Personal Finance First Step: Mastering the Budget

If you are embarking on a personal finance journey, then let’s get you started on the right footing. Step one begins with mastering a budget. Some may scoff at me and say that I know nothing about becoming rich and getting to financial freedom. They laugh and say that I must not realize that reaching financial freedom lies in increasing income, rather than decreasing spending. But I know something that they don’t know.

You can increase your income, and never be financially free. It’s just a quick fix attempt, and usually, quick fixes do not work. In order to really tackle your personal finance, you need to start with the basics. You can’t just jump ahead to making a ton of money, because without mastering a budget, you’ll likely never see that extra money you make. If you’re like most Americans, you’ll spend it before it even gets to your bank account.

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Now I’m not naive enough to believe that mastering your budget is all it takes. I agree that there are limitations to mastering a budget. One can only cut their spending so much. On the flip side, one can increase their income exponentially…indefinitely, perhaps.

I, myself, am well aware of the need to increase income. I worked three jobs while going to undergrad to increase my income, but I also graduated in three years in order to cut spending. I was one of the few students who worked during dental school, just to make a little extra money. And even now, am a side-hustler of sorts. I work in dentistry, write on my own blog, write for other blogs, walk dogs via Rover, work the midnight shifts as a bread baker with Rye Goods, and bake my own bread to sell (currently I am applying for a license to open my own “bakery”). But before all of this, I mastered my budget.

Here’s the thing. I know many people who are high income earners. I define high income earners as people who make six digit incomes or more. Most of them are also swimming in debt. This debt includes car loans, mortgage loans, student loans, and even consumer debt. Unfortunately, lifestyle creep is real, and unless you’re well-versed in staving off advertisements who are convincing you to spend more as you earn more, you will likely be one of the top targets (and victims) of lifestyle inflation.

There’s a statistic swimming around that 80% of Americans do not have $2,000 set aside in an emergency fund. Eighty percent! The part that gets me is the fact that $2,000 won’t even cover most true emergencies. Medical bills are way more than $2,000. If something happens to your home, or someone loses a job, $2,000 won’t last most people one month in Southern California. While it’s hard to confirm the statistic, for they do have a tendency to appear out of nowhere and start floating around, I can confirm that many patients that I meet don’t have the income to jump into an emergency dental procedure right away. Yet many of them are working their tails off (I can’t tell you how many nightguards I’ve diagnosed to help with stressful grinding habits), and earning decent pay, and still, they have to “save up” to treat a tooth in pain. And trust me, you wouldn’t put off treating a tooth that really hurts, unless you absolutely have to. It’s a feeling one never forgets.

People are working longer hours and making more money, but are saving less and less. We’ve been raised to be consumers. It’s not an anti-consumerist society, I can tell you that. But we haven’t been taught how to be SMART consumers. I was never taught how to ration out my earnings. I was never taught to pay myself first. I was told that good credit is GOOD. Wrong. Good credit is bad, and bad credit is worse. People without credit history probably are the best with handling their money. (This does not mean they are the richest. Just that they are really good at handling money).

All of this to say, you can try to get rich by working your butt off. You can spend all the hours of your day for forty years of your life trying to make enough money, and then some. But you can’t be successful if you don’t know how to manage it. You can try to take the short cut, the quick way to success. But that’s what most Americans are doing, and eighty percent of them don’t have $2,000 set aside for emergencies.

If you were to take my advice, I’d say start mastering your budget. If that’s something you’ve wanted to do in 2019 but haven’t had the chance, check out my free course How to Create a Budgeting Tool, and get started today!

Why You Need A Budget

I always tell people how having a budget helped turn our life around. For some people, just the mention of the “B” word makes them cringe. There are many negative implications attached to budgeting, but I am here to tell you that they are not true. Many people believe having a budget is limiting, as if it will tell you what you can and can’t do. I completely disagree. I think having a budget is freeing, because it allows you to finally tell your money where to go. When you have a budget that works, you will have your money working for you, instead of the other way around.

You will never know how you are doing financially without measuring it in a factual manner. Likewise, you cannot improve if you don’t know what you need to improve upon. Numbers don’t lie, and your budget will be the best reflection of how well you do with controlling your spending. The first question I ask people who tell me they have difficulty saving money is, “how much are you spending each month on _____?” If they can’t give me a definitive number, then therein lies their problem. I liken it to people who say they can’t lose weight. If they don’t know how many calories their taking in and how many calories they’re burning per day, then how do they expect to have any grasp on the things they can improve on in order to see results. A budget is necessary in order to track progress. People will usually try to ball park their spending, but it never works. Why? Because we always underestimate how much we spend. It’s human nature. It’s difficult to understand what’s keeping us from financial freedom if we do not know what we are doing with our money.

Budgeting will teach you more about yourself, what you value, and what you want in your life.

There are many reasons why you may want to master your budget. Here are some ideas.

  • To free up your time. You may feel as if work is taking up all of your time. You may want to cut down on work or change jobs completely but you can’t do so because there are bills that need to be paid. A lifestyle needs to be supported. Getting your budget in order may be just want you need to decrease your spending, thus allowing you to take that part-time job or cutting down on your work hours. Some people even want to become so financially savvy that they can pursue complete financial independence and retire early!
  • To relieve stress. Having a shortage of money can be very stressful. However, if you budget correctly, you should never run into that situation. Mastering your budget gives you more flexibility and allows you to be better positioned to deal with unexpected expenses.
  • To have more freedom. The more financially secure you feel, the more freedom you will have when making life decisions such as changing jobs, quitting work, traveling the world, starting a business, starting a family, and more. When money is tight, these things may seem very risky. But when you have a grasp on your budget, you can predict how much freedom you have in pursuing your passions. For example, if your dream is to time off and travel the world in 2020, you can definitely make that dream happen but planning ahead and using your budgeting skills to prepare yourself for that.
  • To support yourself and your loved ones better. For me, this was MY “why”. I was graduating from dental school with over half a million dollars in student debt, and was also about to get married. I knew what a burden I was choosing to bring into our marriage. He didn’t mind it, but I did. I was propelled forward with this drive to release us from this student debt, so that we can be free to pursue the lives we want to lead without being tied to working in certain fields to support large loan payments. It isn’t fair that the person I most love would be affected by debt because of the career I chose to pursue. So I embarked on a journey to get our finances in tip top shape, and we have mastered our budget so well that what people once told us would be impossible to do is being done! They said we wouldn’t be able to pay off our debt in under ten years considering the salary we would be making. Well, we are on track for eight years, and it all started with mastering our budget!

So, do you have a budget? What’s stopping you? If you want to kickstart your budget and start telling your money where to go, check out my FREE course, How to Create A Budgeting Tool That Works, and start achieving your life goals sooner. I hope it helps you with your financial journey as much as it’s helped us.

Finance: How to Budget for Travel

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

It’s no secret that the number one priority in our lives from a financial standpoint are my student loans. Off course, more important matters such as health, relationships, and happiness trumps that, but really not much else is prioritized before the loans. However, even before paying down the student debt entered the picture, Mike and I had decided early on in our relationship, before we even got married, that a top priority of ours would be travel. That hasn’t exactly changed, as you can probably tell from all the travel posts on this blog. Today, I wanted to go through how it is that we have the means to travel on a very tight budget.

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Set your priorities

Our ability to travel the world is built on a clear understanding that travel will remain a top priority for both of us. By defining this activity as extremely important, it makes it easy for us to give up less important things if it means that we will be able to travel. From the very beginning, even before we started paying down student debt, this is something both Mike and I felt strongly about. In fact, it was at the very forefront of our conversation when we started to check the feasibility of paying down over $550k in ten years. The first question to answer was, “Will we have enough money to still travel?”

Since this is such a high priority for us, we would give up almost everything in order to make it happen. The only exception, off course, is being free from my student debt. We were willing to give up buying a house, buying things in general, dining out (if it means dining out when we travel), the newest tech gadgets, and so much more. We were already frugalists before, but having travel as a motivating factor makes us even more successful at being frugal weirdos. When your priorities are clearly defined, the budgeting part becomes easy.

Set a budget

It is very important, especially in our particular situation, to plan for travel. I think that budgeting is useful for every category of spending, but it becomes imperative for those categories that will make your life happier. We don’t want to leave the decision of whether or not we can go somewhere to the whims of everyday life. In other words, we want to avoid the excuse “Life happens”, and we actually want our lives to happen.

Our budget for travel changes according to where we want to go. Typically, we decide on an amount to set aside every month using our favorite budgeting tool, YNAB! We will probably continue that trajectory for a couple of months. We treat it like money stashed away in an envelope. We use the “cash” in this envelope to pay for anything that involves travel expenses. If we ever go over, we would have to borrow from another envelope that month. As an example, overspending $50 in travel would require us to pull $50 from our allocated grocery money. In the past six months, we have not over-drafted from our travel envelope. When calculated, 2.6% of our income each month went towards travel.

Keep in mind that this is our top priority! Yet only 2.6% of our income went towards travel. That’ll give you an idea of how frugal we’ve been and how focused we are on paying down my student debt. 100% of my post-tax income in our first year of student loan repayment went towards the loans, plus help from Mike too!

To be fair, the budget is changing every once in a while. For example, since we have a huge three-week trip planned for the beginning of next year (where we will be visiting ten cities and two countries halfway across the globe!), we will be increasing our travel budget to 3.5% of our income for the last 6 months of this year. Nothing wild and crazy, but it is fluctuating as needed.

Have a plan

Call me Type A (and you would be right in doing so), but I don’t like to travel without a plan. Mostly because I find that travelling without a plan can sometimes be very costly. Choices will need to be made in the spur of the moment, and while that is fun at times, it also means limited research can go into choosing the best financial option. Plus, not having a plan makes the previous goal of setting a budget very, very difficult. It is hard to guess just how much money you need to allocate if you have no idea what you are allocating your money to. That being said, this isn’t to say our plans are entirely rigid. We have flexibility and I am the first to admit that our recent trip to Banff did involve cancelling an entire day of hikes in exchange for napping on a hammock lakeside and resting sore legs. And if we come across an ice cream shop that we want to grab ice cream at, we aren’t going to say to ourselves, “Oops, not in the budget. Can’t.” But typically, these changes aren’t so drastic that it throws our financial game plan out the window entirely. Within the budgeting, we have already budgeted for the possibility of a change of plans.

Save for the big stuff.

Usually, when we go someplace, there is one activity that we are uncompromising on. We don’t just visit a place to randomly visit. We went to Germany for Oktoberfest. We visited Mexico City because we wanted to eat at Pujol. I wanted to go to Banff to see what was left of the glaciers while I can. We went to Oregon after hearing about how a devastating fire last year wiped out all of its beauty. And we are going to Australia to celebrate our two year wedding anniversary on New Year’s Eve in Sydney. These are the big things. If you have a particular reason to go someplace, then go ahead and go for that reason! But go knowing that it requires you to save for the big stuff. We scrounge up the savings by giving up some of the everyday spending that a normal couple would make. I always say how easy it is for me to give up dining out regularly, if it means I can dine out when I am traveling elsewhere, and eat local food in a different country. We had no problem celebrating our first year wedding anniversary eating pizza, if it means that on our second year, we will be watching fireworks over the Habor Bridge in Sydney. Interestingly, even THAT is a free event! But you see what I mean. Don’t skimp on the big stuff, especially if there is a specific reason for your travels. Skimp on the little stuff that you could do without. I promise, it’ll make the big stuff that much more valuable.

Be frugal, still.

There is no need to skimp on every adventure. What’s the point of seeing a country when you don’t want to spend to see a country? Off course, there’s transportation that we need to pay for to get around, and food to be eaten. But, where you can, be frugal still. Our budget would not be the small sliver of a fraction of our income that it is without us being frugal, still. Here are the ways in which we save quite a bit on travel money.

  • We travel hack in order to buy our flights. I have written about the pros of travel hacking and what that has afforded us in this year alone. Long story short, we have used only points to book all our flights for this year! Our favorite travel hacking credit cards are Southwest Rapid Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and the Chase Ink Business Preferred.
  • We opt for AirBNB whenever we can. Typically, we find that those rates are cheaper than most hotels.
  • We book with Turo to save money on car rentals. Turo is the car version of AirBNB and we have had a great experience thus far with this company.
  • We reach out to friends and family in the locations we travel to. Some of our favorite trips are made more special by the company we keep. A plus side would be a place to stay, or a way to split the costs. I stayed at an old college roommate’s apartment when I visited Salt Lake City, UT. We stayed in my high school best friend’s extra bedroom when we visited New Orleans. Both of these friends drove us around everywhere we went! My sister provided an air mattress and shared her bed when we went to visit San Francisco. She also lent us her car for the weekend. Our Munich trip meant a free ride to the Castle Neuschwanstein when we hit up a friend’s cousin’s family. Also, we were invited to their house and got served the most amazing dinner, which to this day, remains one of my favorite memories while traveling. We reached out to my family to see if they wanted to go to Oregon with us, thus splitting the car rental fee and the AirBNB costs among seven people. All of this to show, not only is group travel more fun and entertaining, it saves you money as well!
  • We skip the touristy stuff. As I become better versed in traveling, I have found that less and less attraction lies in the touristy stuff. We would rather fill our days with free tramps through nature, exploring the city by foot, people watching as we eat at a café, and so on. We have found ways to see cities without having to spend much. I used to book excursions on every trip, until I realized that some of the best excursions are free. Our most recent Banff trip was focused around hiking all day. Trips to Calgary and Munich involved mostly walking around the city. Oregon was a mix of both. Skipping the touristy stuff also means that you can explore your way, without having to adhere to someone else’s timeline.
  • We don’t buy souvenirs to take home. Most of the stuff they sell in souvenir stores are absolutely useless and unnecessary. Unless we come across something that we think someone back home would really like, we do not shop for souvenirs for the sake of bringing something back. What we bring back to our friends and family are photographs and stories, mostly.
  • We borrow “just-this-once” items. When we go on camping trips, we borrow sleeping bags. I borrow my dad’s camera lenses when I go on big trips. I borrow clothing from my mom if I don’t have it in my minimalist wardrobe. Borrowing is such an important life hack, because it prevents us from purchasing things that we will only use once for travel.
  • We choose to disconnect. Going to a different country may require signing up for an additional payment plan in order to use your cell phone and other techy gadgets. Whenever possible, we simply go without. A trick would be to just opt for signing into the WiFi in cafes or our AirBNBs. Since a majority of our days are spent soaking in every last little detail of our current surroundings, we don’t really have a need for our cell phones. Planning the night before by looking up directions or the next day’s itinerary makes it a lot simpler too. Choosing to disconnect saves us not only money, but also, time since it keeps us from wasting time being “plugged in”.

These are just some of the ways in which we remain frugal while we travel. But like I said before, none of this equates to deprivation. It simply requires you to analyze what parts of travel you actually value, and what parts are simply excessive consumption. Once you’ve identified those priorities, it is very easy to cut down the spending in some areas in order to have enough in your budget to be able to see that one item on your bucket list. And if you need to, you can always borrow from other “envelopes” throughout the months leading up to your trip!

What about you? What are some ways to squeeze in a little extra money towards travel on a tight budget?

Finances: How YNAB Helped Us Pay $84,000 Towards Student Loans in One Year!

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Looking back on it, it seems absolutely nuts that we have been able to pay $84,000 towards our student loans in the last year. Prior to getting our finances in order, you could say that I was not one who was highly motivated in monitoring my spending. Or rather, I may have been highly motivated, but not entirely good at it. Honestly, I did not know where to start.

I was never afraid of budgets. Some people are. They are afraid that it would be too limiting, or depriving, to set financial constraints on their having fun in life. I get it. YOLO, right? But honestly, that’s just the rub. YOLO. You only get one life, and I don’t want mine consistently anchored down by debt. I want to be free. So it was not the budgeting that scared me, but the lack thereof. In fact, I was always in search of ways to budget. However, I had no idea how to do it efficiently.

We used to implement that all-too-familiar way of assessing our spending by guessing, eye-balling, rounding up and down (depending on our mood), or sometimes, ignoring all-together. Additionally, much of our analysis was performed retroactively. As in, “Oops, I spent too much on groceries last month! Roughly $100 too much.” The estimates, off course, were always too low, and the recognition harbored a bit too late, after the spending was already a done deal. Yikes!

Enter YNAB. YNAB is kind of like that high-school teacher that slaps your wrist and sets a vagabond teen straight. The acronym stands for “You Need a Budget“, and is better than an angel on your shoulder keeping your finances in check. It is a very easy system that is based on the age-old envelope system of budgeting. It used to be that, without computers and programs such as YNAB, people would use envelopes to budget their money. Each envelope would stand for a category. For example: “Groceries”, “Rent”, House Maintenance”, “Savings”, etc. With each incoming paycheck, a person would split the cash in between envelopes, allocating a certain amount towards those categories for the upcoming month(s). One can never accidentally overdraw from an envelope, because once the money runs out, that’s it! In order to overspend in a category such as “Dining Out” for example, one would need to proactively choose to take out money from another envelope, thus consciously deciding to decrease spending elsewhere.

With the invention of things such as credit cards, this becomes an obsolete practice, but I think it is one that is very useful. Instead of retroactively analyzing our spending, we should be proactively planning for our financial futures. In YNAB, you can create categories of your choosing that would be equivalent to those envelopes. You can be as precise or as general as you would like. We prefer to be more general, because it makes categorizing easier. Our categories are separated into “Needs”, “Financial Goals”, and “Wants”. A few examples include:

Needs – Rent, Auto Insurance, Utilities, Cell Phone, Groceries

Financial Goals – Student Loans, House Savings

Wants – Activities/Hobbies, Travel, Mike’s Fun Money, Sam’s Fun Money, Dining Out

So as paychecks roll in, we are proactively placing budgeted money into each category. Every dollar we earn is accounted for, down to the last penny. The goal is to budget appropriately, so that none of the categories need adjusting during the month. Metaphorically, you don’t want to borrow from any of the other envelopes. It did take us a while to get a feel for how much we spend in each category, but that’s the fantastic thing about YNAB. It summarizes previous spending in the months prior really well. Over time, we were able to know exactly what number we would need to budget in each category to be absolutely prepared.

A word on those summaries. This is a wonderful way to get a picture of how much of your spending is going towards your “Needs”, your “Wants”, and your “Financial Goals”. For us, because of our student loans, 50% of our income goes straight towards hitting our “financial goals”. We try to keep “wants” to a low 10% of our income, travel included, which is why travel hacking is so important for us. Also, there are graphs to show you how much your net worth is rising, as well as comparisons of “Income VS Expenses”, if those are motivating at all for you.

All of this can technically be done on an Excel sheet, but it would take a lot of time and effort. What I love about YNAB is that it can link to your bank accounts and automatically record every transaction, whether that’s money going in or money coming out. The only thing left to do is to categorize each transaction. Also, YNAB will remember which transactions fall under which category. For example, we frequently shop at Mother’s Market and Whole Foods for our groceries. I no longer have to categorize those things, since YNAB will automatically do that for me, thus making my job easier.

Off course, YNAB comes with a fee, which luckily for us, is waived by our financial planner. The cost to use YNAB is $89.99 annually, which seems like a lot, but when I look at the number we paid towards student debt ($84,000), I don’t feel bad at all! I think that fee is totally justified, plus it makes the whole budgeting process easier and much more motivating than if I had to go through all of our bank accounts and credit cards and physically input each and every transaction, create analytical comparisons and graphs and pie charts, and let our financial situation take up all of my free time.

If you are someone who wants to know where their money is going, wants to plan for the future, or is already doing both but wants a simpler process, try out YNAB. I hear too frequently the saying, “I don’t know where my money goes!” It’d be nice if we never have to say that ever again. Plus, once you know where it goes, you have the power to redirect it, kind of like we have!