How to Handle A Big List of One-Time Expenses on a Tight Budget

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If you’ve been reading The Frugal Farmer for any amount of time, ya’ll know that we’re on a super tight budget.  We’ve learned how to cut expenses enough to manage our income and our high DTI well, but the things that really get us are those one-time expenses: the occasional doc bill, vet bill, or home or auto repair/maintenance bill.  Since our budget is still pretty tight, there’s not really enough room in it to put cash aside for those one-time expenses yet, so we work in other ways to try and find ways to budget for them, as we no longer use credit cards.  Here are some things we’ve learned about how to handle those one-time expenses:

1.  Make a list.  Keep a running list of what needs to be done if you know it’s coming up.  If you know the dog is due for his shots in April, or that physicals or eye exams are due in May, write it down, along with an approximate cost.  If you know that the roof will need to be replaced or that you’re going to have to put a new tub in soon, write it down.  Your running list will allow you to have a big picture of how much money you’d ideally like to come up with in the next however many months, and help you better plan a way to pay for those items.

2.  Search for discounts.  Need a new bathtub?  Search the flyers every week for home improvement sales on bath fixtures.  Search Craigslist or Facebook  for sales on what you need to buy and see if you can get it on sale, or get a quality used item for a fraction of the price.  Last summer we knew we were going to need a large extension ladder to do some repair work on the barn.  No one we knew had one big enough for us to borrow, and a new one was around $300, so we started checking sales, and found exactly what we needed on Craigslist from a guy who was downsizing his house, and it only cost us $165 after gas expenses.  HUGE savings for us there.

3.  Tackle them one at a time.  If you know you’ve got doctor expenses coming up in May, don’t pick that month for your home repairs.  Instead, schedule those in for another month when there’s no other one-time expenses due.  Fit the cheaper stuff in in months where the budget isn’t so tight, and for more expensive expenses, look for months when your budget has more breathing room, like in June, when there’s no heating costs and usually no air conditioning costs.

4.  Find extra income.  If you know you’ve got extra expenses coming up in May, look to do extra work in April or the other months before that, ear-marking that extra money for your May expenses.  Work overtime if it’s available, or find a one-time gig, like house-sitting for a vacationing family or pet-sitting, through a reputable side hustle service.  The point is to try and earn the money ahead of time so that when those May expenses come, you’re not scrambling for cash.

Even on the tightest of budgets, there are ways to get the cash for those extra expenses.

What are your tips for handling extra expenses on a tight budget?

54 comments

  1. Liz says:

    I try to avoid surprises. I like to know what’s coming and how much it’s going cost. Like you’ve mentioned, it’s good to have a plan so that you can search for discounts/opportunities etc. Of course you can’t predict everything so that’s where an emergency fund can be really helpful.

  2. I add up and guestimate all the yearly expenses, that is what I call them, and put money from each pay in a separate savings account.

    I include dental, vet (1 visit for shots and 1 emergency visit), car license, Christmas, house insurance, home maintenance (deck stain, small repairs) and a little extra for whatever I have forgotten. That comes out to $3,000.

    I divide $4,000 by my 26 yearly pay cheques and transfer $150 to the yearly expenses savings account from every pay. I am ready for those expenses when they arrive.

    I always have at least 1 emergency vet visit and I often have high dental expenses even though my employer pays 80%.

    • Laurie says:

      Smart idea, Jane. Our DTI is still too high to put away $$ each paycheck, but we do have two “extra” checks each year as Rick is paid bi-weekly, and then tax returns, etc. That always helps. Glad you’ve got a good plan in place for your expenses too. Great work!

  3. Brit says:

    These are great tips when your budget is extremely tight. I like the idea of scheduling then one month at a time. I have done this a few time and scheduled a few big “ticket” events in one month and struggle a bit.

  4. E.M. says:

    Good tips, and timely too as I’ll probably be facing some one-time expenses soon. They are such budget busters when they’re not able to be anticipated! For the most part, I have enough to cover them, but of course I would rather send that money to debt.

  5. Kathy says:

    I know you said you don’t have the extra money in the budget to save up for the one-time expenses, but we found we absolutely had to do it that way. For example, we paid our homeowners insurance annually, because you get a discount if you do. So we had to save up and have that money available. Same with property taxes, semi-annual car insurance all were handled the same. It’s the only way that worked for us.

  6. Looking into the future and writing a list of upcoming expenses is a great tactic. I’ve done this a lot and it helps me avoid the “surprise” expenses that come because I forgot about it.

    • Laurie says:

      Right, Brian! Or the “I knew the front door was going to pot, but I didn’t know it would completely fall apart this soon” type of expenses. 🙂

  7. Matt Becker says:

    I have to admit, I don’t really have experience planning things like this. I’ve been lucky enough to always have enough room in my budget to just save ahead of times and handle things as they come. But I think some of the tips here are great regardless, like knowing you’ll need something done and looking ahead of time for discounts. It’s that kind of forward thinking that can really serve you well in any situation.

  8. Great tips Laurie! We still use most of them ourselves as we find it helps us better manage those expenses. We like to take the tackle one thing at a time approach as it helps keep us focused and better able to take care of.

  9. Before we starting being intense about paying off our six figures of law school debt we used sink funds. When we knew we had a $600 bill coming up in 6 months, we would put away $100 a month for it.

    Now that we are in serious debt repayment, we don’t do sink funds, we just don’t pay as much on our debt the months we have the big annual expenses or annoying car repairs come up.

    This works for us because we don’t have any payments due on our student loans. We have income based repayment, and our income (when taking our family size into consideration) isn’t high enough to have to pay. We still try to put as much as possible toward debt each month, but not having any required minimum payment amount allows us to be a little flexible.

    • Laurie says:

      That’s great, Stephanie, that you guys are in a place where you’re able to put so much extra toward the debt each month. That’ll get rid of those unpleasant student loans sooner rather than later. 🙂

  10. Those unexpected costs really can be a killer. It’s my belief that they are the real dangers on a road to debt freedom, because they’re more discouraging: a big one time expense can break our will and cause us to throw up our hands. I think that’s the real benefit of an emergency fund: it’s a bit of a psychological insurance.

    Great stuff, Laurie!

    • Laurie says:

      So true, DB40. We’ve learned at this point not to let them get us down so much, but more so just go with the flow and get back on track the following month. We know we’ll get to debt free sooner or later, so we try not to let those unexpected expenses get us down.

  11. Great list! When the budget is tight, you absolutely have to prioritize projects. We would love to re-do our kitchen one day, but we live in an older home that has had some upgrades needed (like toilets), so the kitchen has been put on the back burner for a while. I have come to accept this fact, and whenever my hubby complains I always inform him that he is “free to make more money” whenever he chooses to pay for the kitchen if it bothers him so much. 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, love that, Shannon!! We’re in an older home too, and I can’t wait for the day when we can re-do some stuff, but, like you said, priorities, right?

  12. Kay says:

    I like the idea of looking ahead to get an idea of what might be coming up (doctor and vet visits, etc). The biggest issues for us was always unexpected car and home repairs. We try to have an idea of what will be coming and save a little ahead of time. For example, our hot water heater is nearing the end of its life cycle, so we might need one in a year or so. We try to save a little here and there for this expense.

    • Laurie says:

      Those are such a pain, aren’t they, Kay? We are working to do that too with our roof. Then it won’t be quite so painful when we finally have to take the plunge and get a new one. 🙂

  13. Great tips Laurie. One of my biggest issues I’m dealing with right now is health cost. I’ve had several big bills come through lately and my insurance doesn’t cover much is any at all. On top of that I just found out I need to get new tires for my vehicle which could be a $400 or $500 bill. But like you said just take things one bill at a time.

    • Laurie says:

      Oh no, Chris!! We had a huge medical bill last year that we are paying off too. We’re lucky in that the hospital is being great about accepting our puny payments and not charging us any interest. Good luck with your tires. Try Discount Tire or a Fleet Farm if you have one over there. We’ve gotten great deals at both of those places for our Silverado and our Suburban in the last year and a half.

  14. Mrs. Jim says:

    Laurie,
    My husband turned me on to your blog. I just love it and we’re wishing you and your family all the success you’re dreaming of. Sounds like you’re well on your way. We’ve been down this road (and still are) so we know what it’s like to keep going and what a pain that can sometimes be. But, what makes me absolutely certain that you and your family are going to succeed is your tone that comes thru with each blog. You’re very kind and gentle. Determined as hell, absolutely, but that has not made you lose your decency. Can’t wait till I read your blog where you say you’re out of debt and well on your way to becoming millionaires! You go girl!

    • Laurie says:

      Hey, Mrs. Jim!! Great to meet you. 🙂 We always enjoy your hubby’s witty and encouraging comments. Thanks so much for your encouragement too. Rick and I are a bit bull-headed, so it’s served us well in this debt-paying-off journey. So glad you are reading as well now. Keep in touch, and best of luck to you guys as you work on your goals too. 🙂

  15. Making a list and preparing (if these one time expenses are not unexpected) are the best things to do. At the end of March we’ll have our Baby’s Christening, which is followed here in Romania by a huge party and expenses are close to those for a wedding (remember though that weddings cost less in Romania than the US). However, it’s still a huge expense – fortunately one that we knew was coming and had time to prepare. If we were to actually wait until now when the actual spending begins, we would’ve been doomed to fail. 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      Wow – that’s great that christenings are such a big deal over there, although I’m sure it’s spendy. Glad you guys had the foresight to prepare financially – great job, C. Hope you’re planning on writing a post about the awesome celebration. 🙂

  16. I definitely need to start making a list of those one-time expenses I know are coming up so I can plan better for them! I feel like if I am fully prepared a month or two ahead of time, instead of just dealing with it when it pops up, I’ll be much less anxious about it. Great tips as always, Laurie!

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks, Kali!! Yeah, it really does help us to run things that way, so we at least have some cash set aside for those expenses.

  17. Dear Debt says:

    One time expenses are the bane of my existence! Taxes, check-ups, x-rays, and all that fun stuff. It seems like it always comes at one time, too? Right now I find myself needing a lot of things like dish soap, detergent, deodorant. How did they all run out at the same time? I think setting up an extra little fund for one time expenses is smart and also I love your idea of writing it down! If you can prepare, then do so!

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, I can identify, Melanie! It really does help us a lot too, from a psychological standpoint, to write it down. Then we’ve kind of got it in our heads and aren’t so freaked out when it actually comes time to pay for the stuff. 🙂

  18. We owe taxes this year, so we are saving up on a tight budget. By cutting expenses, selling stuff, and hustling for extra cash, we are getting there. It is a challenge, but it feels good when you are able to save up!

    • Laurie says:

      Oh, yuck, Erin – that’s no fun!!! So cool though that you guys are conquering that bill with your arsenal of PF weapons – many people would just throw their hands up and pull out the credit card. Great job!

  19. Like you I kind of know when bigger expenses are coming up. Like taxes for example…I have a huge chunk saved in a different bucket in case I owe a lot. Hopefully I won’t need much of it, but I’m at least prepared.

  20. Gotta love those one-time expenses! We have to replace our roof this summer. For any big expense we know is coming up, we have a separate savings account just for that, and automatically funnel our budgeted amount to that account. So that way we have the money when we need it. Ideally, I would like to do that for other one-time expenses as well, but as luck would have it, once I finish saving up for one thing, something else unexpectedly comes up.

    • Laurie says:

      Our roof is due too, Anthony – yuck! LOL, “as luck would have it, once I finish savings up for one thing, something else unexpectedly comes up”. My mom always recounts about how when we were poor and I would need something for school, I would come home, ask her for “X” amount of dollars, and that would be the exact amount of cash in her wallet. 🙂

  21. We usually do an annual budget and list out one-time annual expenses like insurance and wedding presents. Then we divide the total amount by the number of months to calculate how much we should be “saving” each month for that item, and incorporate it into our monthly budget. Our ING account let’s us automatically funnel money into a “special” savings account (really, just a sub account in the main account).

    As for those dreaded unexpected one-time expenses, we usually have a buffer to account for those. Or, we just try to cut other expenses to cover that one-timer.

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