Purchases that Cross the “Sleeper Lines”

Spend Between the Lines

Thanks to all of you who participated in our February Giveaway Challenge! We’re happy to announce that the winner was Melissa B. — congrats on your Amazon gift card!

Obviously with a blog name like Our Freaking Budget, we’ve got a budget. In fact, here’s what a sample monthly budget looks like in our house. But in addition to our overall budget, Johnny and I have limits in our heads for pretty much every single transaction. In other words, single purchase budgets.

It’s kind of like the financial version of the rumble strip on the side of the freeway… if your car drifts too far to the right, the vibration of those strips on your tires gets you back on track real quick. If we’re thinking about buying an item that hits or goes past that limit, little alarm bells sound in our head and a booming voice says, “WARNING. TOO EXPENSIVE. BACK AWAY FROM THIS PURCHASE.”

And even though we’ve been debt free for 15 months, we’ve realized that those warning lines haven’t moved anywhere. So what is our spending threshold for certain items before alarm bells sound? Here are a few examples:


$10-$12/plate — If a restaurant costs us more than this, you better believe we’re there for a pretty darn special occasion. We’ve had our eye on a steakhouse near our home that runs about $40/person, and we’re waiting until our anniversary in June to try it out.

Fast Food

$5/person — Since our dating days, Johnny and I have been dollar menu peeps. And this still rings true. Unfortunately, Johnny’s been eating a lot of fast food for lunch since Baby Girl was born and neither of us has had time to make him lunch every day. As long as he keeps it under 5 bucks, neither of us starts feeling panicky.

Weekend Date Night

$20 — Our typical weekend date night includes takeout and occasionally a trip to a frozen yogurt shop. A couple times a year we might go to a movie together.


$40 — You’d be hard pressed to find many shoes in our closet that cost more than $40. In the five years we’ve been married, I think we’ve each purchased two pairs of shoes that were more than that, but they were still less than $100.


$40-$60/night — If we can’t get a deal on a hotel, Johnny and I won’t be staying there. In fact I don’t think we’ve ever purchased a hotel room without the aid of a deal site like Priceline or Hotwire. And then there’s always his $20 trick.

Rental Car

$20/day — Same story as the hotel. We’ve never rented a car without Priceline or Hotwire, and we’ve never paid more than $20/day.

Gifts for Family and Friends

$20/person — Johnny and I set this limit while we were in debt, and it still stands today. We’ve let the limit slide a few times, but for the most part, our alarms sound at any price higher than this.

Airline Tickets

$250/RT/each — We have two credit cards that we gain air miles from, so about half of our flights are paid for. When they’re not, we try to hold out for a deal. If tickets cost us much more than $300/each, we both start feeling sick to our stomachs.

Disclaimer: This isn’t to say we’ve never purchased anything above these limits. There have always been exceptions to the rule, but those exceptions almost always set off the “WAKE UP! YOU’RE ABOUT TO DRIVE YOUR BUDGET OFF A CLIFF!” warning.

Our sensitivity to limits outlined above is actually one of the few reasons we actually feel grateful to have incurred debt. Without our rendezvous with the Debt Monster, there’s no telling where our limits might be today. And while we’ve got more money flowing into our pockets with no debt obligations, we’ve become so accustomed to our limits that they haven’t changed. Fingers crossed, that’s how we’d like it stay.

This is clearly one of those personal finances are personal posts, so some of our “freak out” limits might not match yours. Which ones seemed high/low to you? Do you have any other purchase limits that trigger alarm bells in your head?

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  • Reply Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies March 4, 2013 at 7:52 am

    We have separate limits per person in each category. I know when we go out to eat, there’s a decent chance Mr. PoP’s food will be 2x the cost of mine. Same with gifts for his family.
    The only exception is shoes. I do not scrimp on shoes, especially running shoes. $100/pair is something I definitely notice spending, but it’s not something I feel any guilt about as long as I keep using them as much as I do.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm

      Interesting. I’ve never heard of separate limits. But I guess we do that with certain things, too, like clothes. Mine are usually cheaper.

      We recently broke our threshold on shoes to get Joanna some $100 running shoes. It was hard to hand over the money, but I understand their worth and Joanna is beyond stoked to get back into running post-pregnancy.

  • Reply Brian March 4, 2013 at 8:23 am

    We just crushed our eating out budget for the month last Friday and a very wonderful Steak/Seafood place. Of course it was our sort of anniversary (we didn’t technically get one this year since we got married on 2/29). The meal was totally worth the price and the place exceeded our lofty expectations (gave us Champagne on arrival and gave us dessert to finish it all off).

    I like your idea of $250/person for flights, but that is getting harder and harder each passing day to find cheap flights like that!

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      Woah, leap year anniversary! That’s awesome. Special occasion dinners happen once or twice a year for us. And we never really regret it.

      $250/flight is definitely getting tougher, so we’ve had to get more creative with mixing and matching legs from different airlines, catching red-eye flights, and using our Southwest Visa card as our primary credit card for mile rewards.

  • Reply John S @ Frugal Rules March 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

    We’re very similar ourselves. Thankfully most of our family lives in big cities so we can usually get tickets around the $250 price, especially if we use Southwest. The hotel category does seem a bit low to me. Though, to be fair, we’re usually with our three little ones so we need so stay somewhere nicer to get a bigger room for all of us.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

      Southwest is the best! Not crazy about the first-come, first-served seating system, but it’s a small price to pay for the cheaper fares.

  • Reply Karie March 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

    We can get somewhat cheap flights but for a family of 5, $200-$250 really adds up. We are going to try to drive to Florida this year. I live in Canada, about an hour from Buffalo, NY. Many people do that around here or fly to a U.S. destination from the Buffalo airport because it is usually so cheap. We’re using frequent flyer points for every hotel we’re staying at along the way and in Florida. We have some breakfasts included so we have to pay for most meals, gas and activities. We do have a microwave and fridge in some hotels. We’ll see how it goes – hopefully it’s fun! If it’s a nightmare, we’ll just have to save up and wait for a deal on flights if we want to travel to a far destination in the future!!

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      That totally makes sense. To be honest, I’d prefer to travel by car if at all possible. I LOVE road trips. Getting to the destination is just as fun as the actual destination for me. Some of my fondest memories with my family of 7 (!) are road trip vacations.

      Good luck with your trip! Here’s hoping it works out well!

  • Reply Grayson @ Debt Roundup March 4, 2013 at 10:15 am

    We are pretty close to yours, especially when it comes to eating out. While I don’t eat much fast food, our restaurant plate budget is pretty darn close. I don’t like paying more than that unless it is a special occasion and I know that the place will be worth it.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      I think the most expensive meal we’ve ever paid for ourselves might have barely topped $50. We have a hard time really going all out, even when the occasion warrants it.

  • Reply Jennifer March 4, 2013 at 10:21 am

    There is no way my gift budget could be that high, but I have 5 siblings, 3 nephews and a niece. I am also trying really, really hard not to take out any more student loans before I graduate in about 2 years and to not get buried under medical debt when my little one is born in July. My family is pretty understanding and half of them are in similar financial situations.

    The only plane ticket I have ever purchased was $800, but I was going abroad for a semester so it was an unavoidable expense. Most of my shoes are $25 or less except for my running shoes at about $100 a pair.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      Good for you on setting your limits. And for great reasons — stop that Debt Monster in its tracks!

      That’s one expensive plane ticket. But neither Joanna and I have ever been out of the country, so that doesn’t even register on our radar. Hopefully at some point, we’ll see more of the world. And then we’ll be lamenting our very own $800 airfare purchase. 🙂

      Congrats on your upcoming arrival!

  • Reply Johnny Moneyseed March 4, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Cook big dinners, so he has some leftovers to take to work. Fast food is typically pretty nasty for your body even though it may be delicious.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      “Fast food” probably wasn’t the right wording. Usually I snag a roast beef sandwich, a salad, a Subway sandwich, or slices of pizza. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a little fast food, but that’s once, at most twice, a week.

      We can definitely do a better job though of making dinners with leftovers that make for nice lunches the next day.

      • Reply Johnny Moneyseed March 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        The only fast food we do anymore is Chipotle. I don’t consider it fast food though, but more as good food fast. I won’t give it up Johnny!

  • Reply Rob March 4, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Your limits seem pretty reasonable but I suppose they will probably be adjusted over time due to things like inflation and/or your standard of living rises as you gradually become filthy rich, right? 🙂

    That said, I would also presume that each person’s spending limits are also influenced by external factors, such as where one lives and the local state of the economy there. One other limit that I use is one for entertainment – movies, plays, books, music, whatever. My B-I-L likes to go to a new movie practically every week it seems. I just shake my head at that since it must add up over a year. Obviously he’s still in debt whereas I’m not but I am not going to start preaching to him on how he should best spend his money. It would just go in one ear and out the other as well as cause resentment. My point being – one can’t always counsel friends and/or family on financial matters unless they seek guidance and are ready to act on it. Agree?

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      Inflation might move things a wee bit. But if we end up filthy rich, it will probably be as a result of the limits we’ve set for ourselves. In which case, those limits ain’t going anywhere. 🙂

      And definitely agree on counseling friends/family. It’s not worth stirring up those hornets nests, even if have a pretty good idea of how to help.

  • Reply Chris March 4, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I feel sick about getting a hotel room period. I don’t travel much because of it though. It took me a long time to stop feeling sick at the gas pump filling up my truck. $80 a week is very hard to part with, but I’ve since accepted it as a necessity.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      I enjoy staying in hotels when I know I’ve snagged a pretty sweet deal. And then I take advantage of every amenity that sucker has to offer.

      I know the pain at the pump with trucks. While I miss having a truck to haul stuff in, I don’t miss the gas mileage. Do you need the truck? Could you change it up for a compact or midsize with good mileage?

      • Reply Chris March 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

        Probably, but I’m stubborn and live in the country so a car gets stuck in mud easier :).

  • Reply Bill Myers March 4, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Hi Joanna,

    Great piece on day-to-day budgeting! I find that the day-to-day budget is the foundation to a long term plan. However, do you ever flex with the restaurant purchases? For instant; I go to the one local bar and grille where the prices tend to be $5-$10/person higher than the nearby chains. However, I go there because the portion size is substantially larger as well as to support my communities businesses.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Joanna’s on feeding duty with the baby right now, so I’m on commenting duty. 🙂

      We’ll bend the rules for certain situations. Like if we know we’ll come out of a place with leftovers for another meal, we’ll factor that in. And we love buying local whenever possible. Oftentimes we get stuck in a rut of doing chain stuff, but it’s important to seek after and support small business

  • Reply Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin March 4, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I like those numbers. My wife and I are still trying to have consistent date nights but have yet to find a rhythm. As for food purchases we try to limit the amount of times we eat out a night rather than the price.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      As the weeks go by with Baby Girl, Joanna and I realize more and more just how easy we had it just a few months ago. Obviously, we wouldn’t trade our new life for anything, but going on dates, going to concerts, travelling… so much easier.

      I like the number of times vs. cost method! We have our line up of places we usually eat out during the week and generally they’re right around the same cost, so that might be a nice method to switch to.

  • Reply Pauline March 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Flight ticket seems low to me, but that is because I tend to cross oceans when I go on a plane. The rest looks pretty reasonable.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      Yeah, our flights are usually cover half the US or the occasional coast-to-coast trip, but no overseas business for us just yet. We’ll need to save up and plan way ahead to get to that point.

  • Reply Moonwaves March 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    One of the biggest favours I ever did myself was a few years ago when I first bought something from ebay. I set myself a limit of maximum 20 euro for a purchase, including shipping costs. Now, if I wanted to buy something big and it was available on ebay but cost more, I could go ahead and buy it (assuming I’d done my homework and knew it was still a good price for that object) but as a general way to not get carried away with auction fever (you won it? No, you didn’t WIN anything, you bought it!) this has been a very good rule. I’ve seen people paying more for second-hand items than it would cost to buy them new and that’s just silly.

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      Having been a thrift store digger and seller on eBay, I couldn’t believe the prices some vintage pieces of clothing would fetch. Granted, it was during the eBay haydays a few years back, but I made it a full-time job one summer in college.

      But I like your point. Set a limit, and if it “wins,” great! If not, then it wasn’t a good deal. I haven’t been on eBay in a while and your comment is reigniting my interest.

  • Reply Holly@ClubThrifty March 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Those all seem reasonable to me! Our date nights have gotten a lot more expensive. Hiring a babysitter is $5-$7 an hour depending on who we use so we’re already out at least $20 before we even get to do anything. It’s definitely worth it though!

    • Reply Johnny March 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Babysitter costs!!! Last week we finally started to exploring those costs. We’ve already passed on a few concerts coming through that we’d normally go see because the cost for tickets + babysitting would be unjustifiable. BUT, we’ve got some other date nights planned in a few weeks, so we’ll finally test the babysitting waters then.

  • Reply KK @ Student Debt Survivor March 4, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I don’t mind spending a lot for good shoes that are comfortable and last a long time. Haircuts are something that I used to spend a ton of money on ($75-100 per cut), now if I had to pay more than $45 I would go to a different salon. My hair doesn’t look any better with a $100 cut then it does with a super cuts $20 cut, I’m not sure how I got sucked into the fancy salons for so long.

  • Reply My Financial Independence Journey March 5, 2013 at 6:44 am

    A lot of my spending limits are based on frequency. I don’t mind spending $30 a plate in a restaurant, because I go out to eat so infrequently. Might as well live it up.

    Where I lived previously I had a lot of friends who loved going out to eat. Having no limits doesn’t work in that situation, so I kept having to revise my restaurant spending downwards, otherwise it would crush me.

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