When I tell people that I’m on a budget, I tend to get the sympathetic looks generally reserved for funerals and those counting calories. It’s a pitying look, often accompanied by a slow shake of the head as if in commiseration that life can be cruel sometimes. And then the topic of conversation changes as if by magic.
It’s an odd reaction, as if budgeting (or counting calories) is vaguely shameful. Of course, nobody would budget if they didn’t have to, right? Much better just to live in the moment and trust that everything will work out.
Maybe I’ve just been trained by years of RPGs to enjoy crunching numbers, but I actually like budgeting. It can be stressful when you take it too far and start looking only at the numbers (hey, just like in RPGs!), but I find it even more stressful to go the other way and ignore those numbers entirely.
Where I started
Less than a year ago, I had no real budget. Partly, this was because I had a wildly fluctuating income (starting a business will do that for you), which made it difficult. Partly, I just didn’t have experience budgeting. And a lot of it was just that I was terrified of what I’d find if I just sat down and looked at my finances. It sounds ridiculous, but I was afraid that if I wrote up a budget, I’d see that I wasn’t spending my money the way I wanted to spend it. My guilty pleasures wouldn’t just be guilty anymore, they’d be downright sinful.
That’s not to say that I was in a terrible place. I had no debt, I was making some money, and lived in a cheap part of the country. I wasn’t where I wanted to be either, though. I had no health insurance, very little savings, and no retirement. I was also embarking on the risky venture of running my own business, so even things like setting up a 401(k) would be more difficult for me.
Eventually, I took a deep breath and made my first step towards taking financial control.
The first step
Budgeting was still scary, so my first step was just to catalogue all of my expenses to the nearest fifty cents or so. I’d already started a sleep record (long story), so I just tossed my expenditures in there. I knew that I wouldn’t stick with it if it were difficult, so I made it as easy as possible. I didn’t have any categories, so everything was freeform. I used Humanized Enso to set it up so that I could type ‘open schedule’ and it would, so I could track whenever I remembered, but a shortcut on my desktop probably would have worked just as well.
For several months, that’s all I did. It turned out not to be that difficult at all. I didn’t spend money all the frequently, maybe two or three times in a busy day. Anyone can remember 2-3 numbers a day.
And then the miracle happened. Just by writing down what I was spending, I started spending less. I started to get a sense for how much I was spending on little things. It didn’t make a real difference in my finances, but it definitely let me know that I was on the right track. I was saving money with almost no effort.
Unfortunately, that couldn’t last.