Family Budgeting 101 – Part 1

Where does one start? Lots of people seem to hate budgeting or at best tolerate it like one tolerates a visit from the in laws. Personally I enjoy managing our finances, budgeting and working with spreadsheets.

For beginners or those in trouble or those whose finances just need an overhaul, you have to start somewhere. You can’t do everything at once. You’ll be overwhelmed and do a poor job of it, or quit altogether. So if you are swimming in debt and can’t get a handle on your finances, don’t fret. Budgeting is not technically difficult and can be mastered quickly if one has the desire.

In part 1 today, and part 2 (coming later), I’ll show what has worked for our family.

Tracking your spending

Track your spending for a month or two before attempting to make a budget. This will tell you where all your money is going each month. I bet you don’t know, I sure didn’t. Do this even before you attempt to make a budget. Having a month or two of detailed spending will make budgeting a lot easier to do. If you are impatient, and don’t want to track spending for that long, try and do it for at least 2 weeks.

You may also be able to do this in reverse and go through the last few months checking and credit card statements. If not, start recording everywhere that your money goes. From your double-whipped-caramel-skinny-latte at FiveBucks to your mortgage payment, track it all. Make some basic categories and first list all the fixed expenses that you know you have each month: mortgage/rent, food, utilities, phone etc. Then add in everything else you spend money on that month, write it all down or use something like excel or an online tool like Mint. I personally prefer using an excel spreadsheet for expense tracking and budgeting. I use the one called “Personal Budgeting Spreadsheet”. We will have an article out in a few weeks listing many free budgeting tools, including the ones we use.

You might think you know where your money is going, but I think this will be an eye-opening exercise for some.  You might find that you spent $150 last month on toys for Mr. buttons, your cat or $300 on running shoes. I’ve done that before (spent lots on running shoes…not a cat). Running shoes are a necessity, right?

After you have an idea of where the money is going, start thinking about ways to cut your spending so you can increase your savings rate and/or pay down debt.

Also think about just how frugal you want to be. Maybe you are doing alright and just want to cut the fat a bit so you can boost your retirement savings. Or maybe you are living paycheck to paycheck and drowning in debt.  There is no right answer to how much you have to slash from your spending. Some people, like my wife and me, are very frugal and refuse to go into debt for pretty much anything at all. We did finance our house but have since paid it off. We prefer a nice home cooked meal to swinging into the drive-thru at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. Besides being very expensive to eat meals out with a large family, the food at most fast-food joints and chain restaurants is nutritional garbage. So let’s see, $75-$150 for low-grade dog food at a place like Burger King or Applebee’s, or $20 bucks for a nice meal at home? Tough choice. And yes we do feed our family dinner for $20. And no that is not Ramen noodles and PBJ. We spend an average of $46 dollars per day on food, but that’s a subject of a future post.

So as you read how we go about organizing our finances and what we spend our money on, just remember that this is how we have chosen to live. It’s certainly not the only way but it is the best way for us. We enjoy seeing how much we can save and we look forward to actually being able to retire and have some $$$ because it’s not like we can count on Social Security to provide for all our needs.

Personally I’d much rather save my money than by junk-food and more stuff for the house.

How much can you save after slashing your spending to a more reasonable level? Well here is a teaser from a future article, we save over 30% of my income each month. And no I don’t have a high paying job, just a regular old job. Above minimum wage obviously but not some high flying salary. And lower than most of my friends who have fewer kids and are struggling to make it financially. It’s about choices. Sure we all have bad financial luck at times…car breaks downs, kid needs braces, hours get cut at work…stuff happens. That’s why you have to plan and be prepared. We live in a very high expense area so it can be tough at times to save a third of my income but it is worth it to us. My bride, who works much harder than I, sadly does not get paid monetarily.

After tracking your spending for a while you’ll be ready to make a budget and get your financial goals on track. Wait! You do have Financial Goals don’t you? If not, start thinking about them. Maybe you want to pay off your student loans or your credit cards. Maybe you want to expand your garden gnome collection or your vintage Barry Manilow 8-track tape collection. Maybe you are getting older and have neglected your retirement planning. Maybe you are retired and just need to fine tune your finances so you don’t run out of money in your dotage and have to live off of Alpo.

If you find that your finances are completely hosed, you may want to try a “spending fast” for a certain period of time. Think Lent, but instead of meatless Fridays, you don’t spend any money on non-essentials for a month. We do one at least 1 month out of each year (another future article). I’ll be the first to admit that they are difficult. I thought it would be a breeze for us since we don’t shop a lot. I was wrong. I sure do miss the UPS driver and the lovely Amazon packages he used to bring me regularly.

Give budgeting a try for awhile. It might not be fun or easy, but I think you will find it worth the time and effort. Once you see the results, it can be addicting.

Thanks for reading and we look forward to your comments.

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