Yes, it’s true; the tight-fisted, penny watching Grumpy Pundit doesn’t use what is possibly the most often recommended means of managing your home finances. And you probably shouldn’t either.
Now, if this were the conventional sort of financial advise blog, I would jabber on for a bit here about how to set up a budget. I’d tell you to list your monthly expenses and total them up, and total up your monthly income, and carve away portions of the former until it fits within the latter. Most likely you would nod thoughtfully and make a mental note to do that, then go watch TV and forget about it. If you were feeling particularly dutiful, though, you might fire up your bootleg copy of Excel and fill in a few numbers, take your best guess at a few more, and decide that if you cut your drug habit back to $500 a week that’ll still leave you $50 a week for groceries and let you save up a little money for a spring break trip to the coast to get laughed at by girls who are much too young for you.
Or something like that.
At any rate, after reading my conventional advice and spending a bit of time fudging numbers in Excel (come on; do you really know how much you spend on groceries every month?) you might actually come up with a budget, determine that you can spend this and that much on these and those things and you might stick with it for a week or two and then you’ll forget about it. Right? Come on, be honest. You can’t even stop watching that crappy TV show that was funny last season, but sucks this season. Do you really think you’re going to change your spending habits just by whomping up a spreadsheet and deciding to?
(OK, sure, there are a few people who could do that. They aren’t surfing the web for financial advice.)
But this is the Grumpy Pundit Blog. We do things differently here. I’m going to tell you how to live within your means, and even save money, without wasting any time on a budget that you’re not going to pay any attention to anyway.
First rule. Pay your bills in full. That is, don’t carry a balance on your credit cards; pay them off every month.
Second rule. Pay yourself first.
Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But simple does not mean easy and most people can’t manage it.
If you can follow the first rule, you are automatically living within your means. You are not spending any more than you are making. The adjustment you have to make here is not a budgetary one; it’s mental. You must fix the idea in your head that what you buy in a month must be paid for that month. Be as extravagant as you like, but remember that the credit card bill has to be paid off completely when it comes due. Do that and your spending is automatically limited by your income.
That may seem obvious, but it is a — perhaps the critical step to getting control of your finances. Pay your bills on time and in full. It’s a simple rule that is easy to get your head around and I find that simple rules like that are much easier to stick to than a complicated budget.
But what if your credit cards already have balances on them and you simply can’t pay them off each month? Simple; pay off all the new charges plus interest. Don’t let the balance grow. Cover what you spend each month out of that month’s income (or, if you have to, your emergency fund).
It may take you two or three months to adjust to that. Once you have, it’s time to go to Rule 2.
Pay yourself first. This reverses the way that most people save money. Rather than taking anything left over at the end of the month and putting into a savings account, decide how much you want to save each month and put that into savings before you pay your bills. If possible, set up an automatic transfer so you don’t even have to think about it. (If you are carrying a balance on your credit cards put the extra money towards paying that off instead.) By doing this you are adjusting your spending to fit your savings rather than adjusting your savings to fit your spending.
Let’s try an example to see how this works. Let’s say that you make $4000 a month and after you finish paying your mortgage, car payment, utilities, groceries, etc., (including that money that just seems to melt out of your wallet; the two or three hundred a month you never can quite account for) you have $1000 left of the month’s pay.
Then the credit card bills come in. You have outstanding balances of $3000, with $1200 in new charges.
Uh, oh. There isn’t enough to even pay all the new charges. You grit your teeth, remind yourself, “Pay in full,” dump that $1000 on the credit cards and resolve to cut back on your spending so you can do better next month.
Next month you’ve got $1100 left before the credit card bills (progress!). The credit card statements land with a thud on your dining room table and amount to $3250 in balances carried over plus $800 in new charges. Pour all $1100 into the credit cards, to start paying down that debt.
Fast forward several months. You’ve paid off the credit cards and gotten your average credit card bill down to about $700 a month. You figure you can start saving $300 a month now. Pay that $300 a month into your savings account first. Then pay all the other bills. Conceptually, what you are doing is subtracting that $300 from your income, forcing yourself to live within that reduced income. It’s like your pay was cut to $3700 a month and now you have to cut back.
These are, as I said above, very simple tricks. They are, however, very powerful tricks. The magic isn’t in what numbers you juggle around, it’s getting yourself into the habit of following one simple rule that’s easy to grasp and focus on. Whether it’s setting yourself an exercise plan (“I’m going to work out for twenty minutes every Sunday night.”) or managing your household finances, creating a simple rule for yourself and sticking to it come hell or high water is the way you get things done.
Pay your bills on time and in full. That’s all the budget you need.
Pay yourself first. Decide how much you want to save and put that money aside automatically, before paying any other bills.
Do those two things and you’ll be ahead of nearly every other person in the United States. Practically no one will be as good at managing their money as you. Take pride in your accomplishment.
Oh, and think about that exercise plan too.