Monday, June 18, 2018

Budgeting Basics - Step 9 - Envelopes

When you budget based on your annual income and expenses, using an "envelope system" can work to your advantage.

You have probably heard about people putting money into envelopes to put that money aside for different types of expenses. You might have an envelope for clothing or one for groceries, for instance. When a paycheck comes in, certain amounts are allotted to go in each of the envelopes. Then those expenses are paid from that amount.

Using a system like this lets you consider your whole year when you budget while still managing your money month by month or paycheck by paycheck. Putting certain amounts of cash into designated envelopes throughout the year allows you to plan for future needs while still meeting your immediate obligations.

If you budgeted for annual expenses that are flexible or unscheduled or infrequent (haircuts that are less often than monthly, clothing, gifts, car maintenance, vehicle registration, and other similar types of expenses), you know in advance that some time during the course of the year you will need a certain amount of money (maybe an exact amount or maybe an estimated amount) for each of those expenses. You can take that list of expenses that are less frequent than monthly and divide each one by 12 to get a monthly amount (or by 52 for weekly or by a number that represents the number of paychecks you have each month). That tells you how much money needs to be put aside each month (or each week or each paycheck) to help prepare for that expense. Each month (or each week or each paycheck) that much cash is put into an envelope marked with that category. Then when that expense comes due or that money is needed, the cash is already set aside and available to be used, without affecting the other regular expenditures.

Clothing, gifts, and school supplies inevitably must be bought. Looking at your annual budget lets you know how much you can reasonably spend on each of these categories while still meeting your other financial goals (including saving for emergencies, retirement, and other needs). Putting aside a small amount each month (or each week or each pay period) lets you spread the cost throughout the year, and then when you have an opportunity to buy at a discount or you have a pressing need, the funds are available to take advantage of that discount or meet that need.

The envelope system can be helpful for more frequent expenses too. For instance, if you take out cash to pay for groceries, you can easily see how much money is available for groceries even if you shop more than once per pay period or have multiple people shopping or shop at more than one store. You can save some of that grocery money until there is a sale or other opportunity to buy a large amount of some staple at a low price.

Using cash in envelopes eliminates the need to track what each person is spending on what--when the cash leaves the envelope, no more can be spent until the next set of cash comes in. This helps prevent overspending, so that you can actually stick to your savings goals.


If you see that an envelope has "enough" cash in it already, you can stop adding money to that envelope and use the designated amount to fill some other envelope or to apply to paying down debt or to reaching a savings goal. You can even put an amount on the envelope to remind yourself how much you are needing in it. Once that amount has been reached, instead of adding to that envelope each month (or each week or each paycheck) you would allocate that amount to a different goal until the funds in that envelope drop below the target amount.

If you are only able to put very small amounts of money toward some goal each month (or each week or each paycheck), that's ok. Once you have saved enough to be able to purchase what you were saving for, then you are able to make that purchase with a clear conscience, knowing that you aren't jeopardizing any other financial commitments.

If you are very disciplined and organized, you can do this without putting cash in envelopes. But before you try "virtual" envelopes, you might try the physical ones first to be sure you can do it, and if you start slipping up when you try the virtual kind you should return to the physical model before you get your finances out of whack.

Physical envelopes don't have to be envelopes.  They can be jars or coffee cans or folders or whatever will securely keep your money organized.  We use pencil pouches that are meant to go in a three-ring binder.  My brilliant husband took the cardboard that was inside the pouch showing through the window on the front, turned it over, and wrote the label on the back.  Now the label shows through the window on the front of the pouch.

Not all the money you are saving should be kept as cash.  Money you'll be saving for a long time (such as saving for a vehicle or vacation or a new large appliance) can be kept in a savings account, either a separate account or in an account with other funds where you keep track yourself of how much of the money applies to what goal.  Also, if some categories start accumulating really large amounts, you'll have to decide if you should put that money in savings, stop adding to that category until the amount in it drops below a certain threshhold, or go ahead and use the money.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 8 - Big Picture

Why should you base your budget on your annual pay rather than budgeting around each individual paycheck or month?

Many expenses are weekly or monthly, and it seems reasonable to manage those based on your individual paychecks or each month. Then for the expenses that are infrequent or not scheduled, you pay out of the surplus of each paycheck or each month's pay.

When you do that, it's hard to plan for expenses that come less often but are fully foreseeable. Also, when you budget based on a short period of time, it's hard to save for those expenses that can be expected but can't be known in advance.

Vehicle registration comes only once per year, but you know exactly when to expect it and how much it will cost. This is a fully foreseeable expense that isn't monthly.

Christmas and birthday gifts and celebrations each come once per year at times that are known in advance. You get to choose how much you spend on them, but you can plan that in advance based on your annual income and expenses.

Clothing purchases have to be made, especially with growing children to buy for, but exactly when they have to be made or how much they will cost isn't definite. (You can of course decide how much to spend and when to buy, but it isn't necessarily scheduled.)

Most families can expect to have some medical or dental expenses during each year. You can't necessarily know in advance when they will occur or how much they will be, but you can guess at an amount that will cover some of them.

Car repairs aren't usually foreseeable, but cars do need them regularly, especially repairs such as new tires or belts and hoses. It's reasonable to have a sum of money on hand to help pay for those expenses even though you can't know in advance exactly when they will occur or how much they will cost.


When you budget based on the entire year's pay and the entire year's expenses, you can make an attempt to include those less frequent or unscheduled expenses. That allows you to be prepared for them ahead of time rather than scrambling at the last minute.

The next step will explain how the "envelope system" can help you use the annual budgeting method to your best advantage.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 7 - Allocating the Surplus (Margin)

When you have a realistic list of income and expenses that has income higher than expenses, you next need to allocate that extra income. It's tempting to use that extra money for spending on things you want to do but haven't budgeted for. In a way, that's what we're going to do, but not as free money.

You need to have a nest egg, some money put away for emergencies. To start with, you need to get $1000 put away that can be used to cover those totally unexpected expenses like a plumbing repair or bail. 
Some of you will say, "That's easy! Already have that!" Those people can read on after this paragraph. Some of you will say, "That's impossible!" No, it's hard but not impossible. It requires you to take every dollar you can scrape together and put it aside in a safe place and not touch it except when you have an actual emergency. It means you have to do without some things you would really like to have. But it *can* be done, and it *must* be done. Emergencies come along whether we want them to or not, and you must have money available to deal with them.

Once you have your $1000 saved, it's time to think of big expenses that come along periodically that aren't really unexpected. You know that appliances will break and need replacing, so you should plan for that. Some of your surplus needs to be saved so you have money to pay for the new appliance or the repair. You know that your vehicles will need repairs periodically. You know you need to do maintenance on your home.

Make a list of these sorts of items. You can even include vacations and other "fun" things here. Put down next to each item how much money you would like to have on hand all the time to cover that expense. For instance, you might want to keep $700 or $1000 on hand to cover an appliance repair, and probably at least $500 for auto repairs.

Now take the surplus amount of money that wasn't needed for your more regular expenses (listed as Cash Flow Margin on the spreadsheet I shared), and start applying it to those categories. You might make jars with labels to keep in your house, or you might have separate savings accounts at the bank, or you could put the money in your main savings account and keep track of how much belongs to which category. You might have only a very small amount to put towards these expenses, but if you put it faithfully where it belongs, you will eventually reach the amount you specified. Then you can start putting that surplus into another category.

If you have reached the amount you wanted for each of these extra categories, start putting the surplus into your emergency fund. You actually need enough money in your emergency fund to cover 6 months of living expenses!

And when you have to spend some of the money you've put aside in these funds, use the surplus to start replenishing the category you had to pull from.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 6 - Adjusting

When you completed Step 5, you had an estimate of your annual income and outflow, how much money you bring in and how much goes back out again.

If your income was higher than your estimated spending, things look pretty good. But check your estimates. Did you forget a category? Did you estimate too low?  Did you include expenses you know will occur but not exactly when or for how much, like car repairs (make an estimate for the year, even just a few hundred dollars) or school supplies?

If your income was lower than your expenses, that's not surprising. Now we need to fix that!

One way to fix that is to look at those discretionary or variable expenses and see if they can be reduced. But don't be unrealistic! You can't budget $20 a year for clothing for a family of 5 unless you are a super thrifty clothes shopper who receives lots of hand-me-downs. 

Another way to get your spending in line with your income is to look at some of the bills we listed to see if some of those can be reduced or eliminated. Do you need all the insurance coverage and other options that are deducted from your paycheck? Would it make more sense for you to pay cash for some things or purchase them from a different source than to pay the price for coverage through your employer? Only you can determine that for each item on your list.

You must get your spending estimate down below your income estimate, and you must stick to that spending estimate (or less). If you spend more than you earn, you will experience financial disaster. In fact, we have to have some leeway, some excess income (no matter how small) because we must save money to cover the inevitable large expenses that occur sporadically.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 5 - Total Expenses

Now we add up our numbers, all the amounts we put into our flexible categories plus the amounts we previously listed for regular bills and known expenses.

Make sure you are adding up numbers for the same time frame! I think it's easiest to do this initially based on annual numbers, so if you have a monthly number, multiply it by 12 first. Weekly numbers get multiplied by 52, etc.

If you're using my spreadsheet as a template, the numbers should already have added up automatically.  Now is a good time to check the math and make sure all the numbers are adding correctly.  If they are not, you'll have to troubleshoot the formulas on the spreadsheet.

When you have added all of these up, you have a rough idea of your annual spending. How does it compare to the annual income we calculated long, long ago? If your annual spending number is smaller than your annual income, you have a surplus that you can save. If it's bigger than your annual income, you have a deficit and need to reduce some of your spending amounts.  On the spreadsheet I gave you, that number will show up as Cash Flow Margin down near the bottom.  If it's positive, that's good.  If it's negative, we've got more work to do.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 4 - Other Expenses

We've figured out how much we have coming in, and we've recorded all our regular bills that we're committed to spending.

Now sit down and think about what else you spend money on regularly. Just make a list of everything you can think of. Don't include monetary amounts, just the label.
- clothes
- groceries
- eating out
- gas
- auto repairs
- school supplies
- Christmas gifts

You can see some items on the spreadsheet I showed you, just as examples.  You can add your own in place of mine or in addition to mine, if you're using that spreadsheet.

Let's put some numbers into the categories you listed. For some things, you can make a rough estimate. For instance, how often do you fill up your vehicle's tank with gas, in general? How much does that roughly cost? Multiply that out for the year, and put that number down for fuel (or whatever category you are keeping that in).

How many people do you buy Christmas presents for?  How much do you intend to spend for each of them?  What about birthday presents?  How many household members get haircuts for which you must pay?  How often?  How much does that cost each time?  Each of those amounts can go in the Annually column in the appropriate row, unless it's an amount that is spend monthly or even more frequently.

It's probably best to do these as annual amounts for now. Some of these categories are infrequent, so making estimates for the year will be simpler than trying to do them for the month or for a two-week period.

If you aren't sure how to estimate an expense, or if it's pretty flexible (like "gifts" or "clothes"), take a look at this list to get an idea of a reasonable amount to start with as an estimate.

Back to the Beginning

Budgeting Basics - Step 3 - Bills

Find every recurring bill you have. 

* If the amount is the same each time you pay, then one copy of that bill will do.  Car payments, mortgage payments, and phone bills often are the same each month.

* If the amount varies, gather several copies, ideally a year's worth.  Utility bills, especially electricity or gas, often vary from month to month.

Take that stack of bills and sort it. Bills that are the same every month go in one stack. Bills that change each month go in another.

We're going to list these bills on our budget. If the bill is the same every month, list that item and put the amount in the column for monthly expenses.

If the bill changes, take all of the examples you've collected, add up the amounts, and divide by the number you have. That will give you an average amount. List the bill on your budget and put that average in the monthly expense spot.

If you have bills that are more frequent than monthly or less frequent than monthly, you can convert them to a monthly expense to list them in the Monthly column or you can convert them to an annual expense and list them in the Annually column.

Back to the Beginning