Family Finances: What Are the Mission-Critical Expenses?

We have been cutting back on a lot of household expenses lately.

At the moment, only one of us is drawing a salary (hint: it's the same person who's still grumbling over the comment on this post asking me to re-evaluate my statement that my salary is important to our family) and life has changed as a result. Can't afford that has become my new mantra when it comes to all kinds of things I used to pay for without much of a second thought.

I'm not always sure it's a bad thing, this effort of taking a deeper look into what we truly need, but it isn't what you'd call a fun process. Sometimes I feel whiny and tantrumy that I can't buy, say, salon-brand shampoo like I used to. I know, right -- it's soap for your hair. Who cares? What a ridiculous thing to spend money on, and yet I suppose all of the real or perceived benefits contained in a shampoo bottle are far less important than what it represents: a little luxury for yourself. A treat. 

Part of this process, for me, is trying to get out of the habit of using store-bought items as treats. To disassociate myself with the act of acquisition, which is (whether or not we realize it) a pleasure in its own right.

As we peer at our monthly budget and look for places to reduce any remaining excess -- so long, date nights! -- it becomes apparent what is most important to us. Aside from a house and utilities, we need health insurance. Life insurance. We need to save for our future. We need to save for the kids' college.

I wonder sometimes if when people say they just cut way back in order to make it on one salary, they cut those things too. If we stopped saving money, we would surely have a lot more of it right now, and it would definitely make things easier. But then what? What magical genie is going to make it so I can retire, or pay for my boys to get a college degree? What happens if we have an unexpected expense and there's nothing in the savings account? What if we don't have insurance and somebody gets sick? What if one of us breadwinners ups and *whispers* dies?

You know, it's kind of scary, being a grownup. Even the choice of how to unburden yourself from financial responsibilities is a burden in and of itself. What should stay? What can go? What about my shampoo? Etc.

I'd love to hear from some of you on bottom-line budgeting. What sorts of things do you refuse to stop paying for, even when times are tight? 

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