Budgeting. It’s a word we’re all familiar with. Everyone knows what a budget is, right? Yet how many of us actually make and stick to a solid monthly budget? The truth is that most of us start out with the best of intentions, but an unexpected expense comes up and busts our budget. Then we give up and go back to juggling our finances and worrying about having too much month left at the end of the money. However, if you are striving to create a budget for the purpose of systematically paying off your debts, or to start a savings and investment program, then it’s critical to develop a workable and realistic budget.
So what’s the problem? Why do most of us fail at the simple task of creating a budget so we can live within our means? The simple truth is that most budgets don’t work because they fail to account for irregular or variable expenses. Everyone knows how much their rent or mortgage payment is. It’s the same amount month after month. If your rent is $1,000 per month, that’s a “no-brainer.” The same is true of many other fixed expenses, such as auto loan payments, cable TV subscriptions, insurance premiums, and so on. It’s easy to budget for these expenses because the amounts don’t change from one month to the next.
Besides expenses that are the exact same figure each month, there are numerous types of expenses that vary a little from one month to the next, yet we still have a pretty good idea what we spend each month. A good example is our grocery bill. Most of us have a fairly clear picture of how much we spend each week at the supermarket. So we can insert a realistic figure into our budget-in-progress and not be too far off the mark. Sure, the amounts may go up or down slightly each month, but we usually know the range we’re dealing with. Other examples of this category include telephone bills, utility bills, and gasoline (although this one certainly seems to be going nowhere but up these days!).
The real culprit in busted budgets, however, is the variable or irregular expense. How much will you spend on car repairs over the next 12 months? What about medical bills? Home maintenance costs? It seems that bills for these types of expenses hit us out of left field, and there goes our budget. Before long, we’re using food money to cover a new set of tires for our car, and the whole budget comes crashing down.
So what’s the solution? There is no perfect answer to this problem. But we can come to a close approximation by using the simple technique of monthly averaging. Start by gathering 12 months’ worth of checkbook registers, bank statements, and credit card statements. Write down (or enter into a spreadsheet) how much you spent each and every time your money went toward something that was not a fixed expense. Group these expenditures into categories, such as auto, home maintenance, clothes, etc. Don’t try to break it down too far. What you want is a handful of useful categories. Then keep listing each of these expenses under their relevant categories for the full 12-month period.
When you are done with this exercise, you should have an excellent idea of your total annual expenditure for these variable expenses. For example, if you add up all the automobile repair or maintenance expenses for the year, and the figure comes to $1,200, then divide by 12 to get the result of $100 per month average. That’s how much you need to allow in your monthly budget in order to build up enough reserves to handle an auto repair when it comes up. Again, this method isn’t perfect, because an expense may come up that exceeds your estimated outlay, but at least it takes into account a closer approximation to reality than simply guessing, or worse, ignoring auto maintenance in your budgeting.
The trick here is to set up a separate savings account in which to set aside these “extra” funds. Let’s say the “extra” $100 goes into the savings account for six months, and then you get hit with an auto repair for $400. You pull the money from your $600 savings that was purposely built up for this type of expense. This way, you’re automatically setting aside amounts intended to cover each type of irregular expense that you encountered over the previous year.
Most people are shocked when they perform this 12-month analysis of irregular expenses, and it immediately becomes clear why their budget is always breaking down. This technique leads to the discipline necessary to recognize that “extra” money is seldom really extra. If we think we have our bills covered, and there is some cash burning a hole in our pocket, our tendency is to spend it on something fun. But if we know that there really is no cash left over, because we haven’t yet set aside the extra $100 needed to keep our car on the road, then we’ll be less inclined to spend it on pizza, beer, and movies.
Budgeting can be successfully accomplished by this technique of monthly averaging, especially if we consistently apply it year after year. As we move forward, our understanding of our true expenses becomes clearer and clearer, and we are no longer surprised by the occasional unexpected expense. The best way to implement this approach is to set up a regular savings program, where the amount you’re setting aside to cover irregular expenses gets automatically deducted from your paycheck and forwarded to your savings account. If the money is deducted from your paycheck before you even see it, then you will be less tempted to skip this critical part of the budgeting process, and you will greatly increase the chances of making a budget work over the long term.