How we controlled our finances with a simple monthly budget

Background

I used to avoid talking about money. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Most financial decisions I made were sudden and very little time was spent thinking about debt. Over the past couple of years my wife and I have taken control of our monthly budget which ultimately gave us better control over life. It was eye opening as we realized how much control finances have over major aspects of our life. Where we live, how we spend our time, and the overall quality of our life. By controlling our finances we have been able to improve the quality of our life. Let me explain.

We used to spend money until the checking account ran out. Literally. For the most part nothing seemed like a problem. We were investing some money, we mostly avoiding credit cards, and our bills were paid on time. We were doing okay. How we spent our money and took on new debt was normal; acceptable. However, our situation was not as comfortable as we assumed. Every time a major purchase was made we went further into debt. My wife couldn’t quit her job to stay at home with the kids. We needed her paycheck. We couldn’t help out friends when they ran into money trouble. We didn’t have enough cash. I could not fathom leaving my engineering job to grow my business. We needed the paycheck. The list goes on.

Fast forward a couple years and things are a bit different. My wife was able to quit her job to focus on our young children. We are purposefully paying off debt each month. We have enough money saved to cover unexpected expenses instead of accumulating more debt with each major purchase. In short, money no longer controls us. We have been able to control our money. How did we achieve this? By setting up and adhering to a monthly budget. It sounds simple but it has worked for us. Let me explain our simple method.

Our method consists of three parts:

  1. A budget spreadsheet.
  2. A Mint.com account.
  3. A zero sum budgeting philosophy.

Step 1: The Budget Spreadsheet

I am a Professional Engineer so spreadsheets are comfortable for me. The budget spreadsheet was my way of initially figuring out what was going on with our money. The format of our budget spreadsheet is simple. It tracks how much money we expect to make every month and where exactly that money is spent. Income on one side, expenses on the other side. Each expense that can be automated gets a separate line item. Simple examples include our mortgage payment, cell phone bill, or an investment payment. All of these can be set up to auto pay the exact same amount each month. We automate as many of our payments as possible.

Every expense that cannot be automated is lumped into one “Miscellaneous” budget. This covers everything else such as groceries, clothes, entertainment and gifts. Initially, the amount of our miscellaneous budget was however much income remained after the automatic expenses were subtracted. Over time we settled into a comfortable amount of money for our miscellaneous budget. One final tip about the miscellaneous budget: we have found it easy to control by taking out the budgeted amount as cash each month.

Step 2: A Mint.com account

Once the budget was established the next step was to make sure we followed it. I utilized our Mint.com account for this. Mint.com is a free website that connects with most financial institutions and allows you to track your personal finances. Our Mint account reads all income and expenses passing through our primary checking account. At the beginning of each month I match the Mint.com expected income and budgets to our budget spreadsheet. Every transaction from our checking account must match one of the expense budgets.

At the end of each month we know exactly how much money we made and how much money we spent thanks to Mint. Over time we can see trends and adjust our budget spreadsheet accordingly.

Step 3: A zero sum budgeting philosophy

After reviewing our finances from the preceding month we “balance out” the budget. The amount of money we spent during the month should exactly match the income earned. If we received more money than expected for the month, we transfer the difference to savings. If we spent $100 more than we earned, we transfer $100 from our savings to balance the budget. Once the final “balancing” transaction is made our income and expenses match perfectly for the month.

Benefits

So why has this simple system worked for us? I believe the biggest benefit is awareness. Simply knowing where our money was spent each month allowed us to find opportunities to cut expenses. And then reduced expenses could intentionally be allocated somewhere else. Maybe we double down on another debt, maybe we invest a little more, maybe we build back up our emergency fund, maybe we save more for our children’s college, maybe I don’t need to take on every client project for quick cash. The list goes on and on. Adhering to a simple budget allows us to make these decisions together, once a month.

About The Author

John MacAdam is a Professional Engineer and Mobile App Developer. You can learn more on appsbyjohn.com or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.