Budgeting Without Bean Counting…5 Great Tips

by Joe Plemon on January 27, 2010

children 3
Creative Commons License photo credit: F. Montino

As Janice and I have worked on our budget over the years, we have learned that the more we can automate it, the easier it becomes, the more we enjoy it and the greater our chances of sticking with it.

We want to feel like we are in control of our money, but we also want to relax, enjoy life and not be phobicized by every penny we spend. The following tips might sound sloppy to the nerds among us, but because of the simplicity they give to our lives, we are confident they will serve us well for a lifetime:

1. Actually make a budget.

None of you can escape the reality that you must take control of your money by writing down how much you have coming in and how much you spend. This budget must be realistic, it must reflect your values and goals, and, if you are married, it must be agreed to.

2. Use Envelopes.

If I could give only one hint for hassle free budgeting, this is it. The consistent monthly expenses aren’t the problem; it is those which fluctuate and are difficult to track (such as groceries, eating out and gasoline) that will bust your budget. Even if you painstakingly record each expenditure and then tabulate them at the end of the month, you still have two problems: one is that you don’t know if you are overspending until the month is over; the second is that the tedious practice of recording those expenses is not something most of us will do for a lifetime. Using envelopes solves both of those problems: you CAN’T overspend because when the cash in the envelope is gone, you are done spending for that category. Secondly, there is no tracking of expenditures; the envelope does it for you…simply count the money in the envelope at any point in the month and you will know how much you have spent for that category. Simple and effective…Envelopes rule!

3. Make it automatic.

Janice and I know how much money we need in our checking account after we take out our envelope cash, so we have just enough income directly deposited into that checking account to cover normal expenses (and leave enough buffer to avoid overdrafts). In this way, our checking account is a sort of envelope…we must be vigilant in guarding our checking account balance, but doing so will force us to live within our budget without doing any math or counting any beans.

4. Make savings automatic too.

We normally have an annual meeting to make specific savings goals (Save $10,000 for a replacement vehicle by October, for example). We put these goals in writing, then have other income streams directly deposited into a Savings Account and just let it happen. We track our progress periodically, but the beauty of making it automatic is that no discipline or will power is required.

5. Make investing automatic too.

Do you start to get the idea that we like to make things automatic? Well, you get the point…we have our investments withdrawn automatically every month. No hassle, no effort, no will power. We like automatic.

Concluding thoughts

  • Although I don’t hassle with tracking my expenses each month, I can nevertheless track them when needed. How? Using Quicken to balance our check books gives me a simple tool to create category reports any time I need to. Other great money software or even free online tools such as mint.com might work for you.
  • This system isn’t perfect (none is). Life happens and when we need money unexpectedly, we take it from our savings and then recalibrate our savings goals. Yes, it is a bit frustrating, but we don’t want you to think everything always works perfectly as planned. We have learned to roll with the punches, but even then, it is nice to know that we have planned for those punches.

Summary

Our philosophy is to put self imposed restrictions in our finances so we can live within our means without counting any beans. We might have a better bottom line if we obsessed over every dollar, but doing so does not match our personalities or our lifestyles. What we do has served us well…we have zero debt, we can easily live on less than we make, we are able to tithe to our church and also be generous to those in need. We have every confidence that our plan will continue to serve us well for years to come.

What tips have helped you to keep your budget simple, yet effective?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ted February 27, 2010 at 10:10 pm

My favorite is #1. Actually make a budget. My wife and I had sketched out a budget a few times. But we never stuck to it, tracked it, or actually made it. Now that we have a real budget, the rest seems to fall into place so easily. I can’t believe we did not use one earlier. thanks for the tips!

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joeplemon February 28, 2010 at 8:24 am

Ted,
How true. The rest of the steps are irrelevant if we don’t actually make the budget in the first place. I am glad that you and your wife now have a “real budget”. Once budgeting gets in your blood, you will never want to go back.

Just curious…did any of the other tips help?

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Christina March 6, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Using an envelope helps a little but I still have trouble creating a budget that I sometime end up spending all the money in the envelope and still shell out some cash. I guess I need to master the art of budgeting to accurately allocate money for each envelopes first before envelope budgeting will work perfectly for me.

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joeplemon March 7, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Christina,
Don’t give up. You use words “master” and “perfect” in your second sentence…not bad words, but real life is never perfect, so it is difficult to make your budget perfect. The way you master budgeting is through trial and error. Keep adjusting your envelope totals each month and you will eventually get to be in control.

After years of using envelopes, we feel like we have it down pretty well, but we still run under or over sometimes. Like I said, don’t give up. Envelopes will some day be your best budgeting friend. :)

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Christina March 21, 2010 at 9:54 am

Hi joeplemon,

I really hope so…thanks…I really appreciate it when a blogger actually communicate with his follower.

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joeplemon March 21, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Christina,
You’re welcome. Any time.

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Barb Friedberg April 25, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Hi Joe, Found you on the Yakezie list and wanted to stop by and say “HI.” I like your tag line and blog title; GREAT. I’m including this post in my link round up this week. It is so hard to make budgeting paletable, and you are giving some good tips! Best regards, Barb

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joeplemon April 25, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Barb,
Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad this post was helpful, and I thank you for including it in your link round!

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