How We Stay Debt Free & Save Up For Purchases And Projects

Q: You really should consider posting about how you two budget and save for your purchases and DIY. I’m constantly amazed at how you seem to never charge anything and how you consistently mention saving up for things. Now just tell us how you do it!! What about making the decision to replace something that still works? Is that a hard call for you guys? I never know when to live with something, replace it with something semi-cheap for the interim or save up for the big thing I actually want and go right to buying that instead of putting money towards a placeholder while I save. I’d love to know more about how you know when to save and when to splurge and how you live such a debt free life full of projects and home makeovers! -Barbara

A: First and foremost, John and I are super lucky to each come from families with famously frugal dads. So we both learned all about saving up for things, paying off our entire credit card balance, and never buying anything that we can’t afford on the day that we buy it. Of course it takes a decent amount of discipline (and it means that we’re constantly walking away from great deals & lovely things), but if we can’t afford them they’re not such good deals after all. So to honor our dads, we thought we’d post embarrassing old photos of them. Notice John’s dad’s tie- it was a Father’s Day gift John made using puffy paint… proof that paint doesn’t always make something better.

It’s funny because a lot of our stuff falls into the “simple and affordable” category (our dining table was around $150 from Target and we have a $25 thrift store chair in our den and a $30 consignment shop coffee table in the living room). So that really helps us keep money in the bank. We don’t believe in buying chintzy low-quality stuff to save a quick buck, but if there’s a chunky wood dining table at with good reviews for a third as much as the one on, we’re likely to go for the thrifty Tar-jay version (we’ve had our current dining table over three years and haven’t had one complaint yet).

But although we usually shop around for the best deal (and read reviews to be sure we’re not seduced by a lemon), every once in a while we do fall in love with the notion of something pricey and save for it like crazy (like our plush organic mattress or the new 2009 Altima that we saved for over the course of the past few years and then paid for in full on the day we drove it off the lot). But more on that a bit later. Basically, the key to our financial approach really is just to hold out for sales, use coupons, shop around, and aim for affordable items to mostly fill our home- and then devote a sliver of our savings to spendy stuff here or there (so we don’t feel totally deprived but also don’t drain all that money that we saved up overnight either).

Oh and living in Richmond helps! The cost of living is waaaay lower than it was in Manhattan, so years of dealing with those insanely inflated expenses makes it seem a lot easier to cut costs and save money here (since our mortgage is half of what we used to pay to rent two tiny NYC apartments). Our house was also completely affordable since it was a total fixer-upper (as in: less than 200K, you guys have seen the befores!). So we knew we could afford to put money towards fixing it up since we didn’t spend it all up front by purchasing a newly renovated casa to come home to (and since our monthly mortgage payment is a lot lower than it would have been for an already gorgeous new home in the area).

We also try to be frugal in other ways like by sharing a car, getting books from the library, making our own bagged lunches, and DIYing whatever we can (from tiling to haircuts) instead of paying an expert (you’ll see some links to other how-we-save-money posts at the bottom of this one). It’s not always glamorous, but the old a-penny-saved-is-a-penny-earned adage really rings true to us. So instead of making lots of money and spending it just as quickly, we choose to do what we love- aka: blogging- but live comfortably on less with a few simple switcheroos like haircuts at home and one dollar spaghetti dinners.

As for what we do when it comes to replacing something that works but still bothers us (like a functional old fridge that’s big and yellowed and probably not terribly energy efficient) we just save our pennies up if it truly makes us cringe. Once we have enough to actually afford a new one without putting it on a credit card that we won’t be able to pay off right away (which makes us feel so guilty that we wouldn’t enjoy the spurge) we go for it. Oh and we always sell the working thing that we’ll be replacing on Craigslist so we don’t send it off to a landfill. Plus then we get a bit of money for it (which we can mentally put towards our upgraded version, so it feels even more affordable in the long run).

We’ve learned that in our case it’s never smart to buy something cheap for the interim just to tide us over because we end up hating the fact that we spent money on something that’s just a placeholder for the real thing that we want (and we would rather have waited and put our money towards the forever-item instead of some temporary solution). This is a personal thing though, so if replacing your cringeworthy chandelier with a $50 version from Home Depot will help tide you over while you save for the $250 beauty that you’ll love forever, then it might be the best approach for you. Just think about what makes you happy and what you can honestly afford and try to weigh the pros and cons to come up with a plan that feels right for your situation.

We also always talk a lot before taking on a major room makeover to be sure that we’re both on the same page about how much we’ll spend. For example, after a lot of chatting and number crunching we guessed that we’d spend 3-5K on the bathroom remodel- and were totally surprised when we got it done for $1800 by doing all the labor ourselves and hunting down some amazing deals. So in the case of the big bathroom reno, we saved our pennies until we had 5K sitting there in our high yield savings account and ended up super happy to just spend the 1800- which meant we could move on to our nursery makeover with extra funds already on hand… which is always a bonus!

We actually find that we overestimate things a lot more often than we go over our budget- which we’re very thankful for- but we still like to save up all the money and make sure it’s in the bank just in case we don’t come in under budget (it would be super stressful if we only saved two thirds of what we needed for a project just because we assumed we were overestimating again). Oh and there’s a bonus to having our renovation dollars in the bank before we start. We’ve found that it takes a lot of stress and anxiety out of the equation, so the project is a lot more fun.

Take the nursery makeover for example, we went into it thinking that we’d spend around $1500 since we needed totally new furniture and accessories (like a crib, mattress, dresser, chair, ottoman, rug, curtains, chandelier, lamp, art, etc). But thanks to some deal hunting we’ve actually done everything from scoring a $20 thrift store chair and a $20 Craigslist dresser to hunting down a clearance rug and chandelier- which makes us confident that we’ll get ‘er done without reaching or exceeding our budget. Who knows, we might just come in substantially under if we’re lucky. It really does pay to spend the time pounding the pavement for the best deals and trolling places like Craigslist for solid well made furniture that you can refinish (a lot of which is much better quality than the cheap stuff that companies churn out today). See how the Craigslist dresser below turned out after we made it over with some stain, some paint, and some elbow grease.

All told, we probably spend between five and ten percent of our total income on home improvements (not bad considering that we’re pretty much constantly painting something or pulling up at Home Depot). But that’s just a rough approximation and it’s a really personal thing so each family should look at their bank account and their house to figure out what budget and home improvement priorities are the most important to them. Plus it’s kind of our job now (since I’m a full time home blogger we need to constantly take on projects to sustain our site). So because it’s such a high priority in our life, we go out of our way to save a lot of money in other areas, like by having just one car that’s fully paid off.

We drove a ten year old Maxima for four years with over 170,000 miles on it until we could save enough cash to fully pay for a safer-for-the-baby 2009 Altima, which we did a few months ago (yeah, that was a fun day). So making sacrifices and cutting costs in other areas has allowed us to save money which we use to pay things off completely (instead of continually laying out cash each month for a car payment or a credit card bill that we just can’t squash). And of course we do save a bundle on the transportation front by making the decision to be a one car household, so we can save all the money that might otherwise go towards purchasing, insuring and gassing up a second car.

We know the way that we save and pay things off is rare. And we know that there are probably people reading this post who have no idea how on earth two people like us could save up for renos before we do them or pay off a new car the day they drive it off the lot (hint: it’s not because we make a lot of money- in fact by national averages we fall way below the average income level, even in our area). So we’ll share this factoid about our spending habits. We’re insanely frugal in many areas where other “normal” people are not. A nice meal out for us is a once monthly trip to Chipotle. We probably spend about $10 a month on clothing (combined, and some months it’s zero). In fact I’ve spent less than $20 on my entire maternity wardrobe (thanks to generous friends and family members who have passed their leftovers my way). We’ve even begun to make our own cleaning products to save more money in that area and we already mentioned that we give each other haircuts instead of paying a professional.

So before you think it’s totally impossible to save a few hundred dollars a month towards some big reno goal or some dream furnishings that you’ve had your eye on, consider whether you can cut anything out at all (from that Starbucks coffee to that monthly haircut). And if you want to save even more, try going a whole month without buying clothing or going out to eat. All of a sudden you’ll see that it’s not that hard to save money once you really decide to make a major change. Heck, you can even downgrade from two cars to one (and start carpooling or riding your bike). Or you can even sell your expensive vehicle for something a bit older with more miles on it (trading car glamour for house glamour isn’t a foreign concept to us since we drove our last car into the ground and sold it to Carmax with nearly 200,000 miles on it when we finally had enough saved up to replace it).

In general our advice is just never to spend beyond your means and to take the time to save for items and projects that are truly important to you… instead of frittering away funds by grabbing a bunch of cheap accessories (but they’re on sale!) that you don’t need every time you walk into a store. Resist the urge! Really, if we don’t have the money in savings that we’re talking about spending then we just don’t spend it. Instead we use paint and other items that we already have around the house for some free mini makeovers to tide us over. And we’re always sure to take our time hunting down the best deals while our savings account grows (even doing things like hosting a garage sale or selling unnecessary items on Craigslist to make money to put towards our latest goal). And it seems to work for us- so we certainly hope that it does for you guys as well. Happy saving (and smart spending) to you and yours!

Oh and we’d love to hear how you save your pennies (any envelope system peeps out there?) or how you live well on less income. Share and share alike!

Pssst- To learn more about how we pinch pennies here at Casa Petersik check out our Save It series (read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here) and find even more money saving ideas right here. Oh and this post about living with less (along with this one and this one) might help too.


  1. Angie says

    How refreshing! Glad to hear you guys save, then buy what you can afford. More young people and Americans in general need to do this!

  2. Sarah says

    I love it! I actually have commented on this before on a previous post. My parents lived well below their means as well and even though I am only 19 I have learned so much from them already. It is so refreshing to hear this again from you guys and it actually makes reading about your projects more enjoyable. Keep it up!!

  3. says

    Excellent, excellent post! I’ve wondered how you do it as well and this is very helpful to my husband and I to read this. We’ve got projects we want to do and maybe even a big project as in another human (fingers crossed) so we need all of the tips that we can get!

    We are also a one car family now and it works quite well for us, we save on gas, insurance and I am able to work the 1/8 of a mile to work!

  4. says

    Love this post, thanks so much for sharing. You guys have completely changed the way I approach a home improvement project. I used to run out and grab whatever we needed w/out hesitation, now I figure out how I can repurpose what we already have which not only saves money but is much more “green”. You guys are a great example of living a balanced life, being financially responsible but still having fun and not feeling deprived. I’m looking forward to seeing how you add the baby costs into this mix! :) Keep up the great work!

  5. says

    Great post! I can’t say that I’d ever trust my husband to cut my hair (though he does offer to buzz mine the way he buzzes his — haha, not a chance), but I am definitely on board with eating in versus eating out. I never cooked before my husband (then boyfriend) and I moved in together, but after much trial and error, I find that what I make often tastes significantly better than what we would order in any of our local restaurants (and we live just outside of DC, so there are plenty of options). Additionally, though I have to buy pretty nice clothes for my job in the District, I make sure that I buy quality pieces that will last a long time (instead of expensive, trendy ensembles that will look dated come next year). Trendy accent pieces are bought at Target (Tar-jay, as you like to say). :)

  6. Kate says

    LOVE IT! You have hit the nail on the head. My hubs and I are 100% on the same page with you…although it has taken some wrong turns along the way to get to this mindset. When it feels that our generation or more, more, more…buy now, pay later, it is more than refreshing to hear this kind of financial mentality from fellow young-people. Do you two follow Dave Ramsey? Your ideals are right on the same page, so if you haven’t, I would recommend. With our first baby due this September, I couldn’t be more thrilled with this post and blog in general, it is one of my first clicks of my morning! Kudos!

    P.S. I am a graphic designer at Meredith in the same department that publishes DIY, so I adore following you along. Even though I’ve never met you two, I feel this creative bond :) Best of luck with your babe!

    • says

      Aw thanks Kate! We actually have some pics to send Beth Eslinger this morning. It’s such a small world! And as for Dave Ramsey we have heard others recommended him so we’ll have to learn more.


  7. says

    Oh, and I meant to mention that I own a red, 2007 Nissan Altima (looks just like yours — it was the first of that specific model, I believe). It’s a great car — zippy, reliable, and really comfortable. Enjoy!

  8. Sarah says

    I just have to say that this post was insanely inspiring and helpful. You really hit the nail on the head about cutting trivial costs out and saving only for things that are truly important. My parents were really frugal too, and I think that made for some really valuable life lessons. Thank you so much for this post, and I can’t wait to share it with my boyfriend – we are closing on our house tomorrow (final walk-through today) and will take all of this advice to heart. Thank you! Sarah

  9. Mandi says

    I’ve been married for 21 years, and we practice a lot of the same frugality that you guys do. I think the reason it succeeds for some people and not for others is a simple willingness to learn new skills, and a belief that one is bright enough and capable enough to figure out how to do just about anything. I see a lot of Learned Helplessness among people who “could never do” the things my guy and I have tackled for free/cheap all by ourselves.

    You also have to be someone who gets a sense of ownership/satisfaction out of having some hands on involvement. You will love your bathroom a million times more, than if you’d managed to pay someone else the same price for the same bathroom. I know a lot of people who have been raised to believe it is undignified to labor on your own behalf, and these people cannot live comfortably on five times the income I have.

    I actually think for those who do not have these mindsets to begin with – that they are both capable of doing things themselves, and not “above” it – acquiring said attitude is actually MUCH harder than the actual practices surrounding frugal living. It’s a big hurdle for a lot of people! Kudos to those who manage it, though. I was raised by people who were neither frugal, nor particularly resourceful and low income to boot – not a good combination. My husband’s family did much better, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, particularly in the area of believing I am capable of just about any DIY I put my mind too. I build our computers now, have done all the landscaping myself, homeschooled our kids from about grade 6 forward, and lots more! I am much prouder of all those things, I find, than accomplishments society more typically finds “impressive” – college, awards, etc.

  10. Lauren P. says

    Impressive! We also save before we buy. We’re saving for a new mattress at the moment and should be able to get it in about a month or so, can’t wait! I wish we could be a one car household also, but our jobs are in opposite directions and we work different hours. Thanks for this post, Sherry!

  11. says

    Kudos to you for living well within your means. It’s astonishing how many people don’t.

    We don’t own credit cards (except for an Amex, which you have to pay off every month anyway) and don’t buy what we can’t afford. It’s as simple as that. We have zero debt and we like it that way!

    Why fall into debt just to to keep up with the Jones? No, thanks!

  12. says

    Love love love this post! My husband and I made it a goal to pay off all our debt and so between the two of us we work 5 jobs and have paid off over $10k in a year not making very much money at all! We do the “envelope system” and have found lots of cheap and easy DIY projects to spruce up our house. I love your site because everything you do is so affordable, it gives me lots of ideas for projects that don’t break the bank! Keep it up guys! Your site gives me hope that I can pay off debt AND continue to fix up the house at the same time! :)

  13. says

    Hi Sherry!

    What a great post! I’m a graduate student (and a Richmonder!) and I love reading your blog. You guys are so inspiring and give me a lot to look up to! My big problem is the hefty amount of student loans that I’ve racked up over the years. Here’s hoping that the “investment in myself” is worth it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *