Getting our family’s finances to fit within a set monthly budget was no easy task.
In fact, we don’t always come in under budget, and we are still holding onto a little bit of hope that over the course of a full year, our overages will be canceled out by the months we come in under budget.
Of course, even that last smidgen of hope will be useless if we don’t do the work.
It’s not all grim and terrible.
If you have an image of me sitting at the kitchen table with my husband, counting stacks of pennies and entering rows of tiny numbers into an endless ledger, well, that’s all very romantic and Dickensian, but the truth is that there is a mix of old- and new-school tricks up our sleeves.
Here are the tools we used to create our initial budget, and the ones that keep us on track:
I did away with a paper checkbook during the last century.
After I met my husband, he turned me on to Quicken (I know, sexy!) and I never looked back.
It’s the easiest way to keep a check register.
My Bank’s Website
Every few days I log into my bank account online and download all of the latest transactions into my Quicken file, so I don’t even need to enter any transactions by hand.
Sometimes I change the categories. I can also transfer money to or from the emergency fund, or set up certain checks to be paid automatically.
There are zillion budget worksheets on the internet that you can download to get you started.
We used one from Dave Ramsey’s website. Its emphasis was on taking care of your basic needs first, then knocking out debt, then budgeting for fun extras.
We are still stuck on covering our mandatory bills, and now building our emergency fund back up, but we’ve wiggled in room for our kids’ sports programs because those are important to our family.
Quicken has an outstanding budget tool that requires no additional work – once you set it up, it does all the math for you.
Too bad it doesn’t do the worrying, too!
But I took this one step further and set up my budget in an Excel spreadsheet because I am a control freak.
I actually download my transactions into Quicken, then key them into the spreadsheet too, because I am a crazy person.
However, since that first month I have relaxed my focus a bit and started to go a little bigger picture, so there is at least a sign that I will be able to phase this step out as we get better at staying within budget.
Quicken and my spreadsheets are great silent partners in this project, but I like having a service that will alert me if I’m about to go over budget, which is why Mint is so useful.
I set up my budgets on Mint.com at my computer, and now the site sends me an email when a bill is due or if I go over budget in a category.
I can also use the iPhone app to check my budget categories when I’m away from my computer.
Envelopes and a Fancy Box
To keep track of our cash purchases, we divvy up our monthly cash into envelopes marked with their categories.
When the envelope is empty, no more spending on that type of item!
The one that gets the most action in our family is “Groceries.”
All the envelopes live in a decorative lunchbox-sized suitcase festooned with the logo of The Little Prince. (I know, adorable, right?)
Free Credit Reports
Even though we didn’t have credit card debt when we started our budget a few months ago, we did want to see how many accounts we had open, just to get a baseline picture of our credit profile.
This was also helpful for making sure there was no suspicious activity in either of our files that could indicate fraud or identity theft.
It seems wrong to say that people are tools, so let’s just say I am not afraid of asking for help.
Several times now I have asked the cashier at a grocery store to alert me when my running total approaches the amount of cash I have in my wallet, because I am pretty bad at keeping track of it while I am shopping.
They are always understanding when I have to pull items out of my purchase. I always thought that would be embarrassing, but I don’t care anymore.
Also, our friends have been very understanding that we don’t go out to dinner/drinks as much now, and have offered to host potlucks so we can get together without blowing our restaurant budget.
They save money, too, and they don’t have to drive. Everybody wins!
I know this one may sound obvious, but here’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
It took many hours, budget meetings, phone calls, emails, and stressful late night conversations for my husband and me to get our budget project started.
Those first few months were hand-wringers. I spent a lot of time at the computer setting up my systems.
Now I only need about an hour a week to sit down and really look at the numbers, and a few minutes every few days to monitor our activity.
If an emergency comes up we might take a little longer to discuss and figure out how we will afford it, but we’re ready for those situations now.
Our finances are important, so we devote our time and attention to them accordingly.
What tools do you use to keep yourself on track financially?
Kim Tracy Prince is a Los Angeles-based writer who has a husband, two little boys, and an obsession with spreadsheets.