Being a budgeting expert isn’t necessary. Being intentional with your money is. Having a good grasp on what you can and cannot afford is. Being able to cover most minor emergencies (ie car repairs) without relying on debt is a pipe dream of most Americans who live paycheck to paycheck.
Being able to slip into ‘no spending mode’ when you’re almost in reach of a savings goal, without feeling like you’re missing out on the joys of life unlocks a lifetime of financial gain and contentment.
Taking responsibility for your financial choices, owning mistakes, and taking responsibility for things you’re responsible for… even if they’re not technically your fault… is another way to empower yourself financially.
I understand everyone is different and this isn’t going to work for everyone, I only have my own personal set of circumstances that I’ve worked through for sure. But as I’ve learned from those around me who are better with money than I am, financial smartness is just a change in plans, and provides an unbelievable peace of mind.
This Making Room For Healthy Changes post is the start of a series of posts to help you make room in your time, budget, and more importantly cluttered mind, to make the healthy changes that you’ve been meaning to make.
Your goals will vary- they can be anything as daunting as doing the GAPS Intro or as simple as using a few more natural remedies and finding a source of local grassfed beef.
How We Budget is part of this series because when the money runs out before the next payday, the stress is consuming. It’s time consuming to be broke, and if we can adjust our thinking or our spending, that should help.
Your Income Needs to be More than Your Expenses
The reason people fall into debt, or don’t have enough money to cover their expenses, is that their expenses exceed their income. I know, this is super obvious, but it’s still the truth. For the rest of this article I am going to really just be looking at how people get to the point where their expenses exceed their income and some ways that I am able to keep expenses down. I keep my budget in an excel spread sheet. I use a debit card now, and I’ll go through and add up any iffy categories (food still can get me if I don’t pay attention) every couple weeks, but overall I’m used to staying in my budget.
When I first started budgeting, I used the envelope system described below. I adjust my excel sheet whenever something new is coming up- anything from paying to preschool to having an income drop to changing where I live. I don’t use any high tech budgeting programs, a simple column of income and expenses and savings works fine for me.
Make Your Spending Estimate Realistic
No, Really, You Need to Look Again
Something I see often when I’m talking to people who are having trouble saving is that they estimate way down on purchases they feel guilty about making, or they know deep down is not the right decision. Hitting fast food isn’t ‘like $5’ for most people, especially if they have children, it’s closer to $13-20. Going out to eat, because you’re too tired to cook, to a steak joint isn’t ‘like $20’, the bill for two usually comes to over $60. Unless you are very carefully couponing and eating very low cost staples, even for a couple or small family, groceries and household products are not going to be ‘something like $200/month’.
Medical is a big one too- going to the walk-in clinic if you are uninsured or have a deductible is hundreds to thousands of dollars. Surgery, even outpatient, is thousands and thousands of dollars.
Medical is expensive, yes, I have a variety of opinions on the subject of how it should/could be, but that still doesn’t change the fact that it is expensive and necessary. Generic medications can be cheaper, but sometimes a name brand is needed, and those are lots of money. Using holistic medicine is often less expensive, but not always.
Making a decision to seek alternative care needs to be done carefully in most families. This is what drove me to the GAPS diet rather than visiting a naturopath. Yes, eating on GAPS is expensive, but for only one child, one visit to the naturopath plus a lab test plus a holistic remedy or two can buy you a LOT of GAPS-legal food.
You Are Not Your Parents
I think we all fall in this trap. Depending on where you live, what a ‘good income’ for your parents was and the income you need to replicate that same quality of life 20-30+ years later, are very different salaries! In my case, I chose to have children early(23 for my first) where I was born when my mom was 10 years older than that and had already had an established career, had built up equity through home ownership, and had been saving and purchasing home furnishings for years.
I would have my children at the same time in a heartbeat, I absolutely love being a mom, and that’s what I knew I wanted to do from the time I got married, but I can’t use my parents’ budgeting decisions as my own. Just because something was a certain way when I was growing up, doesn’t mean I can or want to make the same choices for my children. For us, that means if we want to buy a house, it needs to be in a different part of the country. Housing prices in Northern California are a lot different from prices in other parts of the country.
Other choices that we might need to make that are different from our parents are our decision to drive new vs used cars, our decisions to save for retirement rather than having a pension, and having catastrophic vs low deductible/low co-payment medical insurance through work.
Be Flexible and Put Off Purchases
I’m a planner, and often I have to make many revisions to my plans because things don’t work out how I thought they would.
It might be something as simple as bowling Thursday nights, if the $10 weekly fee is straining my tight budget, I might need to give it up. I might need to invite friends over for drinks at home rather than going out, or do a small family birthday party rather than renting the kids’ gym or other popular birthday party place.
For me flexibility means choosing what makes the biggest difference to me. I don’t mind driving a 12-year old car, and allocating a good chunk of money to save for car repairs. I don’t mind living in a not-so-awesome part of town right now, but I know when I buy, I’ll want to live in a better part of town. I do choose to spend money on experiences like visiting the aquarium with my kids. I buy them fewer items of clothing, but I like it to be higher quality so I don’t have to re-buy again in a couple months.
This is going to look different for everyone, the important thing to do is to realize you cannot have it all, and to spend money where it really makes a difference to you and your family, ignoring what everyone else thinks and does.
Putting off purchases of things I think I ‘need’ became a habit when my children were small and we had a very tight budget. Even now that the budget isn’t so tight, I’ll put off purchases- I’ve been using a broiler instead of a toaster for years. I don’t have a stand mixer (I’ll buy more kitchen stuff when I own a house and stop moving so much, I’m almost there). I own like 4 pots/pans. Each of us has a set of summer and a set of winter sheets and that’s it. My kids slept in toddler beds until they were 4 and 6 and I found a set of awesome bunkbeds on Craigslist after Christmas.
All of these purchases aren’t that big of a deal, and it’s not really a question of whether I can afford them or not, it’s just a habit of not buying things all the time. By putting off purchases I often can find a great deal (if I saw a nice toaster oven at the scratch and dent store marked way down, I’d snap that up!), have time to shop around for one with good reviews, and get over the habit of impulsively purchasing what I think I ‘need’ based on what other people have.
More Money is Not the Only Solution
When there is trouble with balancing the income vs outflow in a family or personal budget, it seems like there are usually two camps. The first we are going to look at is those who think that more money will solve all their problems. Often the thinking for young parents is that once the daycare/preschool bills stop and mom can go back to work, their problems will be over.
This may be true if their budget is only short by a couple hundred dollars a month, but it’s not always the case. Examine your outflow of cash carefully, usually the extra spending is a result of being in denial about what the financial realities are. If you are in the habit of spending more money than you can afford to, having more money usually will not fix this problem.
The Two Income Trap (available at many libraries) details how relying on a two incomes can actually trap a family, and how many families are better off keeping mom home with the kids rather than trying to get her employed full time as soon as the youngest starts kindergarten.
Cutting Costs isn’t the Only Solution either
The second camp tends to think that cutting expenses is always the solution to money problems. Sometimes families do have an income crisis.
There are only so many expenses that can be cut, and when all the focus is on cutting expenses, the ability to earn more is often overlooked. In this economy we need to be creative with how we earn money. The ideal of dad working a 9-5 job and being able to provide everything a family needs might not be feasible for most families.
I was talking to a friend the other day and she said something profound to me- I’m so used to thinking that dad can provide all we need working one 40-hour a week job (that’s how I was raised). She said, “Are you kidding? My dad made a good living, but he drove long haul trucks- he was on the road 10 out of 14 days! My brother always had 2 jobs, and once my mom was a single mom, she owned a diner and worked 10 hours a day or more, 6 days a week. The 9-5 job with weekends off isn’t realistic for many families”
Use Cash and Envelopes
Unless you have quite a bit of room for error, or you can calculate your grocery total to within the dollar, cash and envelope, ‘the envelope system’ is the best way to train yourself to stay on budget and to stay within a tight budget. I’ll let Dave Ramsey explain the details here, and then just give you the bullet points that worked especially well for me.
- Pull out cash for the month or pay period and put in envelope categories that work for you.
- When the money runs out, you have to stop spending.
- If you make bulk food purchases, such as ordering coconut oil or 1/4 of a beef, put a little money in another ‘cow’ or ‘coconut oil’ envelope each month from what you allocate for ‘groceries’, or have an item in your budget that stays in your checking or savings account for bulk purchases.
- For gas, keep a credit or debit card in your glove compartment. This keeps you from being tempted to swipe it if you bring more than you have budgeted for up to the register, but it’s still there for gas at the pump. I don’t pay for my gas in cash because I am not going to unload everyone from the car just to pay.
- Only bring the envelopes with you that you’re going to use. Keep longer term or occasional use envelopes like ‘clothes’ or ‘furniture’ in the desk.
Craigslist is My Friend
I have expensive tastes. My dad is a fine woodworker, and my mom has home decor that could be featured in a magazine. I haven’t gotten into the home decor much, but I do appreciate solidly built furniture, and good quality kitchen equipment.
When I shop on Craigslist, I make it an entire weekend activity. I have a set amount of cash to spend, and I don’t plan on haggling. I choose to look in a nice area of town (Scottsdale and Gilbert in Arizona, Marin and Napa in California) and plan on driving a bit to get my furniture. My couches, chair, dining room table, bedroom set, and the kids’ bunk beds all came from Craigslist.
The people who are selling high quality furniture often list it on Craigslist inexpensively and price it to move because they are ready to get it out of their house *now* and don’t mind losing some money on it. They appreciate clear communication (I usually email and offer my phone number in the email) and prompt arrival. I don’t haggle with them, I got a great deal paying full price for all my furniture. I look up brand names before I decide to go see the pieces, and I only go if they have clear pictures.
I’m really happy with this- all my furniture cost less than it would from Target or Big Lots or some other discount furniture store, and it’s made to last. It might not be the newest style, but I really don’t care about style, I care about quality.
Have a Budget Buddy
“If your broke friends think you’re doing it wrong, you’re on the right track” Dave Ramsey. I have a friend that I respect for their financial decisions who can go over major financial choices with me. I don’t ask for financial advice from people who have different goals than I do, and I don’t ask for financial advice from someone who reads the finance section of the paper every day, but is also living paycheck to paycheck.
Talking about finances is taboo in our society (believe me, I’m plenty nervous about publishing this post!), but being transparent with a friend who you respect and can point you in the right direction goes a long way in creating a plan that works, and not being swayed by every financial article or news clip you come across.
Insurance is not a Substitute for Planning Ahead
I use insurance to protect myself against catastropic mistakes or catastrophic accidents. I choose to ‘self insure’ for anything that wouldn’t cause a major change in our lives. As you have more wiggle room in your budget and have built up more savings, you will rely on insurance less.
Health insurance- I choose catastrophic insurance, and we treat at home for everything we can, and budget to make routine visits an expected expense. How high of a deductible you can take will depend on your specific family.
Car insurance – at this point, it would impact my life quite a bit if my car was totaled, so I do have comprehensive coverage. I live in a state where there are quite a few uninsured people, so I choose to have the extra uninsured motorist coverage. I can, though, take the highest deductible they offer, since the difference between the deductibles is low and I really don’t anticipate having my car totaled every year.
Rental Insurance- this doesn’t cover everything, but if our rental was broken into or caught on fire, it would provide some money to purchase necessities like beds, clothing, and kitchen equipment again. This wouldn’t cover what we lost 100%, but I don’t need that, I just need to not be furniture and clothes-less in case of an emergency.
Postal insurance and ‘extended warranties’- Would it severely impact your month financially if the $30 sweater you mail to Aunt Suzie gets lost in the mail? No? Then I’d skip the optional $2.50 insurance on those Christmas gifts. Do you need the extended warranty on the vacuum you just purchased? How likely is it to break? How much would it impact you if you had to buy a new one in 6 months? Is it an option to buy it at Costco or some other store who offers awesome warranties anyway? What about pay for it with a credit card that automatically doubles the warranties (read that fine print in those credit card info packets!)?
Keep A Sense of Humor
I love what Dave Ramsey calls Stupid Tax. I didn’t plan ahead and got a $35 fee for going through the FastTrac lane on the Golden Gate Bridge? That’s stupid tax.
I co-signed on a loan and then had to pay it off when the person defaulted, again, stupid tax. I didn’t pack water and had to buy bottled water at a convenience store while we were out? Stupid tax.
Noticing what you could have planned ahead for and saved money, and then laughing about it (sometimes after crying about it for a while), is much more productive than expecting things will always go right or being in denial. It’s fantastic to give people the benefit of the doubt, yourself included, but it’s also important to learn from your mistakes and stop making them. Don’t beat yourself up- it’s not a reflection on yourself as a person- but admitting mistakes does help us from making the same ones in the future.
Personally, I’m still working on my 6-month emergency fund and buying a home, so I haven’t started investing for retirement. I have accounts for my kids for when they turn 18 (for them to use for college, or for a down payment for a house, or for a business start up- I don’t think college is an automatic necessity for every 18 year old, but that’s a whole other post).
When I do have the ability to start investing, I will have a mix of stocks (which I don’t understand yet and need to research) and rental properties. I chose not to invest at all until I knew I was covered for emergencies- for me that meant 3 months of expenses (not the same as 3 months of income) in the bank. At that point I did start contributing monthly to modest savings accounts for my children because they are getting older quickly, and I know how tough it is to get ahead when you’re just starting out.
I hope that helps give you some insight into how to get your money to work for you. If you’re brand new to budgeting, I recommend watching Dave Ramsey on Hulu and poking around the free stuff on his website. I don’t follow everything he says word-for-word, but I do like the basics and find that when I follow his advice, my finances run smoothly.
I like budgeting because, for the most part, it is something I can keep control over. If you asked me 10 years ago if this is what my budget would look like, I honestly would have had no idea that I would spend this much on housing or food. I find it helpful to be aware of my expenses, and the totals of them, so I can shape my expectations for myself to be more realistic.
If you have any questions, I’ll try to answer in the comments, but again, I’m not an expert- just a mom who can pay for a fuel pump to be replaced on her car without having a nervous breakdown :)