I once felt the same way. When we started on our debt free journey a year and a half ago, we started tracking our expenses. We began to see the cracks that our money was disappearing into – cable TV, eating out, excessive grocery shopping, etc. This helped us out in two ways. First, we were able to see how much money was being wasted and was unaccounted for. Second, we were able to put an exact dollar amount on our fixed expenses which made us realize the actual amount of money we had the potential to save each month. I have to say that I was truly amazed to see that we were spending over $1000 a month on groceries…for two adults and a baby! How could this be so? But yet, there it was in black and white. My bank statements don’t lie, and I had to admit that our spending had gotten out of hand.
We decided that we must adopt a budget. We decided to write a budget for the upcoming month then STICK TO IT. Would this even be possible? We didn’t know what to do, but we knew that we could not continue on the wasteful path we were on.
The Zero-Sum Budget
The budgeting method that we “created” was actually a method that was already being widely used – although we didn’t know it at the time. It is called a “zero-sum budget.” To start a zero-sum budget for yourself, you must first figure out a close estimate of what you are paid on any given month. Then, write out an estimate for each bill or category that you will need to pay out that month. From there, you can figure out what you will have the potential to save each month. The key is to make your savings a bill that you actually pay each month. Here is an example:
Hypothetical May 2012 Budget
Available Income: $5000
House Payment: $1200
Electric Bill: $150 (estimate)
Gas Bill: $75 (estimate)
Car Payment #1: $350
Car Payment #2: $400
Car Insurance: $100
Gym Membership: $75
Life Insurance: $55
Transfer to Savings: $1390
Notice how there is nothing left at the end of the month. All of the money earned was thoughtfully spent. Hence, the term zero-sum budget. Using this concept, you are deliberately spending all of your money each month. First, you pay your bills and then you pay yourself. Of course, your income and categories will be different than the example that I have provided. However, I think you get the point that I am trying to make.
Purposefully allocate where all of your money needs to go for the month. Make a plan. Then, execute your plan.
If you are someone whose income varies from month to month, this can still work for you. All you have to be able to do is estimate your income and expenses for that particular month. Some people may feel the need to have a larger part of their budget dedicated to miscellaneous expenses. Others may need an entertainment category. That is the great thing about using a zero-sum budget. It is totally tailored by you, for you, in order to help you.
To this point, my zero-sum budget varies from month to month. For instance, I pay our life insurance quarterly, so it is in the budget for some months and not others. This upcoming month, it will be my youngest daughter’s first birthday. So, I will allocate a certain amount of money for her party and stick to it. Our income fluctuates somewhat so each budget is unique to the current month and its events.
As I pay each bill during the part of the month that it is due, I simply check it off. That way on any day I can see what bills have been paid, what bills haven’t been paid, and whether our spending is on track. You do not need expensive budgeting software or fancy spreadsheets to dramatically change your spending. All you need is a pen, some paper, and some willpower.
Most people spend too much of their valuable time at work to be frittering away all of their income. Make your money work for you. Make a plan and spend your dollars thoughtfully and deliberately by using a zero-sum budget.