Do you guys have a budget? And how do you keep track of it?
I used to be much more budget-aware when I first moved to New York in June 2009. I subletted a room in an older woman’s rent-controlled apartment for $500, and my food budget was $10 a day. This led to some weird meals like a bag of clementines and a beer (had to drink to relieve stress from having to follow such strict budget). For about a month or so I even wrote down all my purchases in a notebook. This was pre-apps, people!
Fast forward 6 years, I’m almost profligate when it comes to ignoring my own budget set on Mint.com. Also, Mint.com is a great but not waterproof tool, so I wasn’t able to immediately recognize where all my spending traps were. This all led to a feeling of vague anxiety and feeling poor. So I’ve decided to check what my actual spending is, and adjust my budget accordingly.
1. To adjust your budget and save money, first take your income and subtract all mandatory expenses like rent, student loans, car, etc. Groceries may or may not be listed here as non-discretionary spending, if you already think you’re doing well with that. Also subtract the amount of money you want to be saving every month. Now you have your discretionary spending budget!
2. After you have your discretionary spending budget pinned down, use a tool like Mint to tally up your expenses by category. If you use Mint, you will notice that there is no option to select transactions within a date range. A trick is to enter it directly into the URL. (See example below)
I’ve found this is the easiest way to see how much I’ve spent on X category in 1 month, 2 months, etc. *If you use another platform or an app that is more user-friendly, please share in comments!
3. Check how much you’re spending in a month, on average.
There is a lot of fluctuation month-by-month, depending on a category. For instance, your cell phone bill will stay the same every month, but your shopping or other personal maintenance costs will vary a lot. I was actually super surprised by what I spent ($82.25 on nails in one month?! $170 at hair salon?) and then relieved when I actually looked at the numbers over a 5 month period. Here’s a more accurate version of my actual discretionary spending per month:
Makeup and Skincare: $32.39 (probably more, if including basic things I get from Whole Foods)
Restaurants and Bars: $33.26
Nails and Massage: $25.55
Transportation (non-flights): $166.76
Mobile phone: $66.80
Unlisted miscellaneous discretionary expenses include pharmacy, entertainment/culture, gifts, donations, laundry, shoe repair, air travel.
4. Analyze what you’re willing to cut back on, and how to do it.
How does my discretionary spending look to you? Maybe this is normal, maybe it isn’t. I know my restaurant / bars number is super duper low, due to the fact that I get taken out to dinners by my amazing boyfriend. I also cook around 5 nights a week. I was rather pleased by my makeup / skincare number looking so reasonable. My hair maintenance has definitely gone up over the years: a cut & color every six months costs $170 (including tip), and just a cut in between those appointments costs $70. But overall I think $41 a month is a reasonable price to having reasonably coiffed look. Also, $135 for clothing.
What I want/ know I can cut back on, is nail / massage and transportation. Transportation: I used to reverse commute to Connecticut, so that explains a great deal (including over $300 in March. Yikes!). In my new set-up though, I should primarily get around places by walking. (Free!). Granted I’ll still want to go downtown from time to time, I estimate I can get this down to about $40-50 a month. That’s a savings of around $120 a month!
Nails and massage: When this incriminating and eye-opening NYTimes article on nail salons was first published, it was like, “Noooo what do I do??” It’s one of those things that I really enjoy as a self-gift. But I haven’t gone to get my nails done since. In my thoughts, getting a mani/pedi hasn’t reached the level of eating non-vegan, but I would feel better–and richer–if I don’t contribute to this issue. One of my problems with self-mani is getting bored with my miniature nail polish collection. Now that I see I spend $26 a month on nails, I can spend about $9 on a new, toxin-free bottle every month and save $15. Hey, over 1 year period that’s $180. Not bad!
5. Decide how you’re going to use your savings.
Motivate yourself to stay on track by creating a special savings initiative (getting pretty ambitious there!). Of course you can re-direct your discretionary savings into items that you want to spend more of, or just put that money toward your overall savings goal. I think though it’s both fun and motivating to create new goals that you might otherwise have not attempted, like an exciting trip or an investment item for your closet. Personally, I’d probably put it toward “take boyfriend out to a special dinner” goal! 😉
Obviously I’m curious about your spending habits! How much does it cost for your personal maintenance?
Related: 7 Financial Tips You Can’t Afford Not to Follow
How to Overcome Anxiety About Money
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Photo: Joel Bedford via Flickr