Unless your means are very large and your tastes are very modest, it will be difficult to live below your means without tracking your spending and creating a budget. You may entertain a fantasy that, if you just hit some income goal, everything would fall in to place. You’ll have to let that go. As your income grows, the possibilities of what you can and can’t buy change. Before you know it, you’re spending more on everything – food, eating out, clothing, travel, your car, your home, whatever. The best way to handle your finances is to handle them with purpose, and in order to know what you’re doing you’re going to have to, well, know what you’re doing. And that means tracking it. Once you’re tracking your spending, you’ll need to know where your limits are in order to avoid exceed them. And that means budgeting. Don’t worry – while this task can be tedious, it doesn’t have to be, and you also don’t need to overdo it.
Like Einstein said, you need a system that will be as simple as possible, but not simpler. In this post we’re going to talk about the overall process of tracking your finances and building a budget, and point you to as many sources for ideas as we can. As we are fond of repeating, money is a tool that you can use to advance your goals, and the best way to manage it is knowing what those goals are. This article should help you put the whole process of tracking and budgeting into perspective.
Note: If you are in a credit crisis and facing bankruptcy, repossession, wage-garnishment, or other major financial consequences, then as much as we wish we could help, we’re not really the right place for you to get the information you need. While we will be addressing debt reduction strategies in this series of posts, you may be in need of legal assistance that we are not able to provide. Our favorite online legal resource is Nolo.com. Nolo’s Bankruptcy Center has plenty of good, free information and they also offer a variety of for-fee products to help those with serious credit and debt problems.
3 Principles for Tracking & Budgeting
When you start tracking your spending (especially if you have joint finances with a spouse) you can drive yourself crazy in a hurry. You gave your kid 50 cents to buy a toy from a vending machine at the mall. Where should that go? Your partner buys lunch at work and you make yours from the grocery budget. Should you pay for the groceries that really go to your lunches? You took out money from the ATM but you can’t remember what you spent it on. You went to Target, Wal-Mart, or Amazon and bought groceries, medicine, toiletries and clothes on the same order. Should you break them up?
These kinds of questions can get out of control in a hurry. Tracking everything really isn’t the point though. Remember that the point is to understand if your spending is in line with your values. Which leads us to…
Principle 1: The purpose of tracking and budgeting is to help you understand if your spending is in line with your goals and values. Only then can you tell if a purchase is worth the money.
As an example, consider two single men with incomes of $50,000 per year. The first is very extroverted and finds much fulfillment in spending time with friends and meeting new people. Three to four nights a week you can find him in a restaurant or a bar, where he typically spends somewhere around $40 on food and drinks. He also spends $30/month on a gym membership where he works out and plays basketball with an informal group that is constantly adding and losing members. Our second man is fairly introverted and has a small group of close friends. He loves to cook, and a few nights a week he has his friends over for dinner. He doesn’t belong to a gym, but has a cleaning service that keeps his condo looking good for $100/month.
Our extrovert would find our introvert’s grocery bills silly, and he has no problem cleaning his apartment once a month himself (give or take a few weeks). Our introvert would find our extrovert’s restaurant and bar expenses shockingly high, and is happy to work out alone in his building’s small gym. But, they both are enjoying spending time with friends and are exercising.
The obvious corollary to Principle 1 is that you need to have some idea of what your goals are and what things are important to you.
Principle 2: Organize your categories based on how easily they are controlled.
The whole reason you’re tracking your spending is so you can control it better. So, it makes sense to group items in terms of your level of control. When businesses do this, they refer to fixed costs and variable costs – meaning the things they have to spend every month regardless of what they do, and the things that vary depending on what they do. For example, your rent/mortgage and current car payments will take serious work to change; you can’t just decide tomorrow to live in a cheaper apartment and have your rent change. A second group are things that still take work to lower, but aren’t going to change overnight. For example, your grocery bill, toiletries, regular medicines, insurance, etc. are probably places where you could save money but that won’t go away entirely. Entertainment, eating out, etc are pretty much discretionary and, if you really wanted to, you could stop them within days.
Once you have these groupings in place, you can use them to help you understand the level of detail you should use in your tracking system. I have found that it doesn’t really matter very much for me to track all the details of my entertainment spending. I just know that I have a fixed amount of discretionary spending each month, and I need to stay within that. If I spend it on movies, or drinks, or dinner, or taking my kids out to lunch, it’s all the same – discretionary spending. No real value to budgeting it. For my mortgage, mortgage interest, car payments, and other large fixed expenses, tracking them individually is pretty simple to do and helps me understand if I’m spending too much in those areas (or could afford more if it’s important to me). The rest – groceries & toiletries, clothing for the kids, clothing for myself, repairs on the house, professional services like haircuts and dry cleaning – are all in a grey area, and for me, are a great place to focus.
Also, don’t forget your savings goals. You can take a number of different approaches to this, but they boil down to ‘spending as little as possible and saving the rest’ or ‘setting a savings goal and then spending the rest’. Which you choose has everything to do with your appetite for living frugally, your desire to increase your earning potential, and when you want to retire.
Principle 3: Your budget is a living thing that you will revisit on a regular basis, so don’t stress about making it perfect
This principle speaks for itself. As you achieve your goals and new opportunities present themselves, you’ll want to re-arrange your savings and spending habits. The activity of tracking and analyzing your spending will, in and of itself, lead to changes. So don’t stress, and don’t fear. Whatever reasons you have for procrastinating aren’t valid. Whether you are earning a six figure salary and want to make the most of your income, or you are stuck on a credit-card treadmill and trying to figure out how to get off, the first step is getting the information in one place.
Tomorrow we will discuss some special circumstances, including dealing with spouses and families.
Track Your Spending. Or Not. | Wisebread | An interesting take on value-based tracking and budgeting
How to Budget if You Hate Budgeting | FiveCentNickel | A great broad-brush way to budget for those who hate getting into the details
Thumbnail Photo: Blocks 1 by Crissy Alright
Story Photo: Simple 2 by Kristian Bjornar