Tools for staying on Budget

They always say the three things you shouldn’t talk about are Religion, Politics and Money.  I’m a Catholic married to an Agnostic. So we talk religion all the damned time. I have the Jehovah’s Witnesses over for coffee every Wed. I talk religion plenty and have never really had a problem. Politics isn’t usually a pleasant conversation, I’ll admit. I feel like moderate is the only intelligent, compassionate way to be, and while I love hearing people’s point of views, I refuse to hate the other side of the coin.  So, that’s those two.

But Money? We definitely should talk about that MORE. We have to start getting to a point where we don’t make financial intelligence this elusive secret you have to seek out. My husband and I grew up blue collar or less. When we started investing we had a financial planner project our retirement and it was more than I ever thought it would be. I went to my husband and he said, matter of factly, “Of course it is. I’ve been planning this since I was 9.” Because when you grow up getting made fun of for getting the free lunches, you have to get smart with money if you want to change that path.

The first thing my husband did was plan for a career with job security. Second was pick out a kick ass wife who was super cheap (except for kids clothes) and good with budgets.

We’ve done it all. We’ve used Excel templates, we’ve made our own. Our bank has a tracking system that lets you put in your budget. Sometimes it seems like my hubby installs a new budget software every few months. We use online calculators for everything big: how much should your mortgage be? (30% of your income) How much should your car payment be? (15%) And we research everything. Should you lease or buy? New or used? Sell or Rent? 15 year mortgage or 30?

So let me share the resources that have helped us the most.

Describing our Budget, not Prescribing.

The first mistake most people make when writing out their budget is writing out what they think they should be spending and not what they are spending. So, they say “well, we should really only be spending like $300 a month on groceries” but they shop at Whole Foods so they actually have to sell a kidney every month. Look at your spending. Check your bank statements and do the math. Most of the time just looking through your spending habits will reveal a few areas where you can “trim the fat” –Do you really need to go out to dinner three times a week?

Be realistic when trying to trim the fat.

You have never packed a lunch to go to work in your whole life. You probably aren’t going to start now. Or, rather, if you do, it probably won’t stick. You go out every Saturday to dinner; don’t take that out of the equation just because it’ll save you money. Keep it and work your budget around it.

The “Envelope Budget”

This tactic was by FAR the most helpful for sticking to our budget in the beginning. We have a bank that allows us to have as many checking accounts as we want with no minimum balance. So we set up accounts for each of our big budget items. We had a “Grocery” account, a “Kids stuff” account and a “Fun Money” account. Then there’s the “Primary Checking” account that we use to pay all our bills. We set up automatic withdrawals so that every time we got paid, money would automatically go into these accounts and we each had a card for these three things.

In the days of old (ha) before debit cards were a thing, I remembered my mom and dad doing this with cash. Every month she’d put in the cash for each budget category and once the money was gone, it was gone. The same for our debit accounts. Sorry, babe. Fun Money’s empty. No more sitters this month.

“Points” Cards

Literally the only credit card we have is one that lets us build up points. We have a gas card that we get extra points on and build up to cents off per gallon. We didn’t want to waste the opportunity and we still pay it off every month. It’s exclusively for gas and “big tickets” that we’ve saved for. So we pay it off with our budgeted “gas money” or we pull the money we’ve saved out to pay it off. For example, we just bought an epic play set, put it on our card and paid it off with the money we’d set aside for a year for it.

Some people use their points cards for everything. You will build up the points and rewards faster. But if you’re not paying it off every month, you’re doing nothing but hurting yourself and costing yourself extra money; not saving it. We use American Express; They have pretty hefty annual fees, but they waive them for active duty military members. I have friends who have a great Chase card, too but I know nothing about it. Check with your bank. Our bank used to have awesome rewards and we used it until they scaled back.


Don’t write a budget until you can track at least three months of your spending. If you can’t (or don’t want to) keep track of it all yourself, there are a few online tools that you can start with. The free one that consistently gets reviewed well is Mint. We had moderate success with that one and we went ahead and bought Quicken with even more success. But the Envelope Budgeting is incredibly difficult with these programs because they count money transfers as both debits AND credits. So you have to work a lot to fine tune these things.

If nothing else, there’s an Excel template you can start with. (We still use it for our overall general stuff.) Click “New” then search templates for “Budget.” I recommend the “Household Monthly Budget.” The more information you can put into your budget the better off you’ll be. Remember the quarterly and annual bills, too. The templates give suggestions that will inevitably remind you of things you’ve forgotten to include. Plus, the templates have those formulas already written in so you don’t have to do any math. The template looks like this:

Financial Planners

Call your bank. There’s a really good chance they have a financial planner that will help you for free. He’ll be able to tell you what to do with any surplus money you have. If you don’t have a surplus, then this isn’t that big of a worry, yet. When writing your budget, though, plan to have some sooner rather than later so that you’re not high and dry for retirement. Most difficult part of that will be sticking to the budget. 

The ideal goal is for 20% to get set aside. About 1/2 to 2/3 of that should be going to retirement. The rest is for “Oh shit” emergencies. You should maintain about three months income in your savings at all times just in case shit hits the fan. Once we have that, the rest is for retirement/investments. And if we use it, we put it back ASAP.

Motley Fool

If you have any interest in buying stocks outside of your standard Roth IRAs and Mutual Funds, I can’t recommend this highly enough. When my hubby and I were first married we were Dual Income No Kids, or DINKs. Which meant we actually had money to play with. And we did. Sometimes a little too foolishly. We’d pick stocks to buy blindly and it didn’t always serve us well. (Although my husband bought me stock in Marvel for Secretary’s day one year and less than six months later Disney bought Marvel and it just went splendidly.) After we had a couple companies go bankrupt, my hubby started looking into advice and found Motley Fool. They haven’t steered us wrong yet. They suggest stocks and project growth and tell you when you should sell (mostly) before a stock crashes. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a whole hell of a lot safer than going at it blind. It’s about $150 for 3 years of advice. We’ve always more than made up that money.

Saving For College

Ugh. This one’s a hard one. Partly because I’m hoping college costs will reform dramatically in the next 10 years, but also because if they don’t… most people can’t afford to put it in their budget. For my three kids to go to college, and me to pay for it, I have to save $1500 a month for them. That’s more than our savings and investments and … holy shit, it’s more than our damned mortgage. We could buy a really nice ass house for that. And then our kids could just live in that house and only work enough to pay for their car and food. Plus they may not even go to college. It’s just an overall punch in the gut.

But if you’re going to save for their college as much as you can, the 529 Plan or the UTMA are probably the ways to go. The 529 won’t hurt them on their Financial Aide paperwork because it’s not technically their money. But the UTMA can go for more than just school– which helps if they decide to be a tradesman. For more on which is better for you, you can read up here.

El Fin.

That’s pretty much it. You see it written out and it seems simple, right? It’s so hard, though. It took me years to accept and understand that if I’m going to stick to my budget, I can’t do lavish things. Even occasionally. Not unless I have them planned. Spending sporadically is the enemy of the Budget. Although I do get to use it to my advantage occasionally. Hubby wants to buy a paddle boat. “Sorry hun, that’s just not in the budget. Maybe we can save for it?” (And I’m usually able to talk him out of it by the time we’ve actually saved for it.)

Money tracking, budgeting and planning isn’t easy. You shouldn’t be expected to be on your own with it. Talking about it helps. Don’t be afraid to make a call to someone who lives and breathes this stuff. A bank, a financial advisor, a family member or friend. You can’t get better at things without support of some kind. Reach out.

Talk about money.


Disclaimer: I don’t have any kind of specialized or formal education on this; I’m just a girl who’s pretty good with money who married a dude who’s really good with it. We’re not rich, we’re not poor. We’re average in like, every way. So I’m guessing these tips should probably work for most people.

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