Budget [buhj-it] noun
1. an estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future
2. an average adult’s worst headache
Before you pull the plug on this article, please know that I am not going to tell you to stop buying your daily cup of coffee. Budgeting isn’t about cutting expenses on the things you love; it is about evaluating and realigning your spending and savings with your personal values. Personal finance is personal, so don’t feel the need to compare your financial goals and progress with others. The destination is different for everyone.
The best way to begin your path to financial independence is by assessing your current financial landscape. You must know where you are before determining where to go (and how to get there). This exercise of reviewing how money flows in and out of your accounts can verify if your spending and savings accurately align with your current values. Budgeting on purpose takes a little bit of concentrated work up front, but it makes future cash flow and investment decisions less daunting.
Take a deep breath; we’ll get through this and out the other side with a sense of clarity and ease – then you can go get your coffee.
Log on to your personal banking and credit card websites and export the last 6 months of expenses (plus any expenses that are paid just annually – property taxes, etc.). These can usually be exported as a spreadsheet (Excel/CSV). Open this file with Excel or similar program.
Categorize your expenses by type and across 3 columns – non-discretionary (needs), discretionary (wants), and savings. Include your expenses that were deducted from your gross income (listed on your pay stub), including taxes, insurance, and retirement savings – these are often neglected in the budgeting process. Itemizing the categories further (splitting ‘insurance’ into home, auto, life, health, disability, etc.) will also provide a better end result for this exercise.
Here are some broad category examples to start:
- Debt Payments
- Auto/Home Maintenance
- Eating/Drinking Out
- Personal Care (Hair/Gym, etc)
- Emergency Fund
Average your expenses (divide by 6) to get an idea of how much each category costs per month.
Combine your 3 columns (needs, wants, savings) into one long list of expenses, and sort them by dollar amount ($), largest to smallest. This will reveal how much you spend on each category; housing, taxes, and transportation will likely top this list.
Copy & paste a second list and sort them again, but this time by how much ‘subjective value’ each category provides. For example – if you spend money ‘eating out’ but don’t enjoy it as much as cooking and eating at home, rank that expense lower than the ‘groceries’ expense. Keep in mind that value doesn’t just have to mean ‘things that bring temporary happiness.’ Personally, I highly value my term life insurance expense, because it provides peace of mind. You could place high value on travel, charitable giving, and yes – even your favorite cup of coffee!
Compare the lists side by side. The expenses that have the greatest misalignment between dollar amount and value should be evaluated first, finding ways to reduce the expenses that don’t provide value and channel those dollars to the expenses that do.
An expense that is commonly misaligned is cable television – is it possible that the cost could be reduced without sacrificing value? Is there an alternative?
Ask these questions for each of your expenses, and start taking actions to bring them into better alignment. I hope this exercise is helpful to you, and that it provides clarity as you continue your journey to financial independence!
For extra fun if you are married – try this exercise with your spouse, but separately. Discuss your results and ask/learn how you can support their personal values with your spending/saving too. *hug*