Tag Archives: emergency fund

20 Budgeting Tips for Singles – A Bachelor’s (or Bachelorette’s) Guide

Last week, the state of Illinois finally passed what I would describe as a “Band-Aid” budget. While politicians largely celebrated this move and patted themselves on the back, their budget does very little to solve the gaping wound that is the state of financial chaos in which Illinois currently finds itself.

As I read the headlines and a few articles, I marveled at the difficulty the legislature faced in passing a budget. As you may or may not know, Illinois recently went an entire fiscal year without a budget. This standoff made previous budget delays (18 days in 1991, multiple delays of several weeks in the 2000s, and the bitter standoffs of recent years) look like small blips on the radar.

While Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan set aside partisan gridlock long enough to pass a budget, public schools, state universities, and social service agencies are from celebrating. To the detriment of the citizens of Illinois, the finger pointing between Republicans and Democrats will surely resume and intensify in the next months.

Right around the time that Governor Rauner was delivering his press conference regarding the new budget, I sat down to review my planned budget for July 2016. Since September 2009, I have created a unique monthly budget using Gazelle Budget, the online software platform created Dave Ramsey’s team at Ramsey Solutions. That makes 71 unique budgets. It felt good to add yet another accomplishment to the mental list of ways in which I put the state of Illinois to shame.

MY FIRST BUDGET

As I often do when completing a budget, I took a look through the archives to see how Mrs. Superhero and I have come. My trek brought me back to September 2009, the month in which I created my very first budget.

In September 2009, I was a newly-employed, engaged bachelor, living independently for the first time in my life. Less than one week before the new public school year started, I accepted a job offer to teach music about 25 miles away from my university campus. With a week to prepare, I scrambled to locate housing, sign my contract, and prepare for a radical life change.

At the time, I had barely a tiny inkling of how to responsibly manage my money. I had recently read The Total Money Makeover in record speed, but I didn’t know the first thing about budgeting an “adult” paycheck. This was going to be the first time I had ever earned a paycheck which included a comma in the amount field!

After reading about Gazelle Budget (which is being replaced soon by EveryDollar), I purchased an 18 month membership, which included access to all three hours (ad free) of the Dave Ramsey Show podcast, for $89.95. Moments later, I created my first budget.

In all its glory, my very first monthly budget, from September 2009
In all its glory, my very first monthly budget, from September 2009

I began by projecting my total net income for the month, $2,357.29 in total. In that moment, I recall feeling pretty wealthy. I continued by inputting my desired charitable giving ($236 – 10%), rent ($400 – I rented a room in a two-bedroom condo from a friend-of-a-friend), food ($305 – for groceries and restaurants), and my debt obligations ($50 car payment and $200 credit card bill). From that point, I filled out the budget with an estimate of utilities, transportation (gas, car insurance, and routine maintenance), clothing (new work clothes and change for laundry), personal spending (spending money blow money Starbucks fund, books, gifts, hair cut, toiletries, and the Gazelle Budget subscription), and savings (emergency fund and honeymoon fund).

As you can see above, my projections for spending (middle column) were not entirely accurate when compared with my actual spending (leftmost column) at the end of the month. In fact, despite projecting a zero-based budget, I spent more money than I earned in September 2009.

This was hardly a Superhero effort.

On the other hand, the percentages of my categorical spending mimicked responsible spending.

Budget Percentages 1

Budget percentages 8-11
Categorical budgeted spending as a percentage of net income, September 2009

THE TROUBLE WITH PROJECTIONS

For the first full month of living on my own, I updated my budget on a daily basis. I kept a stack of receipts for all cash purchases and utilized internet banking to reconcile all other transactions. Yet despite my diligence, I was still brand-new to the process of budgeting.

As you can see below, I overspent considerably on food and personal spending; I had budgeted a combined $572.29, approximately 24% of my net income, but at the end of the month, I had spent a combined $761.58, approximately 32% of net income.

When I broke these spending figures down further, I discovered that I had spent $156.50 at restaurants and $80.77 at Starbucks.

Ouch.

My First Budget - Spending
20 TIPS FOR THE BACHELOR’S OR BACHELORETTE’S BUDGET

I chose to present the above figures for two primary reasons. First, I wanted to prove that it is possible to build and maintain a monthly budget as a single person. Second, I wanted to be fully transparent about my early mistakes.

Yes, creating a budget is not always easy. It isn’t the cool thing to do, especially as a young 20-something fresh out of college. Even at age 30, I can still recall the temptation to throw caution to the wind and live it up. Heck, I almost went out and leased a car!

However, I still recall one of the most powerful motivators for a 20-something single: the desire to prove one’s independence. Creating a budget is one of the best ways to set out to accomplish this goal and appear to be an adult. If you don’t manage your money responsibly, you will surely appear to be a child to you parents and extended family.

To win with money as a bachelor or bachelorette, follow these 20 tips.

20 BUDGETING TIPS FOR SINGLES - TW

1. Share costs with a roommate.

In my case, I avoided spending $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and spent $400 to rent a home in a two-bedroom condo. By sharing costs in this manner, I avoided spending 40% of my net income on housing costs.

Housing is by far the biggest budget buster for the average bachelor or bachelorette. Spending within this category can be a difference-maker.

2. Gather an accurate picture of your monthly debt obligations.

When you are just starting out, you will feel the temptation to delay examining your debts, particularly if your student loans are still in deferment. Avoiding your debts will not make them go away, so gather this information, including total principal, interest rates, minimum payments, and loan terms for each debt. If you’re unsure or unclear about any debts, contact the appropriate customer service department right away. Also, you should check your credit report; remember, this can be done free of charge once per year with each of the major credit reporting bureaus.

3. Prepare your own meals and cook at home as much as possible.

As a single young adult, preparing your own meals will accomplish two goals: you will save money, and you will not gain weight eating low nutrition/high calorie fast food. As an added bonus, you will be able to host your dates for dinner and impress them with your fine culinary skills. They’ll expect Ramen, and you’ll blow them away with shrimp creole!

Ladies, don’t forget, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

4. Maintain a college lifestyle, at least in terms of spending.

When your first paycheck rolls in, you will immediately experience the temptation to buy everything in sight. If you establish an unreasonable level of spending out of the gate, you will set yourself up for failure. As much as possible, continue to live a college lifestyle (i.e. behave as if you are poor), within reason, of course.

5. Do not go out and buy a new (or new to you) vehicle.

You need to get used to living on a budget first in order to determine what you can or cannot afford in a new vehicle. Don’t allow pride and vanity to influence your decision-making process. If your current vehicle gets you from point A to B, it’s a keeper – at least for a few months.

6. Invest in a decent coffee maker with a timer function and brew your own coffee at home.

I learned this the hard way when at the end of my first budgeted month I had spent $80.77 on coffee on my way to work. I had a decent Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, but it didn’t have a timer feature. If I happened to be running late to work in the morning, I resorted to a quick Starbucks stop, which cost me significant money without adding any perceived value (neither happiness-wise nor nutritionally speaking).

Nothing beats the sweet aroma of morning coffee, especially when you brew it yourself and save money in the process

Mr. Coffee
Nothing beats the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee in the morning – and it saves you money!

7. Stay in.

Fortunately, I did a good job of this. My wife-to-be and I enjoyed cooking dinner at my condo and watching reruns of The Office. I know that many single people will feel the temptation and be pulled into the expensive night life scene, but do so within reason. Invite friends or your significant other back to your place, where food and drinks are cheap.

8. Find affordable dates with Groupon and Restaurant.com . I’m not even sure if Groupon and Restaurant.com existed back when I was a bachelor, but taking advantage of them today is a key part of our dining out experience. With either platform, you can purchase certificates for what is usually a fraction of the value, which allows you to realize significant savings and still enjoy a night out. The most common Restaurant.com offer is $10 for a $25 gift certificate. Check out the Restaurant.com offerings in your area by following the link and entering your zip code.

9. Build an emergency fund as quickly as possible.

As a young single person, building an emergency fund is the definition of adulting. Without an emergency fund, you will face unexpected expenses and be forced to swipe your credit card. Or worse yet, you may have to beg your parents for a loan or a gift.

10. Begin charitable giving right away.

While I have always given 10% to charity and missions organizations, I know this isn’t for everyone. If you’re not a natural giver, start small. Even $1 or $10 per month will benefit worthwhile organizations. If you’re not into structured giving, pay it forward and purchase the coffee or meal for the driver of the vehicle behind you in the drive-thru.

I strongly believe that regular, consistent giving is a key to winning with money. The act of giving teaches you that money is not an asset to be horded, stockpiled, wasted, or worshipped, but a tool to help yourself and others.

11. Strive to create a zero-based budget every month.

Remember, you will fail at this at first. Over and over and over. However, I found comfort in a Dave Ramsey quote during my initial months of struggle with my budget:

Adults devise a plan and stick to it. Children do what feels good. -Dave Ramsey

12. Accept that your budget projections will rarely be perfect.

On a related note, embrace your budget mistakes as they occur. Be willing to adjust your budget several times during the first several months.

13. Share your budget with a friend who is wise with his or her finances.

Accountability is helpful for everyone. It is part of the reason why I write this blog. A good budget is not inflexible.

14. Tell yourself every day that instant-gratification isn’t all that gratifying.

A few days ago, I read that the average person only waits 5 seconds for a web page to open before becoming irritated and moving on. Clearly, we live in a culture which embraces speed and instant results over patience.

You will need to learn to delay your desires in order to maintain a successful budget. Make a plan and stick to it.

15. Don’t worry about investing money right out of the gate.

In the personal finance blogging community, the suggestion to delay investing for retirement is utter blasphemy! However, I believe that there are better uses for your first months of pay. Make sure your budget is in order, build an emergency fund, and take time to research your investment options. When the time comes to invest, look into low-cost options through Betterment and Motif Investing. You will be glad that you waited.

16. Identify your values and be sure that your budget follows them.

If you’re not sure where to start with values-based budgeting, check out my two part series on budgeting with values in mind:

Values and Budgeting – Part One

Values and Budgeting – Part Two

17. Once you’ve identified your values, create written goals that you wish to accomplish.

Writing V-SMART Goals is the best way to accomplish your goals.

18. Be transparent with your friends and family about your budget.

It is OK to explain that you are striving to manage your spending responsibly. In fact, if you keep your budget goals a secret, it will be more difficult to stick to your budget, as co-workers will invite you out for happy hour drinks and apps every Friday. Just be up front and honest.

You can still have a social life on a budget. But be willing to say "no."
You can still have a social life on a budget. But be willing to say “no.”

19. As follow-up to number 18, be willing to say “no.”

If you want to live on a budget and win with money, you will likely hurt people’s feelings from time to time.

20. Avoid making any purchases on impulse.

If you are considering a sizeable purchase, write it down and check back again in thirty days. See my recent piece, The Thirty Day List, for a step-by-step process on delaying purchases.

Note: This piece contains affiliate links. FinanceSuperhero only recommends products designed to save readers money.


Readers, what budget tips do you have for singles?

Kicking Sallie Mae to the Curb: Goodbye, Student Loans!

In my nearly two months as a member of the personal finance blogging community, I feel I have developed a good grasp on the different types of financial bloggers. Some aim to share a technical and sophisticated approach to personal finance, while others are more simplistic and inspirational in nature. Some are humorous and self-deprecating, while others think they know way more than they do (Brief digression: Visit BeardsandMoney for a great article which touches on this topic). No matter the financial state in which a reader my find herself, there exists several blogs which can help her navigate the twists and turns of personal finance.

In the past year, the community has exploded with a host of new bloggers who are advancing our niche and providing me with plenty of inspiration to improve my writing and provide articles which are accessible and thought-provoking for readers. Challenges like the Million Dollar Club launched by J. Money, the Yakezie Challenge launched by Financial Samurai, the Save the Savings Challenge launched by Andrew at FamilyMoneyPlan, and a somewhat-secret project (in which I will be participating) in the works to be announced next week by two to-be-named-later writers, have added to the atmosphere of collaboration, encouragement, and excitement in our community.

Related: See the Blogroll

While this is all very exciting, Mrs. Superhero and I hardly need additional things about which to be excited. Friday was a big day for us. We pulled the trigger and kicked Sallie Mae to the curb by paying off my graduate school student loans!

I wish this story were nothing but rainbows and butterflies, but good things rarely come without a grind.

The Story

In May 2014, I completed my Master of Arts degree. When I entered repayment that November, I faced these terms:

GS2

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read further and my the lump in my throat began to grow:

On your current repayment plan, including interest and capitalization, your total estimated amount to be repaid is $27,178.23.

While I was relieved to have completed my degree, I must admit that I felt a little clammy and my blood pressure rose a bit when looking at the previously mentioned figures. In that moment, I was determined to ensure that my $18,000 educational investment would not grow by over $9,000, or approximately $900 per year, over the standard 10-year repayment term.

The problem I faced at the time was that I still owed over $5,000 on my undergraduate student loans. Yes, I was stupid. The worst kind of stupid. The kind of stupid with several zeros and even a comma involved. I took on additional student loan debt without paying off my existing student loans.

As I approached repayment, I was nervous. But mostly I was angry at the guy in the mirror for digging myself into such a large hole.

Climbing Out of the Hole

There are two different ways to tell this story.

The Short Version

All in all, we paid off a total of $21,229.00 of graduate school student loan debt over the course of 19 months, or 1 year and 7 months. This is an average of $1,117.31 per month, which does not appear particularly impressive or sacrificial for two working professionals who also own and operate a small business and engage in side hustles.

As I reflect and experience the benefit of hindsight, I think we should have paid off the loans much sooner. Maybe we could have done so if we had cut back on dinners out with friends, took a staycation  in place of our modest vacation last summer, and kept driving Mrs. Superhero’s vehicle from college.

This version, while still happy, is vanilla, incomplete, and unsatisfying. It’s the financial success story equivalent of the How I Met Your Mother series finale.

Ted
No spoilers from this HIMYM super-fan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Longer (Better) Version

While The Short Version is factually accurate, it misses some of the finer nuances of our journey toward freedom from student loans. Perhaps the biggest fault of The Short Version is that it is leaves out two other significant financial successes which occurred as recently as the previous 11 months.

In July 2015, Mrs. Superhero and I decided it was an opportune time to upgrade from our 2000 Mercury Sable. Our search led us to a 2013 Hyundai Sonata. We had planned to purchase a vehicle with cash in the ballpark of $8,000-$10,000, but the  we couldn’t shake the idea of the Sonata and drove it home two days after taking it for a test drive. This depleted our $10,000 car sinking fund (and led us to take out an $8,000 loan with a 36 month term at a very low interest rate to cover the difference).

Two months later, in October 2015, I had another sweaty, racing heart moment when I sat down and reviewed the spreadsheet of our total non-mortgage debt. As I mentioned earlier, we still owed just over $5,000 on my undergraduate student loans, in addition to $19,000 on my graduate school student loans and the $8,000 auto loan. This was a sobering realization.

The hole had gotten even deeper, and while we had a new-to-us vehicle to show for it, I knew that something needed to change. That month we paid just over $4,300 toward my undergrad loans and tacked on an additional $829.00 the following month to wipe out these loans for good!

Our momentum was halted a bit in December and January, but shortly after the calendar turned, another look at my Excel sheet sent me back into orbit. In addition to minimum payments on the Sonata and grad school loans, we paid an additional $2,338.79 on the grad school loans in February 2016. Following a similar plan, we paid minimum payments and an additional $1,100 in March and an additional $4,000 in April. It felt like we were on a roll in some respects, but the finish line still seemed like a faint mirage on the horizon.

In personal finance and investing, we all know the mantra: slow and steady wins the race. I was content to push slowly and steadily toward the finish line and rest in the comfort of this phrase. That is, until I snapped for a third time last week.

A quick look at our emergency fund and sinking funds revealed that we could make a final payment of $10,166.37 without exposing ourselves to the unnecessary risk of an underfunded emergency fund. Upon realizing this, I told Mrs. Superhero that this payment would be the best early birthday present I could receive. Without hesitation, she gave me the green light, and last Friday, I submitted the payment!

Reflections

I feel The Long Version shows that perhaps I am being a bit hard on us, as we paid $10,000 as a downpayment on a vehicle in July 2015 and paid off the final $5,168.83 on my undergraduate student loans in this same time period that we paid off my grad school loans. Over 19 months, the total student loan and car debt paid + car downpayment figure rises to $36,397.83, or $1,915.67 per month.

The averages get more fun when you consider that we really got intense beginning in July 2015. From July 2015 to the present, we paid a combined total of $28,889.37 on the aforementioned student loan and auto debts, or an average of $2,626.34 per month for 11 months.

Narrowing the focus further, I realize that we paid off $17,831.65 in the 54 days leading up to May 13, 2016. This averages out to $330.21 per day!

Why This Worked For Us

Among the reasons for our success, three reasons stand out in my mind:

Effort and maximization. As previously mentioned, Mrs. Superhero and I have worked a lot over the past 19 months to make the aforementioned accomplishments a reality. We could have whined and complained about the predicament that we I placed us in, but instead we took action and did something about our unhappiness.

Values identification. Mrs. Superhero and I loathe debt with a passion. While we could have used the aforementioned funds to significantly build our investment portfolio over the past 19 months, I am satisfied with our decision. Over this time frame, the S&P 500 and VFINX, two important benchmarks for investors, have produced underwhelming results, in my opinion. And even if they had produced steady and modest growth, our values still indicate a preference for eliminating debt at this stage.

Sacrifice. I am fairly convinced that many people who know me and Mrs. Superhero personally think we are weird due to our handling of our finances. Once they have read this article, they are sure to think we are even weirder! Going against the grain of today’s culture with regards to our finances has been a sacrifice at times, but a worthwhile sacrifice nonetheless.

Recommendations

  • Identify your values and establish a set of written financial goals as soon as possible. I know plenty of people, including fellow bloggers, whose values and goals have led them to defer paying off their debt in favor of growing an investment portfolio and developing passive income streams. I do not begrude or criticize them for their choices, as their pursuits are grounded by values and goals.
  • Do not stray from your established goals and timelines without good reason. You will be tempted to give up and spend, but you shouldn’t do so in order to impress people you don’t even know. Don’t do it!
  • If you are drowning in student loan debt or other debt, explore refinancing with SoFi. SoFi is an excellent option to reduce the total amount of interest paid over the lifetime of a loan and make the pursuit of debt freedom much more manaegable for money people. Check out your options for student loan refinancing  and personal loan options here. You will receive a $100 welcome bonus when you sign-up!
  • If possible, join me and Mrs. Superhero in freedom from student loan debt. It is truly a great feeling. We hope to replicate this feeling in a few more months when we pay off the Sonata; however, that will come after we build our opportunity fund and navigate the summer months ahead.

Disclaimer: All links to SoFi are affiliate links. While I cannot personally share a testimonial regarding the product because I no longer have student loans which could be refinanced, FinanceSuperhero will always recommend products that can help readers accomplish their goals in a faster and more cost-effective manner.


Readers, have you experienced any recent triumphs over debt? What were the keys to your success? How did you stay motivated? If you are still in debt, when do you plan to eliminate student loans or other debt?

Protect Your Future With Sinking Funds

My earliest job as a child was mowing the lawn. One hot Michigan summer afternoon, Superhero Dad decided it was about time for me to contribute to yard work beyond raking leaves in the fall. After a few minutes of coaching on how to prime the gas line, start the engine, empty the mulch bag, and operate the self-propelling mechanism, Dad headed inside and left me to get to work.

Our lawn was average for our neighborhood: one-third acre in size, trees and other obstacles galore, and dusty. I quickly learned to hold my breath when emptying the bag into the backyard compost pile.

After approximately two hours of navigating countless twists, turns, and bumps, and contemplating the treasures I could purchase with my new income, my work was complete. Like any self-respecting nine-year old, I marched up to Dad, who was reading the newspaper in his recliner.

“I’m done,” I said, extending my open hand in anticipation of a rich payment.

“OK. Let’s go take a look,” Dad replied.

After touring the yard and noting the deficiencies in my work, the long-awaited moment finally arrived. Dad reached into his pocket and presented me with a crisp $5 bill.

I don’t recall experiencing any exuberant emotion at the time, though in hindsight, $5 was probably a fair lawn-mowing rate for a nine-year-old boy in the mid-1990s. But I do remember walking to my bedroom, closing the door, and slipping Mr. Lincoln into a manila envelope in my night stand.

Envelopes Everywhere

Like many of my earliest financial lessons, I learned the practice of safe-guarding my money in envelopes from Superhero Grandpa. Grandpa had envelopes for everything, each with a hand-written label, secured behind the solid walls of his safe.

I didn’t know it at the time, but several of Grandpa’s envelopes were intended to save for future purposes. Among the purchases made from one of Grandpa’s envelopes was one of the last vehicles Grandpa purchased: a brand-new 2008 Honda Accord EX-L. The story of how Grandpa walked into the showroom with a brown bag full of cash one day after test driving an Accord is one of my all-time favorites.

My 2008 Honda Accord EX-L
My 2008 Honda Accord EX-L

One year after Mrs. Superhero and I were married, Grandpa approached me and asked if she and I would be interested in buying the Accord; he had already gotten the itch to purchase a new vehicle. We were desperately in need of a fuel-efficient vehicle and had been saving money for months.; yet, at the time, purchasing the vehicle would have been a bit of a stretch.

After a few months passed, we finally had enough money saved to purchase the car. My hand trembled a bit as I sat down to write Grandpa the largest check I had ever written (at that time).

“Can you take me out for a ride in your new car?” Grandpa asked me.

“Of course,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“The bank,” he replied.

Moments later, we arrived at the bank. What I anticipated would be a short, unremarkable trip turned out to be lengthy and memorable.

“I want to cash this check,” Grandpa informed the teller.

The teller examined the check and flashed a stunned look, first at Grandpa, then at me.

“Sir, I have to recommend against keeping this much cash on hand. Would you like to make a deposit into your savings account?” she asked.

“No. I want the money,” Grandpa retorted.

After the teller’s acquiescence and subsequent counting of many $100 bills, Grandpa and I exited the bank. I was terrified that we would be jumped, robbed, and left for dead in the parking lot. Luckily, my worries were unfounded, and Grandpa and I arrived safely back at the house.

True to form, Grandpa immediately removed his new stack of cash from the teller envelope, placed it in a manila envelope, and locked it in his safe, but not before counting it once more, just to be sure it was all there.

The Sinking Fund: An Update to Envelopes

I did not know it at the time, but Grandpa had just added to his always-growing portfolio of sinking funds.

For readers who may be unfamiliar with the term and its application in personal finance, a sinking fund is an account designed to save for specific future purchases. A sinking fund is different from an emergency fund, as its contents are earmarked with an anticipated purpose, while an emergency fund exists to cover unanticipated expenses.

While Grandpa’s approach was commendable, it is advisable to maintain sinking funds in a savings or money market account which is separate from your emergency fund. If you are able to meet minimum balance requirements, it may even be wise to open separate accounts for each sinking fund. You do, however, want to be sure that your money is not eaten away due to senseless fees.

As an alternative, provided you have a sufficiently-funded emergency fund, you could invest your sinking fund money in CDs if you know you’re not likely to need it during the term of the CD. You should be certain that investing the money and losing access to it for the duration of the term will not cause undue hardship.

The Sinking Fund Test: Do I Need a Fund For _____?

The number and type of sinking funds you maintain should be tailored to suit your individual circumstances. The following guidelines and questions are intended to spark careful thought and consideration.

What items are nearing the end of their anticipated utility? (In other words, what items are likely to breakdown or require repair in the next six months to five years?)

What degree of difficulty would be posed if you were expected to live without these items for a set time period?

What upcoming purchases and expenses can you reasonably anticipate and begin saving for with a sinking fund? (Hint: Christmas is in December this year!)

In summary: If an item is likely to soon need replacement or repair, you need a sinking fund for it. If you can’t live long without this item, you need a sinking fund for it. If an expense is anticipated to be due within the next six months to five years, then you need a sinking fund for it.

FinanceSuperhero recommends that you organize your sinking funds based upon priority (Ask: What is likely to break first?) and fund them according to your ability to do so each month. Develop a rough calculation of the projected cost for the item in question and divide that total by the number of months remaining until the expense is anticipated; this is the amount you should budget to save within the sinking fund each month.  Again, place funds in a simple money market account or high interest bearing online savings account, depending upon the amounts in question.

Among many other possibilities, the following items deserve your consideration when developing a list of necessary sinking funds:

  • Vehicle replacement
  • Christmas and birthday gifts
  • Vacations
  • Home repairs (roof, HVAC, sump pump)
  • Home renovations (basement renovation, kitchen and bathroom remodeling, sizeable landscaping or the addition of a deck or patio)

Readers, do you utilize the sinking fund approach? For what types of purchases do you maintain sinking funds? Where you do maintain your sinking funds?

The Staycation: A Cure For Burnout

One month ago, Mrs. Superhero and I were about to embark on a vacation to Nashville, Tennessee. We had our hotel room booked, dinner reservations were made, and our itinerary was packed, with plans to visit the Parthenon, the Grand Ole Opry, and check out the local music scene. When we received word that one of our preferred dog breeders had puppies available, we scrapped the vacation plans in order to stay home with the newest addition to our family.

Our Easter surprise
Our Easter surprise

Give us some credit! At least we tried to take a vacation.

According to Kelly Phillips Erb at Forbes, most Americans utilize only half of their allocated annual vacation time, while seventeen percent (!) use no vacation time at all. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Erb cites a 2013 American Express press release figure stating that the average American vacation costs $1,145 per person, or an astounding $4,580 for a family of four. What was once a summer tradition for nearly all families in previous generations has become an impossibility for many families today.

While our planned vacation would not have cost anywhere near these figures, it would have represented a significant cost. At the top of the list of projected costs, of course, were hotel fees, fuel, and meals.

And while we would have been fortunate to avoid the high costs of flight tickets, Disney World passes, and the uncertainty and stress of international travel, our vacation would have been a busy one. Truth be told, I was exhausted prior to the vacation and was already looking forward to my vacation from the vacation.

Why Americans Overspend on Vacation

Based upon the aforementioned average vacation costs, there is little doubt that the average family is spending obscene percentages -around 10 percent- of their annual income on vacations.  While the reasons for this are varied and plentiful, the opportunity cost is devastating. And the average family does not even realize it.

Imagine spending $2,000 per year on vacation and saving the remaining $2,580 each year for 10 years. I think I could live with that scenario. Factor in compound interest, if you were to invest that money each year. I hope I have your attention.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses . . .

Over the years, I have most often heard the following rationales excuses for overspending on extravagant vacations:

But my kids deserve a vacation!

I will not debate the fact that your kids likely want to go on a vacation. Whether they deserve one is not my place to determine. However, I can determine this with certainty: Your kids want quality experiences and your undivided attention, neither of which cost $4,580.

My greatest memories of childhood vacations involved inexpensive vacations. My family always had fun staying in average hotels, eating in local diners and mom-and-pop restaurants, and partaking in reasonably-priced attractions.

Years later, your kids won’t remember the vacation more fondly because of the money you spent. They’ll remember the time you spent together!

Everyone else has been to ________.

The Keeping Up With The Joneses mentality is nearly as powerful as the kids-related guilt trip, by my observations. The problem? Keeping up with the Joneses is one of the most anti-Superhero moves you can make. The Jones financed their $4,580 vacation on their American Express card at 25.99% interest. It is OK, they insist, because the monthly payment is “manageable.” The Joneses probably lease a vehicle or two, as well. Don’t even think about following the Joneses. They’re likely broke.

The Solution

When planning a vacation, Mrs. Superhero and I have very different ideals. She would be happy to be parked on the beach for 16 hours per day, while to me, this sounds a lot like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. I am good for a couple hours at the beach, but afterwards, I suffer from insatiable wanderlust. I long to see and do everything a locale has to offer. Yes, the Superhero Principle of Maximization has even followed me into the realms of vacationing. I am sure Mrs. Superhero and I are not the only couple to experience this kind of disagreement.

Despite our differences, Mrs. Superhero and I always have fun on vacation. We both understand that everyone needs to recharge from time to time. Most employers today provide vacation time in order to ensure that their employees avoid burnout and remain productive in their roles. However, the type of vacation we have been reviewing thus far rarely offers the opportunity to recharge.

Ever feel like you need a vacation from your vacation when you return home? Bingo.

The Staycation

Based upon my most recent experience, I believe the staycation is the answer to all of our problems. Compared to a vacation, a staycation allows for several built-in savings:

  • No hotel fees ($100-300 per night, on average)
  • No rental car ($50 per day, on average)
  • No obligation to eat 2-3 restaurant meals per day ($10 per person per meal, on average)

With the realized savings (likely exceeding $1,000) associated with a staycation, you are presented with several opportunities:

  • Go out for one nice meal at a restaurant you would not normally visit
  • Complete a necessary home improvement project (Boost your home’s value by choosing an improvement with a high return on investment and increase your equity at the same time)
  • Get started on a side hustle
  • Visit friends and family
  • Actually rest!

My Staycation

The time away from work turned out to be the perfect cure for the burnout I had been experiencing. During our staycation, Mrs. Superhero and I reaped the benefits of several of the suggestions listed above. In addition to bringing home our new puppy, Coda, we were able to spend time with our newborn niece, experience quality time with my in-laws, host friends for dinner, and complete many items on our spring cleaning list. I took a nap every afternoon, read several quality books, and took Mrs. Superhero to a couple restaurants we had been waiting to visit.

Coda, our adorable teddy bear
Coda, our teddy bear

Perhaps most importantly, I launched FinanceSuperhero after several months of contemplation and poking and prodding from Mrs. Superhero. I had an incredible amount of fun and began work on a project that will hopefully help thousands (eventually) of people Restore Order to their World of Finance.

Further Benefits of the Staycation

Obviously, the opportunity for savings associated with a staycation are sizeable. Depending upon your circumstances, you might invest your realized savings, build your emergency fund, or use them to reduce or eliminate debt. You can be responsible while having fun!

Staycation Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

When planning a staycation, follow the Know Thyself Superhero Principle. You have inherent weaknesses which threaten to derail your staycation, and it is up to you to know yourself well enough to neutralize the threats posed by your weaknesses.

If you have a tendency to work too much, even when you are on vacation, take concrete action to prevent this. Unplug your devices, set an auto response to your e-mail, and let clients and associates know in advance that you will be unavailable for the duration of your staycation. Provide an alternate contact who can handle matters and contact you in case of emergency or crisis.

If you have are in the habit of wasting time off completely by mindlessly watching TV or sleeping in until noon, you need to anticipate these problems and build in structure to your staycation. While you need to rest, this should be planned to some extent. Develop a loose, non-restrictive itinerary with your spouse/family so everyone is in the same page. Base the itinerary on designated priorities for your staycation.

If you are likely to spend too much money, be certain that you create a line item for your staycation in your monthly budget. Most Superheros will create a separate budget. Yes, make a separate budget for your staycation, even if you do not plan to spend sizeable sums of money. Without hotel and travel costs, you should be able to afford a few luxuries, such as massages, nice dinners, or shopping trips; your budget will help you understand what opportunities are within your reach.

Plan Your Next Staycation

If the concept of a traditional vacation stresses you out, straps your cash, and leaves you feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation, a staycation may be right for you. A staycation allows for time to rest, revisit and reevaluate your goals, focus on helping others, and declutter your financial life, among the aforementioned possibilities. What are you waiting for?


Have you planned a recent staycation? How did you maximize the realized savings? What are your favorite staycation activities? Share your tips in the comments section.

The Power and Importance of Written Financial Goals

People believe that their circumstances dictate their actions. They don’t realize that they can begin to dictate their circumstances by taking a single step in the right direction.

In my recent series on Values and Budgeting (Part One and Part Two), I highlighted a progression toward writing what I have coined V-SMART Goals. As a review, V-SMART Goals are

Values-based, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented

When I wrote this post, my natural assumption was that a majority of the population implemented SMART Goals or general goal-setting practices in some capacity. A bit of research showed that my assumptions were quite naïve.

The Shocking Statistics About Goals

In the book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, author Mark McCormack cites interviews performed with new graduates from the Harvard MBA program in 1979 and 1989, respectively. Full disclosure: The above link is an affiliate link. I have not yet read this book in its entirety, but it is on my reading list. However, the statistics contained in the book are alarming.

In 1979, interviewers determined that:

-84% of adults had no specific goals
-13% of adults had specific goals that were not written down

-3% of adults had specific, written goals

When this cohort was interviewed again in 1989, the results showed were predictable:

-The 13% group had, on average, earned twice as much as the 84% group who had not established goals
-The 3% group who had written goals, on average, earned ten times as much as the other 97%, collectively speaking.

Impact of Goals is Not Limited to Income

While the results above should not surprise us, they left me with unanswered questions.

-In 1989, which group, on average, had the highest net worth?

-In 1989, which group had the highest percentage of written monthly budgets?

-In 1989, did the 3% cohort create and monitor written goals for other areas of their lives?

Without having access to the interviewees, we cannot ascertain the answers to these questions. However, I feel the answers are not likely in doubt.

In my own life, I have seen that greater organization and goal setting in one area can easily spread like wildfire into other life areas.  When I got my act together, financially-speaking, and set written goals, I suddenly became highly aware of other areas in my life in which I needed to establish written goals and hatch plans to achieve them.

For example, as a new graduate who had just entered the workforce, I established a written budget and soon realized that I needed a similar plan to improve my physical fitness. I began running with a friend, signed-up for a half-marathon and later a marathon, and trained according to an established plan. Without realizing it, I had created a SMART Goal for my race training, even though aspects of the goal were unwritten (For shame!).

When I got my act together, financially-speaking, and set written goals, I suddenly became highly aware of other areas in my life in which I needed to establish written goals and hatch plans to achieve them.

The Power of Written Financial Goals

I strongly feel that the power of written financial goals cannot be overstated. One my favorite talk radio hosts, Dave Ramsey, often says, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” By definition, having no established goals is aiming at nothing.

In order to adhere to the Superhero Value of Maximization, you must strive to make every single penny work hard for you, and this begins with written goals. As mentioned previously, I prefer to think of my dollars and cents as employees. If I do not direct them, they will not be maximized. Furthermore, this is the one time in which I am a huge advocate for micromanagement! You should be reviewing your finances with a fine-toothed comb on a regular basis.

When you established Values-Based, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented Goals, you are poised for a high probability of success. Additionally, you are only one step removed from being able to share your goals with others, who in turn will be able to hold you accountable. Even the simple act of posting your written goals in a prominent place in your home, such as your refrigerator or bathroom mirror, can simultaneously serve as both a means of keeping your goals at the forefront of your mind and providing accountability.

Why Some People Continue Without Written Goals

Over the years, I have heard people share many reasons for their lack of written goals. Frankly, I am not a fan of any of them. I find it is easy to make excuses, and I hate when I catch myself doing it. Here are a few of the common reasons/excuses I often hear:

They don’t think about goals. Why? They spend too much time on social media, TV, and other major time wasting activities.

They don’t know how to write goals. They must learn the V-SMART Goal writing process.

They have given up. They believe their circumstances dictate their actions. They don’t realize that they can begin to dictate their circumstances by taking a single step in the right direction.

Financial Goals for Everyone

To get started with written financial goals, I believe everyone should pause for a moment and visualize what they would like their financial landscape to look like next week, in 3-6 months, in one year, and in 3-5 years. By beginning with the end in mind, we can create goals that will serve to motivate and inspire. After jotting down some notes, you are equipped to begin writing goals in the categories below.

Note: Brief, vague examples are provided in parentheses; these examples may not fit your circumstances. They should be modified to align with your visions and expanded to meet V-SMART specifications based upon your specific circumstances.

Short-term: (reduce your weekly spending, renegotiate television/internet contracts with service provider)

Intermediate/Mid-range goals: (pay off debt, establish a 3-6 month emergency fund, save for a home down payment)

Long-term – (purchase a rental property with at least a 20% down payment, create multiple streams of passive income, reach a net worth of $1 million, retire early!)


Readers, do you maintain written financial goals? Do they follow the V-SMART recommendations? What barriers are preventing you from establishing written goals? How have written goals boosted your achievement in the past? Share one current financial goal in the comments section below!

The Superhero Guide to Maximizing Your Tax Refund

Tax refund: Next to the words “pay day” and “debt free,” these are my two favorite finance-related words. Whether my annual tax refund is a modest sum or a mid-size windfall, I am always happy to see my refund directly-deposited into my checking account.

I will not debate the merits of adjusting withholding to maximize your monthly income in lieu of a refund in this space. I have my reasons for continuing to maintain my withholding at its present rate to receive a refund, which I will share at a later date. Many of you will have equally valid reasons to adopt the opposite approach.

Assuming you have a tax refund coming your way, you are on the precipice of a great opportunity.  As a Superhero, you must know that with great opportunity comes great responsibility! In accordance with the Superhero values of Order, Precision, and Maximization, the following flowchart will help you to answer navigate the waters of a tax refund and make significant progress on your financial journey. I recommend following the steps in numerical order.

Superhero Steps to Maximizing Your Tax Refund

1. Give a Portion of Your Tax Refund to a Charitable Organization

It should not come as a surprise to you that I am suggesting giving as the first step. As previously mentioned, Mrs. Superhero and I have placed Giving at the top of our monthly budget. Giving aligns with our values, and helping others provides us with much more satisfaction and enjoyment than buying more stuff or eating delicious food.

Mrs. Superhero and I strongly believe that giving 10% is the best way that we can make a societal contribution prior to reaching financial independence (at which time we will significantly increase our giving). We have always done this, dating back to the time when we faced a mountain of debt, and we continue to do so today, even though we are mere months away from carrying no debt other than our mortgage.

Why?

As I mentioned, we believe helping others is the most satisfying use of our money. Giving is also a strong reminder that money is not something to be hoarded out of greed. We want to value money and practice good Stewardship, but we also want to remain far removed from the love of money.

Many people reject giving in favor of keeping their money strictly to themselves. Ironically, it is usually these same people who senselessly give their money to big banks and other financiers in the form of outlandish interest payments on cars, boats, and other stuff. Personally, I would rather give in a meaningful way.

Even if you give 1% of your tax refund, you will help others and begin to change the way you view money.

2. Increase Your Savings

After supporting societal progress by giving, use your tax refund proceeds to improve your liquid savings. Unless you are an extremely high income earner or have a stable passive income stream, you absolutely must have an Emergency Fund. If you do not have one, consider this a full-blown, alarm-sounding crisis that must be addressed immediately! Statistically-speaking, there is close to a 100% chance that you will experience some form of an emergency within the next decade, so be ready!

While I recommend maintaining an Emergency Fund of at least 3-6 months of minimum living expenses, you may also wish to establish an Opportunity Fund. I do not specifically recommend amounts or figures for this fund, and you may wish to skip it entirely in favor of moving onto Step 3. However, an Opportunity Fund could allow you to make a fun, somewhat impulsive decision without any accompanying feelings of guilt or regret.

3. Defeat Your Debt Once and For All

After you have given and increased your security via your Emergency Fund, you are fully-prepared to take on the primary villain standing in the way of Financial Independence: Debt.

The sooner you eliminate your non-mortgage debts, the sooner you free a significant portion of your monthly income and simultaneously gain the freedom to invest in tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Both the Snowball and Avalanche methods are valid means to achieve debt freedom. For the purposes of this post, I am less-concerned with the method you implement to eliminate your debt; just get it done. Your tax refund may be just the push you need.

4. Invest in Tax-Advantaged Vehicles

Upon donning your Debt-Free cape, the real fun can begin. If you are free from the shackles of debt, the next optimal use for your tax refund is to maximize your retirement contributions. For the purposes of this limited space, ensure you are maximizing employer-offered plans, specifically if they offer a match, and then move onto your Roth IRA and Traditional IRA.

5. Contribute to Your Children’s College Funds

If you do not have children, skip ahead to Step 6. If you have children, you need to learn the nuances of the Coverdell ESA (Education Savings Account, also nicknamed the Education IRA) and 429 plan. The ESA has income and contribution limits (currently $2,000 per year), but I recommend you start with the ESA in most circumstances, if eligible. The important thing to understand is that minimal contributions to these vehicles will place you in a position to send your children to college without the burden of student loans if you begin early.

6. Destroy Your Mortgage Debt

Pause with me for a moment and imagine a life without a mortgage payment. What could you do with an extra $1,000 per month? $2,500? $5,000. I just felt an overwhelming sense of peace typing these words. The next time I visit my doctor and have my blood-pressure checked, I am going to visualize the wonders of a mortgage-free life to improve my numbers.

For the average family, mortgage interest represents the second-largest expense that they will pay in their entire lifetime. In some cases, total mortgage interest paid on a 30 year mortgage can be approximately 75-80% of total principal, even at today’s advantageous interest rates! The peace I felt moments ago has now been replaced by an angry adrenaline rush. I want to crush my mortgage as soon as possible! Using tax return funds to accomplish progress on an annual basis could shave several years off your mortgage, especially if you are already paying extra on principal on a monthly basis.

7. Invest in Non-Retirement Funds and/or Real Estate

If you have made it to Step 7, please allow me to offer my congratulations. With no debt whatsoever, healthy savings, and kids’ college covered, you are poised to generate significant wealth. At this stage, you may have achieved Financial Independence, depending upon your lifestyle.

I recommend using tax refund money to invest in simple index funds at this stage. A modest tax refund sum is enough to get you started with many index funds. Adopt a long-term approach, relax, and watch your money grow.

Similarly, this is the time to invest in real estate, if interested. Becoming a landlord isn’t for everyone, and paying a property manager could eat into your net profit from owning a rental property. However, a rental property can yield some of the highest annual investment returns if managed well and purchased at prices below market value.

8. Maximize the Principles of Contribution to Improve Your Home

At this stage, true fun begins. When you are financially well-poised for the future, a tax refund represents an opportunity to both invest and add joy to your life simultaneously. This is the time to make improvements around your home which increase your happiness and feature a high return on investment.

Good examples: new front door, landscaping, kitchen or bath remodel, walkway lighting

Bad examples: swimming pools, basement refinishing, utility sheds

9. Build Sinking Funds for Bucket List Items

Last, but not least, comes additional saving for specific purchases. If you make it down to Step 9 when determining how to implement your tax refund, you are an authentic Superhero. I recommend establishing separate sinking funds for a variety of priorities, such as vacations, new car purchases, secondary homes, or major home additions.

The purpose of a sinking fund is to plan for future purchases which are far off in the future. At this stage, you do not want to be fooled into getting back into debt or be caught off guard by large, necessary expenses. With a sinking fund, you won’t be financially caught off guard when your house needs a new roof, your furnace fails, or your vehicle sputters and dies.

Final Thoughts

Again, I established the Superhero Steps to Maximizing Your Tax Refund with the Superhero values of Order, Precision, and Maximization in mind. I am confident that you will not fail to cover all of your bases by following these steps. Depending upon where you are in your journey toward Restoring Order to Your World of Finances, you may wish to skip steps or modify the order. For example, renters may wish to place saving for a home down payment in the Steps. As always, let your values guide your decisions at every step of your journey.


Readers, did you receive a tax refund this year? Are you currently awaiting a refund? How did you allocate the funds?

A Detailed Guide to the Zero-Based Budget

In this post, we will take a detailed look at how to create a zero-based budget.

 A zero-based budget is a budget in which all income is allocated to a budget category with no remaining unused funds.

At this point, you should realize that you can’t afford to go another month without a budget. It could be the difference between one day reaching financial freedom and remaining in bondage to debt. It could leave you trapped working a job you hate just to pay the bills. It could diminish your happiness. If you don’t feel urgency and understand the importance of a budget, thus requiring more convincing , start here.

Methods of Budgeting

Depending on your personality and degree of tech-savviness, you may wish to create a budget the old-fashioned paper-and-pencil way. You may prefer using Excel, or even an automated program, such as Mint, YNAB, EveryDollar, or PersonalCapital.

If you are a budget rookie, I cannot understate the importance of creating a budget and crunching the numbers yourself without the benefits of an automated program, at least for your first few budgets. I highly recommend the pencil-and-paper or Excel methods for your first few budgets simply because these methods will force you to pay attention and be precise.

Budget Basics

Before we get into the specifics of your budget, let’s review some pertinent basics.

  • You need to create a new, unique budget at the beginning of the month, every month. Why? Some expenses occur on a bi-monthly or quarterly basis, and you will want to capture this within each unique budget you create. Remember, some expenses are fixed, while others vary from month to month.
  • Your budget should be based upon your net income (after state and federal taxes, employer deductions, and insurance premiums). Whether you are paid bi-weekly or weekly, this figure, too, will vary from month to month.
  • You should create a budget which utilizes categories. I personally use the following categories, which are recommended by Dave Ramsey. You should use the categories that represent areas of significant expense in your budget, delete those which do not, and add any pertinent categories which may be missing.

Giving/Charity

Saving

Housing

Utilities

Food

Transportation

Clothing

Health/Medical

Personal

Recreation

Debt

  • Within each category, your expenses should fall within the following typical ranges.

 

Category Recommended Percentages
Giving/Charity 0-10%
Saving 5-15%
Housing 25-35%
Utilities 5-10%
Food 5-15%
Transportation 5-15%
Clothing 2-7%
Personal 5-10%
Health/Medical 5-10%
Recreation 5-10%
Debt 0%

Sample Expenses Within Each Category

Giving/Charity: Tithes and offerings to church/religious organization, charitable donations

Saving: Emergency fund savings, retirement savings (401k, 403b, Roth IRA, Traditional IRA), college savings (ESA, 529), vacation savings fund, sinking funds

Housing: Rent, mortgage (including property taxes and insurance in escrow), home maintenance

Utilities: Electric, Gas, Water, Trash, Home/Mobile Phone, Cable/Internet, Home Security

Food: Grocery, restaurants, fast food, coffee and drinks

Transportation: Fuel, auto insurance, auto maintenance, bus passes, train tickets, Uber fares, tolls, miscellaneous transportation costs

Clothing: Includes shoes, outerwear, work wear, accessories
Personal: Discretionary spending, disability/life/identity theft insurance premiums, miscellaneous spending

Health/Medical: Insurance co-pays, prescription co-pays, miscellaneous medicine, gym memberships

Recreation: Movie tickets, concert tickets, sporting events, local/regional travel, miscellaneous recreation

Debt: Student loans, car loans, home equity loans, credit cards

The Specifics of a Budget

Before we proceed, it is important to note that your figures may or may not fall squarely within the categorical ranges previously mentioned. For example, if your Housing costs represent 24% or 36% of your monthly budget, this is not a serious problem. Please view the percentages above as suggestions for a healthy budget. Clearly, room exists for give and take, particularly if you are a very low or very high income earner, as long as your percentages add up to 100%.

Some of the categories above cover fixed expenses, such as Housing, Debt, and Utilities. Others address what we will call variable fixed expenses; you will spend money in each of these categories during a typical month, but the amounts may vary slightly from month to month. Variable fixed categories include Food, Transportation, Clothing, and Personal. Finally, the remaining categories, including Giving, Saving, and Recreation, are what we will refer to as discretionary expenses. You may choose to allocate money within these categories, but it is not mandatory for your family’s survival.

Note: Mrs. Superhero and I strongly believe that Giving is important, and we choose to include it as a fixed expense within our budget. Your values will dictate how you choose to handle this category in your budget.

Here is a sample budget based upon a $5,000 monthly income:

Category Dollar Amount Allocated Allocations as Percentage of Budget Recommended Percentages
Giving/Charity $500 10.00% 0-10%
Saving $250 5.00% 5-15%
Housing $1,500 30.00% 25-35%
Utilities $500 10.00% 5-10%
Food $700 14.00% 5-15%
Transportation $400 8.00% 5-15%
Clothing $150 3.00% 2-7%
Personal $500 10.00% 5-10%
Health/Medical $200 4.00% 5-10%
Recreation $150 3.00% 5-10%
Debt $150 3.00% 0%
Totals $5,000 100.00%

As you can see above, the total of all categories combines equals $5,000. This budget adheres closely to the recommended percentages, and it even manages to stay below the recommended percentage ranges in the Health/Medical and Recreation categories.

Creating Your Detailed Monthly Budget

In the previous section, we allocated targeted spending amounts based on our categories. Now, we will explore how to reconcile our actual monthly spending with these estimated allocations.

In order to utilize accurate expense figures, it is advisable to download copies of your monthly checking, savings, and credit card statements from your financial institutions. If you are doing a paper pencil-and-pencil budget, I recommend adding expenses by category using columns.

Once you have calculated categorical totals for the entire month, the final step is to add all categorical totals and compare the final sum to your allocated final sum. Again, in order to have a zero-based budget, these figures should be identical.

Possible Problems and Trends

As you are doing your first few monthly budgets, you are likely to encounter the following problems or trends:

  • Spending more than the allocated targets in one or more categories
  • Spending less than the allocated targets in one or more categories

Why? A budget is a rough prediction. Think of it as a rough draft of an essay. You will return to it and refine any errors at the end of the month. The previous mistakes you made will influence and impact your thought process as you create later budgets.

Two Serious Warning Signs and Solutions

The following are two warning signs that your budget is not working:

  • Warning Sign: You consistently spend more than the allocated targets in specific categories.
    Solution: Increase allocated funds for the category if you are within recommended ranges. If you are exceeding recommended ranges, implement measures to reduce spending.
  • Warning Sign: Your spending exceeds your income.
    Solution: Forgive me for shouting, but STOP OVERSPENDING! Stay out of restaurants, learn to like your old clothes, and ride your bike to save on gas. Alternatively, seek alternative streams of income.

Next Steps

Now that you understand the nuances of a zero-based budget, get started on yours today. A budget only takes a few minutes to assemble, but the rewards are potentially without limit. Getting on the right path, understanding your money, and controlling your money are keys to being a Finance Superhero. A budget doesn’t require sophistication, manipulation, or secret wisdom. It requires patience, intentionality, and a desire to be in control of your money.


Readers, how do you plan your monthly budget? Do you use automated software? Excel? Paper and pencil? How much time do you spend on your budget each month? Share your thoughts and burning questions in the comments section below.

Five Reasons Why Everyone Should Have a Budget

A few weeks ago, I was lamenting the cost of graduate school with a friend over coffee. I commented that I had no idea why so many people were willing to go back to school for an MA or MBA and happily load up on debt that would have to be factored into their budget.

Yup, I said the b-word. My friend winced, as if I had just kicked him in the shin under the table.

For reasons I will forever struggle to understand, the word budget is a major taboo in today’s culture. Of course, I have never let that fact deter me in the past, and I wasn’t about to let it in this conversation, either.

“You do have a budget, right?”

“No. . . Budgeting just isn’t my thing. Besides, I’m always going to have debt anyway. What’s the point?”

Sadly, this attitude isn’t all that uncommon today. Chances are, you have also had similar conversations with friends, relatives, co-workers, or maybe even your neighborhood barista.

This, my fellow Superheroes, is a tragedy. With proper budgeting, there is no reason that the average person today cannot retire a millionaire and live a life of financial independence.

Five Reasons to Budget

While there are far more than five reasons everyone should have a budget, today I will present five reasons. My intention is to make you think and simultaneously stir your emotions. After reading this, please do not go another day without having a budget in place for your family.

  1. A Budget is Easy to Create

I am convinced that the average person’s aversion to budgeting stems from the budgetary failures of both federal and state government units. They ask, “If they can’t figure it out, how am I supposed to do it?” In my home state of Illinois, for example, our elected representatives and Governor have consistently demonstrated an inability to play nice and do what is best for their constituents. Ironically, the Illinois General Assembly recently enjoyed a vacation after months of accomplishing nothing.

With a Superhero mindset, you can do much better. Let’s walk through the basics of a simple starter budget:

  • If you have an understanding of addition, subtraction, basic fractions, and can operate a calculator, you can do a budget. Grab a pencil, a legal pad, and get started.
  • List your income from all sources at the top of the page. I recommend using net income, commonly referred to as “take home pay.”
  • Gather information on your fixed necessity expenses: mortgage/rent, utilities, and medications.
  • Gather information on your flexible necessity expenses: food/groceries/toiletries, clothing, and fuel/transportation.
  • Gather information on your discretionary expenses: restaurants, entertainment.
  • Calculate the total of your expenses and subtract this figure from your total net income. If you are spending more than you are earning, something must change.  First of all, aim to reduce unnecessary discretionary spending. Next, explore ways to reduce/eliminate restaurants, save on groceries and toiletries, and formulate a plan to reduce fuel/transportation expenses through well-planned travel. If you have money remaining at the end of your budget, it can be used to build your emergency fund, pay off your debts, and give to organizations/individuals in need.
  • Lastly, examine your fixed expenses and explore all avenues to reduce them. This can be done by paying off debts, thereby reducing your monthly obligations, negotiating rent/refinancing your mortgage (especially if your mortgage is 3-5 years old, you may be missing out on historically low interest rates), and reducing your usage of utilities. Any additional cash you can save is equivalent to receiving a raise.

Note: I realize that this guide to a simple starter budget is basic. We will dive into the nuances of a more detailed budget in a future post. Your starter budget will be approximate. That is OK. The goal is for you to establish a wide lens view of your current income and spending. When assembling future, more detailed budgets, we will use budget software, such as EveryDollar, to add precision to our process. If you prefer, you can jump to this step rather than the old-fashioned paper and pencil method outlined above.

  1. A Budget Puts You in Control of Your Money

Superheroes, you work hard to earn your income. I know I do. Without a budget, it is difficult to keep your income inline. Each dollar you earn in your lifetime is like a tiny employee that is ready to work for you. You wouldn’t hire an employee for your department or business and fail to provide her with a detailed purpose and role. If you did, you would be a poor boss. Employees need guidance and structure to succeed, and your money is no different. Put those dollars to work by assigning them a unique role. That begins and ends with a budget.

  1. A Budget Requires You to Pay Attention to Your Money

With several Mr. Washingtons working for you, suddenly doing exactly what you tell them to do, things begin to change. Suddenly, you notice that your grande non-fat no whip latte costs you $7 each morning. You may even experience a bit of pain upon realizing that this equates to $35 per week and over $1800 per year.

Is this worth $1800 per year?

Noticing details like this is just the beginning when you maintain a monthly budget. And when you start to pay attention, innocent trips to the ATM don’t seem quite so innocent anymore. You begin to think twice before you spend because you understand the ramifications of departing from your plan, a point which segues nicely into the next reason to budget.

  1. Operating Without a Budget is a Missed Opportunity

Though the US government prints money like it is going out of style, you and I know that money is a finite resource. Each of us has a limited number of working years, and logically, our earned income is similarly limited as a result. Do not let any of it go to waste. You must be intentional to be successful.

Today, more and more people strive to out earn their stupid spending. They work long hours to pay for cars, boats, and summer beach homes, yet they are too busy working to enjoy the fruits of their labor. I am not condemning hard work, nor am I saying that you should not have nice things. However, as Chris Hogan puts it, “I don’t want nice things to have you!” If you do not have a budget, your hard-earned money is likely being wasted on buying things you don’t need to impress people you don’t even know. The longer you continue this way, the longer you are missing out on what Albert Einstein dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World: compound interest. And in this case, being late to the party isn’t fashionable; it’s foolish.

For example, consider the following scenario: Ben and John are both 20 years old. Ben begins investing $250 per month in index funds, and he continues until he is 30 years old, at which time he never invests another cent, allowing compound interest to grow his money until retirement at age 59 ½. John decides to lease a vehicles for $250 per month during this same 10 year window, and wisely snaps out of it when he reaches age 30, at which time he begins investing $250 and continues until age 60. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that both gentlemen invest in similarly-performing index funds, which average a 10% return each year. Surely John must catch up to Ben? Take a look below:

  Ben’s Investments John’s Investments
Age Contribution Interest Balance Contribution Interest Balance
20 $3,000.00 $300.00 $3,300.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
21 $3,000.00 $630.00 $6,930.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
22 $3,000.00 $993.00 $10,923.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
23 $3,000.00 $1,392.30 $15,315.30 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
24 $3,000.00 $1,831.53 $20,146.83 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
25 $3,000.00 $2,314.68 $25,461.51 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
26 $3,000.00 $2,846.15 $31,307.66 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
27 $3,000.00 $3,430.77 $37,738.43 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
28 $3,000.00 $4,073.84 $44,812.27 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
29 $3,000.00 $4,781.23 $52,593.50 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
30 $0.00 $5,259.35 $57,852.85 $3,000.00 $300.00 $3,300.00
31 $0.00 $5,785.29 $63,638.14 $3,000.00 $630.00 $6,930.00
32 $0.00 $6,363.81 $70,001.95 $3,000.00 $993.00 $10,923.00
33 $0.00 $7,000.20 $77,002.15 $3,000.00 $1,392.30 $15,315.30
34 $0.00 $7,700.22 $84,702.37 $3,000.00 $1,831.53 $20,146.83
35 $0.00 $8,470.24 $93,172.61 $3,000.00 $2,314.68 $25,461.51
36 $0.00 $9,317.26 $102,489.87 $3,000.00 $2,846.15 $31,307.66
37 $0.00 $10,248.99 $112,738.86 $3,000.00 $3,430.77 $37,738.43
38 $0.00 $11,273.89 $124,012.75 $3,000.00 $4,073.84 $44,812.27
39 $0.00 $12,401.28 $136,414.03 $3,000.00 $4,781.23 $52,593.50
40 $0.00 $13,641.40 $150,055.43 $3,000.00 $5,559.35 $61,152.85
41 $0.00 $15,005.54 $165,060.97 $3,000.00 $6,415.29 $70,568.14
42 $0.00 $16,506.10 $181,567.07 $3,000.00 $7,356.81 $80,924.95
43 $0.00 $18,156.71 $199,723.78 $3,000.00 $8,392.50 $92,317.45
44 $0.00 $19,972.38 $219,696.16 $3,000.00 $9,531.75 $104,849.20
45 $0.00 $21,969.62 $241,665.78 $3,000.00 $10,784.92 $118,634.12
46 $0.00 $24,166.58 $265,832.36 $3,000.00 $12,163.41 $133,797.53
47 $0.00 $26,583.24 $292,415.60 $3,000.00 $13,679.75 $150,477.28
48 $0.00 $29,241.56 $321,657.16 $3,000.00 $15,347.73 $168,825.01
49 $0.00 $32,165.72 $353,822.88 $3,000.00 $17,182.50 $189,007.51
50 $0.00 $35,382.29 $389,205.17 $3,000.00 $19,200.75 $211,208.26
51 $0.00 $38,920.52 $428,125.69 $3,000.00 $21,420.83 $235,629.09
52 $0.00 $42,812.57 $470,938.26 $3,000.00 $23,862.91 $262,492.00
53 $0.00 $47,093.83 $518,032.09 $3,000.00 $26,549.20 $292,041.20
54 $0.00 $51,803.21 $569,835.30 $3,000.00 $29,504.12 $324,545.32
55 $0.00 $56,983.53 $626,818.83 $3,000.00 $32,754.53 $360,299.85
56 $0.00 $62,681.88 $689,500.71 $3,000.00 $36,329.99 $399,629.84
57 $0.00 $68,950.07 $758,450.78 $3,000.00 $40,262.98 $442,892.82
58 $0.00 $75,845.08 $834,295.86 $3,000.00 $44,589.28 $490,482.10
59 $0.00 $83,429.59 $917,725.45 $3,000.00 $49,348.21 $542,830.31

At age 59 and approaching retirement, Ben will have invested a total of $30,000 and hold a portfolio valued at $917,725.45. John will invest $90,000 over 30 years -three times what Ben invested-yet he will only hold a portfolio valued at $542,830.31! John never caught up due to the avalanche of compound interest that worked in Ben’s favor.

  1. A Budget is Freeing

When my friend claimed that a budget really wasn’t his thing, I immediately realized that he had never experienced the freedom that results from a fine-tuned budget. When you maintain a budget, you have the benefits of:

  • knowing how much money you have at any given moment
  • knowing you do not have to fear a bounced check or overdraft fees
  • no surprises
  • peace of mind that comes from having budgeted for emergencies (a post on the value of the emergency fund and how much you may need is coming later this week)

Surprisingly, the notion that a budget is restrictive is pure nonsense. As a regular listener of The Dave Ramsey Show, I have heard countless “Debt-Free Screams” in which the callers said that planning a budget felt like they had received a raise.  

Lastly, a budget is freeing because it causes you to think.  Thinking leads to reflection, and reflection leads you to consider your values and decide what is most important to you. Value driven budgeting is the key to seeing beyond the numbers and focusing on the why behind the numbers.

What Are You Waiting For?

A budget only takes a few minutes to assemble, but the rewards are potentially without limit. Getting on the right path, understanding your money, and controlling your money are keys to being a Finance Superhero. A budget doesn’t require sophistication, manipulation, or secret wisdom. It requires patience, intentionality, and a desire to be in control of one’s money.


Do you have a monthly budget? How you maintain it? How much time do you spend on budgeting each month? Please share your thoughts on all things budget-related in the comments section below.