How to budget, save, and still have a life

Guest post by Natalie Webb
Feed Me piggy bank by skleberdesign

If life trips you up, will you be ready? These days you never know when a job loss, medical emergency, or even a cavity will suck your bank account dry and shrivelled.

You know how important it is to build up an emergency fund, but you need extra money before you can save any money, right? You might be surprised about the answer.

I used to be there, treading water financially, every day.

There I was, making decent money at an office job, while my little sister, in college and working as a waitress, jetted off to Australia for a week because some friends were studying abroad, and she happened to have the money available.

I’ll bet you’re wondering if my sister is a stripper. But you’d be wrong.

As she tells it, all she did was look to her big sister’s example, and do exactly the opposite. Years later, she filled me in on her savings plan. Over the next year or so, I did as my kid sister instructed.

We weathered two cars blowing up on us, loads of sick days from the toxic mold in our old house, two job losses, me having to go back to school full time, and more. While we live well below our small means at the moment, we still have plenty of savings that we haven’t touched. In a few weeks I will be done with school, and working full time again to feed the pig.

So how did we do it? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard, either. And once you get everything set up, five minutes per pay period is all you will need to start building your savings and living free.

Make your monthly budget is a free online budgeting tool, where you can keep track of all of your accounts, income, savings, expenditures and goals, all in one place. It even helps you identify money drips and possible savings.

One thing Mint doesn’t do is track the cash you’re holding in your hot little hand. It’s not that smart.

If you work for tips, it is absolutely imperative that you keep track of your income and spending. Either keep a little notebook with you, or keep track of it on your phone with a free tool like Evernote link. Be diligent about this for at least two or three months to accurately identify your income, spending and patterns.

This is what you need to know: How much money do you need to get through the month (we will call this Need Money). This includes bills, gas, food, pocket money — everything you spend. Be realistic and use Mint to tell you what you usually spend on these items.

Pay Yourself and Feed the Pig

To feed the pig (your piggy bank/savings), your Need Money has to be less than your income. If it isn’t, reexamine your budget and make some cuts. Do you really need cable? How about your daily Starbucks run?

For this example, let’s pretend you make $2,000 a month on average. Your Need Money is $1,800 a month.

That’s all you get. Because you know as well as I do, that last $200 is going to magically slip out of your fingers. Any money you make above and beyond your Need Money goes straight into savings.

That means that if one month you only make $1850, only $50 goes into savings. If you get a giant bonus, boom. Savings. Pretend that money does not exist.

Get set up for saving

Having a savings account is good. Having a bunch of them is better.

Think of it like the Titanic. It had 16 watertight compartments. It could have stayed afloat with four of them breached, but six flooded and Celine Dion made out like a bandit.

The same is true of your savings accounts. If you only had one account, it is really easy to drain your entire savings. Money spread over multiple accounts can keep you afloat.

INGDirect offers free online interest-bearing savings accounts. You can make as many accounts as you need.

So how many do you need?

Answer these questions: What do you want out of life? What do you need to save for? How important is each item to you? Do they have deadlines?

To give you a real-life example, this is how I manage my savings accounts:

  • 20% Wedding – Deadline 8/31/2012
  • 20% House – Deadline 12/12
  • 10% Car – Deadline 12/2
  • 15% Emergency
  • 10% Savings
  • 5% The Kid
  • 5% Retirement
  • 5% Vacation
  • 5% Fun
  • 5% Gifts

Remember that these numbers are not set in stone. As soon as the wedding, house and car are paid for, that 50% of our savings can go into other accounts instead.

Now let’s make this easy

If this all sounds tricky, here’s where it gets simple. All of the money you transfer over from your paycheck does not actually get split between all of those accounts.

It goes in your final account. I call mine “Distribution.”

Every time the Distribution account reaches $100, I split it up by the percentages into the other accounts.

So if 20% is going to the house fund, that’s $20. See how easy?

You don’t have to do this super often if you don’t mind some really basic math (if there is $500 in Distribution, then $100 goes into the house fund. If you have an odd number in the account, like $128.37, just work with the $100.)

This all becomes a game for me. I love to see how fast I can get to the next $100 so that I can fill my accounts some more. It’s a challenge, and it’s thrilling to watch your savings grow. Even $5 per pay period will get you started.

Now start saving!

Even though I make less money right now than I did back when the collection agents were calling me every day, I still have a sizable amount of money in my savings accounts today.

This process has taught me to live within my means and on a budget, while still living a real life. I budget for fun and vacations, and the things I want to do. And I know that if things go wrong, I’m ready.

Money is only worth so much, but peace of mind is priceless.

How is your savings plan coming along?

Comments on How to budget, save, and still have a life

  1. Thanks! I never thought to have multiple savings accounts and to have a Distribution account. That really does make it like a game & I always loved leveling up in RPGs. 🙂

  2. Okay, I am definitely doing this when I get home. We are incapable of saving. We have tried and sure enough little things come up that blindside us. We let little bits of cash slip through our fingers on stupid stuff and it’s been driving me crazy lately.

  3. We’re trying to save up the amount it would take us to live for one year if we both lost our jobs. Then we’ll have “fun savings” – like remodeling the house, working on the kidlets play oasis, and getting that much deserved hot tub. We have about three months saved, it’s a process. But we do set aside a certain amout in the “Need” money for a monthly date night and breakfast at our favorite local joint every Saturday morning. I think saving money is a lot like a diet – completely cut off every enjoyable thing and you’ll probably end up splurging. You gotta come up with a savings plan (and a diet, if that’s your thing) you can live with for a really long time.

  4. Saving is really hard. We’ve saved a certain amount, and we’ve stayed at that certain amount for a year now. It’s frustrating because I would love to have way more saved, but I feel like we’re doing what we can right now, while still being able to go out on dates and buy things we need. Maybe we need to sit down and budget to the penny, but I don’t relish the thought.

    • One thing I did to help me stay on top of my savings is I had a set amount deducted from my account the day after I was paid. Every month, it’s pulled out and I work from the money that’s left. That money is in my ING account and because ING is so thorough in their log-in process I NEVER bother to grab it for impulse purchases.

      Then I was never budgeting every penny to make sure I could make enough to save. I just adjusted my spending as though that money never existed.

  5. Love the distribution idea, hadn’t thought of that. My boyfriend and I are taking a trip to Disneyworld and to save up money for food while there we put all our loose change in our piggy – plus any left over bills from returns or tips, etc. So far we almost have $500! That will feed us for the entire week and we still have a couple months left to go. All just from change we never would have paid notice to.

  6. The distribution part is great indeed. My husband and I, I can proudly say, are VERY good at saving money. We have to be, we’re artists. ^^”
    We do get ourselves small treats often enough (DVDs, games, cinema, eating out now and again, ohmygod-all-the-plants-I-HAVE-to-get-for-the-garden… whatever), but never too expensive ones. We are very shy about spending more than say, 100 €. And even though we’d like to go on vacation, we hardly ever go. XD
    So spreading up the savings for different ends might be a good way to go, and we’ll know how much we can spend for travels or the house or whatever while still knowing we’ll survive if we don’t earn enough for a while.

  7. In Canada at least lets you manually input transactions whether in or out, so I manually update Mint through the iPhone app whenever I spend cash. I love Mint, especially for tracking expenses between two people. If either of us goes over budget, we both get an email notification. It keeps us on track because there’s no chance to hide guilty purchases.

  8. “Money is only worth so much, but peace of mind is priceless.”….IF ONLY Poison or Def Lep had this in their lyrics many years go, maybe I would have listened hahaha

  9. Very timely! Thanks for the advice 🙂 I am a part time student and strongly debating going full time. One thing I’ve found with being a student, even just a part time one, is that you can get crazy deals – my bank no longer charges me banking fees and I get a nice discount at my yoga studio!

    • Seconded. I want to go back into training as a therapist at some point, and I’ve figured out that because of tax deductions etc where I live, it’ll be cheaper to wait till the fees are saved up then go full time rather than go part time plus job.

  10. I just started a similar program a few months ago. After years of zero savings and barely getting by no matter how much money we were making, my partner and I realized that we needed to do something.

    So we instituted a more analogue version of what the author did in this article, and started using what we call “savey envelopes”. Every pay check, we take out a certain amount of money and distribute it into a different savey envelope: $20 for clothes and shoes, $30 for car repair and oil changes, $5 for property taxes, $40 for shows and music festivals, ect. There are other envelopes for groceries, gas, beer, camping equipment, vacation, nonsensical and unpredictable purchases, and even more (We have a lot of savey envelopes). But with the new system, when I do spend money on a pair of unessential shoes, I don’t feel guilty like I would have in the past. That money had already been set aside for a pair of 5 inch wedges that can only be worn for 45 minutes at a time.

    It used to be that I would just cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t have property taxes due the same month I needed a dental appointment or a car repair. Now I’m prepared for all of those situations, and no longer feel like I’m the on the precipice of financial ruin and despair. The only downsides to my system are dealing with cash, envelope expenses, and not gaining any interest from that money that is just sitting on our dresser. I’m really excited to look into the online savings accounts; this article came at just the right time 🙂

    • That is so exactly it. This system really is the same thing, but you can keep track of it all on your phone! When you’re broke and scrambling, you can easily get those blinders on and miss so many areas where you can save and plug money drips. When you really keep it in mind every day, it almost starts working itself out by itself, doesn’t it?

  11. Another thing I do, so we don’t end up spending Need money on wants, is to have another seperate account that we put a weekly (cuz we get paid weekly) ammount into to cover bills that only come montly or quarterly.

    So say our Electricity is $500 per quarter, our water is $200 per quarter, and our internet bill is $75 per month, we divide that into weeks (and round up), so $42 per week for elec. $17 for water, and $19 for internet, add it all together ($78) and put that in the account, then, when the bill comes, it’s sitting there ready to go.

    • This! I’ve found that most employers (in the us at least) are able to split your paycheck and deposit into two separate accounts. I keep a separate checking account, determine how much I need to set aside weekly (or biweekly depending on pay schedule) for rent and utilities, and then when those bills are due I can just write a check from that account and not have to worry about whether the money is there, or if I accidentally spent it. Whatever is left of my paycheck goes into my “main” checking account and I go from there.

  12. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you have to know yourself – don’t try to out-willpower yourself, just know where your weaknesses are and make a savings plan that thwarts them without much effort from you.

    I have developed several ways of tricking myself in order to save money. If I have money within easy/quick reach, I will use it. Debit/credit is more dangerous for me than having cash on hand, since the cash does run out at some point and then, ostensibly, you’re done. Plus, psychologically, it’s easier for me to spend more on debit/credit than when I have to count out the cash and see it leave my wallet.

    I’m a hairstylist so I come home with cash tips every day. Each night I take out only what I will need to cover coffee and lunch the next day (usually $10-15) and I put the rest into a glass savings jar. I know myself well enough to know I’m going to want my coffee and I’m not going to prepare a lunch at home – so I just psychologically think of that money as already spent, and that helps me not to feel too bad about not saving that particular $10.

    I made the mistake, initially, of then taking the money in this jar and depositing it in my normal bank savings account. At that point it just became something else I could dip into while out, since I can easily make transfers on my phone, and then pull out the debit card I always have on hand. I’ve only dipped in to buy things that were needed, like gas and groceries, but it still takes away from what I’ve saved.

    Now I still deposit that money, but I put it into my bank account and then immediately transfer it to my ING direct savings, since their three-day transfer period and the fact that it’s separate from my checking account makes it harder/less practical to constantly transfer money in and out.

    In general, I allow myself to spend money on the things that are important to me. Sure, gas and groceries and the like are needed, but I also budget in the things I like, such as my daily cup of coffee and a weekly trip to the movies. Saving is important to me, but so is quality of life – so I try to balance the two in a way that works for me.

  13. Love it! We do something like this – long term (for things like grad school, unemployment periods, possible property purchases), very long term (retirement – that all gets dumped from time to time into investments), and vacation accounts.

    The only quibble – and it’s a small one – is the “if you don’t make more than you need, look at your budget and make some cuts”. Yes, great, perfect, and most of us can do that. I certainly can.

    But I couldn’t always. Sometimes you really do just make enough to stay afloat and there is NOTHING you can cut. I’ve been there. It’s a bit unfair to assume we all have cable and “Starbucks” runs we could cut out, and if we’d only do that we could save. I’ve been in a position where all I had was exactly what I needed. Had no cable, so couldn’t cut that. Had no media services I paid for (eg no Netflix or whatever) other than Internet, which I needed to apply for better jobs; I was not near a public library where it would be free. Had the cheapest rent I could find in an area with public transit access that was reasonably safe. Never went to Starbucks. Lived mostly on carrots, lentils, homemade hummus, cheap baguettes, pasta and rice with occasional frozen vegetables or in-season fruit (and made my own pasta sauce with cheap canned tomatoes off-season rather than pricey pasta sauce in a jar), and chicken bc other meat was out of my budget, and made coffee at home or at the office.

    Pretty much the only extra expenses I had that I could theoretically have cut were pocket money ($25 a week which would buy me either one inexpensive meal out, or two drinks at a bar, or pizza and beer with friends) and the $200 I spent about four times a year to visit my family. I stopped cutting my hair (“trying to grow it long” I said) and asked for clothes as Christmas gifts so I wouldn’t have to budget to buy my own new replacement clothing.

    Everything else was non-negotiable. Rent, food, Internet, transportation (and I didn’t have a car).

    So please, please do not assume that all of us have cuts we can make.

    I’m doing very well now, but for awhile, I wasn’t, and it wasn’t because I budgeted poorly, it was because I was earning only just enough to make my Need Money.

    • Totally agree with all of this. I think what someone can do in that situation is plan for future savings, even if nothing is being socked away currently. Make a decision on how you want to live when you do get the raise or new job, and stick to that. What happened to me after I graduated college was I didn’t make this plan. I went from making a certain amount working retail to making almost double working as a contract employee. I didn’t make a savings plan, so I had no extra money, and when my 1099 came in, I was screwed because I had no savings to pay the taxes. I think part of saving is deciding to save as soon as you are able, and then when you are able, starting the plan.

    • Thanks for saying this. For the past couple of years I made only about $1000 a month and rent + utilities cost around $600. Not much room for savings, though I did try, but they would be quickly depleted by things like unexpectedly high car repairs or such. I make a tiny bit more now and have much lower rent for the time being so I’m trying to save up for the days when I have to go back to higher living costs.

    • I hear you channamasala. I had that period where I could afford literally just a packet of Ramen a day, and I still couldn’t make ends meet. Even so, using a system like Mint or even a notebook to track everything obsessively can be the difference between getting by and completely financially derailing. Just knowing where all of your money is going also puts you in an “in control” headspace – for me, that is key. Because when I take my eyes off my goals, that’s when all of the financial meltdowns happen.

  14. Great post! I too use Mint to track my expenses. I started last September when I realized that I was making more money than ever and still depleting my checking account by pay day. Since then I have managed to save a 4 month emergency fund.

    I do not bother with so many savings accounts b/c all that distribution would make my head spin. I just have two: emergency and short term. Short term is intended for travel but I would really use it for any “incidentals” that came up which I could not afford, like car repairs, taxes, etc.

    The best advice I have heard is “pay yourself first,” that’s similar to feed the piggy. I have a certain amount of money automatically transferred from every pay check. That way it is not there so I can’t see it.

    I have also heard “save until it hurts.” The way I think of that is to automatically save a little more than I think I can afford. I started with $50. When that turned out to be pretty comfortable I bumped it to $100. When I got a raise I increased it by the amount of that raise. My checking account never found out that I got a raise at all. I was surprised to see how much I could save and still be comfortable. It has become like a game.

    Now I look forward to payday so I can log in to Mint and see my savings grow.

    Also, automatically contribute to your 401k or retirement fund. Often your employer will match your contributions, that’s free money! The other benefit is that 401ks take out money before taxes so you can save money and get taxed on a lower income. That’s what the 1% do and some of the 99% can too!

    • Sorry about the headspinning there. This post was definitely written with the super-OCD reader in mind. Your system sounds like it works just fine, so don’t fix what isn’t broken – and keep on saving!

    • I think I could do this. Right now, even though I know that we need to be saving, we also really need to be paying off bills, i.e., more than the minimum “needs”.

      But I’m saving 5% through my work 401K right now, and I think I can put $50 per check into our savings account without missing it too terribly, and then we can be putting more towards those bills that need to be paid off.

  15. I might be missing something in the definition of “need money”, but in the example the income (I assume net, not gross) is $2,000, and the need money is $1,800. I know that for some people there is just no other option, but spending 90% of your household income every month is cutting it pretty close. Personally, I would not consider this living below your means.
    Maybe I feel this way because I’m a little older, (35)and very fiscally conservative.

    • Ideally everyone would like to live well below their means. You can be as fiscally conservative as you like, but as other commenters have pointed out, sometimes you are in a situation where 10% really is all you have to work with – maybe someone lost a job, or utilities went through the roof, or you’re paying off a sudden hospital bill. The idea here is that even if you only have 10% of your income to work with, you can still save towards making it better.

  16. Thank you so much for this. Budgeting is one of those tasks I’ve been avoiding because money makes me so anxious (I know, I know, fixing the problem would lead to less anxiety in the long run) but when I saw this here this morning, I sat down and worked out a similar plan for us. It was much harder to avoid the problem when someone so clearly laid out a solution. Thanks again, this is brilliant!

  17. I’ve recently started loaning money to myself. Let me explain…

    I got a car. It cost me £900, insurance cost £1100 and tax cost £210, which I had to pay out of my savings.

    So now each month, I put say £900/12 or £1100/12 back into the savings account I originally took the money from, beacause I’ll be paying for those things again in a year. Some things, like the hen do I’m organising, have no time limit on repayment so I just put 1/10th of the value in when I can. I keep a tally on a table with what the monthly payments are and how many I’ve made and award myself a smiley face when it’s paid off!

    At the end of the month, say I have £76 left, well that can be two lots of hen do money paid off or a combination of some other payments.

    When money is particularly tight, I try to pay off the loan of the biggest value or shortest deadline, which is mainly the car insurance and tax because they renew soon.

    Essentially I see this as making sure my savings dont take too much of a hit for too long and get back up to what they should be. I’m also thinking of starting the same thing for when I go out on a bit of a spending spree or if we have emergency money to cover for or maybe even a holiday!

  18. I have a ‘bills’ account, which I put $50 a week into. It generally manages to cover gas, electricity, internet & my phone. This is a lifesaver as gas & electricity come quarterly, at the same time.

    Also I wanted to suggest, anyone who has a credit card, or some sort of loan – pay a little bit more than the minimum! I just signed up for a car & blanched at the figures.. if I made the minimum repayments, I was going to pay $27k for a car worth $19k! even paying $15 extra a fortnight adds up to $700+ in a year.

    And the less you owe on a home or credit card, the lower the interest will be. = more savings!

  19. Mint sounds like exactly what my husband and I need, but it’s not available in the UK. Can anyone recommend a similar service I can use over here?

    • I use EEBA, which looks kinda similar. You have to pay if you want to sync to your accounts, though, and you have to figure out how much money you want to put where.

  20. I had the same problem as Beth, is only available in the US and Canada. I’m in Australia, does anyone know of a similar service for the UK, Australia or both?

  21. I hate online banking and direct deposit because I have trouble remembering a purchase here or there, but I just started working for a place that requires direct deposit, I am so not excited but Mint looks like it will be helpful as soon as I can log into my bank account.

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