Ignore Your Budget

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Image by Boz Bros via Flickr

For the first year of our journey out of debt, we had a strict budget, with all of our discretionary money spent out of an envelope system.  We had an envelope for groceries, one for discretionary spending, one for clothes and one for baby crap.   At the beginning of the month, we’d divide the money into the envelopes according to our budget spreadsheet.  If we used a card for anything, we’d take a matching about of money out of the appropriate envelope and put it in a box to get reconciled the next month.

Ugh. Almost 2 years later, it has turned into too much work and too much nagging about everything either of us put on a card.

We decided to simplify the system a few months ago.   Now, we still have a budget.  It’s even a zero-based budget, but we ignore it.  We only look at it if something changes for the worse.  If something changes for the better, the extra money just gets automatically rolled into our debt snowball, so there’s no need to worry about updating the spreadsheet.

Instead of envelopes, we kind of eyeball it.   We budget $450 per month for groceries, so we aim to spend $100 on our weekly grocery run.  That leaves some room for losing track of how much we are putting in the cart, or a last minute addition to the list.  It also leaves room for our secondary grocery trip to buy bread and milk later in the week.  We do go through a lot of milk at my house.  We budget $55 per month for diapers, but the deal we are currently getting with Amazon Mom is only costing us $30.79 for 6 weeks of diapers.  We ignore the difference.

This—and our heavily automated bill pay and savings—lets us keep our finances on track, without stressing over every dollar or fighting over every little thing that comes home unplanned.   I used to fire up Quicken and balance the checkbook every week.  Now, that happens at the beginning of the month, usually.  If I forget, it doesn’t matter.  At the beginning of February, I balanced the checkbook for the first time in almost two months and we never came close to exercising our overdraft protection account.  In fact, we had some extra, so that got sent directly to our debt.

Overall, it’s been good to test out a new system.  We have almost no financial stress and managing our money takes about a couple of hours per month instead of per week.  It’s all win.

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Three Alternatives to a Budget

the envelope system: day one

Image by J. McPherskesen via Flickr

Budgets aren’t for everyone.  For some people, the very idea of trying to track where their money going is painful.  And that’s just the idea of tracking the money.  It gets far worse when you’ve got $10 budgeted for coffee, $12 for fast food, $66.50 for gas, and $0.75 for entertainment.  It’s can be hard to follow a strict budget for long.

If you know you need to track your money, and you also know that a strict, zero-based budget won’t work for you, what can you do?  Luckily, there are alternatives.

1. Hope and Pray. This is otherwise known as the “Call my bank everyday and see how close I am to over-drafting” system.  To fully embrace this system, you need to not only abandon a written–or even organized–budget, but you should also throw your checkbook register in the garbage.   Make sure you’ve got a good overdraft protection account attached to your checking account and let your money take care of itself.  This is the ultimate zen of personal finance.  Don’t stress or worry, just hope for the best.   This system works best if you make more money than Oprah and have modest tastes.  For those of us who have to watch our money a bit to make sure the month outlasts our money, this probably isn’t a great plan.

2. The Envelope System. To implement this system, you do need to create a basic budget so know what you are obligated to pay.  Once you have that done, take a stack of envelopes and label them for each item you have to pay.   Add another envelope for food, another for entertainment, and another for miscellaneous because there is always a miscellaneous.   Divide the money among the envelopes.   Now for the magic. When you have to spend something, take the money out of the appropriate envelope and spend it.  That’s it.  If, however, there isn’t enough money in the right envelope, but you still need to spend the money, you have to take it out of a different envelope and spend less on the category that lost money.

3.  Percentages. This is the simplest of the non-budget budgets.   Take 50% of your money and spend it on necessities, like the mortgage, food,  and utilities.   The next 30% goes to savings and retirement.  The last 20% is for fun or any other thing you want to spend it on.  This naturally works best if you are out of debt, but if not, just make sure most of the 20% fun money goes to repaying debt.   This system works best if your bills are automated and you will need to set up a basic budget first, so you can make sure your necessities come in under 50% of your income.

Not every budget plan will work for everyone, but there are always alternatives that can still help you manage your money.

How do you track your money?

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A Moment of Clarity

Money money money!
Image by Matt Stratton via Flickr

Ten years ago, I buried myself in debt. There was no catastrophic emergency or long-term unemployment, just a series of bad decisions over the course of years.

We bought a (short) series of new cars, a house full of furniture, electronics, hundreds of books and movies, and so much more.   We threw a wedding on credit and financed an addition on our house.   We didn’t gamble or drink it away, we just spent indiscriminately.  We have a ton of stuff to show for it and a peeling credit card to prove it.

What changed?

In October 2007, we found out brat #3 was on the way.    Don’t misunderstand, this was entirely intentional, but our…efficiency caught us by surprise.   It took several years to get #2.   We weren’t expecting #3 to happen in just a couple of weeks.   #2 wasn’t even a year old when we found out she was going to be a big sister.  That’s two kids in diapers and three in daycare at the same time.

The technical term for this is “Oh crap”.

I spent weeks poring over our expenses, trying to find a way to make our ends meet, or at least show up in the same zip code occasionally.

I finally made my first responsible financial decision…ever.   I quit smoking. At that point, I had been smoking a pack a day or more for almost 15 years.   With the latest round of we’re-going-to-raise-the-vice-tax-to-convince-people-to-drop-their-vices-then-panic-when-people-actually-drop-their-because-we-made-them-too-expensive taxes, I was spending at least $60 per week, at least.

Interesting side story: A few years ago, Wisconsin noticed how many Minnesotans were crossing the border for cheap smokes and decided to cash in by raising their cigarette taxes.   The out-of-state market immediately dried up.  Econ 101.

So I quit, saving $250 per month.

Our expenses grew to consume that money, which we were expecting.  (Remember, we were expecting a baby!)   Unfortunately, our habits didn’t change.   We still bought too much, charged too much on our credit cards, and used our overdraft protection account every month.  At 21% interest!

Nothing else changed for another year and a half.  My wife would buy stuff I didn’t like and we’d fight about it.  I’d buy stuff she didn’t like and we’d fight about it.   When we weren’t arguing about it, we’d just silently spend it all as fast as we could.

Bankruptcy was looming. We had $30,000 on our credit cards and our overdraft protection account was almost maxed out.  Have you ever thought you’d have to sell your house quickly?

One day, while I was researching bankruptcy attorneys, I ran across Dave Ramsey.   When I got to daycare that evening to pick up the kids, I noticed they had The Total Money Makeover on the bookshelf, so I asked to borrow it.

I read the book twice, had a very frank discussion with my wife about the possibility of bankruptcy, and we set out on the path to financial freedom together.

What made you decide to handle your finances responsibly?  Or, perhaps more importantly, what’s holding you back?

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