Building a better budget

student working on budgeting with calculator

How four sisters teamed up to tighten their belts, slash expenses, and get out of debt.

Budgeting tips - Sisters on vacation

What do you do in a financial crisis? Rufina, Dee, Amy, and Ana Barrientos, four sisters in their 20s from Plainview, Texas, turned to one another when they had debt to demolish and future goals to reach.

The women planned a bold budgeting experiment to reset their financial circumstances. “Not only did we decide to live together, we helped each other pay our loans and debt, regardless of how much we came in with,” explains Rufina, the youngest of the four sisters. They were making $106,000 combined — Rufina as a clinical laboratory scientist, Ana as an implementation analyst for an insurance company, Dee at a pharmaceutical company, and Amy in an IT job — and had their sights set on a savings and debt reduction goal nearly twice that.

Step 1: Announce your intentions

The first budgeting step the Barrientos sisters took was to move in together into a $1,000-per-month condo, which saved them a combined $400 a month right away. “We threw a housewarming party (on a budget) to let our friends know we were going to pare down our spending,” says Rufina. “So no crazy nights out, no trips. Thankfully, most everyone was supportive and sensitive to our new lifestyle, but some of them thought it was crazy for sisters to share their money.”

Invitations from friends — think weddings, nights out on the town — can derail a budget, but the sisters vowed to, and managed to, stay committed to their budgets. “If you can’t afford them, it’s not in the cards for you at this time,” Rufina says. “There’s no shame about that. We’d rather be publicly honest than privately struggling.”

Step 2: Bring more money in

Negotiating higher salaries and earning extra income on the side helped the Barrientos increase the money they earned by 50 percent. Rufina took a lab job at a hospital in a neighboring town, Ana waited tables, and Dee worked overtime. “We were all promoted at work, in no small part to being more willing to speak up and letting our superiors know what we wanted and that we thought we were worth it,” says Rufina. “When I got my second job, I made sure to negotiate my salary there as well, and I made $400 more a month because of it.”

Instead of spending money on presents, the sisters made cards and videos, or they took charge organizing inexpensive parties that were still a blast.

Step 3: Strict cost cutting — everywhere

  • Slashing their cash: Each sister allowed herself only $75 every two weeks for spending on “fun” things.
  • Spending by committee: All major purchases and issues were discussed regularly at a weekly family meeting. “We had one every Sunday to discuss how things were going, what we needed,” Rufina says. “These sessions were like therapy too, because only three other people in the world knew what I was going through.”
  • Keeping records: To keep track of it all, the Barrientos sisters used spreadsheets and were meticulous in recording all their income and expenses.
  • Turning into shopping ninjas: The sisters took advantage of stores’ price- and coupon-match policies to get lower prices on groceries. They bought most of their essentials, such as shampoo and cleaning supplies, in bulk. Thrift stores became their go-to place for clothes and household items, and only when needed.
  • Practicing minimalism and restraint: Impulse shopping and things they didn’t need went off their shopping lists. When they went out to eat, the women would split entrees and drink only water. They cut their cable, and borrowed DVDs from the library instead.
  • Creative gift giving: Instead of spending money on presents, the sisters made cards and videos, or they took charge organizing inexpensive parties that were still a blast.
  • Making deals: They found that nearly everything was negotiable, including big-ticket costs like auto insurance.

At the end of 18 months, the Barrientos sisters were debt-free. Time to celebrate. “We invited all our friends to come out with us to a nightclub, and we danced all night long,” says Rufina.

The sisters realized they could keep going and still expand their generosity to others: A family vacation to Cancun with their parents, a new truck for their father, renovations to their grandmother’s home. Extreme budgeting has become more than a one-time experiment, but a way to approach money for a lifetime.

From tracking your spending to helping you save for a new car, Wells Fargo customers can use My Money Map to help expand their understanding of their current and historical finances.

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