Thrift, frugality, and budgeting can quickly slide into self-denial, jealousy, and resentment if you do it wrong. If you hate your budget, you won’t stick to it long.
The Internet is filled with various people’s budgeting strategies. Some authors recommend finding your most expensive recurring purchase — such as your phone bill — and cutting it back. Then, doing that again and again until your budget is under control. Others recommend taking a metaphorical weed wacker to your budget and rapidly trimming off anything that is easy to reach — frivolous book purchases, evening snacks — chopping off any easily discovered unnecessary discretionary expenditures. Others tell you to target your financial habits and routines — what you eat for breakfast, what you do when you’re stressed — and cut costs there.
In my opinion though, these savings strategies miss the point of budgeting. They focus on the math of budgeting, how much items cost, without regard for what you are purchasing.
In order to utilize math-based budgeting strategies, the math needs to be supported by a deep understanding of yourself. What is the money for?
If you don’t know for what purpose your money should be spent, then using a math-based budgeting strategy will likely be short-lived. You’ll accidentally weed whack back your happiness, cut costs on your joy, and place spending controls on your life calling.
Instead, if you don’t know what you want yet, I suggest starting by seeing if you can find out what you value. There are many strategies for this. We’ve featured and recommended both Ken Rouse’s 15 values exercise and George Kinder’s three questions, for example. However, here is a strategy that can both help you identify what you value and help you start your budget.
Step one is to make a list of your expenditures. Write down every type of thing you or your family spends money on. Be as specific as you want, but don’t be too vague. Below is an example list of specific expenditures to help you get started.
Car Fees (Maintenance, Insurance, & Taxes)
Childcare / Babysitter
Cleaning Supplies & Detergents
Fitness Equipment / Gym Membership
Home Cooking / Groceries
Household Repairs or Renovations
Housing (Mortgage / Taxes / Rent / HOA)
Just Because Gifts
Landscaping & Lawn Maintenance
Local Experiences & Outings
School / Office Supplies
Trash Collection Service
You can get even more specific if you’d like.
After making the list, imagine that in one category you won’t be allowed to spend money ever again. Read the list over again and identify which category you would pick to cross out of your budget. Imagine each of them: No more vacations? No more professional hair cuts? No more childcare?
Imagine what it would mean to not spend money in the category. It might not be obvious. No more childcare expenditures might mean staying home and taking care of your children. It might mean moving closer to family so you can gain access to free childcare. It might mean working part-time and child swapping with a neighbor.
Some families might cross off eating out first. Other families might cross off home cooking first. This is about your life and what you want out of it. It is not about the budget at this point. Be unashamed of your feelings at this point. Do not pay attention to which one costs more, how much you can afford, or any other aspect of the math of it.
Once you have decided which item you are the most willing to cut entirely out of your budget, cross it off and number it with a 1. This is the first item to go.
Repeat the process again and again. Continue crossing out items until the question doesn’t make sense to you anymore, until each item you read you think to yourself, “I cannot live without this!”
What is left behind is indicative of your values. These expenditures are at the core of supporting your life. What you crossed off is likely also helpful, supportive, or fun, but not a core valued item.
Now, you can go back to all the expenditures you crossed off and utilize math-based budgeting strategies. Find your most expensive recurring purchase in one of those categories and cut it back. Bring out the metaphorical weed wacker rapidly trimming off anything that is easy to reach in one of those categories. Target your financial habits and routines in one of those categories and cut costs there.
In this way, you can try to live on less in the areas that bring less value to your life while maintaining funding for the core of your budget for now. Sure, there is likely more thrift and frugality that can be had in one of your core categories, but leave them alone during stage one of your budgeting. Only after cutting back everything you can in your extraneous categories should you touch a core item.
Be like Astrid Leong in the book China Rich Girlfriend: one of the wealthiest women in Singapore shopping for groceries at the super market with super-saver coupons while trying to purchase art for over a hundred million dollars.
In areas of life that are unimportant to your goals, be frugal to the point of being miserly. You might take your lunch in a brown paper bag, enjoy activities that are free, clip grocery coupons, fly the red-eye stand-by, don’t flush every time, buy a used car, live in a modest house, or even repair your shoes with duct tape.
However, when it comes to what is important to you, be willing to spend money on your life goals. Buy the board game. Fill the bookcase. Plant the tree. Take the vacation. This is life planning. What is the money for? Know the answer and you can live a full, happy life.
You don’t need more money. To have a better life, you need to have a purpose for both you and your money. Although financial planning and budgeting can help you plan for and achieve your goals, you need to have found your goals to budget and plan well.
This technique of Core Values Budgeting can help you do both now.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash