WEEK FOUR

Scrimp-a-thon

I become monkishly frugal. I make dinners from the pasta, soup, and frozen pizza we already have on hand, go for a hike with my friend Rene instead of meeting her for dinner, and cozy up with Gordon and the boys on the couch to watch a flick from On Demand instead of going to the theater. We actually spend more time together as a family than we have all month. It's wonderful. "We all think new things are going to make us happy, but there's ample evidence that what really moves the needle on happiness is social connections — spending time with family and friends," says Ron Wilcox, Ph.D., professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School and author of Whatever Happened to Thrift? Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It. "It can help to keep that in mind when you're struggling with money."

The boys, still wary from my day-long computer-related crying jag, don't hit me up for cash all week long — a very unusual occurrence. When some friends ask them to meet for a milkshake after school, they pour out their jar of change and start counting their quarters and dimes. The old me would've swooped in and pressed a $10 bill into their hands; the new me decides to see if they can swing it themselves. And they do — but it reminds me that if I don't want my sons to nickel-and-dime me forever, I need to figure out a way for them to start earning their own money.

Wood is anti-allowance, on the theory that kids need to learn to connect money with work — a notion that makes a lot of sense to me — so Gordon and I decide to give the boys each $5 for every load of laundry that they wash, fold, and put away and another $5 for each time they mow the lawn. They think the idea "sucks big-time" — but why wouldn't they? They've gotten used to being handed $20 every time they ask.

"Our new approach to money is going to take some getting used to," I tell the boys. "But it's important for you to learn to be financially responsible." And it's then that it hits me: As painful and, in ways, disappointing as this month has been, there's really no turning back.

WEEK FOUR REALITY CHECK

$214.74 under budget. Which still leaves me $2,142.93 in the hole for the month.

Susan and Charlie, our friends and partners in downsizing, didn't do any better in terms of meeting their money goals. "We spent about $155 per day on average [versus their budget of just under $86 per day], so we wound up spending more than $2,000 over what we should have for the month," Susan says.

"The daily journaling process was a useful barometer for seeing in real time where exactly our money went. But even so, we still weren't able to rein in our spending enough to stay within the budget we had established," she explains.

But now that I've been tracking how much money I have and where every cent of it goes over the past few weeks, my attitude toward spending has changed. On the spectrum from fashionista to frugalista, I've taken a giant step toward the middle — and I like the way it feels, even if I happen to be wearing last year's boots.