Please enjoy this awesome guest contribution from our friend Jim Wang!
When I started my first job, I also started budgeting for the first time.
Back then, I had plenty of free time so I tracked every expense down to the penny.
I bucketed my expenses into twelve categories, to spare you the gory details I won’t list them here, and played little games like having “zero spend days” and “under $10 days.” My record for zero spend days was 14, over the holidays, and that was because I spent a long weekend at home with my parents who paid for everything (shhh!).
Can you tell I was a spreadsheet junkie?
With that budget, I was able to fully fund my 401(k) and my Roth IRA the first few years until I decided I was going to buy a house and needed to start saving a down payment.
Tracking my spending down to the penny is something I was willing to do and stick with. I’m a weirdo.
What if that’s not you? What if you know you want to budget but the thought of opening a spreadsheet makes you want to run the other way? What if you just hate budgeting?
I’ll share with you some budgeting strategies you can use that won’t require you to track everything you spend. These strategies are not 100% optimal, nothing beats tracking your spending, but these are very good and will get you 95% of the way there. The good plan you follow is better than the perfect plan you don’t. These are good plans.
Save First, Spend Second
You may have heard of people say “pay yourself first.” This is that strategy. Paying yourself first means you take your income and you immediately take out your savings.
Don’t wait to spend your income and then save what’s left, make saving a priority.
How do you do this? First, take any retirement savings you need directly from your paycheck. Your retirement savings comes first and by making it automatic and come directly from your paycheck, you prevent yourself from screwing it up. Contribute as much as you feel comfortable and at least enough to get any matching funds your employer offers.
Next, the balance will get deposited into your checking account after taxes are withheld and other payments are deducted. As it stands, your retirement savings are taken care of so you need to turn towards other savings needs. Transfer those funds out of your checking account to those savings goals – like a down payment on a house or new car.
[bctt tweet=”Make saving a priority! Save first. Spend second.”]
If you have debts, those are goals too. Instead of, or in addition to, saving the money, use it to pay down those debts.
After that, the rest of the money left over is yours. Deduct your housing and other regular payments you might have and spend the rest on whatever you want. There’s no need to track your spending because the whole point of tracking is to make sure you save money at the end. You’ve saved money in the beginning so your work is done.
Use an Online Budget Tracking Tool
If you don’t want to track your expenses manually but still want them, use a tool like Mint.com to pull that data in for you. Mint is one of the most popular, owned by Intuit, but any tool that pulls in the data automatically from your credit cards will suffice.
With a budget tracking tool, you get all of your information without having to enter it in yourself. This takes away much of the work of budgeting but still gives you the visibility into your spending to help you make better decisions. The only work you’ll have to do is categorizing your transactions, if you choose to do so.
Categorizing them is valuable because you can now learn about your spending and where you may be able to adjust things for the better.
Use Envelopes and Set Aside a “Fun Money” Amount
If saving first and using a tool don’t seem appealing, give yourself a set amount each month for “fun.” Let this be a slush fund that you can spend on anything you want without regard to your budget, since you don’t have one.
How do you decide how much to set aside in this “fun money” account? You will need some envelopes (yes, this is envelope budgeting).
Envelope budgeting is very simple – you figure out all of your spending categories and divide up your paycheck among them. This means getting actual cash and putting them into the envelopes.
You then label the envelopes for expenses like rent, car payment, food, etc. Since many of those fixed costs are known, like rent and car payment, the challenge will be in estimating the other discretionary categories. The “fun money” amount will itself be an envelope.
Your first envelope budget will be simple, a list of fixed costs and estimates for the rest. You may find yourself putting multiple categories into one – so one envelope for “fun” which covers going out with friends, eating out with friend, as well as groceries. As you use the budget and adjust to it, you can use more envelopes since you’ll have a better sense of your spending.
When you run out of money in an envelope, you’ve hit your budget. If you take from another envelope, be sure to indicate it on the envelope so you remember to make the adjustment next month.
With envelopes, you’ve created a very simple budget even though you won’t be tracking your spending directly.
Remember the Goal
Finally, remember that the goal of budgeting is to make sure you are saving enough of your money each month so you can achieve your goals. Whether it’s retiring early, buying a house, or just living life to the fullest without worry; keeping an eye on your spending will get you there.
And when you have a budget, even a “good enough” one like paying yourself first, you ensure you’re saving. That is no small thing. When you have your savings covered, you can spend money without regret. No longer feeling guilty about that cup of coffee or that new piece of clothing. No longer worrying if last night out with your friends will bust your budget.
That is a freeing and healthy relationship with your money and it’s achievable without spending hours tracking your spending.
Give it a shot and let me know what you think.
Jim Wang writes about money hacks at Wallethacks.com and he doesn’t budget anymore, he pays himself first and lets the rest take care of itself. If you want to hear more unconventional yet devastatingly effective strategies and tactics for getting ahead financially and in life, sign up for his free newsletter and get exclusive bonus material.