How I Learned to Budget in D.C.

March 12, 2012
By Kristina Wedseltoft, America Saves Intern

Moving from California to Washington D.C. for 3 months was a drastic change in it itself, but learning how to budget my money effectively was an entirely different kind of change. In San Diego I had a job working at our school bookstore and for the most part didn’t really concern myself with creating or following a budget. But once I came to D.C. my only source of income was going to be the money my mom gave me on the first of each month. Before I left California I decided to create a budget that I thought would be perfect. But it wasn’t until I was here in D.C. that I figured out my spending habits had to change.

Only being here for a short period of time, I figured it would be easy. For the first couple of weeks I tracked everything I spent from each Starbucks coffee to grocery shopping. I quickly realized that I needed some help, so the first things I looked into was utilizing some budgeting applications that I could keep with me at all times on my iPhone. But even though I created a budget, I found that the quickest way to learn how to save money was from my mistakes.

There is an easily accessible ATM in the lobby of our building, that’s what I thought until I learned firsthand about all the charges that come with the “convenience factor”. I definitely learned the hard way, because after falling for the ATM trap, I ended up with $6 in fees. Not only did the ATM charge me a fee, but so did my bank! Many people, including those I’m living with, tend to ignore these fees that can be easily avoided and could be saving about $150 a year! Instead of using an ATM that may charge you a fee, try locating the closest ATM of you bank, it could be just around the corner. Also many stores today offer a ‘cash back’ option, so if you’re desperate with no ATM, pick up a pack of gum or mints and take out cash that way.

Next was grocery shopping. We had no idea how expensive groceries were in D.C. until we got to the store and saw the prices. After the shocking reality I researched “grocery shopping on a budget” and found some great ideas, such as these from Bargaineering. Using my new tips, I stocked up on necessities, and made a grocery list and stuck to it every time I went to the store. I tried to buy foods that wouldn’t perish quickly or plan my meals for the week. I found that the easiest tricks ended up saving me the most

The hardest thing learning to budget for and control was going out and eating out. I’ve lived on my own before but back in San Diego it was easy to jump in the car and pick up food if I didn’t want to cook. Having the same mentality that I could go grab a quick bite when I didn’t want to cook, came a halt real quick. Even though I had a budget set in place it wasn’t until the end of the first month I realized my going out habits we’re going to have to stop. I learned I had to bring my lunch daily to work unless I wanted to spend at least $30 a week just on one meal. I gave myself a bit of lenience and allowed myself to eat out once a week, whether it was buying lunch at work or going out to dinner with friends. I also set these standards for other habits such as going to Starbucks or happy hours. It became about control and knowing I didn’t have money to throw around. I learned I couldn’t go out every weekend and to limit what activities I would allocate my money.

Being an unpaid student intern I was thrown into an environment that I was totally unfamiliar with and learned really fast just how important it is to create a budget and stick with it! It may get hard at times but I know in the end it has taught me a life lesson that I will never forget and will only help me in the future!