Monday, March 16, 2009

30-Day Economic Stability Challenge: Budget vs. spending plan

In my experience personally and with other writers, one of the hardest things to do is keep track of our spending--which makes all the other tools useless. After all, we can't work toward putting 30 percent of out income toward cashflow or savings if we don't know how much we're making.

I know. I spent years drafting budgets in Excel, only to abandon them almost immediately. For me, a budget is like a diet--all about what you should be cutting out instead of what you get to eat. So a key to my financial solvency is to draft and follow a spending plan every month.

I'm not the first to talk about this. Lots of other bloggers and financial minds have covered this topic. And clearly I don't know what will work for you. But for me, a spending plan is the answer because I'll do it--and I won't do a budget. I've been keeping a spending plan and tracking my spending for about two and a half years now, and it's contributed greatly to my serenity by showing me where I'm spending my money and what I value. Plus, knowing how much I need to make based on spending gives me the motivation to earn more because I know what I'm getting for the money.

Here's what I love about a spending plan:
  • It acknowledges that money is emotional. If I just look at a budget, I can see where I should spend my money--what would get me to one goal the fastest--but my experience with money is that I never have just one goal. Each financial decision is a juggling of a lot of wants, needs and guilt and desire. A budget doesn't have room for that. A spending plan gives me breathing room.
  • It lets you have the things you love. A budget might tell you that the $4 frapaccino you buy every week on the way to a specific meeting is frivolous. But maybe that $4 coffee drink fills you with such joy and happiness, it's one of the bright spots of your week. If so, a spending plan lets you keep it while a budget would tell you to forgo it for some other, greater end. I do that with expensive hair products. I could get $4 shampoo at the grocery store, but my spending plan includes a considerable amount of money for the salon version because it's my one big splurge a month. I don't get my nails done, I don't shop at Bloomingdales. I treat my hair to a spa every time I wash it. It's worth it to me.
  • It stops you from having a power struggle with yourself. I don't know about you, but a budget always made me feel like I was doing something wrong. If I were budgeting, I'd spend that money where I was supposed to (that diet thing again), but feel mad, resentful and guilty about not getting to have the fancy conditioner. Now that energy is freed up to earn the extra money I need to afford the fancy conditioner.
  • It lets you want things. My spending plan also includes a number of so-called accruals--that is, things I can't afford now but that I want. Before using a spending plan, I always treated those things as luxuries, not realizing that some were literally necessary and others brought me joy. Now I can have accruals for things like a new computer as well as new boots. I don't have to do it right. I can just do it.
  • It helps me prioritize. The great truism of money is that you can have anything you want but you can't have everything you want--at least not all at once. So I've had to sit down and figure out which thing I want first, or most. If it's a matter of saving for a computer or an ergonomic chair, a spending plan lets me put both on the list but then helps me see that I get to have one first. Which do I prefer?
Obviously, your mileage may vary. For those without such an emotional connection to money, a budget I'm sure would be fine.

Recently I sat down with a writer friend and helped him create a spending plan. He'd never had one because he thought he first had to increase his income. While increasing income is a noble goal, creating the spending plan actually gave him joy. He got to see that even on his small income, he could put a little away for reserves and even have some things he really wanted but didn't think he could afford, like accessories for his bike. It was great to watch the spending plan create some space and breathing room in him.

Tomorrow, I'll share how to create a spending plan.

Photo by Jeff Keen.

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