A Heart for Splurging: How Budgeting and Expense Tracking can Free Up Your Time & Money

With love in the air on Valentine’s day, endless amounts of consumers will pile into stores, buying up cards, chocolates, or mega-sized teddy bears to share with the ones they love. In fact, on average Valentine’s Day participants will spend $196.31 according to a recent report. With that decent dent coming in each February, Valentine’s Day can help us softly return our eyes to a very important and relevant topic: Budgeting.

I know, that dreaded B-word, and on the most lovey-dovey day of the year! While it may bring a more serious and somber mood associated with the connotations of it, budgeting can and should be viewed in a much lighter and friendly way! Using modern-day technological and analytical methods, we can more easily wrap our arms around what can seem to be an extremely tedious and cumbersome process.

As with so many an established method, modern analysis has found unique and interesting ways to innovate classic solutions. One great example of such innovation is a theory coined as “zero-base budgeting”. In essence, this idea conjectures that all expenses in a set period should be categorized in advance such that each dollar earned should go towards a specific category. For example. If you made $4,000 per month, in a zero-based budget you’d allocate $2,000 for mortgage payments, $500 for food, and let’s say $500 for savings (wouldn’t it be nice if all budgets were this simple?). Now we have each expense labeled out and our income allocated towards them. But wait! We still have $1,000 left unallocated! Instead of leaving this piece out, we need to find a home for this cash to get back to our zero-based goal. So why not allocate this extra funding we found towards a great goal of paying down debt, or if we don’t have any debt, let’s shoot for an emergency fund or perhaps some extra cash for a romantic weekend getaway! Or, let’s say we don’t end up spending all $500 for food at the end of the month. We could roll this forward, or…go out for a nice date night! Using this technique, you’ll have a purpose for each and every dollar, which ensures you put your money to work for you and weeds out those unnecessary expenses that rears its head along the way!

An even simpler and more general rule to work with that incorporates the same principle is the 50/30/20 rule. Essentially, it’s a zero-based budget with your categories capped to three distinct classes: fixed expenses, discretionary spending, and savings/debt payments. Knowing this, our aim with this method is to re-organize and cut down expenses such that each month, your after-tax income is split between the three with the following, intuitive guidelines: 50% of your income goes towards fixed expenses (think insurance or mortgage payments), 30% goes towards discretionary spending (think entertainment or gifting), and 20% is used to pay down debt or build up savings. This last 20% category may be the most important factor to future financial success. By “paying yourself” i.e. saving on a regular basis, you start in motion the power of compounding. Once again, following these guidelines will also give your earnings a direct usage, which builds a baseline for proactive monitoring, instead of looking back and seeing where you overspent or having a non-distinct spending goal. Now you can move through the month and monitor where you are for each category using each method, and be able to adjust your spending accordingly!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is great in theory, but I still have to come home from a long day and tally up all my various receipts, statements, etc. to create this budget, let alone monitor it constantly”! Well, fear not, as this is where the technological advancement pieces become so handy, and make budgeting a breeze! Nowadays, there’s an app for everything, and budgeting is certainly no exception! For example, a small indie firm called Intuit (yeah the same people who make that obscure tax software, what was it called again? NitrousTax?) has a free app for your phone that can help you tackle this project quite a bit. With Intuit Mint, you can create a link to any number of checking or savings accounts, debit or credit cards, or even straight to billing sites! Once all these accounts are linked, transaction data from each will start pouring in, and are automatically categorized for you into several different arenas which fit nicely with the zero-based budgeting plan we discussed! Within the app, you can also set goals for each of these categories and reallocate existing transactions that might have been mislabeled. Now each month, you’ll get a summary of how much you spent in each division, and Mint can also send you a notification when you’re close to exceeding your goal, to keep you right on track. (Additionally this app has some other cool features like credit score sampling and bill pay reminders, all for free!)

Some other apps that work in a similar capacity include EveryDollar, created by the zero-based budget guru Dave Ramsey, which has a free version that performs the same function with a slightly more intuitive user interface, but will require you to manually enter your transactions each month. There are also several others out there on the app market including Monthly Budget Planner & Daily Expense Tracker, BudgetBakers’ Wallet, Spendee, and many others. Each of these have their own unique setup and categorization but accomplish the task of simplifying your budgeting process!

All in all, budgeting is one of the biggest pieces of one’s financial puzzle. Most of the time, our income levels, investment performance, social security or any number of other inputs are not 100% in our control. But one important area, in which we do have total control is our spending, which makes monitoring this area a key to long-term financial success. By using analytical ideologies like zero-based budgeting or software aimed at making the whole process easier to follow-along with, we can take out the stress and time that used to be associated with budgeting, and instead create our own steps to reaching our financial goals whether those are getting out of debt, building long-term wealth, or just buying that rose bouquet for our significant other.

For further advice on budgeting and its ties to our financial planning process, please reach out to us! Happy Valentine’s Day!

https://dwmgmt.com/

FIREd up about Early Retirement

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There is a recent trend among Millennials and younger Gen Xers that is generating a great deal of interest. The concept is defined by the acronym FIRE – financial independence/retire early. A WSJ article from November follows the rigid budget and sacrifices of Sylvia, who wants to retire in 2020 with $2 Million at age 40. The current rage to extreme early-retire by using frugality, intense saving and/or
investment strategies to achieve financial independence is becoming a popular notion. This purportedly comes from the 20 to 40 somethings who have a ‘burning’ desire to not be chained to a job, but rather want to freely choose how they spend their time. The FIRE followers want the freedom of financial independence to allow comfortable “retirement” at an earlier than usual age.

FIRE and the discussion around it has inspired many recent blogs, podcasts, articles, books and even a documentary coming out this year called “Playing with FIRE”. Playing with Fire follows a family as they “test their willingness to reject the standard narrative of adult life, which basically prescribes: go to college, take out tons of student loans, buy a new car, take on a mortgage, buy another car and lots more stuff you don’t need, then work for 40+ years to pay for it all. If you’re lucky, you might be able to retire at 65 and not have to eat cat food.” Now that is cynical!

On the surface, however, retiring early sounds like a reasonable goal… we are all striving for some level of financial independence, after all. At DWM and as financial advisors, we definitely believe that controlling spending and sticking to savings goals are the keys to reaching financial independence. Most of us would consider these good money habits to be a common sense approach to life – live below your means, save more, be less materialistic- but what does it take to actually achieve an extreme early retirement in your early 40s or even 30s and make sure you have enough money for the rest of your life? FIRE followers believe extreme saving and frugality is the path. As the Investment News article describes it “Followers of FIRE amass savings voraciously and live on bare-bones budgets. They aim to stockpile enough money to fund a retirement lasting roughly double that of the average American.” Apparently, the retirement savings number that they strive for is based on a future 3-4% percent withdrawal rate that might have to last 60 years!

FIRE followers advocate aggressive savings goals of 50-75% of earnings and following strict budgets to achieve this. They focus on cutting back or even cutting out all non-essential spending like going out to eat, vacations or bigger houses and newer cars. Or like Sylvia from theWSJ article reportedly does, search for the brown bananas and borrow Netflix passwords. This might be where we should talk about quality of life!

On top of that, the unknowns in this strategy could wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. Some in the FIRE movement live austere lives now and plan to continue the austerity into the future to maximize
their savings. All well and good as long as nothing unexpected happens. How about the often unforeseen or underestimated expenses that come from having kids or running into health problems? We can try to predict the impact on our portfolios from inflation, the economy, the markets, investments, but we really can’t say absolutely what will happen in the future. We know that healthcare costs are increasing and becoming a large spending item in normal retirement, especially before Medicare begins. We know that we can’t predict what will happen to Social Security. We certainly can’t predict our life spans – whether short or long – nor are we ever as ready as we would like for emergencies and crises like natural catastrophes, death of a loved one or chronic illness. We just don’t have a crystal ball!

There is also an underlying degree of cynicism in this mindset that our working life is focused solely on the goal of amassing “more stuff”. What about the satisfaction and connection that comes from building a career and a level of accomplishment and expertise in a field? Many of us have had several varying career paths and, had we jumped off after the first one, what would we have missed? What inventions or discoveries or achievements would humanity miss out on if the productivity and challenges that are gained from a lifelong career were cut short?

Successful financial independence does come from hard work, discipline and a measure of frugality and sacrifice – we can all agree on this. At DWM, our goal is to help guide you toward achieving your goal of financial independence, whether you keep “working” or spend your time in other ways – as you wish. We try to minimize some of the risks by planning for as many of the “What Ifs” as we can and hope that, by charting a course, we can help you breathe easier as you plan for the future. We want you to be “fired up” for your whole life and find satisfaction and quality of life during your saving and accumulating days, as well as your spending and legacy days. We think this is possible by following a balanced, moderate and careful financial plan. We can certainly get fired up about that!