“Can we afford it?”
I hate that question.
Being the one in my family who spends the most amount of time monitoring our finances (my wife isn’t nearly the spreadsheet nerd that I am), I’m asked that question often, and there is never an easy answer. When someone in the family asks me that question, it is innocently framed as a “yes/no” question, but it’s a much more complicated question in my mind, with an answer that moves around like a “choose-your-way” storybook.
Can we afford it?
Well, that depends. What’s your definition of “afford”?
Do we have the money in the bank to pay for it?
If we don’t have it in the bank, do we have enough open credit on our card to charge it?
Do you think a bank would loan us the money if we’ll promise to pay it back with interest?
So, can we afford it????
My dad used to tell me, “you can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want,” and that’s exactly right. Life’s gratifications are simply an ever-changing laundry list of what’s most important to each of us as an individual, and the amount of capital we possess – be it financial, emotional, time, whatever – is what determines how many of the items on the list we are able to afford. That capital has to be portioned off in bits and pieces lest it run out completely and before we’ve done/gotten what we want to do/get.
None of us can literally have everything we want. But with a little planning, when it comes to goods for purchase, most of us could have any one thing we want.
So yes, we can afford it. But at what cost?
We’ve all heard the the saying, “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” The biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when it comes to personal finance are all a direct result of a failure to plan. You wouldn’t recommend someone start out on a hike through the mountains without first plotting a course, or that the pilot you trust to take you to your vacation destination do so without first calculating how much fuel it’s going to take to get there. So why do so many of us go about our financial lives with our collective heads in the sand, spending money and consuming goods without any real idea of a plan to make the money last, and to allow the money we earn to function at its greatest potential?
Because it’s no fun. And because, let’s face it, budgeting can suck.
But guess what? Budgeting is an unavoidable consequence of adulting. And adulting sometimes sucks.
Seriously, whether we like to admit it or not, we all need to budget at some point in our lives. Even if your method of budgeting is similar to my college days of trying to figure out how many gallons of gas I could get with the cash in my pocket and still have some left over to buy beer, that’s still budgeting. As we grow and acquire more responsibilities (read: liabilities), our budgeting hopefully becomes more sophisticated. If it doesn’t, our financial picture most certainly becomes more ominous.
As I mentioned above, I’m sort of a spreadsheet nerd, and I budget accordingly. Microsoft Excel is pretty much always open on my laptop, and I’m usually working on some sort of financial analysis – whether it be tracking my investments, comparing the financial ramifications of new investment opportunities, or even analyzing the multiple potential outcomes of one of many financial scenarios. I have a detailed budget I’ve created for our family on Excel, and the color coding, IF/THEN functions and various columns makes my wife’s head spin when she glances over my shoulder to see what’s been occupying my time in the evenings. I admit, it’s overboard, but it’s something I like to do, and I find peace in knowing that I’ve got a pretty tight handle on all things budgeting in our family.
But budgeting doesn’t have to be that tedious. It doesn’t necessarily mean planning for every conceivable eventuality, or slaving away over a calculator every Sunday night sweating the small stuff. And if you aren’t taking at least a little bit of time every now and then to take an honest look at money in and money out, and setting some goals for yourself in terms of saving some money to the side and finding a way to get ahead financially, you’re doing it wrong. And you’ll likely regret it sooner than later.
J. Money, of the site budgetsaresexy.com, has a great site dedicated to discussing personal finance and the importance of budgeting. Obviously he (and I) probably go at it with a bit more intensity than the average person, but if you spend some time exploring the reasons why, and the stories of those who have and have not taken it upon themselves to start budgeting, I think you’ll see that it’s a really good idea.
So, how should one go about budgeting? What’s the best way to sort that laundry list of wants and needs and try to afford as many of them as possible? Well, that’s a really difficult question with a very personal answer. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Many people are, by nature, less apt to consume goods and therefore spend their money, and they have no trouble at all holding on to their finances and covering expenses with ease. Others find that money literally flies out of their hands and they are forced to wait desperately for their next paycheck just to cover the expenses from their last. I would guess that most of us are somewhere in the middle – looking for a way to improve on their spending habits and maximize the potential for their money without creating too much extra hassle in their lives.
Really, I think the answer to how to start a budget is simply that: START! Make the decision to track your expenses – down to the penny – for a period of time (I recommend at least three months). If you don’t know what you really spend, you can’t know what to realistically budget for. You’ll probably be astonished at how you actually spend your money. Maybe it will motivate you to change your spending habits, maybe it won’t (we all need to do what brings us the most joy), but at least after paying close attention, you will have real data to rely upon when making a budget. Then, once you know where your money is going, see how it compares to money that’s coming in, and break down your spending and saving habits into categories with a goal in mind.
Always try to set aside at least a little bit for long term savings, and debt payments. And never budget more than you’re going to make. Relieving yourself of the burden of debt is the best thing you can do for yourself financially!
If you have a significant other, make sure to involve he or she in the process. They may be weary when you first mention the word “budget” (dun dun dun!), but if you go into the process calmly, slowly and keeping the wants and needs of each other in mind, I think you’ll find that there is a lot more collaboration than confrontation. And if you just keep ignoring the subject, you’re headed for a doomsday scenario anyway. Everyone knows that one of the most common reasons for divorce is financial strain.
If you’re still unsure how to get started, take a look at some sample budgets I’ve made as suggestions to share, and see if one works for you. Or, if you’re sure you want to get on the budget train and go all in, take a look at various software platforms available. In another post, I’ll share with you my review of the software we use in The ER Dad household, but if you’re interested in taking a look now, here’s the link: You Need A Budget. (Note, I do get some free time added to my personal subscription if you sign up via this link, so thanks in advance if you choose to try it out!)
Budgeting doesn’t have to be sexy. It doesn’t even have to be fun. It doesn’t have to be a stress in your life, either. But if you want to get ahead in your finances, and open doors to more items on your laundry list of wants and needs, it does have to be done. And, the sooner you get started, the sooner you start to realize that “can we afford this” becomes a much easier question to answer.
-The ER Dad
What are your thoughts? Do you budget? How do you do it? Comment below!