Archive for the 'Budgeting & Tracking' Category

Below Your Means Basics: Track Spending and Build a Budget

At Below Your Means we are passionate about building personal freedom through spending less, saving money, and understanding what we value.   The first step to living below your means is tracking your spending and building a budget.  Sure, you can cut down on your spending, even significantly, without knowing where your spending is going.  But finance is, at it’s most basic, an exercise in math.  If you bring in more money than you spend, you’re living below your means.

Simply cutting your spending isn’t going to lead you to happiness though.  In fact, your budget plan may fail simply because you don’t have the tolerance for living within the plan you’ve laid out.  But, if the way your life is set up now requires you to spend more money than you make, then at a certain point you’re going to need to make some changes.  What changes, exactly, have everything to do with what you value and your sense of what things in your life are worth.

To help you build a budget that you can thrive on, we’ve assembled a few articles on tracking your spending and building a budget the Below Your Means way.

Consider this a getting started guide to budgeting basics:

Getting a monthly and/or annual budget in place will show you once and for all that you CAN make decisions that lead to long term happiness and security.  And you don’t need a huge income to make it happen.  You do need to understand what is important to you, and plan for that.

 

This is the single step with which your journey starts.  Sure, you can cut down on your spending, even significantly, without knowing where your spending is going.  But finance is, at it’s most basic, an exercise in math.  If you bring in more money than you spend, you’re living below your means.  If you don’t, you’re not.  Tracking your spending isn’t everything when it comes to living below your means, but it’s hard to be successful without it unless you institute an all-cash system.  Fortunately, there is a whole industry building computer software to help make it simple, and some of it is free.

Below Your Means Basics: 10 Common Budgeting Pitfalls (and What to Do Instead)

Don't Let Your Budget Become a Train WreckWrapping up our “Back to Basics” this week, here are some common pitfalls that can sabotage your budget.

Pitfall #1: Building a Budget with No Purpose

If you start to build a budget and don’t have any clear goals, you’ll just feel like you climbed into a straightjacket for no reason.  Even if you manage to stick to the budget for 3 or 6 months, you’ll find that you aren’t really any closer to where you wanted to be.  Remember your budget is all about understanding your values and helping you know if a purchase is worth it to you.

Instead: Set clear goals. These can be tied to paying off credit cards, paying off your house or car, retiring by a certain age, taking a vacation, etc.  If you’re just getting your hands around your finances, go with the envelope method or use cash.

Pitfall #2:  Using Credit Cards to “Bust the Budget”

If you use credit cards on a regular basis, it is very easy to overspend.  In fact, credit card processors will tell their customers that they should accept credit cards because the average buyer will spend more if they are buying with a credit card than if they are buying with cash.  Cash helps remind you to make a value determination.

Instead:  Pay cash or track religiously. If you’re going to keep using your card, you need to update the balance in your processing system (we highly recommend something like Mint.com or an Intuit product like Quicken) frequently.  Probably every other day, or every third day.  Weekly is as far as I’d push it, but if you’re new to tracking your spending, I think you’ll be surprised how much your can run up in one week

Pitfall #3:  Budgeting Alone

If you don’t share your goals and values with your spouse, family, or close friends, you probably won’t get the support you need to stick with it.  It’s hard to be the only one trying to cut back or make changes.   “Let’s all go out to eat” can easily blow your budget if you don’t add “hmmm… that place is pretty pricey, I’d like to keep it under $20.  How about we go to this place instead?”

Instead:  Enlist the support of family & friends. I am always on a budget and never ashamed to say so.  It’s smart to live deliberately.  Be proud of it.  When you’re making decisions in a group it helps to set your boundaries.  Expect some teasing, hold your head high, and move on.

Pitfall #4:  Leaving No Room For Error

Stuff happens.  The dishwasher breaks, the furnace goes out, you get a chance to score some tickets to an awesome show, you start dating someone wonderful, you forgot your anniversary, your child sprains an ankle, whatever. You can’t budget down to the penny, so make sure there is room for the unexpected.

Instead:  Leave a percentage of your budget for the unexpected.  Exactly what percentage depends on your circumstances, but 5%-10% isn’t a bad place to start.  One way to get to the bottom of this number is to look at your credit card statements and see what surprises went on your cards every month.

Pitfall #5:  Budgeting Against Future Earnings

You may finish your budget and find out that you’re short.  It’s tempting to say to yourself that more money is coming — whether you are picking up extra shifts at work, counting on a bonus, counting on business picking up, or planning to take on a room-mate or odd jobs.  You can’t count on that kind of money until you are consistently earning it, and you don’t want to wind up in debt because you were counting on that money and it didn’t show up (or showed up much later than you expected it to).

Instead:  Budget based on your current income (or less). You can always revisit the budget if your income rises to a higher consistent level.  One bonus or one good sales quarter does not make a consistent increase, by the way.  Use those one-time or infrequent bumps in income to accelerate your savings or debt reduction goals.

Pitfall #6:  Getting Too Detailed

A budget that is too detailed is flawed in a few ways.  One, it’s too hard to keep it up.  If you are scrutinizing every receipt to split it into dozens of inter-related categories, or tracking a 50 cent purchase of bubble gum, you’re probably not going to have enough time to track your spending and compare it to your budget.  Two, it probably doesn’t help you make any decisions.  Does it really matter that you went over your “Groceries” budget by $50 and were under on your “Toiletries” budget by $30, or is it equally informative to know you were over on “Groceries & Toiletries” by $20?  Either way, you still need to get $20 more of value out of your current spending, or realize that the things you bought weren’t worth it, and cut back.

Instead:  Consolidate categories by how you make spending decisions. If you typically make all of your grocery and toiletry purchasing decisions over the same couple of stores, lump them all into one category.  If you go over, you’ll be able to scan the receipts and see why without needing to keep track of each category independently.  Corollary – if you consistently go over in a single category even after analyzing it, you may want to split it up into multiple categories to get a better view of what is happening.

Pitfall #7:  Confusing Your ‘Wants’ and Your ‘Needs’

I need my coffee or I’ll never get through the day!  I need my massage after dealing with the kids / my job!  I need my movie time or I’ll go crazy!  I need my housekeeper or the place will never be clean!  I need my BMW if I’m going to work at this job!  It’s very easy to rationalize your additional spending. And these don’t have to be big purchases, either.  You can easily spend an additional $30-$50 at the grocery store each visit because of things you ‘need’ or ‘deserve’.  Don’t make the luxuries of the past the necessities of today.  And don’t confuse the values of others with your own values.  If your job really requires you to spend money on things that aren’t worth their cost to you, then you may be in the wrong job.

Instead: Stop yourself and re-assess your goals and values. If you build your budget with a business mindset – looking at what you want to accomplish and what you need to do to get there – then you should be able to figure out where you can let go and what you truly need.  The motivation to stick with it will come from working towards achieving your passions.  All your habits that help you make it through the day at a crummy job will pale in comparison to watching your progress at saving up for a career change.  And many couples have, after a dispassionate review of the math, realized that their 2-income life was no more profitable than a 1-income life after all their job expenses were taken into account.  Now, if you’re working two careers that you love, that could be a good decision.  But if one of you hates your job, you’re wasting your time.

Pitfall #8:  Failing to Review

The budget doesn’t DO anything.  It doesn’t change your spending habits.  It doesn’t track itself (although good software certainly helps).  It doesn’t make you care about your goals.  It should give you the information you need to see how you are performing and what progress you are making against your short, medium and long term goals.  If you think that you can spend a weekend getting a budget in place and everything after will be magically wonderful, you are on your way to disappointment.  And, if you don’t include in your planning setting aside the time to review your work, you’re planning to fail.

Instead:  Set aside regular time to track your spending and review your progress. Depending on whether or not you are using the envelope system or credit cards and an electronic system, this can be as far apart as once a week and as often as every two to three days.  You need to get it on your calendar and stick with it.

Pitfall #9:  Failing to Cut Your Spending

So, you’ve decided that you only have $75 in spending money for the month.  The second rolls around, and you hit a coffee shop in the morning and go through $5.  Lunch is $8 because you didn’t bother to pack it.  Dinnertime rolls around and you stay late at the office (unavoidable) and wind up hitting the drive through on the way home, going through another $8.   Once home, you buy 4 songs on iTunes at 99 cents apiece because your day was so lousy and you want new music to listen to at work.  You’ve now spent 1/3rd of your $75, and you’re only 1/30th of the way through the month.

InsteadRealize where you are going to need to change your behavior, and start immediately. There are lots of sites out there (ours included) with ideas to help you through your problem areas.  In this case, cooking a big meal on Sunday and storing the leftovers (to cover dinner when there was no time to cook), making coffee at home, and packing a lunch in the morning (which could also be frozen leftovers) could have lowered that $21 in spending down to near zero.  And since you were happy with your budget progress, the iTunes purchase might have been more deliberate…. meaning either you spent the $4 because you really thought it was worth it, or you didn’t buy the songs (or bought less).

Pitfall #10 (For Couples):  Trying to Agree on Everything

Remember, your budget is an expression of where you think it’s valuable to spend your resources, and it’s pretty unlikely you will agree on everything. Don’t lose the whole budget because you can’t agree on all of it.

Instead: Make sure there is money that each of you can use independently, and set thresholds for group decisions. Your independent money is yours to use however you see fit.  And, if you’re within budget, you should be able to make small decisions alone.  Many couples use the $100 mark for joint discussions.

Pitfall #11 (Use Carefully!):  Leaving No Room For Fun

If you are building a budget expressly because you are in a valley of despair over the state of your debt, it can be easy to tell yourself “I’m not doing anything else fun until I have this crap paid off!”  But you’ll break that promise to yourself soon enough, whether it’s at the bar, in line at Starbuck’s, during lunchtime at the office, or with the kids at the toy store. HOWEVER, this is not a free pass to blow your budget or do whatever you want whenever you want to.  Your “room for fun” needs to come in the form of a budgeted amount that is realistic and within your means.  It does NOT mean that it’s OK to run up credit card debt or skip out on your savings goals (or worse, monthly bills) just because.  Remember this is ALL for “yourself”… the reward is not the latte next week, it is a lifetime of debt free living.

Instead:  Make sure you have some money for fun. Again, how much is really dependent on your personal circumstances and your goals.  If you’re not sure how to start, pick 3 or 4 things you do for fun on a regular basis, and make sure you have enough money to do them once or twice a month.  You may have to drop some expensive habits (have your friends over and make drinks there instead of heading to the bar, or have family movie nights on a rental with homemade popcorn instead of at the theater). 

Thumbnail Photo: Blocks 1 by Crissy Alright

Story Photo via Wikipedia


What principles do you follow when budgeting?  What problems have undone your efforts, and how have you gotten past them?

Budget with Adaptu and Mint – One Blogger’s Review

With our current Below Your Means Basics focus on Budgets, we thought it would be interesting to comment on a few of the major pieces of tracking and budgeting software in the market today.  The editors at Below Your Means currently use Quicken Deluxe 2011 for all of our personal finance tracking and budgeting.  However, there are cloud-based solution such as Mint.com or Adaptu.  These have the advantage of having no software maintenance you have to do on your own computer, and they’re free, which makes them a great value.  If keeping track of some very complex financial situations is important to you, or you’re leery of having your data in the cloud, Quicken Deluxe may be worth it.

The Narrow Bridge Personal Finance Blog has a excellent review of these two products. If you are looking to jump into either one products, I recommend giving the article a read first.

Eric, over at Narrow Bridge Finance, reviews each product in the following categories:

  • Interface & Navigation
  • Account Management
  • Analysis and Reports
  • Investment Tracking
  • Community
  • Overall

Based on the review, both Mint.com and Adaptu are tied for first place, each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

I have used Mint.com for a long time and have no plans to leave it behind, but I now have two aggregators in my bookmark list. I use Mint for my overall quick view, but I have Adaptu for more in depth looks into my investment and my travel reward tracking.

I would recommend reading the full review to determine which site works best for you.  The Narrow Bridge also has other good reviews of Mint.com vs. Thrive and Mint.com vs. Pageonce.

 

Mint.com Alternative – Adaptu: The Showdown of Mint vs. Adaptu | Narrow Bridge Finance

Below Your Means Basics: Getting Your Budget Done

 

Getting started with a basic budget

If you’ve been keeping up with your Below Your Means Basics series this week, you’ve now thought through your goals and why you’re building a budget.  (If you’re just picking up the thread, you can find the first post here).  You’ve started having sane conversations with your spouse about what you value and how much things are worth to you.  You know you want to take more control of your finances.  What do you actually do about it?

A Note About Tools

We’re not going to get into the mechanics here of how to implement your system on any given piece of software.  You need to be honest with yourself about what will work for you. If you are intimidated by personal financial software, get an printing calculator and a notepad.  I say “printing calculator” and not “calculator” because you’ll REALLY want to have that record of what you entered when the math doesn’t add up.  If you do go low-tech, the envelope method seems to be pretty popular.  All you need to do is get an envelope for each category in your budget and put the cash you have to spend each week or month in there, after paying your bills by check.  You take the cash out of the appropriate envelope when you need to make a purchase.  When you’re out of cash, you stop spending.

If you go the software route, there are lots of options. Computer tools are a terrific way to track your spending and, with a little bit of patience and work, you can pretty easily manage a budget with one.  For fairly simple scenarios without a lot of investments to track, Mint.com is a great free solution.  If you are nervous about using a cloud resource, we personally use Quicken Deluxe 2011 .  You may also already have a basic spreadsheet program on your home computer, such as Microsoft Excel 2010 .  Additionally, there are free spreadsheet tools such as Google Docs Spreadsheets.

Getting Your Budget Done

Below is a step-by-step description of getting your budget implemented.  Many sites recommend that you have 3 months of tracking information in place before you start drawing up your budget.  We disagree.  If you have thought through what you value and what you are able and willing to control, there is no reason why you can’t start now.  Just remember Principle 3, that your budget is a living, changing document that you will revisit frequently.

Categorize

Create your list of spending categories.   Don’t edit too much as you draw up the list, just write down the categories of things you spend money on.  Once you have the list done, take a look at the tips below, and review the categories to see if you missed anything.

  • If you’re using a software tracking tool, they have a list you can use to start from but don’t take it as gospel.  Note:  Don’t try to manage your list in your software product just yet. You’ll be making so many changes as you go that it will drive you bonkers to implement them all in the tool.
  • Include savings goals and debt payment goals.  We’ll talk about saving more next week, but for now consider that you want to save for both emergencies and retirement, at a minimum.
  • Do NOT confuse “making a credit card payment” with “spending”.  What you spend each month is what you spend, whether you put it on a credit card, wrote a check, used your debit card, or paid cash. Making a credit card payment is divided into two pieces – paying interest and paying off principal.
  • DO make sure you include a monthly amount for paying down the principal on any credit card debt or other non-auto, non-mortgage consumer debt you may be carrying.  Call this something like “debt reduction.”

Here’s a sample list:

  • Auto – car insurance, car maintenance and gas
  • Babysitting – really any childcare services
  • Charity – charitable donations
  • Clothing – family clothing for the kids.  each adult is responsible for their own clothing
  • Dining and Entertainment – going out and having fun
  • Enrichment – gym memberships, classes (including after school activities for the kids), and the like
  • Groceries, Toiletries & Misc – daily consumables like food, toilet paper, cleaning products, over the counter medicine, etc.
  • Housewares – bedding, glassware, any other purchase for the home
  • Housing – mortgage interest, mortgage fees, utilities, and repairs
  • Medical – medical insurance and medical bills
  • Services – any kind of professional services, from housekeeping to haircuts
  • Vacation – saving up for vacation
  • Savings – paying down credit card balances, building up emergency funds, retirement savings, etc.

Organize

Group your categories into areas of control.  Obviously the simpler and more personal you can make this, the better.  There are things you have to pay that are hard to change (fixed expenses), things you have to pay that are easy to change (variable expenses), and things you like to spend money on (discretionary expenses). Those are the 3 easiest groupings to manage, and you may find that your category list changes once you take this approach.  For example, using the list above:

  • Savings Goals
  • Fixed Expenses: Mortgage Principal, Mortgage Interest, Mortgage Fees, Car Principal, Car Interest, Medical Insurance, Auto Insurance
  • Variable Expenses: Groceries & Toiletries, Car Maintenance, Gas, Utilities, Enrichment, Housewares, Services, Medical Bills, Babysitting, Utilities
  • Discretionary Expenses: Dining and Entertainment, Charity, Vacation

Now that you have these organized you can finish up with your budget categories.  Again, group along the lines of what you value and where you can make changes.  Within the “fixed expenses” category, pretty much all of your insurance costs are going to be hard to control on a month-to-month basis.  So group them into a single “Insurance” category, add up your total insurance payments, and you now know your monthly budget for insurance.  Within the “variable expenses” category, you may decide that housewares, groceries and toiletries all belong in the same pile.  You may also not need child care services outside of discretionary expenses, so you can lump that in with “Dining and Entertainment.”

Play around with a few different category groups as you go.  Even if you are handling your budget in software packages, you may want to do some of this on paper while you are settling into a groove.

Budget

Once you have a set of categories and they’re organized, it’s time to budget.  Start by taking a look at your existing spending if you have the records for it, and see where your money is going.  Take note of your fixed expenses, as they will be tough to move.  Then, take a look at your savings goals, and set some dollar amounts for the various types of savings.  Once you have those numbers in place, you are ready to tackle your variable and discretionary expenses.

Income – Fixed Expenses – Savings Goals = Total Variable and Discretionary Spending

You can get lost here pretty easily because there is a good chance that you are currently living at or above your means, and fitting all your spending into your income could be painful.  Don’t give up. Remember to think about what you value and what certain conveniences and luxuries are worth to you.  The value equation is all about understanding the true cost and benefits of your spending.  Worth is a bit more esoteric, but it helps to realize that while a purchase might be a great value, it still isn’t worth it to you, right now.

The detail you put into budgeting your variable spending is entirely up to you.  Some people prefer the method of figuring out their fixed expenses and their savings goals, and then letting the chips fall where they may.  Other people want to be more deliberate about it, and make sure they have money set aside for important but not urgent things, like our family’s Enrichment budget.  That reminds us to cut back on things like groceries and housewares where we can in order to make room for positive experiences for ourselves and our children.  But again, it all depends on your personal situation and personal goals.

One thing you must absolutely do within your budget is make room for the unexpected. If at all possible, do this in addition to your savings goals, or you will find that you continue to run up your credit cards as the unexpected strikes.  So, your budget formula should really look like this:

Income – Fixed Expenses – Savings Goals = Total Variable and Discretionary Spending + Slack

After you’ve completed all this, you’re ready for the hard work of cutting back on your spending to fit within your budget.  If you’re not on the verge of financial ruin, be gentle with yourself and take a few months to get into the swing of things.

Software Note: Some software programs will have some extra features that make it a bit more complicated to track, say, a mortgage payment.  The software will want you to enter a value for your home, the size of the mortgage, and break up your mortgage payment into principal, interest, and any fees.  Stick with those features as they will eventually give you good information.  Otherwise, simpler is better.

Special Considerations for Spouses

If you’re in a relationship that involves joint finances, decide how to handle splitting up your money.  We strongly recommend the yours/mine/ours approach, which involves each spouse contributing to a household budget and retaining a portion of the budget for their own spending.  How far you take this has everything to do with how you manage decisions in your relationship.  In our research we’ve found four common methods:

  1. It’s all our money.  We don’t recommend this approach, but sometimes things are tight enough that it’s the only way to go.  But, if you drill into the budgets of people who claim they follow this strategy, often times you’ll find that they actually use method #2.
  2. Each spouse gets an allowance.  In this method, all the money goes into a common pool except an allowance for each spouse to spend on whatever they like.  Allowances are not necessarily equal depending on what expenses are included in the allowance.  If this is just plain ‘fun money’ than equal allowances are the best option.  If each spouse is responsible for their own gas, car maintenance, clothing, etc., then a realistic couple will dispassionately take those differences into consideration (for example, the couple where one partner spends more time driving than the other).
  3. Each spouse contributes equally to a household budget and keeps the rest of their income.  In this method, the household budget is split evenly.  This is a common approach for 2-career couples, especially if their incomes are similar or they are libertarians.
  4. Each spouse contributes to the household budget in proportion with their income.  In this method, the household budget is divided based on the spouse’s ability to contribute.  It has the benefit of feeling more fair and preventing disagreements about spending based on the difference in each partner’s perception of what is affordable.

Talk through these options and experiment to find out what is best for you.

Tomorrow we wrap up our Budget Basics with common pitfalls to avoid.

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver

Below Your Means Basics: 3 Principles for Tracking & Budgeting

 

Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler - Albert EinsteinUnless 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.

Helpful Links

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