Budget, budget, budget.
Visit any personal finance blog or money website and there will be a budgeting section. If you want to get your finances in order, get out of debt, and be smart with your money, you better start budgeting! It’s a theme preached across the personal finance spectrum. It’s even preached here on “Saving Thousands.”
This is all for good reason. Creating a budget, setting goals and keeping yourself accountable financially is crucial for controlling your finances and keeping yourself from becoming mired in large amounts of debt, which seems to be a predicament for many Americans.
But is the budget shoe a one-size-fits-all? This question stems from my teaching days, where I quickly discovered not every student learns or executes the same way. Each student learns in a significantly different manner. So why should we think that changes when we enter adulthood? We aren’t in the classroom, but we still continue to learn, test, and assess our situation daily—especially with our finances.
So, is making and sticking to a budget the only way to control your finances and make wise financial decisions? I asked a few financial advisers and experts from across the country to weigh in on this topic.
Your Financial Behavior
“A budget is not a straitjacket or prison cell. It is a snapshot in time of your financial behavior. Simple awareness of that behavior can often change it without pain and suffering,” says Gary Duell, who has 35 years of experience in creating holistic financial plans for clients. “For example, if you track your expenses for a month, you may be horrified to find that you spend $200 on lattes. If that horror outweighs the pleasure of the take-out latte, you may willingly start making some or all of your lattes at home.” There are tools to make tracking your spending much easier, he says, but there is no alternative to acquiring a higher consciousness about your financial behavior.
“Budgets are not only boring, but they force you into a scarcity mentality by making you think in terms of what you can’t spend or can’t buy,” says Elle Kaplan, CEO and founder, LexION Capital in New York.
Instead, Kaplan recommends the “20-30-50” plan. “It’s a fun and flexible way to account for your money, without scrounging the couch for change,” says Kaplan. The 20 refers to 20 percent of your monthly take-home pay—your paycheck after taxes— that you should allot to investing in yourself. This can be everything from paying off debts to investing in stocks. Then take 30 percent of your take-home as your “fun fund.” As long as you account for the rest, you can treat yourself with this portion. The 50 percent is for essentials. “This is non-negotiable, because it’s what keeps the lights on,” Kaplan says. “Your heating bills and basic meals count as needs; a new Jacuzzi or an evening at a Michelin Star restaurant do not.”
Make it Automatic
“For a handful of my friends who refuse to budget, I have helped them get their finances in check by simply saving first and not overspending,” says Jon Dulin, a personal finance blogger on his website MoneySmartGuides.com . “To save first, they set up an auto transfer from their checking to savings account each month for a certain amount. To not overspend, they keep an eye on their checking account when they want to buy something out of the norm.” For example, they know they can eat out a couple of times a month without worrying about overspending. But after that fourth time, they know they should cut back or not go out. “This strategy works for them because they have an idea of what they spend each month even though they don’t have a set budget,” Dulin says.
Cover Your Purchases
Sticking to a budget can be difficult, especially when you use credit cards and don’t realize how much you’ve spent until you get the bill at the end of the month. “Set aside the funds to cover every purchase so you don’t get surprised by a big credit card bill at the end of the month,” says Liran Amrany, founder of Debitize, a New York City-based financial technology company set up to automatically help people stay on top of their credit card spending.
The Debitize system automatically sets aside funds to cover every purchase made on a major credit card, and then pays the bill, in full and on time, on behalf of the user. “This way, people can build credit and earn rewards without worrying about overspending or missing a payment,” says Amrany. “By taking funds out of their checking account after every purchase, our users find it much easier to stay on track.”
Jeff Jones, a certified financial planner and member of the Longview Financial Advisors, seconds the suggestion to automate. “I call it the ‘set it and forget it’ or ‘out of sight, out of mind’ savings model,” says Jones. “If you want to save, have an amount deposited into a separate account directly from your paycheck. Most employers that offer direct deposit can support this type of action. The key in this savings model is to make sure the account isn’t visible when you log into your banking institution’s website. If you can see those saved dollars sitting there, and they are a click away from allowing you to spend them, the temptation can be too much.”
He also counsels his customers to avoid “lifestyle creep.” This occurs when you increase your lifestyle spending every time your discretionary income rises. “With each raise you receive, simply increase the amount of your automatic savings deposit so that lifestyle creep doesn’t consume it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the account will grow,” Jones says.
For example, if you receive a $3,000 per year raise, your budget and/or monthly and annual spending simply and mindlessly increases to absorb the raise. Inflation in common items, such as groceries and gas, will naturally consume a portion of your raise, but many people allow additional luxuries—such as entertainment and travel—to eat up the rest.
Track Your Spending
“I almost always advocate for budgeting. It’s the way to keep your finances in order,” says J.R. Duren, a personal finance writer at Highya.com. But if you’re looking for an alternative, here are some tips.
- Know how much you’re earning each month and use your bank/credit card statements to know how much you’re spending.
- Use a calendar app or a printed calendar to write down the dates your bills are due. This helps you understand when you need money in your account, and how much.
- On the first of the month (the following Monday if it’s on a weekend), download transaction spreadsheets from your credit card accounts and bank accounts. Delete any deposits or returns and add up how much you’ve spent.
- Add up all your income from the month. Compare that to how much you spent.
Don’t Spend More Than You Make
Don’t want to budget your daily spending? You don’t have to, as long as you don’t spend more than you make, says Kelly J. Sullivan Noah, of Sullivan Financial Advisors in St. Paul, Minn. “That doesn’t mean that if it’s in your checking account you can spend it,” she says. “But once you’ve put aside for your monthly bills, for your bigger spending like vacations and car repairs, and for your distant future, the rest is available to spend. It’s a waste of your energy to try to predict how life will happen, and then beat yourself up when you weren’t superhuman enough to guess correctly.”
Instead, set a fixed weekly amount of what’s left after those other big categories are covered, and take actual cash from the bank on the same day every week. “You’ll develop a feel for how your weeks usually happen, and the only budget you need to consult is the amount in your wallet and the number of days left until your next withdrawal,” Noah says. “You can easily calculate in your head how much to spend at the grocery store, whether to go out for lunch, and when to buy new socks. If you run out, hold your breath and grab that peanut butter jar – you know your big stuff is covered. If you have extra, enjoy having more to spend next week!”
Start Saving, on Everything
While he believes using a budget is an important tool to keep your financial ship in order, a good companion strategy is to simply commit to saving as much money as you can on everything, says David Bakke, financial blogger with MoneyCrashers.com. That includes researching the Internet to uncover ways to lower your monthly bills and implementing them, to shopping at websites like Amazon and eBay to save on purchases.
“You can also refinance your home loan to cut costs, and work on lowering your insurance premiums,” says Bakke. “When you adopt an all-out savings mindset, it might not negate the need for a budget, but it will make managing it a lot easier.” If you have a willing friend or family member who also wants to improve their financial situation, try making a game out of it to see who can make the most positive impact on their finances.
Jen Turrell, a writer for DailyWorth.com and financial personal trainer for women working outside of the traditional 9-to-5, has many clients with irregular incomes and project or launch income cycles. This makes traditional budgeting hard. “An alternative is to set up a separate bill pay account out of which all regularly recurring monthly bills are paid using your bank’s automatic bill pay system. Since these bills should be somewhat regular, with some seasonal fluctuations for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, it should be pretty easy to calculate the monthly amount that needs to be in this account.”
If you can create a savings buffer of one full month’s worth of bills, this system may work well for you. “Knowing the bare minimum that must be made each month to cover expenses, and putting those on autopay, with a full month’s buffer of savings, can really take a lot of the stress out of budgeting,” Turrell says.
She recommends having one account that money flows into and from which you transfer the needed amount into your bill pay account each month. Turrell further recommends having an automatic percentage of your income automatically transferred from this account each month as well. Whatever is left in that account after bills and savings is what you have to spend on everything else.
“What this does is basically reduce the number of things that you have to consciously think about budgeting. As long as your income never falls below the amount necessary to pay all of those bills and cover the variable expenses, you are golden,” she says. “You don’t have to worry that buying a new skirt or jacket will leave you short for your rent, because the rent has already been paid!”