Do you need a budget?
I spent the last three months trying You Need a Budget. YNAB, as people affectionately call it, is available as an app or on the desktop, and it helps you track your finances. The principle behind it is simple – you shouldn’t be putting things on a credit card now and paying for them with next month’s money; you should create a budget based on this month’s money and not defer anything to the future. You also give every dollar a job, meaning as you’re planning what to do with the income you have, you assign how you will spend every bit of it, even the savings.
Some have compared YNAB to the envelope method of budgeting, where you would fill an envelope with money for different tasks (bills, groceries, gas, etc) and stop spending once the envelope was empty. YNAB is a virtual version of that. And I can see how it’s a powerful and valuable tool – it helps people save money and know exactly where their money is going. I completely get their devotion.
After a couple months of using YNAB, I decided it wasn’t for me. It was interesting to see where my money is going each month, and I appreciated that snapshot. I could probably have done this on my own by projecting bills and monthly expenses, but honestly I had a bigger budget awakening several months ago and decided to deal with my budget issues differently. My preferred approach to budgeting is more of an intuitive approach. I focus on being mindful of those few areas where I’m tempted to spend and try not to go above and beyond certain self-imposed limits.
I try to avoid spending mindlessly by not opening myself up to situations where I’ll be tempted. Stores like TJ Maxx and Target are so much fun to walk around in, but I can always find something I’d like to buy. Generally I don’t really need that thing, but being there is the gateway drug to spending. So I just try not to go at all, unless I have a concrete need, i.e. bath towels or a soap dish or something I know I’ll be able to find.
Food: the budget killer
However, I still wondered where the money I spent every month went, and whether there were areas I could do better. When you’re trying to look for areas to trim costs, the general advice is to first examine what you spend on housing, transportation, and food. Food is my Achilles heel – I am definitely the type of person who can develop costly shopping trips around the creation of a single meal. Until recently, I also routinely expected Friday and Saturday nights were for eating out. (This was despite actual evidence to the contrary that those nights out weren’t always fun, especially with tired kids who were exhausted from a school week).
I figured out how much I was spending on food by looking at credit card bills over a couple of months. I was shocked to discover that for a family of four, I could mindlessly spend $1000 or even $1200. I asked myself if that was really necessary, and decided that for a couple months I could try to cut most of the eating out, set a food budget for our family, and see what happened.
This is where YNAB came in handy. I was able to decide I only wanted to spend $500 on groceries and create a category for that. Every time I went to the store, I recorded the purchase. I created another $100 category for eating out, and whenever I went over, I had to find another budget area to take from in order to cover the extra spending.
I really enjoyed this exercise and the challenge of being more careful with buying groceries. I discovered some fun food hacks, which I’ll share in a future post. Budgeting does require you to plan ahead and meal plan a bit more, which gets challenging for me as a professor when my semester gets busier and busier. I still try to cook most meals at home, but often I don’t have anything planned and wind up cobbling together less-than-satisfying dinners. So meal planning is still a work in progress, but I did manage to stick to my budget limits for three months. I also liked creating categories for other family needs, such as things the kids needed, and observing how much we spent there.
However, I don’t think I’ll stay with YNAB for the moment. Recording the minute details of my spending was starting to stress me out. I also began investing with Acorns, which rounds up small amounts from your checking account and credit cards, and those were additional areas I was constantly having to record.
Creating an Intuitive Budget
As a family we are capable of being frugal as long as we don’t have multiple categories where we’re tempted to spend. And with an intuitive budget, we can be mindful of those categories and try to keep those in check without needing to write down every little detail.
My big takeaway from YNAB was the idea of budgeting in a specific area that I find challenging: food. So what I plan to implement moving forward is a system where I manually record a $500 a month budget limit for groceries, write down what I spend, and try not to go over. I will continue to avoid eating out, except on special occasions or when I get really desperate. (I still love a good restaurant, after all). But for now, I love saving money, and eating more healthfully, at home.
I like Paula Pant’s idea of an anti-budget, too – one in which when you get your paycheck, you decide how much you want to save, put it immediately into saving, and don’t worry too much about the rest. I might implement a variety of that as well. At the moment, I prefer the idea of an intuitive budget, where you’re mindful and aware of your own problem areas and trying to keep those down. I think I’ll do okay as long as I give myself limits (or, we could say, challenges) in the food category.
Do you use a monthly budget for your groceries/eating out?