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Posts Tagged ‘budget’

I’ve been meaning to write a follow up to my recent blog about how to analyze your spending history to help you avoid your spending triggers when I came across this article on shopping habits by Charles Duhigg.  While the article primarily focuses on how your purchase patterns can really betray you;  providing the companies with data that allow them to better target market to you, what I found most useful was the discussion on “habit loops” (on page 8) and how with a little reflection and tracking you can fight your bad habits and foster good ones.

First I think it is important to admit that we all have triggers in our lives that cause us to spend when we shouldn’t.  It may be a sale, a particular store, some particular item i.e purse, shoes, gadget etc., but we all have them.  Triggers tells us that we really need it and we need it now.

A trigger could also be something small like the obligatory 2-3 cups of coffee, lunch everyday, or drink after work.

Regardless what our trigger is,  spending on these “needs” leads us to overspend.  Even if you are not overspending, knowing the details of your habits can help you find more areas for savings.

So how do you start?  First you need to figure out what are the things you are overspending on (reward in the habit loop)  and then what are the triggers (cue)  causing you to want to spend and what routines you can change to break the loop.

So the first step is to identify the bad habits that are causing you to overspend. To just balance your budget you don’t really need to know this information. However, knowing it will allow you to target some specific habits (and break the habit loop) that may be the cause of your overspending.  I like to give the following exercise to many of my clients and the results have always been enlightening:

  1. Draw up what you think you spend in various categories in a month.  You can be broad or very detailed, but your list should at a minimum contain the following:
    • Housing
    • Phone
    • Transportation – including transit, gas, maintenance, insurance
    • Travel
    • Gifts
    • Food – grocery
    • Food – eating out, including alcohol. It may be helpful to breakout lunches and dinners
    • Clothing
    • Child care
    • Household items (sometime grouped with grocery)
    • Pet care
  2. Find your credit card and bank statements from the past year – pick at least 3 consecutive months, I like to use September to November because it doesn’t have too many holidays or vacations which skew your spending pattern.  Based on the categories you have came up in 1, total what you spent in each of the categories and then divide it by 3 to get your average spending per month.  Some credit cards and bank statements now helpfully divide the categories up for you so it won’t be such a chore and should only take about an hour or two to calculate.I suggest using old statements rather than tracking your spending going forward as it gives a real picture of spending, and does not allow your knowledge that the spending will be scrutinized to alter your behavior.

Now look at the difference between what you thought you were spending and what you actually spent.  They are not the same are they?

If you are not currently overspending (i.e spending more than your take home pay) this exercise will highlight areas that may lead to further savings and help you pay down your debt sooner or save more each month.

If you are currently overspending then this exercise will highlight categories where you need to change your habits.  So dig a little deeper.

Digging  Deeper

Are you overspending on small items like coffee?  These items are insiginicant individually but can have large cumulative effects.  $2 spent each day on coffee for the year is $500.  Would you buy $500 of coffee? Can you buy one cup of coffee instead of 2 cups a day?   Why is that you are buying coffee?  Is it a social need, or an excuse to get out of the office?  Dehigg’s article describes a simple exercise you can try to determine if there is another cause for you habit that you may not be aware of.

What about developing a new habit of bringing coffee from home?  Are there things you can do to create a new cue?

In an upcoming post I will list some tricks that I have used and those that my clients have shared with me that may help you develop a new habit and reduce your overall spending.

Put simply, the trick is finding a way to give yourself the reward you actually want just without spending as much and not making yourself feel deprived.

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It is March, when many of us realize once again that we have failed in our new years resolution made in the heady, early days of Jan 2012. For many, that would be sticking to a budget.  As a financial planner I often hear “I can’t (save, pay off debt insert as appropriate).  I never have any money left over.”  Next I get the inevitable question “what’s the secret?” Of course there isn’t any secret.  You just have to spend less than you make.

If you can’t do that naturally, then you have to trick yourself.  For budgeting the trick is to make yourself feel poorer than you really are and track how much you spend.

Now how do you make yourself feel poorer you ask?

You are not richer than you think  – How much do you make?  It is not the number on your job contract.   It is actually the amount you take home, the amount that shows up in your bank account every paycheck.

Now take it a step further,  subtract from the net paycheck the costs in your life that are non-negotiable such as rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance (health, home and car), debt payments.  Now how much do you have left?  That is all that you can spend each month- your living allowance.  Your 50K a year job has now just become a 25k a year job.  You are not as rich as you thought.

Now go around shopping with that number in your head and you’ll find that you make choices differently. It sounds obvious but try it, the difference it will have on your choices will be profound.

Track, Track, Track – Now that you know how much your are actually worth (feel poorer yet?) you need to track your spending. Just like any good diet program you need to enter your daily calories.  There are lots of budget tools out there that will help you such as mint. com.

However, I prefer something much simpler … an old fashioned spreadsheet.  On a weekly basis subtract how much money you spent from your living allowance. You don’t have to keep receipts; you don’t even have to track daily, because that would be a chore and you won’t do it.  Spend 15 minutes weekly (Mondays?) and update your totals from your credit and bank accounts and subtract them from your living allowance.  For credit cards you should use your new balances.  For your bank account use your total cash out flows (called debit), usually your bank have a handy summary at the top or bottom of your account details page.  This way you will always know how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the month.

Now before someone says “what about setting your budget and the different pots of money…. ” I say it doesn’t matter.  While detailed categorization of your spending will help you understand your spending patterns, this level of detail doesn’t help if your goal is to avoid overspending.  All that matters is that your spending never exceed your living allowance.  Whether you spent $400 on groceries or on a pair of shoes is irrelevant if you don’t have $400 to spend.

If you do these two things and make them a habit, you’ll find that you will be able to keep your spending under control.  I have been doing this for years and have managed to do well on this system.  However, once in a while I stop tracking for a month to see what happens.  What happens is that I spend way too much.  Last time I experimented, I spent twice my living allowance.  So back I go to tracking.

And that leads to my third trick.

Don’t give up – we all know it takes multiple attempts to quite a bad habit before succeeding and living within a buget is the same. You need to keep trying. Just because you overspent one month doesn’t mean you can’t stay on track the next month.  Just think of each month as a fresh new start.

So now that it’s March and you haven’t been sticking to your budget … it doesn’t mean you have failed for 2012, it just means you get to try again for March.

Good Luck.

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