In Part 1 of My Simple Guide To Budgeting For One, I shared a little bit about my personal finance journey, including how I set goals and how I choose the best resources to manage my money.
One of the biggest takeaways: Set reasonable, tangible, exciting, specific, and intentional goals.
In 2014, my budget was so manageable that I was able to track every purchase on a little notepad that I carried around in my purse or backpack. I would simply write out the cost, what I bought, and what account it came out of. I really only had a couple of credit cards, a savings account, and a checking account.
At a certain point in 2015, I decided I needed to do a better job tracking my progress. So I did what any other money nerd would do: created a customized, auto-populating spreadsheet to track all my spending. At first, my spreadsheet was divided into categories, with separate tabs to track my savings goals. I’ve also tried a few apps, including Mint, You Need a Budget, and Cleo. Now, I have a budget spreadsheet that I use to manually enter every purchase. I have a tab for every month, one for my overall goals, and one for each of my savings accounts connected to a specific goal (e.g., travel). It sounds tedious, but it’s really simple to me. I just write out what I spend and then I can manipulate my budget and make wise decisions for spending based off of the real numbers–every penny of them.
The most important thing to note is that budget tracking is very personal. Some people prefer an automated system that does a lot of the work for them, while some like to do 100% of the calculations by hand. I definitely find myself gravitating more toward the latter and that’s simply because it makes me feel more in control. It also makes me feel empowered with information and a very detailed understanding of where my money goes each month. To some, that’s not important and they’d rather have an app do some of the more tedious work for them. To each her own! Just be sure to pick a tracking method that reduces your financial planning anxiety.
(But just pick a tracking method… I promise your financial health will improve if you just get. to. tracking.)
After a couple years of improved financial planning, I realized I didn’t have any guidelines for my spending. I essentially said yes to everything I arbitrarily thought I could afford, including trips, concerts, meals, music festivals, you name it. I don’t have any regrets about the purchases I made during graduate school, but I definitely didn’t need a lot of the things and experiences I spent money on. I knew how much money I made each month and I knew I habitually paid my credit card in full.
However, I know a lot of people use their credit cards as “extra money,” spending more than they are able to pay off the next month. I cannot caution against this enough, my friends. I know it’s unavoidable at times. But if you have a choice between living on a tighter budget and spending more than you can pay off on a credit card, choose the former. You’ll be doing your future self a huge favor because, as we all know, credit card debt is not fun. At all.
I never really gave myself an option to overspend, so I never went into debt to support my social life and I felt like I was doing fine in terms of budgeting. The problem is that I’ve always been capable of doing better than “fine,” in terms of my life in general, but specifically in terms of financial planning. I’m a smart cookie and I have never been all that materialistic. When it comes down to it, I need good friends, good food, and some nice stationary to write thank you notes. Otherwise, I could live without almost all other things. Don’t get me wrong–I buy plenty of stuff. But I have an amazing little trick to prevent myself from that horrible feeling of buying something I never use.
I currently have one rule, which comes in the form of a question I ask myself before every purchase: Will This Add Value To My Life?
I may as well get this tattooed across the hand I use to swipe my credit card. It’s the single most important question I will ever ask myself and it’s the best way to easily decipher whether or not I should buy something. This question has stopped me in my tracks on multiple occasions, particularly when I’m in Homegoods (that place is a trap). Asking myself this simple question allows me to put my money toward things that genuinely improve my life.
What’s your budget rule? What’s one question that could help you decide whether or not it’s a good idea to swipe your credit card?
It’s so easy to let our personal finances get out of control. Yet it still only takes a few hours of concentration to really organize ourselves, to better understand our financial health and decide what steps to take to improve it. If you feel like it’s time to get your finances in order, pay down some debt, and set some realistic savings goals, then go do it! There are so many free resources available that it’s almost irresponsible not to use them to improve your personal finances. Let this be your time to finally buckle down and be intentional about how you save and spend your money.
Disclaimer: I am not a credentialed financial expert. I’m just a young adult with a passion for personal finance and with some experiences to share.