Adventures in Budgeting


A little while back, there was a good deal of talk around the ‘Fold about budgeting. Being that writing for said ‘Fold can sometimes make one feel that one is not doing all one should when it comes to fiscal responsibility, I decided to give it a go, thinking the experiment would either result in smug success or hilarious failure. Those are my two favorite outcomes of any situation.

My first step in making a budget was to ignore my boyfriend when he suggested I use Mint.com. Although pretty much all my work/entertainment/happiness stems from the Internet, sometimes I like to play-act at being “off the grid.” It’s worth noting that I did the math for my paper budget on my computer’s calculator.

I started off strong. I figured out all my fixed monthly payments for necessities, like rent, bills, Netflix, my Muay Thai gym membership, and hair dye. Admittedly I was a little loose in my interpretation of the word “necessities.” Everything else went into categories, most of which were food-based: groceries, toiletries, eating out during work, eating out not at work, and “other.” Then, I figured, I would add up how much I spent in those categories during April, make my goal a little smaller for May, and ka-pow! Money saved.

Alarmingly, but not all that surprisingly, the largest category (larger than groceries!) was eating out during work. The worst part of this discovery was knowing that I don’t even enjoy the goods and services that I purchase in this category that much. If the restaurants available around my office were a piece of music, its title would be, “Sandwiches: Theme and Not That Many Variations.” So while I’m not exactly making myself broke on these sandwiches, I am spending unnecessary amounts of money on food that is merely palatable. I’m not a master chef, but I am definitely capable of cooking something palatable.

Part of the problem with reducing spending in this category is that a couple good friends of mine are interns in my office, and I am incentivized not to bring a lunch to work so I can hang out with them. I am also incentivized by laziness.

Nonetheless, armed with my paper budget—and a pocket full of dreams of pockets full of money—I vowed to write down everything I bought that month and stick to the mostly arbitrary goals I set for myself. (I wanted to be able to put $300 in my savings account at the end of the month, which is a lot? Not a lot? I don’t know.)

The mission failed. I pretty much knew it would. I started using my budget as a bookmark, then I started leaving the book at home, and then one day a gust of wind carried it down Ashland Avenue and I didn’t even bother to chase it.

But something good did come out of this experiment, even though it wasn’t exactly the tangible savings I had hoped for. I realized a few things about my spending. One, I am incredibly susceptible to the impulse buy. (Usually candy.) Two, I am utterly incapable of sticking to the arbitrary goals I set for myself. (I should have known this already, from the countless promises I have made to exercise three times a week, or write 500 words a day that I have almost immediately reneged on.) Keeping track of my spending doesn’t make me spend less—it just makes me realize how much I’m spending and makes me sad.

The happy epilogue to this story is that this month I am magically spending way less, thanks to one simple adjustment I made, without even intending to save money. After I gave our fridge a long-needed cleaning, I was so traumatized by the decomposing food within that I started going to the grocery store every week, instead of every “all my food has gone bad.” Now I have oatmeal packets and yogurt to bring to work for breakfast, and I cook enormous piles of food on the weekends so I have leftovers for the rest of the week. This seems like a really obvious thing to do, but it feels like a big step to me.

For me, budgeting was a farce. But where the painstaking calculation of sandwich costs failed, a simple lifestyle change succeeded. And as it turns out, I do feel pretty smug when I’m eating my oatmeal.

 

Julie Beck is still not going to use Mint.com. Photo: Shutterstock/Raywoo

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12 Comments / Post A Comment

I use mint.com, but pretty much just to agonize over my debts all in one place. Also, this article made me want to hang out with you because I too have lost things to Ashland.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Jake Reinhardt I would like to know which Ashland Avenue we are discussing, because my Ashland Avenue is pretty damn windy also. But I think you probably mean Chicago.

sox (#246)

While the groceries and weekend cooking may seem obvious, it is a huge planning and labor effort and deserves to be highly commended! Way to go and keep it up!

BABOLEEN (#59)

What I like to do, for lunch in the summer because work has a refridgerator that people don’t pillage through, is bring bagged lettuce, and the rest of the ingredients for salad for 2-3 days. In the winter I get self-serve soup and go light on the broth. Those things have saved me money. I also bring a 38 oz bottle of water and refil it daily at the spring water cooler. Sometimes I put Chrystal Lite in it. McDonalds has pretty good $1.07 coffee.

Put the $300 in savings once you get your first paycheck. Pay yourself first. Some payroll departments can even automatically transfer a specified amount to a different account. Then you force yourself to live within the means.

I also pause before I make an impulse buy, then transfer the cost of it into my savings account instead of buying it. It takes a lot of willpower, but it feels a lot better.

travlinggirl (#4,335)

@Conal Darcy@twitter That’s what I do. It’s so hard but so rewarding.

Knowledge is power! Budgeting is all very well, but you need to track your spending for a bit and get a feel for where you’re actually spending… (I had a stab at penning some budgeting advice here: http://eemusings.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/the-long-road-to-budgeting-bliss/)

I’m big on packed lunches too, and in general, trying to keep fixed costs down (rent, insurance, bills etc).

I just discovered this blog and im pretty excited to get on top of my money. I definitely feel you on not being able to stick to arbitrary goals. My girlfriend and I have been cooking all of our lunches for almost a month now, most of our dinners too. I always knew it was a huge way to save. Now its almost a habit. I love cooking which helps. thestonesoup.com is a great blog, where all of the recipes are 5 ingredients and amazing. the author also has a list of recipes for eating on $2 a day and how to “stock a minimalist pantry”.

travlinggirl (#4,335)

I don’t particularly fond of Mint.com. I used You really need a budget when I started to get my finances in order and the envelope system. After that moved on to writing everything on a Google Drive spreadsheet to keep track of things and now I’m mostly on top of it. Not perfect but much better than before.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@travlinggirl – samesies! I did mint.com for a little bit too, and found myself getting annoyed by having to subcategorize all the things that were entered. My spreadsheet has categories (and a key to what type of items fall in that category) and I’ve made it specific to the places where me and my husband tend to spend a lot of money on – eating out, books, clothes. January, I did not budget but just recorded everything we purchased/paid for, and it helped me not want to buy anything unnecessary, because I had to record it and see it on the spreadsheet(also helped that it was post hoildays, and I was burnt out on shopping for anything) – I knew I had to focus on not spending money on clothes, books, and household nonsense (pretty things and the like), and so it was a game to keep those categories clear. Now in February, I’ve started to see any trends developing and if we’re spending the usual (based on January) or more/ or less. I figure by the end of this month, I’ll have a hold on what we should be spending in certain categories and then I’ll build a budget off of that.

Sloane (#675)

@travlinggirl I’m exactly the same. The thing that got me with Mint was the rolling budgets – I never stayed on top of what rolled forward, and I was wayyyy to optimistic about it! Plus I would pretend that credits that weren’t linked in Mint didn’t exist, so that spending didn’t happen (ha!). I love mint for collecting my accounts in one place (now that I’ve linked all of them!), but not so much for budgets.

So now I do zero-based budgeting every month in the google spreadsheet, which also lets me round up my purchases to create a little extra buffer! In the past year or so, my handle on extraneous spending has really, really improved.

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