Friday Advice: Budgeting for the Less Than Wealthy

The other day I received a request from a good friend of mine. Like many people who read this blog, we haven’t spoken or seen each other in quite a while but she follows this and every once in a while gets a nugget of knowledge she can actually use. I love hearing from those people! Anyway, she asked if I could share some of my budgeting techniques and, while I’m definitely no financial guru, the situation I find myself in demands a serious ability to budget. So here are a few steps that are absolutely necessary to gain control of your finances:

1. Know Your Situation. You should be able to answer all of the following questions that apply to you.

What’s coming in? What are your sources of income? What do you get paid for each of these every month (down to the dollar)? Who pays you and how?

What do you owe? Take a look at your credit cards, house/car/student/etc. loans, and loans from family members. What was the principal? What is the interest? What’s your balance right this second? When are your payments due? How much will you be paying?

What’s going out? Exactly how much do you spend each month on the necessities? Groceries, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas, medical expenses, household supplies, pet supplies, EVERYTHING.

What are your assets? I don’t really have any of these but if you do, you should know them inside and out. How much did you initially invest? What is it costing you now? How much are you earning from them, if anything? What could you get if you sold them right now? Does it look like that will improve in the future? Keep your eye on the market to make sure you have the most up to date information.

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My favorite tool for all this is a fantastic and FREE website: Mint.com. It is run by the same people who developed Quicken. You enter all of your online banking information and they gather it into one, easy to read website.  Don’t worry about them leaking your information, they’ve got a water tight privacy policy. You have to check into your “transactions” every once in a while to make sure they have them categorized properly but once you do that, Mint will tell you how much you have spent on any category in any period of time (I operate on a monthly basis). You can also keep track of all your loans and assets AND you can layout your financial goals. I only use it for tracking but I can see how the other stuff would be very valuable.

2. Lay It All Out

Mint will help with this but you should absolutely have a spread sheet (or several) that has all the information for all of the above financial aspects. They can be very simple if you’re Excel (or Numbers for fellow Apple users) challenged like me. It just needs to show the answers to all of the questions from #1 so that you can quickly and easily access and change them.

I have one spreadsheet for each of the following: Loans (principal, interest rates, lenders, servers, current balance, monthly payments, payment terms), Monthly Expenses (groceries, household, rent, etc.), and Credit Card payoff goals (balance, interest, monthly goals).

Be realistic about the information you enter here. It won’t do any good if you lay all this out then go and spend another $100 on little things that you hadn’t counted or anticipated. I rounded all of my numbers up to the nearest $50 just so I was sure I accounted for everything I might be missing.

Use these spreadsheets to document past spending and anticipate necessary future budgeting.

3. What’s Your Baseline?

Now that you have all the information gathered, it’s time to stare down the cold, hard truth. I remember the day when I actually got all my loan information together.

Personal story time: I was at home, on holiday, and spent the day calling loan providers. After about 6 hours of this, I realized how dire my situation was. I had been pretty frugal with my money in college. For the first couple years I obsessed over how much money I would owe when I was done. It became so mentally taxing that I just had to let it go and trust that I would handle it when I needed to. Well the time has come to “handle it” and the reality of student loans sucks!

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So I researched for 6 hours, documented it all in my spreadsheet as I went along, then cried for about 3 hours. There was no way I could live the way I had planned with all the payments I had to make. So I made some calls. I called my boyfriend for emotional support and to figure out how we would wrangle it. He volunteered to help with my portion of a cost that we both share (thank goodness). Then I talked to my parents to see what they would do in my situation. Then I called my best friend who had seen and dealt with my tight budget all through school and consoled me that I had done all I could to minimize this debt while I was accruing it. Never hesitate to talk to the people you love about your finances. They may have some really great suggestions.

My situation was so bad that I actually had to approach my boss at the job I had had for 3 weeks to ask for more money. Well, kind of. I asked him for more hours, more responsibility, and more money OR a more structured schedule because I would have to get another job. Luckily he agreed to the former. And 5 months later I have finally come to terms with the way I must live, now I’m just making it happen.

Ok! Back to my guide. Look at your spreadsheets. Are you in good shape? Are you earning more money than you absolutely have to spend on basic necessities? For me, the answer to this question was NO. So question #5 was especially important for me. If you are earning more, check out #6.

4. For Those With Loans, Can You Consolidate?

I had a very vague understanding of Loan Consolidation until I was forced to do it myself. I’m so glad I finally discovered this world! Basically, loan consolidation is when you use one lender to pay all your loans off. Then you end up only paying one entity. Sometimes you can actually get a lower rate than you would have had with all your separate loans. But the interest rate should definitely never be any higher than you would have paid otherwise. This is where your loan spread sheet (see #2) comes in handy.

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I had thought about consolidating but thought my loans were much too big. Then, one day my Gran called me one day and asked if I’d heard of this College Education Services. She saw an ad in a magazine and thought I might be interested. They are a group that services federal loan consolidation. “Yes Gran, I’ve heard of everything, I am the expert on everything financial and I know everything about the world.” Seriously, that was my first thought. Luckily, I decided to check it out anyway and lo and behold, she was right.

Although some of you may not have voted Obama, he has given us students a great opportunity to minimize our loan payments. I know you can consolidate on your own but I didn’t want to open Pandoras box of federal loan jargon and contracts, so I hired them to do it for me. I paid them a fee of $400 (massive for me right now) and they handled ALL the paperwork of consolidation. I think it was worth it because I know that they got me a much better payment plan that I would have gotten myself. Instead of $350 a month, I will be paying $80 a month in federal loans. Payments are based on income and reassessed every year. If the loan isn’t completely paid off in 15 years, it is forgiven. Sweet! Obviously I hope I’m making enough to pay it off but, if not, I have this to fall back on.

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Now I had my federal loans taken care of, what about the massive beast of private loans hovering over my head? Very few banks will consolidate any more than $30,000 in private loans. Let’s just say I have WAY more than that. I turned to the internet to see what I could find. I checked first with all my current loan providers and, voila! A credit union I borrowed from offers much higher consolidations. CUStudentLoans.org They are a non-profit organization that finances then helps students handle their debt. They gave me a fair rate and have made the process relatively easy, although long. Please let me know if you’re thinking about using them, I get some kickback if I refer a friend. But honestly, I would highly recommend them. They have been very accommodating with all of my uninformed and frantic questioning and are giving me a great set of terms.

5. What Do You Want Your “Flex” To Be? Should some of it be focused elsewhere?

Allowing yourself a Flex fund is just as important as budgeting for the necessities. I love to shop. I can’t help it, I love to search out bargains and find things that I really love or that others might really love. A huge fear of mine was that I would never be able to reign in my shopping spending.

Once I developed my income and my baseline costs, there was very little leftover for any kind of shopping. My average was about $150 a month on frivolous things. Looking at my spreadsheets, I definitely didn’t have that much to spend. So instead of cutting my luxury spending completely, I just cut it back. Obviously, groceries are more important than a nice sweater, but it is also really important that you never feel trapped by your finances. Give yourself a bit of wiggle room to do the things you love. I now allow myself about $50 a month to spend on things that I just want. Instead of shopping at TJ Maxx, I shop at Goodwill! I also learned couponing from my coworker and keep up with a few blogs that show online deals. I’ve discovered my ability to find unbelievable bargains and now shopping is even more satisfying!

Another thing that is important for me to maintain my happiness is being able to go out with friends and go on dates with my man. This one is a little tougher because I don’t have complete control of where we go or what we do. So it’s just about having some boundaries. I’m forever looking for free or cheap events in my area so that when it’s my week to treat Mike to a date, I can show him a good time without shelling out a fortune. We go do something fun then I come back and cook a nice, sit-down meal for us both. Restaurants are expensive so we limit our eating out to once or twice a month. If we do go out together or with friends, I limit myself to one drink per 2 hours and just sip water in between. You don’t have to get drunk at a bar to have fun!

Because these particular aspects of my life are very important for me to still feel free, I trimmed the fat from other areas to be able to afford them.

6. Where Can You Trim The Fat?

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With our healthy eating, our grocery costs were getting extortionate. So I’ve started meal planning. I cook three dishes a week and just double the recipes. Leftovers every other day are really convenient AND delicious. It also means that I can have a handle on the very basic groceries we need for a week. We are reducing the amount of food that goes bad and making sure the dishes we eat are cost-effective.

We called the cable company and got ride of all our “extras” and saved $20 a month. We turned the heat down and put on more clothing. And we started eating from groceries rather than ordering in.

Basically, we prioritized what we really wanted and needed and reduced or trashed the rest.

Ps. I have mentioned this in past posts but I find it unnecessary to have a gym membership. I use My Yoga Online ($10 a month), Zuzka Light (free), my bike (some initial overhead), and the sidewalk (free) for my indoor and outdoor workouts. They are closer to home than any gym and I get to choose what I do every day.

7. Where Will Your Extra Earnings Go? Plan For The Future.

I have very little extra earnings. Even so, it’s important to me that I never find myself in this position again. Every month I set aside a little bit of money. This is for future travel, possible unexpected car costs, gift giving, and larger future investments. If I had a choice, I would be putting away an even larger chunk of untouchable money. Something in a savings account reserved only for when I want to buy a house or a car or even have a baby. Don’t worry, all those things are years down the road, but I don’t want to be caught unawares and unprepared. I want to ensure, as much as possible, that I never again owe this much money or am under this much financial strain.

Learn from your mistakes and develop a way of fixing them and making sure they never happen again.

WOW. That was a very long post. Even if you just skimmed it, I hope you got something from it. If you have any questions of even any suggestions for me, please comment them. I’m always looking for new and creative ways to budget and save.

And thanks Allyson for encouraging this!

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10 thoughts on “Friday Advice: Budgeting for the Less Than Wealthy

  1. Cori

    Good post, Ash. Money is such a stressful thing to think about at times, but doesn’t have to be if you sit down like you did and plan. Honestly, I haven’t done that…but my opinion and view on money, debt, and savings has changed so much as I get older. So I very much appreciated this post. I have heard good things about that Mint website. I’ll have to give it a look over. Seems awfully handy.

    Reply
    1. ahappylass Post author

      It is pretty awesome. It’s amazing how much money you can save if you really have a handle on it. And it makes me feel much less guilty about doing fun things when I know I can afford it.

      Reply
  2. Ruth Rainwater

    Great post! I would add a couple of things; when you’re budgeting for your monthly expenses, it’s necessary to take those expenses that happen a couple of times a year and figure out the monthly cost. So if you get a haircut twice a year that costs you $25 each time, that’s $50 a year and $4.16 a month. It’s those infrequent expenses that can blow a budget.

    Also, your student loan may be forgiven after a certain amount of time, but you will be taxed on the amount written off as if it were income. So if you still own $20,000 after the 15 years, you have to count the $20,000 as income and pay taxes on it.

    Reply
    1. ahappylass Post author

      Thanks so much for the advice Ruth.
      Looks like I’ll be amending my spreadsheet a bit.
      And I didn’t know that about the taxes. Not sure when that will kick in but I’ll keep an eye out.
      Thanks again!

      Reply
  3. Allyson

    Thanks so much ash! This has helped a ton. I can’t wait to start applying it to everything. I’m going to start saving for a trip to India next year and this advice will help me so much!

    Love you

    Reply

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