

  8. Student Loans would be the last of my worries. Yeah, it’s nice to pay them off, but their percentage rates are typically so low that it doesn’t make THAT big of a difference if you pay them off sooner rather than later. Instead of racing to pay those down maybe put that extra money aside for a house.

    You’ll definitely have enough flowers and decor. No one but the bride really cares about that stuff anyway. So long as she’s happy, everyone else will be too!

  9. I almost quit reading after ”We are both trying to eat healthier so we don’t eat red meat too often”

    • Agree on the red meat and I almost quit after reading she’s using SlimFast to maintain/lose weight! Oh well, I didn’t learn about or employ proper eating habits until after my wedding either. Lots of stress during that time.

  10. I would second the tip to cancel the Amazon Prime subscription. You save money on the subscription fee (not a lot), but more importantly you have that extra BARRIER to online impulse shopping because of the shipping fees.

    Regarding the musician: got any friends or family members who are good enough and willing to help out?

  11. Wait… her parents are covering the receptions but she’s worried about how many guests are coming? Um, why? If her parents are covering the reception, is the decor/flowers really going to change as compared to things like catering costs?

    #1 tip though is to really sit down and have a big talk with the fiance about long term goals and priorities. Living together without budgeting together can be VERY stressful. Success of marital and fiscal goals depends on a thorough mutual understanding and cooperation between partners.

  12. Joseph Buchignani Link to this comment

    Don’t buy a house; pay off the loans.

  13. Joseph Buchignani Link to this comment

    She doesn’t need to end the Prime membership. She’s doing fine. Replacing a breaking mouse is rational.

  14. Hey Everyone,

    This is Christine, and I would just like to thank you all for the advice and criticism. Just to answer a few questions, I am a software engineer in the Midwest. I write code for a living, so frankly I am not the best at trying to write out my thoughts on a page, and have a habit of doing run on sentences and improper grammar (i.e. see this last sentence). I am trying to improve my writing but much prefer code, and without spell check I am not sure if this would be readable.

    My fiancée (husband now) and I did discuss our finances and buying a home since this diary. I do want a home but the idea of spending that much money still freaks me out. I always imagined I would have my student loans mostly paid off before I bought a house, so it is a priority for me to still make double payments on those. I love food, so I am sorry if the diary does center somewhat on that. For me food can be a splurge or also an item to save money on, just depending on my financial priorities at that time.

  15. Uhh… A female software engineer earning that little? You are underpaid :)

  16. One suggestion is to stop eating processed junk food and start making your own simple, real-food meals. Slim Fast, for one, is neither healthy nor sustainable nor cheap. It’s a waste of money to be drinking overpriced chocolate milk (which is essentially what the shakes are) when you could just make yourself a real food breakfast for less. Ditto the sandwiches, “treat” meals, etc. Those all add up.

    I understand wanting to go out occasionally, but I don’t think paying for lunch is the way to go if you’re trying to both eat healthy and save money. I’ve never yet seen a lunch place that will allow you either of those things.

    I also see a lot of “quality vs. price” arguments in there. To some extent, I understand that. But you also have to understand that if you truly want to save then you can’t keep making justifications for overspending, and just because something costs more doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. Case in point: piano play. Find a good student and pay them less. While you’re at it, I’d consider the cheapest source of flowers and decorations, and putting up as few decorations as possible. Chances are very few people will notice the difference at the time, and zero people will remember any of that stuff once the wedding is over.

    I’m also with the others- it sounds like it would be best to save up your money for a house and wait until you’re closer to having your loans paid off. There really is no rush that I can see, the economy will probably lag for a few more years and houses will remain fairly cheap. Either way, there’s no sense in jumping into a house payment when you’re worried about loans. What if one of you lost a job? Could you still afford to pay off both?

    These are three huge expenses (loans, wedding, house) and I’d honestly only try to tackle two at a time. To me, it seems like the house can wait. Plus if you wait a few little years on the house, you may be able to comfortably afford a nicer one, or at least have a smaller payment. Since it sounds like you may be staying in that house for years to come, that could be worth the wait.

  17. Christine’s wedding is over now, but my #1 advice for someone in that situation would be to step away from the Wedding Industrial Complex.
    You can have the wedding of your dreams, but it probably doesn’t come from a magazine. Focus on what is really important to you (food? dress? having a completely chill day?) and slash the rest. No one will think your wedding is less worthy if you dance to an ipod playlist instead of a live band. No one really notices the flowers. Do people outside of the wedding industry even know what wedding favors are?
    When you start planning a wedding you step into this new world full of details you had never heard of before, and meet an industry that makes a lot of profit out of convincing you that it is all *absolutely essential*. It’s not.

    Another theme in this money diary seems to be that Christine is a people-pleaser and it gets in the way of her finances. She didn’t dare stand up to her mother on the guest list issue, she needs to buy a webcam because her friends decided so… Even the house ownership issue: it doesn’t appear that she took the time to form and research her own opinion and defend it to her fiance. If this is the case, then it’s a good thing to be at least aware of this dynamic, even if it’s hard to change it.

  18. Not trying to be a smartass, but $43 for a week of groceries for 2 people and a $52 utility bill? What planet is this story from?

    • Jim,

      You’ll be surprised. I used to live in CT and then moved to OH. In CT I rented a room in a house and paid just 750 in rent and with util it used to come to 1k. When I moved to OH, I got a 1br (not that fancy but liveable) for 450/mo plus utilities went up to 120 dollars/mo so split between two it would come to about 60 bucks and her bill is 52. The grocery bill confuses me too.

  19. Christine; Looks like you’re on the right track to me. Since you’re in the Midwest, you should compare what you’re paying in rent to what you’d have to pay to own, and remember to consider property taxes, interest, and insurance, as well as maintenance in your calculations. While housing has come down a little in the Midwest, it’s not necessarily at bargain prices, yet.
    Also, you and your husband should be working on your finances together, imho.
    You’re married now, and your finances should be included in the marriage, especially in light of home ownership and other mutual debt.
    All in all, it was a pleasure reading your posts, and learning from your struggle. Congratulations, and continued success!

  20. Her “underpaid” status is not surprising. Starting salaries (even for techies) have dropped sharply all over the country since the recession started because the supply of qualified people looking for work is huge. She should make a case to her boss about a raise but I doubt it would do any good at this point in time. Unless she’s truly a linchpin (or decides to become one), she’ll be stuck with the low pay until the economy perks up.

  21. She seems to have a handle on her expenses and debt, I didn’t see any huge red flags other than seems to need more communication with her fiancee.

    I’m wondering why no one has asked why she doesn’t freelance on the side? Writing code seems very doable as a side gig. She could probably find clients to code for a total of 10-20 hours a month and earn upward of 1k or more depending on her clients. That could all go toward her student loan, which could be paid off in 1-2 years depending on how steadily she freelances.

  22. Sorry but to the “underpaid” comments – 3k a month in paychecks isn’t necessarily that bad. I make 56500 and after 401k, medical, dental, etc is withdrawn, my paychecks are 1500 2x a month too. I know a lot of people just out of school that are a lot worse off salary-wise

    • Well, considering how low her expenses are, I think she’s actually doing pretty well.

  23. Yeah, I’m baffled by $3K/month being underpaid. I have a PhD and work at a university – making $40K/year, $2K/month after deductions.

  24. Keep up the good work!

    Talk long and hard about the house, though. Make sure you “test-drive” the neighborhood before you buy. And by that I mean live in the neighborhood for awhile first so you really know what it’s like before buying. People get so focused on the “cost” of a house that they forget about all the other stuff: neighborhood, resale, commuting, noise level, quality, and most importantly, whether or not ownership aligns with your life goals and values. E.g., traveling, mobility, party-out, playing at home, house parties, socialization in general, pets, decor/surroundings, etc.

    Good luck!

  25. Did you combine your finances with your husband after you married? Hopefully you did and both of you are on the same page. I don’t see any red flags with your situation. I have Amazon Prime and I don’t overspend. The best way in my opinion is never click buy the first time around. I always check my shopping cart online and when I get the total before entering payment information I make the decision and exit the page.

    I bring home $1500 twice a month too. Its called living within your means. Yes a raise would be nice but its also nice to have a job.

  26. You should practice putting aside the amount you expect to pay for your mortgage before buying. This is a good way to a) save for the downpayment b) determine how much you can really afford c) get into the habit of living without that money. If you can do this consistently, without it straining your budget, for 1 year or longer, you may be ready to buy! Remember, there’s no rush!

  27. She’s already automated her money to achieve her goals. (Great job!) Now do the same with food. She already has the goals, but she’s turning every mealtime into a battle of wills. Plus she gets an extra helping of guilt whenever she splurges. Plan the week’s meals on Saturday, then go buy exactly what you need on Sunday. Bonus points for turning the meal planning and/or grocery buying into a couple closeness adventure. This one change will net you healthier, better tasting meals, with less cost and less stress.

  28. To me spending money on a wedding is a big waste. We got married in our backyard, friends brought flowers instead of gifts. We had champagne and cake for 15 of our closest family members and friends. We spent about $100 and it was lovely. I’ve been married 8 years and I don’t regret not having a big wedding one bit. Unfortunately, half the marriages end in divorce, big wedding or not.