Budgets are like the New Year’s resolutions of personal finance. We all know we should have one and we all know it’s a fairly simple thing to follow—at least in theory. Like resolutions, we often map out personal budgets with the best of intentions, only to abandon them a couple of weeks later.
It’s easy to blame our budget failures on the numbers we use, or the categories we create, or even the specific app or budgeting system we choose—but more often than not, the underlying cause of a hard-to-stick-to budget is our relationship with it. Just like resolutions, if we design budgets that are too restrictive or too vague, there’s no motivation to follow them.
Whether you’re planning your first budget or re-evaluating your current budget, the ground rules listed below will set you up for success by changing the way you look at budgeting. It doesn’t matter if you manage your budget on your smartphone or if you prefer good ol’ pen and paper—these budgeting basics can be applied to every budgeting system.
Budgeting Basic #1: Budgeting is about confidence, not guilt
A reason lots of people avoid budgeting is because they think it means giving up everything they love and converting to a super-frugal lifestyle. Or, they might be scared they’ll discover that they’ve been spending lots of money on the “wrong” things.
Budgeting is not meant to shame you into being financially responsible. At the end of the day, budgeting is simply about awareness. If you fully understand where your money is going each month, you can design a budget that allows you to truly enjoy your money. How fun is a shopping spree if it’s what’s keeping you in credit card debt for another month? How much can you enjoy your new apartment if the rent payment is stressing you out? Budgets are helpful when it comes to managing your bills and saving up for future expenses, but they’re also the key to spending your money confidently.
Budgeting Basic #2: Stop comparing yourself to others
An effective budget is tailored to your specific combination of wants and needs, so forcing yourself to live within a sample budget you found online or in a personal finance book is not a long-term solution. Budgeting categories can vary wildly depending on where you live, where you work, how you get from point A to point B, what you do for fun and what your personal goals are. Finding a budget that works for you will take trial and error, and the end result will look different from every other budget out there. Get comfortable with the idea that everyone has different priorities, and that no two budgets look alike.
Budgeting Basic #3: Be real about your income
A rookie mistake when it comes to budgeting is using your salary (divided by 12 months) or your hourly wage (multiplied by hours worked) as your monthly income. Instead, take a couple of minutes to calculate your monthly take-home pay—this is your income after estimated taxes and other deductions (like health care, social security and retirement savings contributions) have been taken into account. Your deductions should be listed on your paycheck, and there are plenty of income tax estimate services online that you can use for free.
Budgeting Basic #4: Savings is an expense, too
If budgeting categories were a high school gym class, savings would be picked last. In many budgets, the savings category ends up getting whatever is left over after the “more urgent” expenses have been paid (and—in most cases—the not-so-urgent ones too!). The only way to take your savings seriously is to give it the same priority as your living expenses. If you contribute a set amount to your savings at the beginning of the month, your savings will grow so much faster and you won’t be able to “accidentally” spend that money on something else.
Budgeting Basic #5: Look to your budget instead of your balance
For many people, budgeting simply means checking your account balance before making a purchase—and although it’s good to stay on top of your account totals, looking at your balance is an unreliable way of determining what you can and can’t afford. Your account balance can’t communicate, for instance, how much money needs to be left untouched in order for you to pay your taxes this year or to renew your gym membership next month or to repair your car next week. Get into the habit of referencing your budget instead of your account balance before spending your money.
Budgeting Basic #6: Prepare for emergencies
Emergency expenses have a knack for breaking even the best budgets because they can very easily turn into a huge source of debt. If you don’t have the cash on hand to take care of them immediately, you’ll have to put them on a card or take out a loan, which will have you paying interest on top of the cost of the expenses.
Emergency funds are an important part of any budget and should be a separate category from general savings goals. In order to be effective, your emergency fund can only be accessed for real emergencies—like sudden unemployment, an unexpected medical emergency, or a critical home or vehicle repair. Instead of looking at your emergency fund like yet another savings category, look at it as a way to strengthen your entire budget. Not only will it cover tough situations, but it will also save you stress and give you peace of mind.
Organize Your Finances
Every year, it’s nice to do a bit of “financial spring cleaning” and declutter your filing cabinet, your desk drawers, and the various hiding places where miscellaneous scraps of paper tend to accumulate and multiply. Not sure what you should be saving, and what's OK to shred?
Check out our infographic that outlines what you should keep and shred.
Sorting through financial documents is a pretty straightforward process once you figure out how long you need to hang onto specific types of documents. Doing a periodic cleanup will save you time and hassle in the long run, and will keep your desk drawers and filing cabinets clutter-free in the meantime!
Common Money Beliefs
Where You Seek Financial Advice Says a Lot About You
How did you decide where to open your first bank account? Where did you learn to budget or pay bills? If you have a money question now, what do you do? Who do you turn to?
If you’re under the age of 30, your answers to the above questions are likely some combination of “my parents”, “the Internet” and “I don’t know—I just kind of figured it out”. Although you might have been lucky enough to take life skills classes in high school, most young adults don’t receive any kind of formal financial education. So, it’s likely that you’ll need to seek guidance when it comes to money management.
That guidance can come from any combination of sources: family, friends, apps, blogs, classes, forums, financial institutions, articles, books—the list goes on. No source is inherently better than the others, as long as it empowers you financially. But the reality is that when it comes to getting financial advice, most of us have a comfort zone or a pattern we fall into: we ask mom and dad because that’s how we’ve always done it, or we start with an online search because we’re not comfortable with asking someone for help. Your default information sources say a lot about you and your values, and even though each source has good things going for it, it’s important to keep an open mind. Your financial health can always benefit from including new sources of advice.
Advice Source: Parents and Family Members
What it says about you: Responsibility is important to you, and you believe that big decisions should only be shared with people you absolutely trust.
Why it’s great: Recent studies have found that 49% of Millennials turn to their parents for financial advice. It’s not hard to see why—family members have a trust factor that just can’t be rivaled by any financial institution. They’ve known you literally forever and they truly have your best interests at heart. They’re familiar and accessible and, since they’ve guided you through most aspects of life, it makes sense that they guide you through your finances too.
Where it’s lacking: No two families are alike. In some households, money is talked about casually and in others the topic is totally taboo. Some parents are fully involved in teaching their children about money; others get stressed out even thinking about it. Parents are an excellent resource if they’re money-savvy and if they’re comfortable talking to you about finances. If that’s not the case, then you might want to look for other sources of financial information before consulting with mom and dad.
Advice Source: Financial Advisor or Financial Planner
What it says about you: You value expertise in decision-making, and you’re not afraid to ask for help from a professional.
Why it’s great: Whether you consult with an advisor at your financial institution or hire an advisor independently, it’s hard to top the results you get from working with a dedicated professional. Having an expert assess your financial situation and design a plan for you is an extremely powerful tool because they can recommend products, services and strategies that you might never have come across on your own.
Where it’s lacking: Many young adults shy away from this advice source. One possible reason is because, as helpful as a financial advisor can be, reaching out to one can be intimidating if you’re used to your finances being a very private matter. Maybe you feel embarrassed about your current level of financial understanding, or maybe you’re not used to talking about money. Using some other sources on this list to gather information before meeting with a planner can help you feel in control and better prepared.
Advice Source: Personal Finance Blogs/Online Forums
What it says about you: You value privacy when it comes to your finances, and you know that research is critical before making any important decisions.
Why it’s great: It’s fast, it’s specific and it’s private—the Internet is great for financial guidance. Some helpful online resources include your credit union’s website, personal finance blogs geared toward your life stage, personal finance sections on news sites, and FAQ sections or forums on popular financial websites.
Where it’s lacking: As with all online content, you need to have a critical eye when gathering data. Who’s the author of the content? What’s their motivation? Is this review biased? Is that research trustworthy? When you use the Internet as your go-to information source, it’s up to you to sift through all the sites and articles to find the content that’s most relevant to you. Getting a second opinion (or better yet, a professional opinion) on a topic you’ve been researching is a great way to get more comprehensive advice.
Advice Source: Friends and Peers
What it says about you: Maintaining the status quo is important to you. You feel most confident with decisions that align with what others are doing.
Why it’s great: Friends and other peers can be a good place to get financial advice—they’re typically in the same age range, they may be facing some of the same financial challenges or situations as you, and they might be easier to talk to than your family. They’re believable role models and can serve as good examples of what certain products, services or financial habits look like in practice.
Where it’s lacking: Even the closest of friends can have dramatically different financial backgrounds. When you go to your friends for financial advice, it’s very easy to compare yourself to them; in some cases, that can do more harm than good. Everyone has a unique set of financial priorities and circumstances. Getting general financial advice from your friends is great, but when it comes to more specific advice, look elsewhere.
Advice Source: Apps
What it says about you: You value efficiency and are always looking for ways to improve and upgrade daily tasks.
Why it’s great: Personal finance apps are wonderful resources because they’re often better at slotting into our busy schedules than some of the more traditional approaches to learning about personal finance. Why bother researching different budgeting systems when a comprehensive budgeting app is just a 99-cent-download away? Convenient and well-designed apps that fill a real need can actually lead you to pay more attention to how you manage your money.
Where it’s lacking: Personal finance apps are usually geared more towards actions than they are to education. They’re a great way to check an account balance on the fly or to set up a budget, but they don’t always provide the education that goes along with those tools. Apps are awesome tools that tend to work best when combined with a broader understanding of financial topics.
Also consider how your credit union can help you further your financial knowledge. If you were to draw a diagram of your financial advice sources, your credit union would sit quite comfortably in the middle. It may not be related to you, but your credit union does have your best interests in mind as a member-owner. Your credit union can also provide you with current, professional advice and can give you access to all sorts of additional resources—both online and in person. It’s worth checking out, especially if your current combination of financial resources isn’t quite making the cut.
How Do You Relate To Money?
There are four money personas that help explain some of our most common financial behaviors. To find out how you can improve your relationship with money, figure out which money persona you relate to.
Living On Your Own
Living on your own for the first time can be empowering. It means having independence and all the things that come with it. Some of those things—like not having to share a bathroom—are wonderful. Others—like killing spiders yourself—are not so fun. And leading the pack in the not-so-fun category: bills.
Bills tend to sneak up on us because they don’t fit nicely into a routine. They all have different due dates, some are delivered to your mailbox and others to your inbox, some need to be paid monthly and others yearly, and some have amounts that fluctuate. It takes a lot of wrangling to get them all under control.
The importance of “bill time”
Bills may not stick to a routine, but you sure can. No matter how you keep track of your bills, you still need to take the time to manage them. It can be as simple as 15 minutes, once a week. “Bill time” lets you:
- Gather up any bills received that week (especially the ones that like hiding under your junk mail)
- Locate and/or print out any e-bills received that week
- Input the bill totals and their due dates into your calendar (or notebook, or spreadsheet, or budgeting app)
- See what bills need to be paid that day
- Pay those bills (this could be a combination of paying them online and/or writing out checks and addressing envelopes)
- Mark those bills as paid (and revel in your self-satisfaction)
- Look ahead to see what your payment schedule looks like the following week and month
Sticking to the same day and time for “bill time” is important:
- It creates a routine that’s easy to follow
- It saves time by allowing you to tackle several payments at once
- It keeps you organized and aware of your payment schedule
- It’s the best way to eliminate the “out of sight, out of mind” problem that so many of us have with our bills
So, you have your regularly scheduled “bill time” and you have a stack of bills. Now you need a system to keep track of it all. Luckily, there are so many ways to manage your bills that it’s easy to customize a system that works well for you.
Emergency Fund Boot Camp
Be Prepared, Because Life Happens
An emergency fund is an essential part of your personal finances. Its importance is stressed in almost every personal finance book and budgeting blog, and yet 26% of Americans currently have no emergency fund in place. Of those who do have an emergency fund, up to two-thirds do not have the often-recommended six months’ worth of expenses saved up.
If an emergency fund is, in fact, so important, why doesn’t it seem that way? Why is it so easy to procrastinate on emergency-fund saving?
The term itself could be a source of confusion. The word “emergency” brings to mind images of car crashes, natural disasters and terrible accidents—and although these are valid examples of emergency expenses that affect people all across the country every day, they’re extreme enough that it’s difficult to imagine ourselves in those situations. It can be difficult to set aside a large chunk of change for emergencies when you “just don’t feel that your car is going to break down today”. Our wants (or discretionary spending) often feel more immediate than our need to cover hypothetical and unpredictable emergency expenses.
The reality is that emergency expenses come in many forms and that there are less traumatic examples out there that would be equally good at messing up your financial situation, so it might make more sense to think of your emergency fund as a “life happens” fund.
But, whatever name you give it, absolutely everyone needs an emergency fund in place because no one is exempt from life’s surprises and obstacles—and while we can’t completely prevent emergency situations, we can at least limit their potential damage. An emergency fund allows you to respond immediately to financial emergencies, which allows you to handle the situation without having to deal with additional stresses like struggling to make ends meet or spiraling into a cycle of debt.
If an expense is unexpected (or it results from an unexpected circumstance) and it has the ability to derail your regular cash flow, then it’s an emergency expense. By that definition, a delayed insurance reimbursement is as much of an emergency expense as a meteorite landing on your car. The important part is being prepared for those expenses, no matter how mundane or how extreme they turn out to be.
Let’s look at what types of expense should—and shouldn’t—be dealt with by an emergency fund.
Expense Type #1: Known unknowns
“Known unknowns” are situations that we can partially anticipate—so this is the type of expense that should not be dealt with by an emergency fund. These situations are on our radar (known), even if we don’t know exactly when they will happen (unknown). For example, if you own a vehicle, you know that at some point it will need repairs, just like you know that your home will eventually need a new furnace or that your pet will eventually need a visit to the vet.
A good budgeting exercise is to make a list of all the known unknown expenses you can think of. Then compare the list to your budget and see if there are any categories you’re not currently saving for. Odds are that there are probably a few areas your current budget doesn’t cover, so you’ll want to adjust it to include these additional categories.
Expense Type #2: Unknown unknowns
“Unknown unknowns”, which are the types of expenses that emergency funds are truly designed for, are situations that take us completely by surprise. We don’t know when they will happen, how much they’ll cost or even what they will be until they’ve happened. For example, a family member could suddenly fall ill and you need time away from work in order to care for them. Hopefully, you’ll never experience an unknown unknown, but if you do, the knowledge that you have an emergency fund to cover additional expenses will undoubtedly help to ease a stressful situation.
Expense Type #3: Underestimated known unknowns
Although your emergency fund is not intended to cover known unknowns, if one of those situations has spiraled into a bigger-than-expected expense, that is something your emergency fund would be able to cover. For example, although you have a budget for regular vet visits, you discover that your beloved pet needs surgery, which will cost $2,000. Or you might have savings to cover your car insurance deductible, but it takes three months longer than expected to receive reimbursement from the insurance company. In these situations, it makes sense to dip into your emergency fund to cover an underestimated known unknown.
How much money should be in your emergency fund?
Emergency funds vary widely from person to person. The regular recommendation is six months’ worth of expenses, but some prefer having nine months’ or a year’s worth tucked away. It’s a significant amount, as it should be—it’s what you would be living off if you didn’t have an income for an extended period of time. Whatever amount you choose, it’s a hefty savings goal and it will take time to meet it, but it will make all the difference in tough times. When setting your emergency-fund savings goal, consider the following:
- Set mini-goals: Saving six months’ worth of expenses might sound downright impossible right now—and that’s a completely normal reaction. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and giving up on the idea, choose a smaller goal and then gradually increase it over time. When you’re just starting out, aim for $500 in your fund; once you’ve reached that goal, congratulate yourself and then set a new goal of $1,000. Once you get there, consider setting weekly or monthly contribution goals to stay on top of your savings.
- Avoid wishful thinking: According to a 2014 Workopolis survey, it takes four months on average to find a new job. When planning your emergency budget, you might like to think that if you lost your job, you could turn it all around in two weeks—but that could be setting yourself up for a very stressful situation. It’s not fun to think about a worst-case scenario, but when it comes to emergency-fund planning, that kind of thinking can help you come up with a more realistic savings goal.
- Imagine your lifestyle: If you had to quit your job in order to handle an emergency situation, what would your lifestyle look like? Would you be willing to rough it until you found a new job? Or would you need things to stay pretty much the same to stop your stress levels from skyrocketing? Consider your desired lifestyle carefully when planning your emergency fund. If maintaining your current lifestyle in times of emergency is a priority to you, you may want to save nine months’ worth of income, rather than nine months’ worth of expenses. But if rolling with the punches and going back to a diet of ramen noodles while you figure things out is more your style, then a smaller emergency fund would likely be able to meet your needs.
Ultimately, your emergency fund is about your peace of mind. Design it to fit your specific needs.