Several years ago, long before No Credit Needed, I actually gave budgeting a shot. I can’t, for the life of me, remember the name of the budgeting tool that I tried to use, but I do remember that it was very, very complicated. After a couple of months trying to make the system work – I just gave up.
It wasn’t until some years later, just before starting No Credit Needed, that I read Dave Ramsey’s awesome book – Financial Peace Revisited. I learned about creating a zero-based budget to plan our monthly spending and using the envelope system to manage our cash. Divorced from the notion that living on a budget was difficult – I actually found out that living on a budget was rather simple, even enjoyable.
Over the past five years, I’ve modified my budget several times. I’ve added and removed categories. I’ve used pen and paper, spreadsheets, and software. (I now use the awesome products from site-sponsor YouNeedABudget and have for several years.) While I’m no expert, I have learned a few tips and techniques for making a simple, usable, common sense budget. Here they are –
Expenses – Have to – Need to – Like to
Instead of breaking down my expenses based on needs and wants, I break them down into three broad categories.
Have to – These are items which, no matter what, have to be paid for, each and every month. One might also call these essentials.
Need to – These are items which, under normal circumstances, are necessary for functioning. These are not necessarily essential, but they are very, very important.
Like to – These are items which, while not necessary, add to life’s enjoyment. These are not essential, nor are they supremely important, but they do add to quality-of-life.
Income – Base Income – Extra Income
We actually create two budgets, one based on our base income (what we know we will bring home each month) and one based on potential extra income (what I might make in self-employment income).
I create a list of expenses, broken down into the broad categories mentioned above. These expenses are then grouped into budget categories. For us, we know that our base income can cover our have to and need to expenses, so the monthly variations really take place in the like to categories. This has not always been true. There was a time, especially early on, that after listing our have to and need to expense, there was no money left over for like to. When facing that particular reality, we had to make some difficult choices. Knowing that we could not (in almost every case) reduce our have to expenses, we really focused on reducing need to expenses – and I focused on increasing income. We also stopped borrowing money – and forced ourselves to live on what we actually brought home each month.
What This Simple Budget Reveals
Creating a simple budget, even if you don’t plan to use it, will quickly reveal any potential problems with credit that one might have. If you subtract expenses from income and have a negative number – and you note that credit card balances are steadily increasing and not decreasing – you are moving backwards and not forwards. That is where we found ourselves, five years ago. A good budget not only directs future spending, it can also diagnose current issues and areas for improvement. For us, that first budget was like a warning – flashing red – that we were heading in the wrong financial direction. Making changes and decreasing spending was not easy, but the long-term blessings from such sacrifices were more than worth it.
Conversely, if you create a simple budget and find that you have surplus, you also have a problem. A good problem, but a problem nonetheless. Every dollar needs a purpose. That’s why we have two budgets. If I make an extra $100 dollars, I already have a purpose for that $100 dollars, even before I make it. If I save $100, I have a purpose for that $100 dollars, even before I save it. Why? Given my history, I’ll just waste any money that is not properly accounted for in our budget. So, instead of just leaving $100 “sitting around” – I have a plan for it. (Even if that plan includes spending it on something silly, I still have a plan.)
Just dealing with numbers reveals a lot – about our priorities, about our wants, about our vision for our future. It’s quite amazing. Having those concrete numbers, right there, on the paper (or the computer screen) makes us deal with the realities of our financial life. Creating a budget, the simple act of crunching all that data, actually improves my relationship with my finances. I honestly don’t know where we would be if we had tried to make all of the changes we’ve made without our trusty, common sense budget.