10 Ways to Simplify Your Budget

Every Tuesday is Finance & Family Day at Zen Habits.

I’m always looking for ways to simplify my finances (I’m weird like that, I know), and recently I’ve been scrutinizing my already-simple budget to make it even simpler. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the ways to make your budget as simple as possible.

The goal is to reduce headaches, eliminate the need for complicated tracking schemes, and reduce the time you spend on your budget and finances to about 15-20 minutes per week. I can’t claim these ideas are original, or that I haven’t discussed them in various places before, but in my experience, they work. They’re simple and powerful.

Let’s first look at setting up a budget. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s probably because budgets seem intimidating to you, or they are too much hassle to set up and maintain. Those are both valid points — which is why you should follow this simplified plan if these things apply to you. Now, there’s plenty of fancy software out there for setting up budgets, but I don’t think they’re necessary. A simple spreadsheet will do — and if you can create a SUM formula to add up the total of a column of numbers, you have all the spreadsheet knowledge necessary.

Create a simple spreadsheet for your budget, if you haven’t already, and start by listing your income and your monthly expenses. Estimate, in round numbers, how much you spend on each expense every month. You can adjust later, but it’s better to err on the side of too high a number, rather than putting a low number and breaking your budget.

Now let’s look at ways to create a simple budget:

  1. 60 Percent Solution. There are many ways to structure your budget, but the simplest I’ve found is the 60% solution. Basically, this budget asks you to fit your regular monthly expenses within 60% of your gross income, so that you have room for savings (long-term and short-term), retirement and spending money (“fun money”). These are the things that most often break a budget, because most people don’t budget for them. Now, your percentage will vary, but the percentages given here are just rough guidelines:
    • 60 percent: Monthly expenses — such as housing, food, utilities, insurance, Internet, transportation. This is the part most commonly thought of as a budget.
    • 10 percent: Retirement — and if you’re doing it right, this is being automatically deducted from your paycheck for a 401(k) investment.
    • 10 percent: Long-term savings or debt reduction. It’s best to invest this in something such as stocks or an index fund, and this can serve as your emergency fund. But if you are in debt (not including a home mortgage), I would advise that you use this portion of the budget to pay off your debts, and even draw some from the other categories such as retirement to increase this to about 20 percent for now. Once your debts are paid off, you can switch this to long-term savings. You still need to have an emergency fund, but while you’re in debt-reduction mode you can either create a small, temporary emergency fund out of the money from this category or the next.
    • 10 percent: Short-term savings — this is for periodic expenses, such as auto maintenance or repairs, medical expenses (not including insurance premiums), appliances, home maintenance, birthday and Christmas gifts. For this savings account, be sure to spend the money when you need it — that’s what it’s for. When these expenses come up, you will have the money for them, instead of trying to pull them from other budget categories.
    • 10 percent: Fun money — you can spend this on eating out, movies, comic books — whatever you want. Guilt free.
  2. Fewer categories. A lot of budget software asks you to fill in a million categories and subcategories. Those can be useful if you want to track all that stuff, but I don’t. I recommend simplifying: just use broad categories like food and gas and spending and utilities. Use what works.
  3. Pay bills online. As much as possible, pay your bills online. These would be most of the bills in the first category above — utilities, rent or mortgage, cell phone, Internet, etc. If you can’t pay electronically, have your bank send out a check to the vendor. Make these payments automatic, so you don’t need to worry about them.
  4. Automatic savings. Make your savings automatic as well. Every time your paycheck is deducted, have a scheduled transaction transfer a set amount from checking to savings. Use a high-yield online savings account such as Emigrant Direct, HBSD, or ING Direct.
  5. Cash. For everything else, use cash. If you’re doing automatic bill payments and savings deductions, the only things you’ll likely need cash for are gas, groceries and fun money. Withdraw these amounts in cash twice a month, rather than using checks or credit cards. The reason is that it’s simpler — with cash, you don’t need to worry about overspending, or tracking how much is left in that category. You can see how much is left. Leave the credit cards for when you absolutely need them — traveling, for example.
  6. Envelopes. If you use cash for three categories, for example, use three envelopes. This is an old-fashioned system, but I use it because it works. I have an envelope for groceries, gas and fun money. If I’m going grocery shopping, I bring the groceries envelope. I know how much is left in the envelope before I go grocery shopping. I spend the cash for groceries, and then can easily see how much is left now. Simple, and no tracking necessary. When the money is gone, you’ve spent your budgeted amount. If necessary, you could transfer cash from one envelope to another, and there’s no need to adjust your budget.
  7. 15-20 minutes a week. Now, the budget and spending plan I’ve outlined above is fairly simple and headache-free — but you shouldn’t assume that it doesn’t need any maintenance. You should devote 15-20 minutes a week to ensuring that your finances are in order. Just this little amount of time each week will greatly simplify your financial life, reduce headaches, and prevent any messes from occurring later. Set a day and time when you take a look at your finances each week. Set aside 30 minutes, just to be safe. Now take 5-10 minutes to enter your transactions into your financial software (I use MS Money, because it came with my computer, but a spreadsheet or other financial software will do fine). If you’re following the plan above, all you’ll need to do is go online, look at your bank account, and enter your deposits, bills paid, ATM withdrawals (only do this twice a month!), and any other fees. It shouldn’t take long. Now spend another 5-10 minutes to review your budget and make sure that all bills have been paid that should be paid. If not, pay them. It’s that simple. You’re done. Now go back to reading your blogs.
  8. Fewer accounts. Some people have complicated systems set up with lots of different accounts. I say simplify. You don’t want to be checking a million different accounts. You should have one checking account and one or two savings accounts (one for emergency fund and one for periodic expenses). You could have a bunch of investment accounts if you want, but I’ve found it simpler to just have one. I lose diversity, but my fund is already pretty diversified.
  9. Dump credit cards. Multiple credit cards are also a headache. Simplify by just having one. Or do what I do — have none. This will draw the usual outraged or preachy reaction from those who really love their credit cards, but I don’t care. I don’t like credit cards. Call me old fashioned. They charge high interest and they’re potentially dangerous (if you run up a high bill and an expense comes up that you need to pay for which means you can’t pay your credit card bill on time, you now are stuck with high-interest credit card debt). Use a debit card if you need to.
  10. Pay all bills at the same time. It often just takes a simple call to get a vendor or creditor to change the due date on your bills. If you can get all your bills to be due on, let’s say, the 10th of the month, you can do all your bill paying at once. For some people, this will mean they will need to do a bit of scrimping to get ahead enough so that they can afford to make all their month’s payments at the beginning of the month, but it’s worth it. You can pay all your bills and be done with it.

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