A reader question: Budgeting and reminders

By glblguy

I have a question
Photo by: pfly

I recently gave my readers an opportunity to ask me pretty much anything they wanted and that they did. I’ll be answering all of the questions I received so far in an article next week; however, I did received one question that was on a big enough topic to address as an article of it’s own. A reader, I’ll name Liz, send me the following email:

I am great at making budgets. I can make the most high-tech, fancy looking budgets you’ve ever seen with Excel. That’s not the problem. The problem is: I seem to be completely incapable of following them. I am constantly adjusting & re-adjusting our money. I don’t know if it’s our income ($32,448 for a family of 4), ADHD, or a complete lack of self-discipline. The truth is probably a combination of all three. I’m able to have self-discipline sometimes but not so much at others. I’m famous for putting a system in place to keep track of the bills that need to be paid but then forgetting to use the system! I’m also famous for organizing coupons then forgetting to take them with me or, when I do take them with me, forgetting to give them to the cashier! I’ve been driving around with several brown paper bags in my truck because Ukrop’s gives you 5 cents off for each bag and every time I go there, I forget to take them in with me.

My first thought after reading this email was “Wow, that sounds EXACTLY like me.” In particular, the issue of forgetting to bring the coupons and forgetting to use them. I am famous for both of these. This is really a great set of questions and one’s that I would suspect a number of people struggle with, especially in today’s world we all constantly seem to have a million things to do and not near enough time to get them all done.

How to follow a budget

The first part of the email really asks: How do I follow my budget? Liz really answers her own question: lack of self-discipline. Liz, let me make you feel better, this is an extremely common problem and one that I struggle with myself. The issue isn’t lack of desire but more of a problem of being “out of sight, out of mind”. I don’t think income is the problem, and honestly have that level of income and a family of 4 should drive you to really focus on staying within your budget, as your budget has to be tight. So let’s look at a few things I do to help address similar issues:

Have an accountability partner

I didn’t see you mention a husband, but will assume since you say “family of 4″ you are married with two kids. I also saw lots of “I” and no “we” which makes me think your husband isn’t engaged in your personal finances. In order to strengthen our self discipline, my wife and I utilize each other as accountability partners. We do our finances together and review our budget and status weekly. During that meeting we review our current spending, discuss remaining budget amounts and where we are tight and where we aren’t and also establish our budget for the up coming month. We also use this time to discuss any unbudgeted expenses and decide if we should spend the money or not…together.

Once we’ve completed our budget, we do a silly little pinky shake to convey our commitment to each other to not only follow the budget, but to hold each other accountable for staying within the budget. This accountability system has been very effective for us.

Review the budget frequently

Many readers have commented in the past that a weekly budget meeting is too frequent. I disagree. The main advantage of reviewing the budget at least weekly is keeping it fresh in our minds. By reviewing it weekly, both of us know the status, know how much remaining money we have and understand exactly where all of the money is going. Discussing it weekly also increases the accountability and stresses the importance of staying focused and within the budget we mutually agreed to.

Constantly adjusting & readjusting

You mention that you are constantly adjusting and readjusting the budget. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you are still spending less than you earn; however, it is a sign that maybe you aren’t spending enough time planning your budget.

At the end of the month, my wife and I use our budget review meeting to set the budget for the next month. I work up the draft budget, then we review it together. She adds in upcoming expenses I missed or wasn’t aware of. We also make tweaks and determine how to much to put on our credit cards vs. savings.

I honestly don’t think I’ve had a month go by where I didn’t have to tweak the budget numbers a few times, but it’s not excessive tweaking. This is a result of us placing a big focus on setting the budget up correctly BEFORE the coming month and really planning out our expected income and expenses.

Constant Reminders

Now that we’ve discussed some ideas on how to follow the budget, let’s discuss how to remember things like bills, coupons, etc. I am one of those “out of site out of mind” people, so I surround myself with reminders. I do things that some people might call a little crazy, but they work for me. Here are just a few suggestions that will help you get thinking “out of the box”.

Automate

One of the first things people like us you and I should do is automate everything as much as possible. All but maybe one or two of my bills are set-up in online bill pay and paid automatically. I don’t even have to think about them, they just get paid based on the payment schedule I set-up. For the bills that are variable each month or can’t be automated I do two things:

  1. I add a reminder in online billpay about due bills. The online billpay system I use from my primary bank sends me an email when a bill is due. As soon as I read the email, I login and schedule the payment to be made. I do this immediately.
  2. I set up a Google Calendar reminder a day or two after the bill pay reminder to remind me again to pay the bill. This handles the situation where I get slack and don’t go pay the bill immediately when I receive the first bill pay reminder.

I am a firm believer that it’s really hard to change who and what you are. Habits can be changed overtime, but I believe who you are at the core is really who you are. So instead of trying to change who you are, just accept it and address the issues.

Personally, I forgot stuff and I procrastinate all the time. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember, and I’ve accepted I am not going to change. So I just put things in place to mitigate these little difficiences like I described above.

Remembering Coupons

I truly laughed out loud when I read Liz’s comment about bringing coupons to the store and forgetting them. I used to do that all the time, to the point my wife was actually getting quite frustrated with me. I needed to come up with a way to remember the coupons and remember to use them. Maybe my method will help you.

There are two things I always remember to bring to the grocery store: a shopping list and my wallet. What I started doing was clipping the coupons to the list, then once in the store I’d move the coupons from the list to my debit card. I had to pay using my debit card, so having the coupons clipped to the debit card made it impossible for me to forget to use them.

Remembering other things

The trick to remembering things is to place them in a spot where you can’t miss them. For example, the paper bags: next time you are heading to the store, place the bags in the passenger seat, or on the dash. If you have a pocket book, put your pocket book on top of the bags. Hard to forget them now huh?

Instead of being frustrated with your problems, just find creative ways to work around them!

Here are a few articles I’ve written that will provide some more detail on the items I’ve mentioned above:

Thanks for the great question! For the rest of you that asked questions, I’m working on them and will have answers next week to all of them. Do you have any additional advice for Liz? Share your advice, suggestions or ideas by adding a comment! Have a question for me? Drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer it.


8 Responses (including trackbacks) to “A reader question: Budgeting and reminders”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    One trick I have used is to write my shopping list on an envelope. Put the coupons inside the envelope. I’ve seen some people place cash in the envelope as well to ensure they do not overspend at the grocery store. If you see this as a waste of an envelope, consider reusing the envelopes you receive in the mail.

  2. "Mo" Money Says:

    Using the envelope system for items like groceries and eating out will force your budget to work. When the money in the envelope is gone, you stop spending!

  3. Luke @ Money & Fitnes Blog Says:

    I really enjoyed the post and I think it is a good read for just about anyone who worries about debt and money. My question for the readers is how does one set a budget? Where do you get the numbers so that you are not setting it too high or too low?

  4. David Carter Says:

    I often forget things too. The trick for me is that when I know I need to remember something, I make a mental note that I will need to do this. For example if I needed to bring coupons to the store, I would just tell myself, next time I go to the store I need to remember to bring these. I think it just associates the store w/ the coupons so when I think store, I will also think coupons. Works 9/10 at least for me !

  5. RobY Says:

    On the subject of reminder systems … I never forget my cell phone (anymore). I used to have a problem forgetting my cell phone in the morning if I put it on the charger the night before. I solved that by putting my car keys with it when I charge it overnight now. I can’t leave the house without it now.

    Of course, I’ve spent a bit of time frantically searching for my keys on a few of these mornings before it clicked. But I still didn’t forget my phone.

  6. MITBeta @ Don't Feed the Alligators Says:

    @ David:

    I use a similar device: If I want to remember to do something first thing in the morning, I think, “Remember to do (whatever) when you reach for your toothbrush.” Usually I remember to remember, but then have trouble remembering what it was I was supposed to do…

    @ glbl: I recently wrote an article about using Google Apps tools in budgeting and management, including the use of Google Calendar:

    http://www.dontfeedthealligators.com/blog/using-google-apps-to-track-spending-and-budget

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