How we learned to appreciate a budget


This is a little different from what I usually post here, but it’s that time of year when people are thinking about resolutions and I want to share something that went well for us in the last year.

Russ and I are saving for a house. We knew in late 2015 that we wanted to buy a house in 2017. Thanks to some careful planning, we’re going to be able to do that. Full disclosure, we also received some generous monetary gifts when we got married in April, but I want to look beyond those for the purpose of this post.

While neither of us is big on resolutions, around this time last year we decided to really focus on a budget in 2016. That was thanks, in part, to our pre-marital counseling sessions with my pastor.

Russ and I have combined incomes, but we’re not rich. We make a lot less money than some people we know and a little more than others. In the interest of passing lessons along to someone else who might be wondering how to make this happen, here’s what we did…

We got a credit card – I know right now you’re probably thinking “Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is about to be some terrible advice…”, but trust me for a moment. We shopped around for a credit card we could use as an all-purpose payment plan, while making a strict policy that we would pay it off completely at the end of every month. The goal was to get one with airline points (because Russ’s family lives a 16-hour drive away and we do like being able to see them). We settled on a Chase Visa with Southwest points that gave us 50,000 bonus points for signing up. We use this card for everything, with the exception of rent (i’ll explain this in a moment) and Target purchases (because we have a Target Red (debit) Card that gets discounts on every purchase).

We don’t use it for rent because our property management company charges a $27 (!!!) fee for each individual online payment. That’s $324 extra dollars in a year that can be put to savings, so we opt for the ol’ paper check.

We get points for every purchase. They’re typically dollar-for-dollar, but sometimes double. Those points, with the help of the signing bonus (momentarily pretending I’m an NBA star), gave us five (!!!) free flights this year.

Paid off all credit card debt – There it is. Both of us came into this relationship with some credit card debt. We weren’t in way over our heads or struggling with bad credit, but we had some monthly payments that were simply unnecessary. We made getting rid of all credit card debt our priority for the early part of the year. It wasn’t fun, and for a while there, it meant really tightening our belts, but we made it happen. To do this, we stopped all use of the cards we had (except for the new Southwest card) and paid extra at every turn. We ate out less, we went to fewer concerts (our favorite activity) and we became experts in finding free entertainment around town. Sometimes paying extra looked like larger than normal monthly payments and other times it meant just throwing $20 at a card in the middle of the month because we had it. We were working with small minimum monthly payments, but we paid at least double every month. We’re not debt-free, because we’ll probably be paying student loans until the end of time and we do both have a car payment, but we have fewer bills each month and it’s helped us refocus on what we are able to save.

Documenting every dollar spent – This is the most tedious part of the whole process and admittedly my least favorite part. I wouldn’t blame a single one of you for wanting to back out at this point. I am very, very bad at remembering to do this, but I’m lucky to have a detail-oriented partner-in-crime who jots my purchases down when I forget — and I honestly can’t overstate how much it’s helped us along the way. We started documenting in January with no budget set. We wrote down literally every penny spent so we could get an idea of what we needed to spend versus what we wanted to spend. By February we were able to build a realistic budget, but we didn’t stop documenting.

You obviously can do this any way you choose, but we found that a google document works best for us. It’s a shared document that can be accessed by computer or mobile, so we can update purchases on the fly.

Ours is organized like this:

  • Monthly expenses – things we know we will absolutely have to pay. It includes everything from rent + utilities to netflix and slingTV. We change each bill to bold once it is paid
  • Savings – more on this in a minute
  • Spending – This is everything else. At the top we have the amount of money leftover after bills and savings, followed by an itemized list of what we bought and how much it cost.

Transfer – Our transfer system is a big key to our success. Early in the process, we were getting confused about how much money we had left because it was all just sitting in our checking account since we were using a credit card. To fix this, we started transferring the amount of every purchase to savings where it could sit until we made the one big monthly payment to our credit card. That way it became out of sight and out of mind.

On to saving

Automatic $25 at the start of each month – This one is simple. We have our bank account set to transfer $25 from checking to savings on the first of every month. It requires zero effort from us. I often forget it’s even happening.

Weekly chunk – That’s the nickname I just affectionately crafted for the big chunk of paycheck that goes straight to savings each week. We’re lucky enough to have staggered paychecks, so we can contribute to savings on a weekly basis. We save $1425 per month, minimum. That’s the only dollar amount I plan to share from our personal finances. $25 of it is automatically saved at the beginning of the month, then it is followed by $350 each week. How did we get to $1425? That’s the amount leftover from our monthly income after we take out our bills and the number we determined was a reasonable amount to spend on groceries, gas and fun (yes, we still go out – plenty).

Round up every dollar – I wish we’d found a way to track this little trick, because I’d love to know how much extra we’ve saved without even thinking about it. This piece of the puzzle works because of the way we use our credit card. When we transfer purchases to savings, we always round the amount up to the next dollar. Sometimes it’s just 3 extra cents, sometimes it’s 99. When we make the credit card payment for our purchases, that extra money stays in savings. I’m sure it’s no earth-shattering amount of cash, but I guarantee we’d be happy to see how much it actually is, if we’d had the foresight to find a way to document it.

The system isn’t perfect, but it’s working. We’ve seen benefits beyond being on track to buy a house next year:

  • Unexpected expenses, like 8 new tires in one month, didn’t throw us for a loop.
  • Christmas time didn’t feel like we were holding down a giant panic button. We knew we could handle the extra gift expense because we’d been saving all year.
  • I do a lot less spontaneous shopping, which is really unnecessary and just leads to more clutter
  • Our credit scores, which were already in decent shape, went way up
  • We actually get excited about watching our savings grow
  • Fewer bills and more high fives

I can’t emphasize enough that Russ and I didn’t do this with big paychecks and I promise it wasn’t entirely easy (Sometimes I miss pointless shopping), but these new habits have honestly made our life easier and happier.

Cheers to whatever you’re doing to make life a little easier in 2017!

P.S. rolling all of those coins you collected is totally worth it. We found more than $50 in a jar of change we’d forgotten we had!