Budgeting Bulimia

As the President is so quick to point out, ten years ago, there was a large budget surplus.  Naturally, the government went into a massive cycle of lifestyle expansion.   That expansion, combined with lower tax revenue and a recession has brought us from a $230 billion surplus to a $1.4 trillion deficit.  That’s a bit above the trivial level.  A definite binge.

In Minnesota, there was a $2 billion surplus just a few years ago, which was obliterated by, once again, government expansion and a recession.   During the boom years, government programs were enacted with no thought to sustainability.   Nobody thought about the fact that a surplus isn’t a balanced budget, either.   We just kept adding to the budget, thinking the good times would last forever.  Another binge.

Last year, the governor of Minnesota had to “unallot” money from the budget.  He went through the budget with a red pen and struck line items until the budget was balanced, a requirement in this state.  This infuriated his political opposition.  They were not prepared for the purge.

Federally, the purge hasn’t happened, yet.  Give it time.  Excessive spending using imaginary money can only last so long.  It will stop.  The longer the binge, the harder the purge.

Families are doing the same thing. Four years ago, I got a raise and immediately bought a new car.  Binge.  Two months later, I was laid off and had to cut everything possible to make ends meet.  Purge.   Tax refunds, inheritances, drawings.  So many of these things give us an excuse to commit to long-term expenses without planning for long term sustainability.  If I inherit $5000, is that a good time to add $500 to my monthly bills?  No!  That’s an unhealthy binge.   In ten months, if the money lasts even that long, I will be forced to purge something to keep afloat.

The responsible, healthy way is the same as healthy, responsible eating.   Diet and exercise.  Spend less, save and earn more. That’s the strategy that will let you level out life’s valleys, instead of puking all over the floor.  Don’t spend every cent you see, just because it is there.  Set some aside for a rainy day.

Leave the binge-and-purge financing to the politicians.

Update:  This post has been included in the Festival of Frugality.

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What D&D Taught Me About Finance

I admit it: I’m a geek. I’m not a hobby geek who only geeks on the weekends. I’m a full-fledged, licensed and certified geek. I am a geek about so many wondrous things that it’s hard to list them all. My wife knows, my kids know. It’s not much of a secret. One of my many geek qualifications is my sordid history of gaming. Role-playing, tabletop only. If that’s gibberish, it’s okay. Nobody needs to understand my geekitude but me.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons more than 15 years ago. There were no live chickens or human sacrifice. Just a small group of geeks, proto-geeks, pseudo-geeks, and the occasional nerd playing DnD in a poorly lit room for several hours. We laughed, we cried, we fought evil, saved the world, and raised the stock price of an assortment of caffeinated beverage companies.

As the man said, I told you that, so I could tell you this:

DnD taught me many things.  It taught me THAC0 calculation, dice-identification, and the fact that no woman, anywhere, considers tabletop roleplaying to be an alpha-male trait.  “I’m a level 73 kinder warrior-mage-thief” is not a pickup line anywhere in the world, even Gen-Con.  Remember that.  Also remember, the singular of dice is die.  If your are talking about one, it’s a die.  Get it wrong and I will throw a bag full of dice at you and make you dig out the purple, sparkles-like-a-vampire, 27-sided die from among the hundreds of other dice.

DnD also taught me some surprising things about the world of personal finance, which is not a part of a planar campaign.

All the best toys cost too much. At the current exchange rate of 10 silver pieces(sp) to 1 gold piece(gp), potions of extra healing will drive you into debtor’s prison.  Just as a sword of extra-slaying +10 will cost you everything you earned raiding that castle for the last 6 Wednesday evenings, so will a big screen TV set you back a full month’s salary.  Don’t risk your life or sell your life’s energy for something fleeting, just because it’s “the best” or the newest gadget, geegaw, or artifact.

Pretty Lady

Never sell your soul for a castle or a horse. When the Baatezu come to offer you a “no money down, 0% for a year, all-expenses-paid, surrender-your-first-born” deal for a castle or the prettiest horse in the park, take a cue from the former First Lady.  Just say no.  Spending money today that you have to pay for tomorrow is almost always a bad idea.  Don’t spend your soul, spend your savings.  Don’t buy something until you can afford it.  A Lexus or an Arabian, a mansion or a rambler.  Are any of them worth auctioning your future?

Your armor isn’t stronger just because it’s shiny.  A suit of Full-Plate of Protection-From-the-Charms-of-Bar-Wenches +5 may look pretty, but it’s not going to help against the orcs, kobolds, or trolls unless, of course, they are wearing skirts and sitting on a bar-stool above a sawdust-covered floor.  Does the shiny new iPod really provide a benefit, or is it just a shiny gadget to woo the ladies?

A good sword is necessary to keep your stuff. This is a not a call to self-defense, or mugger, err, orc-slaying–though why that’s ever viewed as a negative is beyond me.   You need to be aggressive in defending your loot.  Call your credit card companies and demand they turn over the booty, err, lower your rates.  Tell your friends to step away from the Diamond Ray of Disappearance, err, expensive outings or you will chop off their heads, err…no wait, that one can stay.  I think my friends may be scared of me.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]The promised reward for completing an adventure isn’t the only way to make money. Sure, the local duke(your boss), may be willing to pay you a chest of gems(your salary) for defending the town from the ravages of the Tarrasque(your job), but that isn’t the only way to make money.  You could do your job, collect your pay, and go home at night, but why?  Don’t forget to pick up the loot along the way.  If you spot the shiny penny, grab it, whether it’s abandoned gold, a new idea for a niche-blog, or a chance to turn your leisure hobbies into money.  There are thousands of ways to make money outside of your day job.  Every one will help your bottom line.

It takes cunning to slay the dragon. When tackling your debt(dragon), wading in swinging your sword may be emotionally satisfying, in the short term, but long term, it’s just a painful method of reminding yourself that you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.  Make plans.  Have a strategy.  Come out a winner.  Then, sit down for beer and dragon steak.   Goal-less, plan-less attacks fail in the long-term.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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Budget Lesson, Part 5

I’ve explained my budget in some detail already.  See these posts for the history of this series.

Now, I’m going to go through each section, reviewing ways that I can reduce, or have reduced, my spending.  I’ll be starting with my monthly payments.

  • House Payment – I’ve mentioned that we have a small house payment.    A few years ago, when the interest rates dropped to almost the lowest point they reached in that particular cycle, we refinanced and got in under 5%.   There is nothing to cut.  We won’t refinance again, and the loan will be paid within 7 years, according to the lender’s schedule.  I’m aiming for 4 years.
  • Netflix – We’re on the 2 DVD/unlimited plan for $13.99.  We could drop down to the single DVD plan, but I’m worried that will trigger a rash of movie-buying.  2-at-a-time scratches that itch well.  I don’t think we’ll be reducing this plan in the foreseeable future.[Continue Reading…]
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Make Yourself Accountable

Everybody knows the reputation New Year’s resolutions get for being abandoned in under a month.  Following through with your saving and budget goals can be difficult.   There are thousands of strategies for keeping your resolutions, but I’ve found that the best goal-keeping mechanism is to make yourself accountable.    There are several ways to accomplish this.

Make Firm Goals. If your goals are open to interpretation, it’s easy to interpret them in a way that lets you off the hook.  Make the goals concrete and immune to interpretation, and that can’t happen.  “Get up earlier” may mean five minutes, which is technically meeting the goal, but not really.  “Get up at 5am” is clear and concrete.

Get a “Goal Buddy”. When I am out shopping, if I’m struck by the impulse to buy something I probably don’t need, I call my wife.  She’s more than happy to encourage me to put the movie or game back on the shelf.   I have a friend who will call me up if he’s thinking about buying a new gadget so I can talk him down.  Friends don’t let friends mortgage their futures.

Go Public. As you may have noticed, I’m being as open as possible with my goals for the year.   I have laid out clear goals and I provide fairly frequent updates through both this site and twitter.  If I fail, I fail in front of an audience.  That’s strong encouragement to succeed.  Tell your family, friends and coworkers.  Announce your goals on the internet.   Make it as difficult as possible to fail gracefully.

Punish Yourself. I have a line item in my budget called “In the hole“.   If I go over budget one month, the overage is entered as an expense the following month.   This serves the double purpose of getting the budget back on track and forcing me to sacrifice something the next month to make that happen.    Another option may be to write out a check to a charity you hate, and drop it in the mail if you miss your goal.  Anything unpleasant can work as your punishment.

How do you keep your goals?

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