Balancing Act: The Perils of Budgeting

For years, I've not had a budget because I didn't think I needed one. I never spent more money than I made, and I entered every transaction into my checkbook as soon as I made it (or, well, enough of them that it didn't much matter, anyway). I was sure to save some of my money (I even got a high-yield account from ING), and I even invested a little. I thought that budgets were for people who spent too much, and I simply didn't.

When Dave and I were engaged, we sat down and had The Finances Talk. We shared how much we made, how much we liked to spend, what was important to each of us when it came to money, etc. In these conversations, we realized that, if we want to pay off our loans early AND put money into my 403b AND have savings for fun and emergencies, we would have to live on a tighter budget than either of us had ever experienced.

This launched us into the land of budgets. When we set it up, we did so to limit our spending. We used PearBudget and it worked wonders. We set up categories, put our savings and school loan payments in first, and then moved the numbers around until they came to an approximation of what we make every month. It was that easy.

Or So I Thought...

What I didn't realize about a budget, as opposed to just balancing your checkbook faithfully every month, is that a budget doesn't necessarily help you stop spending. What it really does is helps you allocate your money and analyze your spending. If you keep it up faithfully during the month, it helps you know when to stop buying things. It also shows you where your money is going, which can help you see what is and is not a financial priority.

The problem? There are some of these things that I DIDN'T WANT TO KNOW!

I don't really want to know, for instance, that I spent almost $30 on my turtle this month. Now, it's just $30...but on the turtle!!??!? I love Cummings and all, but he's still just a turtle. I also didn't want to remember how many times Dave and I went to In 'N Out. It's not MacDonald's, but it's not where I want to drop my stash, either. I also didn't realize how much I like to spend on gifts and things for other people. What am I supposed to be — stingy?

Facing the Facts

As it turns out, our budget has raised more questions than it has given answers. Because Dave and I both can be (and have been, in this situation) fairly disciplined people, the budget has helped us spend less than we might have without it. It has forced us, in some cases, to choose where we want our money to go (Valentine's dinner out, or several more In 'N Out runs?). But it has also forced us to question ourselves and our spending. It has forced us to see how much more we'd be able to pay on the loans if we were cooking hamburgers at home.

In the end I'm glad, I guess, that we have the budget (though I kind-of feel like I have to say that. I am, after all, a PF blogger.) Even though some of them are small, the questions force us to do more than run on autopilot. They make us actually choose where we spend our money, and (sometimes!) explain to each other why we chose to spend it there. And that seems like a good thing. Many times we choose to make the same decision that we would have made on autopilot, but the fact that it is deliberate and definitive means that we are spending the money and aren't left wondering where it all went at the end of the month.

Consider yourselves warned, though. Starting a budget is so easy, but keeping with it so it can actually help you is harder than it seems!

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Will Chen's picture

Ha ha.  You and Andrea have to start a support group to get rid of that guilt of not always buying people gifts and paying for their meals!

But the most important question here is, how the heck do you spend $30 on turtles!  We might need a Pet Freebies, Shell Edition!

Sarah Winfrey's picture

If you want it to go away (you know, so you can SEE the turtle from the top of the tank, and I say that seriously), you have to buy the anti-algae products.  Which, apparently, can run up to $30 a month!

And there's only one turtle...pathetic, I know.


Andrea Karim's picture

My next blog post is going to be about how to keep costs down with pets. Although honestly, I can't think of a thing to do to keep a turtle free from algae. The same goes for my Pekingnese's pending facelift. Jokes about stapling his little face aside, I have GOT to figure out a way to save money on pets. They're as expensive as kids these days.

Andrea Karim's picture

I've downloaded the PearBudget stuff, but I have to say, the first page is a little overwhelming. And I'm expected to fill out every tab on the spreadsheet? How long did it take you to do this, Sarah?

Sarah Winfrey's picture

It WAS overwhelming the first time I looked at it, too, but I thought that was just because I'd never done it before.  Once I read all their little instruction and advice boxes and looked at the sample month (the very last tab), it made more sense.

Every tab on every spreadsheet?  Ummm...not sure what you mean.  Once you fill out the first page, all your categories are just there for you (you don't have to type them in every time).  And then you just keep your receipts and fill in the blanks.

And the only way that I've come up with to keep the turtle free from algae without spending money involves keeping the tank temperature so low that the turtle gets sick.  Which is counterproductive, given the cost of good reptile vets these days.  ;)