Let’s face it, budgeting can be a pain. Most people get too discouraged trying to get a budget to work. They spend hours trying to figure out how much to budget in each category and may even track every penny spent during the month only to find out that reality didn’t match what was budgeted. In these instances budgeting just seems like a futile theoretical exercise. There’s no follow up or reconciliation to tie one month’s budget to the next. Add to this the emotional issues that budgeting can trigger and your chances of maintaining a budget dive bomb. Many people who get to this point just give up and quit.
Why most budgets don’t work
There are three major problems with a common budget:
- They don’t reflect reality.
- They don’t connect from one month to the next.
- They don’t track the surplus money left over after all the categories are filled.
1. Most budgets don’t reflect reality
Budgeting is an exercise in being wrong. Every time you sit down and write out all your categories and how much you think you’re going to spend, you’ll be wrong. Being wrong month after month quickly can get discouraging and many people give up. What’s the point in trying to predict how much you’ll spend each month if you know you’ll be wrong.
So you overspent. Ok, at least you know you overspent and that could be helpful in planning next month but where did that overspent money come from? How are you going to reconcile the difference?
Unfortunately there’s no way around being wrong. There’s really no solution besides developing obsessive tendancies and even then…good luck. You must first accept that you’ll be wrong…every month. My wife and I have never been right even though we’ve had an established budget for years. Accept it.
Now I’m NOT saying you won’t start getting really close. In fact, in many categories you will be right. But so far I’ve never been 100% right. Don’t get discouraged if you’re just starting out because for the first few months you’ll be REALLY wrong. It took us about 3-4 months until we started getting into our budget groove.
One way to get your budget closer to reality is to allocate every dollar of your income. If you have money left over after addressing your needs, allocate it. I don’t care where; put it in a “fun” category or direct it towards meeting a financial goal. Don’t just say “oh, I have leftover money. I must be doing really good at budgeting.” If you don’t allocate everything you will end up wasting that which is left over and your budget will be broken from month to month.
Another way to close the reality gap is to be realistic about what your needs are. Things like shelter, clothing, and food are not optional. Many people have unrealistic expectations about what they will spend on these categories. I’m certainly an advocate of being thrifty and looking for good deals but you can only take it so far. If you refuse to face how much you really need to spend in these categories to survive without eating ramen every night, your budget will not be an effective tool.
Yet another way of helping your budget reflect reality is to make sure you have a way of dealing with the difference between your budget and actual spending. And that leads us into our second problem.
2. Most budgets don’t connect one month to the next
Quicken is a great example of why this problem exists. Quicken’s budgeting feature seems great. It allows you to easily enter budget amounts and will even pre-populate projected amounts for you. At the end of the month you can run a nice neat report telling you how much you over or under-spent. There’s just one problem. There are no tools for helping you deal with the difference (if there are, please let me know about them). You just enter in the next month’s budget amounts using the exact same process and projections as the month before. This makes for a nice, neat, pretty budget sheet but not a very useful one.
Many people think a budget is a static document. You fill out one template reflecting all your categories and how much you should spend each month and use the exact same sheet from month to month. That’s not a budget. It’s a dead document. A real budget is a living document or series of documents. It changes from month to month and should be a reflection of reality, not a theoretical exercise.
The fact is, your expenses change from month to month. Car registrations sneak up on you. Unexpected birthdays pop up. Unexpected expenses happen. And you can’t always just take your yearly expenses and divide by 12. If your car registration is coming up in 3 months and you haven’t saved anything for it, dividing by 12 will only leave you with a quarter of what you need to pay it. The unique expenses for every month need to be dealt with individually, not just from a nice clean Quicken projection.
For a budget to work, you must link one month’s budget to the next.
Is there too much money left over? Great. Where does it go? Should we pay off debt, save for retirement, save for a vacation, or just blow it and buy that new toy? I’m not against throwing caution to the wind as long as it’s done conciously and not by default.
Is there too little money to cover all our spending? Where did it come from? Will we be spending less on groceries, lowering our savings contribution, or going into more debt?
3. Most budgets don’t track the surplus money left over after all the categories are filled
For a budget to work, you must allocate ALL of your income to categories. As Dave Ramsey puts it, you must “spend your whole month on paper” before you spend it in real life. Other analogies that come to mind are Stephen Covey’s concept of the spiritual creation before the physical creation and David Allen’s idea of writing down EVERYTHING that is on your mind so you can get it out of your head and on paper.
Stephen Covey Comparison
Let’s look at the Covey analogy. Covey says that you should “begin with the end in mind.” One way of doing so is to create what you’re trying to achieve spiritually first, and then physically. A builder doesn’t build without a blue print. You should have a good idea of where you want to go either on paper or in your mind before you set out. Doing so makes your efforts more effective.
When it comes to finances, by writing ALL YOUR PLANNED SPENDING down on paper first (spiritual creation), your chances of actually following your plan significantly increase (physical creation). You’ll also be much more likely to achieve your larger financial goals (physical creation).
David Allen GTD Comparison
Now let’s consider David Allen’s idea of capturing everything on paper. He teaches that you should get anything and everything down on paper that occupies your mind. Doing so frees up “mental RAM” and allows you to spend your time more effectively rather than eating up endless mental cycles on the same issues, questions, and to-dos.
Similarly, by writing down how you are going to spend every dollar, you free yourself from mental worry and guilt and allow yourself to think about much more enjoyable things. Combine this with using cash for those categories that tend to be out of control and you can literally eliminate financial worry and anxiety. Every dollar you spend will be focused and controlled with very little effort.
No matter how you want to look at it, you need to allocate EVERY SINGLE DOLLAR ON PAPER for a budget to be of maximum effect. Why? Doing so forces you to really think about where you want your money to go and insures you use each dollar to it’s fullest. You’ll probably notice that when you don’t allocate every dollar, your left over dollars usually end up spending themselves. You end up with nothing to show for it, not even the concious realization that you had fun wasting that money.
Spend frivolously and feel good about it
By saying that you need to allocate every single dollar, I’m not saying you can’t have fun with your money or spend frivolously. Go ahead and conciously decide to have fun or even waste the leftover money. Allocate it as “fun” money to be spent however you want, whenever you want. By doing so you may enjoy spending that money even more. You’ll be able to do so with confidence and no guilt that you should be spending it elsewhere.
Decide before you’re in the heat of the moment
Like using cash, allocating all your funds allows you to make more concious decisions about where your money should go. Instead of waiting until you’re standing at the register, you can decide where your money will go while your looking at the big picture. Your decisions will be more rational and less emotional. You will also be able to direct your money towards meeting your larger, longer term goals. Instead of pittling money away, save for that new car or piece of furniture. Or for real financial peace, pay off debt.
Harness the power of focus
Allocating every dollar allows you to harness the power of focus. Take your plumbing, for example. Water by itself isn’t very useful in a puddle or lake. But give water the contraints and focus of a pipe and all of a sudden it can be used for your toilet or sink. Focus water through a hose and you can water your lawn or put out a fire. The constraint actually makes the water more powerful and useful. Similarly constraining your money by allocating every dollar makes your money more useful and powerful. Your ability to save and reach your goals will be increased.
See if you can identify with this personal example. Before we got our financial acts together, every time we recieved a bonus, raise, gift, or other unexpected income the money would just seem to slip through the cracks. Most people tend to expand their lifestyle to meet their income. In contrast, imagine if you were able to focus and direct every extra dollar. Every time you got a bonus, heck, every time you saved $5 on your phone bill, you would be able to easily redirect that money to another purpose. Your power and ability to aggressively meet your financial goals would increase dramatically. Without an effective budget, what is the point of trying to save a few dollars when they disappear anyway. But with an effective budget every dollar counts and is directed exactly where you want it.
Another benefit of allocating every dollar is that your budget will reflect reality more closely. If you have money left over after allocating your needs, that extra money almost always WILL be spent one way or another. If your budget doesn’t reflect that, it doesn’t reflect reality enough to be effective. To eliminate financial stress and a sense of being out of control once and for all you MUST KNOW where your money is being spent. You must TELL IT WHERE TO GO rather than letting it decide.
Using a Zero-Based Budget
A critical tool to help solve these basic budget blunders is the zero-based budget. Now if you’re expecting something flashy, you’ll be disappointed. A zero-based budget simply means that you allocate every dollar of your income so that your income minus your expenses equals “zero.” It’s as simple as that. No special forms or fancy software are necessary. Using a zero-based budget forces you to allocate every dollar and will help your budget more closely reflect reality.
Always track and DEAL WITH the difference between “budgeted” and “actual”
Make sure you follow up at the end of every month and write down what the difference is in each category between what you budgeted and what you actually spent. You then need to deal with that difference. Don’t just look at it and say “oh, there’s a difference. Good to know.” You must either reallocate the money on paper or carry the difference over to your next month’s budget.
For example, if you spent $5 more on your phone bill than you thought (a common occurance since the phone bill tends to be quite variable), you must spend $5 less in another category. One option is to see if you spent $5 less than you thought in another category that month. If so, simply adjust your allocations on paper. If there is no unspent money in your categories then you need to carry that $5 over to the next month and allocate $5 less in a category for your next month’s budget.
Implement a “grease” category
To deal with small instances of overspending, I always budget a “grease” (a.k.a. “blow,” “cushion,” “RealityBites”) category of about $100 that gives me a cushion in dealing with such instances. Since you know you’re going to be wrong (see above) you might as well plan for it. This account acts like the “grease” that keeps the financial gears turning. It picks up my slack. And if I have extra “grease” money left over at the end of the month, it directly gets realocated for something else the next month (often something fun as a little reward).
Putting it all together
I realize that I’ve skipped over many specifics. Implementing some of these concepts may seem a bit confusing at first. If so, no worries. I’ll be addressing specifics in future posts. For now, let me summarize the steps you can take today:
- Implement a zero-based budget. Stay tuned for examples and templates.
- Allocate every dollar of income to a category. When you subtract your budgeted expenses from your income, it should equal $0.
- Be sure to budget a “grease” category to deal with minor inaccuracies.
- Be realistic about how much you are going to spend on necessities. Most people under-allocate in the categories of food, clothing, and transportation.
- Know that your spending won’t exactly match what you budgeted. If you are just starting, you may be WAY off. That’s ok. Do a little, learn a lot. It WILL get better. If you’re married, be easy on your spouse.
- Calculate the difference between “budgeted” and “actual” spending and either adjust the current month’s allocations or deal with the difference in next month’s budget. I realize there are some BIG procedural holes and questions here that I’m skimming over for now. Stay tuned.
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