Ok, sometimes they work but–I’m guessing– if you’re reading this, yours isn’t serving you.
Here are three of the big reasons budgets fail:
Life happens. You can plan down to the penny how much you will ideally spend on food next month, but plans change, people come over (maybe. In small groups.) Cars break down, basements flood, kids have field trips they SWEAR they told you about.
Not everyone in the household is on board. Whether it’s a spouse or a teenager, anyone with access to the bank account affects how the budget is handled.
Budgets are generally very restrictive. Similar to number one, we like to fantasize about fitting our future selves into smaller boxes. When we can’t fit into these tidy, arbitrary confines, it feels like we’ve failed.
What if we reframe it and call it “guilt-free spending?”
Doesn’t that just sound better?
Here’s how it works:
There are some important rules to keep in mind.
Guidelines for the expense account:
The expense account can have a debit card but it should never be in your wallet. It should only be used to pay a bill that doesn’t accept an ACH or credit card.
This account should be on auto-pilot, taking in a little more funds than necessary to cover all the bills. I like to pad it with at least $100. Sometimes errors happen, things pay twice (not likely, but they do.) The last thing you want is to have your rent or mortgage bounce.
Set up alerts to let you know if the balance approaches $100, or whatever you’ve padded it with.
Only add signers to this account who you trust. If you have roommates, it may be safer to ask them to transfer you funds through Venmo or PayPal or a good old fashioned check.
Getting this set up takes some time, but once all of your billers and the direct deposit are in place, you should never have to think about it again.
I like to set up a payment to my credit card, usually a little more than the minimum, that will get paid no matter what. I always pay my cards down, but I’m checking those statements daily and paying the remainder of the balance manually.
Guidelines for the operating account:
This amount may fluctuate month-to-month, so I like to set up balance alerts here too.
How you spend it is up to you. Maybe you withdraw the cash so you can physically see how much you have. Maybe you’re buying a big item online. Maybe it’s a date night you’ve been planning for.
This account is a good indicator of your spending habits. If NOTHING gets funneled here, or it’s not enough to do the things you want, something needs to change. If making more money isn’t feasible, then it’s time to revisit your expenses.
The bottom line: it isn’t about how much you make…it’s about how much you spend.
Remember the chunk of time in 2020 when we were debating the true villains of “Tiger King” and lockdowns had just started?
Remember those early weeks when we baked lots bread and Zoom happy hours were still kinda fun?
Remember when we ran out of activities and started doing deep dives of Netflix until we realized we needed more options?
If you’re like me, you have Netflix. And Prime. And Disney+. Oh, and Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and something called FXX? I don’t know..it was for the show “Archer” and it’s $7.99 so it’s baaaaaa-a-a-sically free.
Those little subscriptions here and there are quietly adding up; because they’re all under $20/month, it’s easy to justify. Soon you have more than five of these subscriptions and that’s just for television. Chances are you probably also have:
A gym membership
A monthly skin-care regimen/essential oil/hair care product
A food delivery service
An editing app or software
A magazine subscription
You get the picture.
To get an accurate snapshot of how much you’re spending, you will first have to remind yourself of all the things you added to the cart in the last 12 months. This audit may take an hour or two, and it does require you do some gathering, but I promise you’ll find some extra cash (without having to dig through the gross center console of the car.)
Step 1: Print statements, save them as PDF’s, create yourself an Excel spreadsheet…whatever makes the most sense to your brain, just get your bills in front of you.
Step 2: Grab a highlighter and start color coding your expenses. GREEN for any recurring fee that is absolutely necessary: mortgage/rent, utilities, insurance, etc. BLUE for recurring fee that is nice to have, but technically a luxury. RED for anything you forgot that you’re paying for.
Step 3: Take a deep breath and add everything up. Does it make you cringe? It’s ok if it does! The good news is you have items marked in red that you clearly haven’t touched in months that need to go, ASAP.
If you’ve cleared the red from your totals and you’re still worried the amount you’re spending, revisit everything in blue. Do you NEED to support your friend’s skin care business? Do you actually use your meditation app? When was the last time you went to Anytime Fitness? If these sound real, it’s because I had to have a real heart-to-heart with my own credit card.
Ok. You have your homework. Complete this audit and then we can talk about guilt-free spending.
I’ll never forget how scared I was this time one year ago: eight months pregnant, beginning of lockdown, wiping down groceries that my husband picked up in what I could only imagine was a post-apocalyptic grocery store free-for-all. (I hadn’t left the house in weeks and had no concept of the outside world…and I’ve watched “Contagion” too many times.)
When we realized we could just have our groceries DELIVERED, for a fee, I was skeptical. I didn’t love the idea of someone choosing my produce for me, and paying for it seemed a little insane. But after a few deliveries, I realized I was actually saving PILES of money, and time. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Hear me out…
For the first time, I actually saw what groceries cost. Instead of mindlessly dropping things in the cart and keeping a very rough tally of my grand total, building my cart online was eye-opening and a little surprising. I’d set a limit for myself and quickly realize that if I bought the usual “essentials,” I was always going over that number in my head.
I didn’t have the urge to buy those end-cap impulse items which are specifically placed front and center, and are usually more expensive than other brands. (think the “HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND BBQ WITH CHIPS, SALSA, VELVEETA AND S’MORES! that smacks you in the face after you get your toothpaste. Which leads me to number three…
Impulse buys cost more than the delivery fee and tip. You know what I didn’t plan on buying before going into the store? $75 steaks. A fancy cheese platter concept based on the $14 wedge of brie which I’ll shove in a drawer and forget about completely.
Since we are now a year in and I DON’T spend 40 minutes scrubbing down boxes of crackers on the front porch, I have a fairly stream-lined process. Delivery isn’t essential all the time, but I do plan my shopping list throughout the week, adding things as need.
Pro-tip: plan the list online, screenshot it, and then use that at the store.
Better yet, screenshot this image and save it for any time you need to restock your BLW essentials. These 12 items on their own could be meals in a pinch, and are great paired with any protein or vegetable you’re already cooking for yourself.
Consider this your permission to take shortcuts that could save you time and money…and if it means one less frazzled grocery run, it has already paid for itself.