4 Personal Answers to Common Budgeting Questions

budgeting

Budgets aren’t easy – especially when you first start one. Over the last several years, I’ve been researching various budgeting methods, talking with financial professionals about the topic, reviewing budgeting articles as a part of my work, and using trial and error to weed out the good tactics from the bad.

Occasionally, I’ll receive some questions from friends and family regarding budgeting, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. Below, I’ve included a few of the most common budgeting questions I’ve received and some answers to help you with your budget.

1. What are some budgeting programs that are worthwhile?

moneywell

MoneyWell for Mac

I’ve used a handful of different programs, but currently my favorite is MoneyWell. YNAB is another good program if you don’t own a Mac or iPad with which you can use MoneyWell. YNAB is compatible with Mac, however, if you want to try it out anyway.

I’ve found MoneyWell to be powerful and flexible. It’s one of the more advanced programs out there, and after dedicating a few hours to play around with it, you’ll start to get the hang of how it works – it’ll be well worth your time. Both MoneyWell and YNAB use the zero-based budgeting method (also called zero-sum budgeting) to help you keep tabs on your money.

If you’re not wanting to “give every dollar a name” and use something a little simpler but not as good at saving you money, you might want to try Mint. I’d encourage you, however, to steer away from this method of budgeting and take the time to learn something a little more advanced.

2. How many budgeting categories do you have?

Whenever I talk with newbies to budgeting, they typically tell me they are thinking of having somewhere around 10 budgeting categories. Even some long-time budgeters only use a few categories. In light of this information, my answer might surprise you.

I have 63 budgeting categories. Yes, I counted them.

If that scares you, please don’t fret. I certainly didn’t start with this many categories. My recommendation if you’re just starting out, is to sit down for an hour or so and brainstorm all your potential budgeting categories. You’ll probably come up with a list much shorter than mine, and you can add categories as you see fit over time. By the way, if you want something you can print out, try my Budget Category Brainstormer – it has over 80 categories to start you out.

If you’ve been budgeting for years, and you have far less categories than I do, that’s totally fine. Just remember, the more you fine-tune your budgeting categories, the more control you’ll have over your spending. And whatever you do, please don’t have a miscellaneous category – these types of categories represent a major leak in your budget.

3. How should I use my budget to time my bill payments?

I don’t recommend timing your bill payments. Surprised? I don’t know about you, but the thought of making sure this paycheck comes in so that I can pay that bill doesn’t sound like much fun. Sounds ultra-stressful to me.

Instead, I recommend getting yourself to a point to where you can spend this month’s income next month. By doing this, on the first day of every month, you’ll have enough money to pay all of your bills throughout the month with money to spare.

4. How do I not be “the nagging spouse” when it comes to tracking transactions?

It’s true of just about every relationship that one spouse is noticeably more interested in budgeting than the other. And when it comes to tracking transactions, the more interested spouse might feel as if they’re nagging the other spouse to record transactions in the budget. Conversely, a spouse might feel like they’re being nagged, which could further discourage them away from the budgeting process.

In our household, I’m the main manager of the finances and my wife reviews my budget proposals. The first couple years we started budgeting, I would have to ask my wife if she had given me all the receipts day to day. Later, I realized that I should just ask my wife to enter her own transactions via her smartphone. Ever since, she’s been doing so and is happy to help track the transactions – I don’t have to be the nagging spouse now!

If you’re struggling with your spouse to get on the same page, and you’re both willing to put in the effort to do so but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest getting a financial coach who can help you through the process.

Perhaps you have a few questions of your own? Leave a comment! I’ll try to answer as many of them as possible, and invite you to share your thoughts with other readers as well.










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21 Comments
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  1. I’d like to pose a correction. YNAB is I fact able to be used on Mac and iOS. I currently use it and it’s great! There’s even an34 day free trial.

    • Bree, thanks for your clarification. Yes, YNAB works on the Mac. Sorry the language I used didn’t make that clear! I added a line to clarify this.

  2. Any programs out there besides Mint that support Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone. Mint seems to be the only cross-compatible software. Can Mint be finessed to track every dollar?

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think Mint can be finessed to track every dollar. I’d recommend looking at YNAB, but don’t think they have an app yet for Windows Phone.

    • Yes I use mint to track and categorize every dollar spent. It pulls in transactions from the bank which I prefer over manual inputs. I don’t think ynab can connect to bank accounts…

    • I certainly use Mint to track every dollar in my zero-sum budget. I don’t really understand how it couldn’t be done. If you connect all your accounts, it tracks every cent you spend, or you can manually input cash transaction and place everything in a budget category that you set a monthly cap on.

  3. 63 budgeting categories….got a laugh out of that one. Only because I do the same. Well, I have 5-6 major categories and about 75 subcategories. My husband thought I was nuts originally and said it was overkill. Until he lost his job 2 years after I retired and we could easily see where we could and could not cut. Ok, I will admit I did have overkill when I had percentages and pie charts for all. LOL. I have since hidden them from what I show him but not from myself. Just couldn’t bring myself to delete them entirely.

  4. Mint along with my Excel budget spreadsheet do pretty good. It is a bit of a pain “syncing” the two. Moneywise sounds nice, but unfortunately not without a Mac or IPad…

    • Correction. I switched from excel to google spreadsheet for anywhere access with google drive…

  5. Great tips. Budgeting is so important to managing personal finances. I use good old Excel to track my spending, but I love some of the additional categories you’ve mentioned will actually incorporate some of these into mine! :)

  6. Goodbudget (formerly EEAB) is another good budget website that has apps that let you sync amounts in envelopes across devices.

  7. I have a question with regard to my retirement fund. Is it a good idea to borrow from your fund if you have an urgent need. My thought is that it better than getting a loan elsewhere because you are paying back yourself.

    • I think most professionals would tell you, “that depends.” Most will say it’s important to avoid using your retirement account for expenses other than retirement. I would encourage you to find ways to gather up some money quickly, and not take a loan – but of course, this depends on how urgent your “need” is.

      • Thank you John for responding to my question. Unfortunately I have no other way of gathering money right now, I am in a position at the moment where my billls are more than my pay check.
        Because of bad choices I am where I am and so do not want to make another one, but I am behind the eight ball and don’t know what to do.
        I know that God’s rescue takes time, it’s the waiting that is hard :-)

  8. Thanks for your post, John. I have just finished going over the four rules on the YNAB site. I’m sold. For years we have lived paycheck to paycheck. Our unique situation is that my wife and I are both paid once a month on or about the same day. We pay all the bills once a month right after we get paid and then spend the rest of the month just trying to make our money last with no plan whatsoever. This means the last week of our month is always filled with angst as we might just put $20 of gas in the car or go to the grocery store every day and buying only what is needed for that or the next day. This is no way to live. I’m up for some peace in our financial world which I know will bleed over into peace in our home. We get paid in 7 days and I’m making the investment in YNAB. Thanks again.

  9. Hello,

    I am curious as to why you advise to steer away from Mint.com. I used Mint and I “think” i do zero-based budgeting using Mint, but maybe not. Really interested in the specific downfalls you see in Mint.com. I like it a lot, but also want to make sure there is not something better I should be doing.

    Thank you

    Buddy

    I forgot to check the box for followup comments email – would prefer the previous comment be deleted. Thank you

    • Hey Buddy, I just haven’t found a way to budget actual dollars that I’ve earned for the month on Mint. For example, if I earn $1,000/month, I want to only be able to budget $1,000 – not more. Does that make sense?

      • Johh,

        I would live to continue this conversation time permitting. If you don’t mind, shoot me an email.

        Thanks!

      • I think what you’re saying is that with Mint, it will let you overbudget… and yes, that’s true that it’s manual in that you have to balance the income and outgo and it shows what you have left or overspent on the right side of the budget screen. For me, I’m doing the details in my Google spreadsheet and then just plugging the numbers into Mint and it works fine. I can and do give every outgoing dollar a name in Mint.

  10. I’ve been looking for a long time for data on how much households spend within certain categories (either as percentage of income or in absolute dollars). My wife and I often debate the “right” amount to spend in certain categories (e.g., groceries, clothes, etc.), and it would be uesful to have some sort of benchmark. I can’t believe one of these budgeting companies have not collected that sort of data yet. Any suggestions?

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