If you ask me about my biggest regret of 2019, I’ll tell you — I regret not budgeting up until November.
As I’ve recently discovered, flying by the seat of your pants doesn’t get you very far. I ended the month of October in the red, and I had to borrow from family, which was a real wake-up call. November was not looking good — I was due to pay off that loan, pay for a trip, and stash away as much as I could, hoping to save for a downpayment.
The problem was that I didn’t have a clear overview of my money, and no idea what that downpayment amount would be. So I sat down with pen and paper and made my November budget. My thoughts:
1. “Why am I not doing this regularly? It only takes 10 minutes.”
I need an alarm to go off on the 30th of every month, and I’ve set one on my phone. Because that’s the hardest part — remembering to make the budget. The process itself was simple: I wrote down all my regular expenses, such as utilities, gas, public transport. (Disclaimer: I don’t have student loans or rent to pay, but if I did, I’d put them here.) Then the two more flexible categories — drugstore and groceries. Yes, I do have a drugstore category, and no, it’s not an excuse to spend on makeup — I have a baby, and my local drugstore has pretty good deals on diapers, formula, and purees. I also include my personal care staples, like toothpaste, moisturizer, makeup remover.
My husband and I take turns shopping for groceries and drugstore items on weekends, and those expenses vary depending on how many times I go to the store that month. If we’ve stocked up on diapers and have a full freezer, then I have some wiggle room in those two categories. As for the rest, I made a line for dry cleaning, haircut, my baby’s winter boots, a friend’s upcoming birthday, and everything else happening specifically in November.
2. “Now I have to keep track of my spending for the month (groan).”
I wasn’t sure how to do this, but again, the simplest way was pen and paper. I carry a small notepad in my purse, and I legitimately have an itch to write everything down as soon as I spend. I don’t use apps because I’ve grown weary of them, and I get a strange sense of pleasure from keeping my exact numbers to myself (I mostly use cash).
3. “My budget shouldn’t feel too tight.”
My obsession with saving for a downpayment has gotten to a point where it is anxiety-inducing. However, I am resisting a bare-bones budget — it would make me miserable, and it wouldn’t be sustainable. Haircuts and dry cleaning? Yes, every so often, but I am not cutting them out completely because I need to look and feel professional. I’ll sometimes get a coffee or a snack at work, despite bringing my lunch from home, and I need my budget to allow it. Not everything is doomed if I have a latte.
4. “But I should be saving as much as possible. Am I saving enough?”
Conventional wisdom says you should save 20% of your income, but I admit that I am intrigued by people who claim to save 40% or more. 50%? I do like a nice round number, and I feel that I should be moving faster with that downpayment. November expenses didn’t allow me to save as much as I wanted, but in December, I won’t be taking any trips or paying back loans. Also, I’ll have a chance to work some overtime, and that will go towards my emergency fund and then into savings.
5. “What if something comes up, which line items can I reshuffle?”
I’ve discovered that my wiggle room is limited. If I cut back too much on groceries and drugstore spending, I can’t stock up on deals, and I face the added stress of possibly running low on essentials. I am saying this because unexpected expenses are bound to come up. Among other things, I had an appliance break and had to replace it ASAP. But instead of scrambling or financing it, I decided to dip into my emergency fund because that’s what an emergency fund is for.
6. “Should I turn last month’s unexpected expense into this month’s line item?”
In October, I shelled out $80 on over-the-counter medication. First for a UTI, and if you’ve ever had one, you know that it’s a nightmare and you don’t look for online coupons — you just want to treat it immediately. After that, I got a cold. Then I started having indigestion problems. Putting in a “pharmacy“ line item in November’s budget has so far been a good call.
7. “Wait, no money left for clothes (or makeup, or magazines)?”
None! I have not budgeted for any of these and I’ve steered clear from temptation. Ignoring Black Friday. I could totally use another blazer, but I’ve been making do with some cute cardigans instead. I am also almost out of bronzer, and it’s no big deal. But magazines! God, I miss them! I’ve been a magazine addict all my life, and going without is the worst.
8. “Oh, shoot, Christmas!”
Not only will I be making a December budget, but I’ll also make a Christmas budget. I want to focus on food and traditions more than the presents, and my favorite festive activities were always cooking and decorating. This year, I want to get a live tree that I can replant later, as well as some durable, child-friendly decor (I have a very curious toddler).
How I feel about budgeting long-term…
I’ve heard that it takes about three months to get a budget right, but I think I’ll do okay, as long as I stay consistent and realistic about what works. I like knowing where my hard-earned money is going, and by having a budget, I show it more respect. For 2020, the year of the down payment, I am considering making a yearly budget. Wish me luck, and I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes.
Annika Fordell is a writer, mom, and lawyer living in Europe.
Image via Unsplash