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What budgeting tools and methodology do you use?
Old 08-16-2009, 06:51 PM   #1
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What budgeting tools and methodology do you use?

DW and I have managed to save a decent amount without having a household budget. After finding this site a few years ago, I've started tracking our expenses more closely. Long story short, we're spending more than I thought we were, with dining out and groceries constituting the majority of the "excess" spending. Time for the Bum family to put a budget in place to get this spending under control.

I recently finished Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, and while I didn't agree with everything in the book, I thought the idea of a zero-based budget was valuable. Anything else I should be looking at with regard to creating a budget? Any particular tools or techniques you've found particularly helpful (or unhelpful)?

Thanks for any input!
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:03 PM   #2
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We use different credit cards for different classes of expenses. This is not so much a budgeting methodology, but maximizes cash-back while having the side effect of in-your-face monthly spending. One card is gas and groceries ONLY, so if it is out-of-line it is trivial to see. Another card is EATING OUT. Another ...., well you get the idea.

Another trick is not having a MISCELLANEOUS or BLACK HOLE category. Instead, give yourselves allowances. If it doesn't fit in a common category, then it comes out of your allowance. In the old days, our allowances paid for personal gifts, personal clothing, haircuts, hobby items and things that the other spouse would not ever use. You can make your own rules.

Over the years, we way underspent, so we blew off allowances, but kept the separate credit card thing mostly because of cash-back.
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:21 PM   #3
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Another trick is not having a MISCELLANEOUS or BLACK HOLE category. Instead, give yourselves allowances. If it doesn't fit in a common category, then it comes out of your allowance. In the old days, our allowances paid for personal gifts, personal clothing, haircuts, hobby items and things that the other spouse would not ever use. You can make your own rules.
This reminds me of one more reason why I never plan to remarry or create any yoke.

Allowances When I was old enough to cut grass or paint fences I said a permanent goodbye to anything resembling an allowance.
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:32 PM   #4
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Dave Ramsey advocates a level of record keeping that I just cannot maintain for more than a few months. I've been more successful "budgeting" by allocating money to categories and automating payments with online bill pay. I use a credit card to absorb month-to-month variations. If a category is getting too much money, I run a credit balance and adjust the "budget" downward. If a category is spending more than I allocated, I can adjust the budget or see what's happening in the bills and redouble my efforts to keep expenses to the planned amount. Also, I sweep all the planned savings away automatically as soon as the paycheck is deposited, so I have to live within the budget. I seem to automatically adjust my spending to fit whatever is in the account, so by only leaving the money I planned to spend in there I'm kind of self correcting.
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:37 PM   #5
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Yep, many folks don't like allowances. I guess that's what a budget is about: You allow for various amounts in different categories. Maybe you don't call it an allowance, but ....

As for record-keeping. We never use cash. Thus all expenditures are listed on credit cards.
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:38 PM   #6
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I still use the "dave ramsey" zero budgeting tool. I don't have a great number of categories--maybe 10 in all, and I budget each paycheck out for about 3 months at a time. This lets me use my quicken data to know when big bills are coming up so I'm sure to have that budgeted in for the nearest paycheck.

I actually like having several years of these spreadsheets and I love the one I built when we were paying off our debts, including the house. It is very satisfying. But then again, I was one of those that when we first got married, made my own "spreadsheet" with a ruler and paper, photocopied about 50 of them, and used that as my checkbook register/budget sheet. I still have those, dating back to 1993.

Dork city.

And we still have allowances, Ha. And DH feels just the same way about it that you do, but somehow manages to stifle the urge to kill me.

Besides that basic spreadsheet, I don't use anything else to manage our finances. Every now and again I'll pull up the Morningstar data (we subscribe) and get the various allocations of my mutual funds and what percentages I have overall of stocks, foreign, bonds, etc, but that is rare.
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Old 08-16-2009, 07:53 PM   #7
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We don't budget. We spend whatever we want on things that provide value. Investments are set on automatic (payroll withholdings, $1200 a month to Vanguard, etc).

I try to keep $X thousand in our savings account from month to month. If we are creeping below that balance month to month, I spread the word to tighten up on the spending a bit. If our balance gets above the target amount, I know we are doing good, and we can loosen up a bit (vacation, new toy purchase, etc.). We have lumpy expenses that come 1-2x a year (income taxes, insurance on house and car, property taxes, car maintenance, etc), so this methodology is inexact but gets the job done generally. Actual budgeting and expense tracking probably wouldn't prove to be a useful tool in our household. DW wouldn't care about the budget if she really wants something and she doesn't waste money now, so why bother?.

We charge 99.9% of purchases, so I occasionally pull together a six month summary of expenses and they have changed very little over the years. So far so good. Worst case we blow an extra $1000-2000 in a year and our savings rate drops from 59% to 57% (for example).
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Old 08-16-2009, 08:47 PM   #8
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I budget with Quicken, in a way it was not really intended to be used. I mimic the "envelope" system, which I think is just double-entry accounting. The liabilities always equal the assets, and Quicken always says my net worth is zero.

Every two weeks, coincident with the paycheck, each budget category (a liability account in Quicken) is incremented by its two week amount, balancing out the income. This is performed using scheduled transactions, so once set up it operates automatically.

The budget balances are all set up to reach the target value when each bill is due (i.e. the money is all there when the twice-yearly insurance bill arrives). We also try to budget for those "unexpected" things, like painting the house, replacing the A/C, new furniture, new roof, and car repairs. You know those things are going to happen sometime. When we spend anything, we decrement the asset spent (checking, cash, credit...) and decrement the budget category (groceries, eating out, car repair, home improvement...). So everything always adds up to zero. It's just one transaction in Quicken, so it's pretty easy. But, we have to enter all receipts and each cash transaction. Probably less than an hour each Friday.

Investments are a bit of a pain, but I use a few "Saved Stocks" categories to balance out the investment accounts for retirement and our individual accounts. That gives me one account that balances out all our retirement savings, which is nice, but has to be updated manually (I do it once a week after all the account balances are downloaded). These budget categories are actually just savings, not intended for any specific spending purpose.

It's pretty easy to look at the budget categories and see positive (overbudget) and negative (normal accrual or might be under budget if too large) amounts. Small overbudget amounts are OK, we might let them ride for a while. Large overbudget amounts might cause us to move money from one budget category that is underbudget to the account that is overbudget, and maybe also adjust the biweekly increments if this needs to be a permanent change.

One reason I like this is because it is cumulative, from the time you first started budgeting. Very concrete. Not just telling you that you spent $10 too much last month for groceries. The account balance tells the whole story.

I created my own Net Worth report, since Quicken always thinks we're worth $0 with this system.

We've been using Quicken for almost 10 years now. Prior to that we used software that I wrote to do the same thing. So it is possible to track and keep a budget for long periods. The entire point was to figure out how much we could SPEND, of course, without endangering retirement plans or being unprepared for a major infrequent expense.
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Old 08-16-2009, 09:30 PM   #9
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I have used many different budgeting methods. the one that has worked the best for the last year is You Need A Budget. You can search for it and download a trial version.

This is a zero based budgeting system ala Ramsey ... Rule 1 is give every dollar a job.

It is a different type of budgeting system than most. In the past I would budget and then if I didn't meet it no big deal. With YNAB the system works much much better. i really do encourage you to give it a try.
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Old 08-16-2009, 09:43 PM   #10
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I have my own peculiar way to budget. This is going to seem very weird but it works for me.

First, I contribute the maximum to my TSP (=401K), plus over-50 catchup. Then I divide my (much reduced) takehome pay into thirds.

(1) The first third was for rent/mortgage.*

(2) The second third is for all other expenses - - food, clothing, insurance, property tax, or whatever.

(3) The last third goes towards my future. Paying off my house or investing in taxable accounts come to mind.

*Now that my house is paid off, this money now gets channeled towards my future like the last third.

OK, now REALLY what you probably want to know is how I divide the money in the second third. Every day I check my bank account. I challenge myself to keep my expenditures under xyz dollars per week. I check my progress in that and make it a game for myself.

There are some expenses that are repeated, month after month. Examples are my cable TV bill or cell phone bill. If it is too hard to stay under my allotted expenditures, I look at this type of expense and see which need to be cut back or cut out.

If I have to pay homeowners' and flood insurance in one month (like last month), then I just spend less during the months before and/or after. But as for how much I spend on clothes versus groceries, I don't have any strict rules for myself. I just stay within my spending goals.
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Old 08-16-2009, 10:10 PM   #11
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My wife and I live on a "fixed income" so to speak.

This is how it works:
Let's say your budget is set at $60K per year, or $5K per month. Let's say your net monthly income is $7K. First, keep $5K in your checking account and send $2K to the investment account of your choice.

Let's say that, in a given month, your bills total only $4K. So you pay the bills from your checking account and then you sent the $1K left to a savings account. Rinse and repeat. Some months, your bills will total more than $5K, in which case you take money out of the savings account to make up the difference.

If, by the end of the year, you have no money left in your checking and savings accounts and you had to borrow money from a credit card or from your investment accounts to pay the bills, you know you are over budget. If you have money left over on the savings account, you are under budget. Easy. Then you can use Quicken to drill down into the specifics of your spending and identify areas where you can cut back if needed.

I call it "ER training" or "play retired"...
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Old 08-17-2009, 12:36 AM   #12
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My wife and I live on a "fixed income" so to speak.

This is how it works:
Let's say your budget is set at $60K per year, or $5K per month. Let's say your net monthly income is $7K. First, keep $5K in your checking account and send $2K to the investment account of your choice.

Let's say that, in a given month, your bills total only $4K. So you pay the bills from your checking account and then you sent the $1K left to a savings account. Rinse and repeat. Some months, your bills will total more than $5K, in which case you take money out of the savings account to make up the difference.

If, by the end of the year, you have no money left in your checking and savings accounts and you had to borrow money from a credit card or from your investment accounts to pay the bills, you know you are over budget. If you have money left over on the savings account, you are under budget. Easy. Then you can use Quicken to drill down into the specifics of your spending and identify areas where you can cut back if needed.

I call it "ER training" or "play retired"...
That's more or less what I do. In addition, whenever I have a significant surplus in checking, I move it to savings where I can't get at it so easily. I do a big net worth calculation once a year, using the March 31 data. And that's about it for financial navel gazing.
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Old 08-17-2009, 12:52 AM   #13
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My wife and I are in our late 50s. We retired two years ago. Three years ago, I started tracking the money expenditures. I can't stress how helpful it was to us.

Each month, there are expenses that you are very familiar with, like food, gasoline, utility bills, monthly rent/mortgage, car payment...... because you deal with them each month.

Tracking our expenditures opened my eyes to unexpected expenses. Out of the blue, we had a large dental bill. Oh yeah, what about Christmas? We spend more money at Christmas. Holy cow, we gots a car repair!!

This is a bit exagerated, but the same can be said for other once-a-year expenditures that are easy to ignore (e.g. house insurance, prop taxes, car insurance....) because they only happen once or twice a year.

ok, I decided to include "reserves" in my budget. It's like setting aside some money so you don't go crazy when something unexpected happens.

I have a $60K annual budget. However, I set aside the following:

1300/year for car repairs
400/year for dental
600/year for Christmas
1800/year for house insurance and EQ insurance
4800/year for prop taxes
1200/ year for car insurance
8000/year for travel (I know this is a stretch)

The point is that we don't really "have" $60K available, because I've already set up reserves for $18,100.

You may have different reserves than me. But that should be discovered by tracking your own expenditures for a year or two.

My wife and I always argue about "how much" to spend at Christmas. If my wife wants to spend $800 (for example), it's a lot less stressful to argue with her if I've got $600 already set aside.......as opposed to totally forgetting about this once-a-year expenditure and having NO money set aside.

It should be noted, that we also have allowances for each other. We also have a monthly catch-all reserve of $500/month for stuff like.......birthday presents, stuff for the house, dog expenses, house repairs, medical co-pays, Walmart purchases, car registrations........

hope that helps.
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Old 08-17-2009, 01:15 AM   #14
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Long story short, we're spending more than I thought we were, with dining out and groceries constituting the majority of the "excess" spending.
Spouse and I have always been anal-retentive very detailed in our budgeting & spending. If Quicken's cash balance didn't match what was in our wallets then we knew we'd lost some change in the sofa cushions.

But that gene didn't transfer to a new generation. I've had the budgeting conversation with our teen about a dozen times, each finishing with her firmly nodding her head, saying "Yep, I get it, Dad", saluting, about-facing, and marching off smartly.

She has a great part-time job, yet she's still unsure how much she has available for her spending. She's still nervous about covering her charge card. From the receipts left in the car our twitchy parental antennae, we think she eats out with her friends at $5-$10 a time 2-3x/week and maybe goes shopping too. She pretty much avoids bringing up finances around me because she doesn't want to have an interrogation another discussion about it. Yet she built a great budget a few months ago. I've seen her banging away at the data entry and going over her reports.

Today ("allowance day") we had the conversation for about the millionth time. But this time, as she searched for her Quicken entries of the receipts she was sorting out, I learned that when she takes money out of the ATM she budgets it as "cash". Not "food" or "snacks" or even "entertainment"-- she applies those categories to charges that go on her credit card, but she wasn't applying those categories to her cash spending. Unsurprisingly, 100% of her ATM withdrawals was being spent on the budget category of "cash". Maybe 110%. At least 30% of her paychecks. When I fed back to her what she'd just explained to me, the lightbulb over her head went on like a phosphorus flare. It just never freakin' occurred to her to track her cash spending as precisely as she tracks her credit card or her checking account.

So now she's "tracking every dollar she spends", which meant something to her that was completely different from what I thought I was saying. Only this time we finally both have the same interpretation. And this time she really means it.

Yet another example of a perfectly clear conversation that everyone was positive they understood, yet had two completely different meanings.

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Originally Posted by ProspectiveBum View Post
recently finished Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, and while I didn't agree with everything in the book, I thought the idea of a zero-based budget was valuable. Anything else I should be looking at with regard to creating a budget? Any particular tools or techniques you've found particularly helpful (or unhelpful)?
Thanks for any input!
Some categories lend themselves to zero-based review: mortgage, taekwondo lessons, utility bills, maybe gas. Others not so much: dining out, entertainment, home maintenance. We fill out the zero-based categories first but use historical data for the rest. By the middle of the year we'll have a feeling for how close we are to reality and can adjust.

We used to go over this every month. After 3-4 years of ER it slipped to quarterly, and now I just lay a report on her recliner a couple times a year for an optional discussion. I still do the budget projections every year, and occasionally I'll print out a graph of a category for the last 5-10 years. This is especially fun when we're talking about mortgages, not so much when we're talking about cable TV or sewer bills.

We still enter every dollar in Quicken. It's handy to know when we last bought a major appliance or piece of electronics, and it's not that much more effort to track everything.

It'll be very interesting to see how our budget shrinks when the teen flies.
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Old 08-17-2009, 02:11 AM   #15
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DW and I have managed to save a decent amount without having a household budget. After finding this site a few years ago, I've started tracking our expenses more closely. Long story short, we're spending more than I thought we were, with dining out and groceries constituting the majority of the "excess" spending. Time for the Bum family to put a budget in place to get this spending under control.
Same here, groceries and eating out were a much larger percentage of our expenses than we felt reasonable.

We found budgets to be a big hassle however. So instead of budgeting, we closely track our expenses, review our expenditures 1 - 2 times per year, and then work to make changes in areas where we feel we aren't getting appropriate value for our money. This approach works pretty well for us. Our goal isn't to reduce the overall expense rate to the lowest figure possible i.e. be as frugal as possible. Rather, our goal is to increase the percentage spent on Recreation & Vacations in relation to other categories such as Utilities, Maintenance, Auto, Groceries, etc. while ensuring our overall expenditure level remains constant. Setting a goal like this energizes us to be creative and motivated in searching for ways to minimize expenses on food, clothing, cell phones, etc so we can spend more on the fun things.

--Linney
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Old 08-17-2009, 08:39 AM   #16
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We moved all expenditures to credit card or check - to have records. Use Quicken and put expenses in logical categories.

We "track" more than "budget". Once we got a trend of expenses for a category - our "budget" is what we previously spend - we try to stay within or better.

Would like to next set budgets for "highly discretionary" categories like entertainment, dining out, and travel.
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Old 08-17-2009, 08:50 AM   #17
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Like Nords, I am very detailed in tracking our spending and have been for over forty years. In the Sixty's it was with ledgers and eventually with Microsoft Money. (I found Quicken not to allow as much "future-thinking" as I required.) FWIW, in that time, we have never had much need to restrict our spending on discretionary spending -- indeed, we lived quite well.

Anyway, we have never had a "budget" as such. We found early on that simply knowing where every penney went takes the steam out of imagining future events. The downside to this method, of course, is that during extended "hard" times (more than a few months), there are few areas in which to cut back since each category had been examined thoroughly.

It, of course, is a little more complicated than this but the process takes less time and energy than a "formal" budget... and in my opinion, more effective. (BTW, WTR's "pay yourself first" model is key here -- even it's in a sock under the mattress -- the less you have in your pocket the easier it is to not spend foolishly.)

Now that Microsoft has abandoned Money, I am unsure what to do going forward. (I have looked at Quicken and found it totally unsatisfactory.) So if anyone can suggest an accounting system for household use, I would be appreciative. (Cost is, probably, not a consideration.)
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Old 08-17-2009, 09:20 AM   #18
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We use a full budget with the albundyz reserves. We use the reserves not just to ensure funds but also to ensure spending. We got so used to being extra frugal in order to retire that we have to remind ourselves to spend occasionally. So in the entertainment budget, for example, if we haven't been doing much we see that indeed we can afford it because we've built up a fund.

Everything we can we put on credit cards for easier tracking and the points.

We also have sink funds for household, car, and medical expenses. A good thing because we just got hit for medical.

We track every category, we have allowances, and I have projected budgets through 2013. Anal? Perhaps but it has allowed us to winter in Florida something we thought we never could afford.
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Old 08-17-2009, 11:48 AM   #19
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I use a program called "budget advisor" (available as a 30 day free trial). It isn't as involved as Quicken, does a good job in letting me maintain a budget seeing where I'm doing with each category).


Home Budget Software
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Old 08-17-2009, 12:38 PM   #20
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We don't budget. What we do is set targets: aggressively paying down a mortgage, trying to save a largish sum/year. As a good pelican my beak can hold more than my belly can - I seem to have a pretty high expectation of what we can save. Our goals are achievable, we tend to get close even if we don't meet them and I don't agonize if we don't hit the target. Since we're always working toward a goal the monthly income is pretty much apportioned between necessary and discretionary. We don't consciously try to reduce electric use or the food budget, but we don't spend what we don't have - and if I've already set a goal of sending $x to CapOne savings account I'm less tempted by a 42" HDLCD. Can always buy that next month. Or the month after. Or during the Christmas sales.
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