So, can a Budget Planner REALLY help me? [Final thoughts]

I have come to the end of my budgeting experiment. See my prior posts HERE, HERE, HERE

I learned quite a bit about myself by using that little Walmart budget planner. Forcing myself to write out everything I spent held me accountable to my goals of minimizing my purchases, condensing purchases when necessary, prioritizing my savings, and how I struggle to stay loyal to my goals. It began a transformation of how I view spending.

The easiest way to explain how I fall short in fulfilling my goals is that I made it through June 12th before I stopped adding to the book. If you saw my last post, you will see I had a lot happen all at once. When experiencing disruptions, I have difficulty with staying strong in my path. In this case, while I did not record my purchases in the book, I did not go buck-wild with my spending. I indulged in some delicious food with my friend Leah – but my entire mindset shifted. Before thoughtlessly purchasing anything, I thought to myself, “will this improve my life?”. If not, I didn’t follow through with it. If it was “yes”, I gave myself permission to make the purchase and enjoy it, guilt-free!

I have made several purchases recently that fit into the “life improvement” category. Between a new laundry line system for the backyard and a gigantic wooden indoor laundry drying rack, I also purchased a vanity chair to replace the hard metal folding chair (the new chair has not arrived yet), and this LED desktop vanity mirror:

If you can’t tell, I am super pleased with this!

There are 3 other members in my household and to have the ability to get ready in a space separate from a bathroom is extremely helpful. This mirror also takes up less space than what I had been using – a tripod phone ring light and a precariously balanced, large oval-shaped wooden mirror.

But you’re probably wondering about the bottom line – did I add to my savings account? Did I cringe at my credit card bill? As for the latter, no. I was pleasantly surprised and paid it off with a single paycheck. Typically, I have to split the payment between my bi-weekly paychecks. As for the former question – I added an extra $600 into my savings account. So, while I cannot give you a breakdown of precise numbers, the end result is that my credit card bill was significantly less and the extra money that I would have normally otherwise spent into my savings account. I’d call that a win!

I am coming out of this challenge with a healthier mindset of money, spending, and what it means to me. Healthier in that I am mindfully purchasing items instead of letting my emotional state influence me. These items have a daily impact on my life and are not things that lose its newness after one wear. I am focusing more on quality items I can use repeatedly instead of choosing the cheapest route – I want to “buy it once” and once only.

While I will never be done learning about myself and looking for ways to improve, I am done with writing down each and every expenditure – at least for now! I am feeling optimistic and confident in all that I have learned during this budgeting experiment.

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Disclaimer/Note: I do not get paid for any links added to my posts. So while I posted a link to the chair and mirror I purchased, I do not receive any monetary benefit for linking these items. 🙂 In a world full of influencers, I just want to be honest about that.

But seriously: Can I get by without an emergency fund?

A dramatization of stress

If you have been following my more recent posts, they relate to budgeting, money-management, and learning more about my personal relationship with money.

The importance of an emergency fund is no joke. However, according to Next Advisor, 40% of Americans do not even have the funds to cover a $400 emergency, and 70% of the people in my age group continue to live paycheck to paycheck – more than any other generation, says Business Insider.

I fall into this category…so, are you ready to hear all about my June?

June has been a doozy. The giant tree in our backyard has been a problem since we moved here in 2018 and during one of our more recent windstorms, a large branch fell and damaged a part of our neighbors’ fence. Ironically, we had been on a waiting list since early spring and the tree was removed Wednesday, exactly 2 weeks since the branch fell.

Just prior to the branch incident, we were not sure if we could afford to have it removed because we were faced with exorbitant summer childcare costs that were roughly equal to the quote for the tree removal. But after the storm, we knew it just had to be done somehow, despite the projected childcare fees. We’d make it work, we would just have to be extra careful with our funds from here on out.

I have been working with the neighbors related to insurance claims and options. Because the deductible for their homeowner’s insurance is about $1,000 less than mine, they will claim their insurance if the quote for the repairs exceeds that and I will reimburse them for their deductible. If it is less, I will pay for the repairs out of pocket.

Two days later, my wife unexpectedly lost her job. Guess what? We were not prepared; we do not have 3-6 months of income in our savings accounts to rely on. Just over $5,000 went to the tree removal because if that tree had eventually decided to fall, it would have damaged a lot more or even hurt people.

We are not the only people in this shitty boat. Take my plan for what it is, dismiss it entirely, or use it as ideas or advice…but with a giant grain of salt because we are only in the beginning of what could potentially be a crisis. The thing is – I am an eternal optimist and financial troubles I have had in the past have always been resolved with a good attitude, creativity, and elbow grease. There was a time where I was uncertain about my ability to feed myself and suddenly, circumstances shifted and I was able to buy groceries and feel very blessed. I still remember that day and how it felt, pushing my shopping cart into Price Chopper like I was the beneficiary of a miracle.

Note: we have a small amount of money saved, but certainly not enough to get by without making changes.

Our plan:

  • As my wife is not working, that saves us nearly $5,000 in childcare costs. She gets to spend the bulk of summer being with them, making up for lost time, and decompressing from a super stressful and thankless job. Prior to her termination, she had purchased season passes for her and the kids to the Great Escape and pool passes to our local JCC. These can be enjoyed all summer long, with packed lunches. We also have kayaks, the Mohawk River right down the road, bicycles, and the Hudson Mohawk Bike Trail. We can have an amazing summer on the cheap by enjoying what we have.

  • Removal of excess memberships/subscriptions. Goodbye, Peloton and much of our TV subscriptions.

  • Better meal planning. What’s on sale? What can we buy in bulk and freeze for later? What’s fresh right now at the farmer’s markets? What can we roll from one meal into another? What’s in our pantry now that we can get creative with?

  • Focus on our garden. Soon we will have green beans, tomatoes, salad greens, kale, cucumbers, peppers, berries and other goodies to eat. For the ability to have this during what will be a challenging time, we are very blessed.

  • Continuation of decluttering efforts. What can we sell that we aren’t using and don’t truly need? While this doesn’t bring in a lot of money, I currently do have the equivalent of two week’s worth of grocery money sitting in my Mercari account from online sales. (Here’s a link to my Mercari listings and a link to my website where I sell handmade home decor.)

  • Being mindful of energy costs. Hanging more laundry, keeping the A/C at a reasonable level, paying attention to lights. Keeping curtains nearly closed when the days are sunny and hot to keep the air inside cooler.

While overall watching our personal spending, especially impulsive buys during times of stress – this is what we have so far and it is subject to additions and revisions as time goes on. We are determined to have a nice summer and rethink how we live and spend. I’ll keep you all posted as we navigate this weird and unknown time.

But for now? I’m signing off and headed to the pool with the family – the best place to be on a stifling hot day.

April Review: What did I learn? What can I improve in May?

I have been looking forward to writing this post because I felt very good about April. Was it perfect? No. Have I learned everything I hoped to? Also no. Did I feel like I did my best? Yes.

Before I delve into the details of my April budget tracking, I would like to admit I only tracked until April 23rd. I had two reasons for this; neither really excused it. The first reason was that the final week in April proved to be emotionally difficult for me. The second was not emotional – it was practical: I ran out of room on my monthly log sheet.

The fact that I ran out of room 3 weeks in tells me that I make a lot of purchases. There are 51 lines to fill in and 30 days in April. From this, I’ve learned that I should try and consolidate my purchases to create less record keeping. This means not reflex-clicking “BUY NOW” on Amazon for even the smallest of purchases or allowing stress to direct me to junk food for instant gratification. (Stress eating being a whole different topic.)

Tracking my spending in April also made me think twice about what I spent my money on. Knowing I was committed to adding my purchases to the book held me accountable. My last credit card cycle was a lot lighter – approximately $500 less than the month before. I was also able to put some extra money into my savings account instead of having to draw from it to pay the bill.

In May I will continue this learning experience, with a more watchful eye on how many small purchases I make and also how stress affects my decision-making. It was gratifying to be able to consciously transfer money into my savings, above and beyond what is automatically deposited by my paycheck. I’d like to keep that good feeling rolling!

Mid-Month Check in: Can a Budget Tracker Really Get me on…Track?

It’s April 15th – I am halfway through my first month of tracking my expenses using a budgeting journal. The purpose of this exercise is to examine how I am spending my money to see if I can curb my impulses and bolster my savings.

So far, I have noticed two things about my habits:

  1. I purchase quite a bit of personal care items, such as energy/collagen powder, lotions, hair care, etc; and
  2. Knowing that I have to write down my purchases in the journal has made me stop before clicking “BUY NOW”. Similar to using a food tracking journal or app – the decisions I make are there in black and white for me to see and I do not want to exhibit poor self-control.

#2 is huge for me because it is so easy to give into temptation on Amazon, especially since early 2020 when our world as we know it changed. I’m not the only one – if we look at Amazon’s first and second quarter sales from 2019 compared to 2020, the increase is obvious. While many of us began relying on online services for our necessities, speaking for myself, I have engaged in plenty of “comfort shopping*”. Holding myself accountable has eliminated my mindless purchases.

As for #1, by tracking personal item purchases, I will be able to see if it would benefit me to take advantage of the “Subscribe and Save” option to receive items I regularly use at a discounted rate. Currently I have three subscriptions from Amazon – dog food, laundry detergent sheets, and face cream – all at a 5% discount. What I like about this is that it has removed the need to remember to order when these supplies run low and I can set/adjust the delivery dates as needed. For example, I get a new bag of dog food every 3 weeks, the detergent sheets every 6, and the face cream every 3 months. There is no reason why I shouldn’t consider this for my leave-in conditioner and energy/collagen powder.

This exercise also motivated me to get in shape in another way – compiling all of my account usernames and passwords in one place**, making sure these accounts are linked up to my current e-mail addresses, saving photos from old Google drives, and deleting old Gmail accounts. I suppose you could say that once I began tracking my spending, I realized that I wanted to get control over these tasks, too.

*”Comfort Shopping” is a real thing! So real, in fact, Today.com just published an article about how to stop engaging in this behavior! Talk about great timing!

**While it is not recommended that one puts their usernames and passwords all in one place, I have opted to do so in a hand-written format. As my homepage states, I am an estate and trust administration paralegal. In too many instances a deceased person’s spouse or child cannot access their loved one’s information after their passing to determine what may need to be taken care of. I chose to do this for my wife in case something were to happen to me.

I am optimistic about this exercise because, already, I feel as if I have stepped on to a better path. I am looking forward to the end of April for the full result.

Can a Budget Tracker really get me on…track?

With nearly 2/3 of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (myself included), when I saw this budget planner, I knew I could not leave Walmart without it.

…and therein lies a big problem for me that the pandemic has amplified – I’ve been indulging as opposed to dedicated. I treat myself generously with my “wants” without much thought of my future “needs”.

Time passes quickly. I blinked and here I am, 20 years post-high school graduation. Entering my 38th year has me realizing that retirement is not as far off as it once seemed and I am nowhere near prepared. If I had not cashed out my retirement account to purchase a home in 2013 I would be closer to being on track with my peers.

According to Ally, I should have somewhere around twice my income saved. More directly, my Edward Jones financial advisor informed me I would run out of money a few short years into retirement if I kept my projected path of contributions.

For someone with a limited education, I make a nice income. I am above the average for those in my age group. While I do not have children of my own, I have stepchildren that live with me and my wife. I contribute to what they eat and the utilities they use but I am not a major part of their other financial needs. Accordingly, I have zero reason to be living paycheck to paycheck and scrounging to pay the credit card bill off every month so we can reap the benefits of its generous points as opposed to being a victim to its crippling APR.

This planner feels very Pinteresty and hokey, but the idea of using a money-management app on my phone does not interest me at this time. I do not need another reason to be a slave to an electronic device. So, I am cautiously hopeful that this $2 budget planner will force me to take a good look at where my money is being spent. I am going to be diligent in the next 30 days to see if I can learn something about my habits. It starts today and hopefully by April 30th I will have an answer to this question.