There’s a lot to be said for simplicity, especially when it comes to your household budget. Micromanaging your money can get messy, and if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up over-budgeting and driving yourself crazy.
Our family keeps a pretty detailed monthly spending plan. We’ve used Quicken software to track it in the past, and now we’re trying out a program called You Need a Budget (YNAB). The idea for both is the same: Know how much you have to spend, determine how much money goes into each category (groceries, utilities, gifts, and so on), and then track your categories regularly to make sure you’re not overspending.
That’s all good, except that our category details have gotten too complicated. Does every family member need a clothing category in the budget, or can we have one category for everyone? Should we separate out the non-food stuff we buy at the grocery store into its own “sundries” category?
Chances are that you’re rolling your eyes at me. Categories? An actual written budget? Who even does that? If that’s you, fair enough. Many people (including some of my best friends and family members) manage their money beautifully without much detail.
If you aren’t big on the idea of a written budget, or need to un-budget to make money management easier, here are a few ways you can track your spending:
The 60 percent solution. Blogger Richard Jenkins breaks his spending into only five categories. Necessary expenses, such as mortgages, groceries, and insurance, automatically get 60 percent of his family’s take-home pay each month. The remaining 40 percent is broken up into four equal budgets:
- Long-term savings (big goals other than retirement that require some planning)
- Short-term savings for more erratic expenses, such as gifts and repairs
- Fun activities such as dinners out and movies
The 80-20 plan. Andrew Tobias, author of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, suggests depositing the first 20 percent of your take-home pay into an investment account. He refers to that as the “don’t touch it budget.” He advises stashing the other 80 percent in a checking account. That’s what you have to spend every month on all your purchases—groceries, water and electric bill, car gas, lunch money, and everything else. You don’t need to break the money up into categories. However, the clincher is that when you run out of dough, you’re done spending for the month. Simple.
The balanced money plan. This is another simple one, outlined nicely in the book All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan by Elizabeth Warren (now a U.S. senator from Massachusetts) and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi.
Their concept is that you’ll stay on target if you simply separate your spending into just three “big picture” categories: 50 percent needs, 30 percent wants, and 20 percent savings. If you look at your spending and see, for instance, that you’re dedicating a whopping 70 percent of your income to needs like shelter, food, and utilities, your budget is out of whack and something else (likely your savings) is probably getting shorted.
If you want a little more structure in your money life—but don’t want to go so far as the dreaded “B” word (budget)—give one of these approaches a try. One of them might be just enough to get your spending on track.