‘Budgeting’ has negative connotations for some, but it doesn’t have to be that way

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

In personal finance parlance, it is known as “the B word.” And not in any sort of positive way.

Budgeting, defined as the excruciating act of creating a personal or family summary of income and expenses for the purposes of determining what can be spent and (hopefully) saved, carries such a negative vibe that some alleged PF gurus claim you can effectively manage your money without it.

Not likely…

Look, it’s really a matter of what you want to accomplish, in life and specifically when it comes to your money.  Are you truly satisfied to wing it from week to week, month to month and hope you have enough to get by?  Or are you willing to put in a little effort, in the boring form of crunching numbers, to improve your circumstances?

If you are among the vast majority of folks who want to make financial progress ongoing, there’s no way around some version of monetary accountability.

Still, that doesn’t mean it has to be painful… or a pain in the posterior. Budgeting is actually relatively simple, if you decide to keep it that way. Here’s how:

Know as accurately as possible your monthly take-home pay

True, determining what you make isn’t always that simple.  Sales professionals who work on commission, for instance, can have a wide variation in what they make from month to month. But there are ways around this.  First, determine an average income.  Go back three months, six months, or whatever time-frame you believe can most accurately reflect your net pay, and come up with a “common” figure.

Obviously, if you are on salary, you simply need to take a peek at your paycheck, or observe the associated direct deposit in your bank account.

Now reduce that number by 20% for budgeting purposes.  For instance, if you’ve determined that your average monthly net income is about $3,000, reduce it by 20% ($600) and work with $2,400 as you figure your budget. The 20-percent fudge factor allows for errors and anomalies while also demonstrating to you (eventually) that you can get by with less than you think. What if you only make $1,500 in a particular month… are you going to have to move back in with your parents?  You may be nodding your head after reading this, but we both know you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that scenario.

Make savings an integral part of any “spending” plan

Next take at least 5% of the $2,400 (10% is reommended), and mark it down as your monthly savings goal.  Yep, do it now… this resulting $120 for socking away in our example is important – commit to it, even before you figure out what your bills are.  That comes next.

Once you have your typical monthly income established, and your associated monthly commitment for savings, the next step is to mark down your fixed expenses.  These are the monthly bills that are the same every month – rent or mortgage payment, car payment, TV/internet bills, cellphone bill (in most cases), loan payment to Mom and Dad, etc.  It doesn’t matter what they’re for, if you pay them and they are constant, they should be included here.

Determine your expenses in two broad categories first

Now add up the total of your fixed expenses, tack on the aforementioned $120 savings figure, and come up with a total.  Then, take that total and subtract it from the $2,400.  The result is what you have available to spend monthly on what is referred to as discretionary spending – the costs that change every month, such as groceries, gasoline, and entertainment.

Guess what? You’re more than half finished.  Not exactly bamboo under the fingernails, correct?

OK, sure, I’m not claiming this is as fun as Space Mountain on Halloween. But it’s a lot less costly.

Be willing to go back through previous spending history

Now comes a little bit of effort, because you need to go back through your on-line banking or credit card receipts, and determine how much you’ve been spending on those discretionary costs.  My suggestion is that you separate them into the following categories:  groceries, eating out, gasoline, entertainment, and miscellaneous.

After you have those figures determined for the last month (ideally, figure out three months’ worth of each category and average for a more accurate monthly reference), take the monthly figures and add them up.  Compare to what your new budget “allows” you to spend.  Analyze what you’ve been overspending on, and what you’ve been more reasonable about. Adjust accordingly. Let logic and common sense be your guide.

For instance, let’s say your discretionary spending amount that you determined from your income/fixed expenses/savings portion of the budget is $600 per month. And you’ve determined you’ve been spending closer to $900 per month.  That means we need to find $300 to cut, but remember that we took your initial average take-home pay and cut it by 20 percent.  That was $600 lopped off the $3,000 average monthly pay, yes?

Decide on spending cuts if needed, but you don’t have to go overboard

So whatever we determine needs to be cut, it probably doesn’t truly need to be as drastic because we padded the initial income figure by using only 80 percent of it.  Are you with me?

In other words, you have some leeway… as long as you’re prepared to make some needed cuts when it’s obvious.  Are you going out to the movies a lot, or do you mostly stay in and watch Netflix? How ’bout fast-food?  That is the young adults’ most significant bug-a-boo, bar none.  Are you on a first-name basis with the folks at Carl’s Jr.?  If so, that has to change.  Cooking at home typically costs a fifth of fast-food, and a tenth or less compared to eating at sit-down restaurants.  How about at the grocery store?  Do you buy a lot of processed and/or name-brand foods, or do you focus on produce, dairy, and generic stuff?

After you have determined all your adjustments, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of each month is put the savings away. “Pay Yourself First” is a universally accepted personal finance adage for assuring you save regularly regardless of your budget.

Ultimately, as long as you’re willing to do a little self-analysis with what you spend, and make some common-sense alterations, it can be pretty simple and only a little painful.

If nothing else, make a commitment to avoid high-interest debt

Last item:  I could easily write 10,000 words about sensible budget decisions, cutting spending, etc.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  Instead, focus on the idea that getting basic organization in your financial life doesn’t have to be difficult and it truly doesn’t have to suck.

A huge take-away is this:  Whatever path you go, do your utmost to stay out of debt… specifically, credit cards that – speaking of sucking – will suck the life out of any possibility of you getting ahead with your money and ultimately being able to reasonably afford many of the things and experiences you desire.

As always, thank you for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Buying a home is a valuable step, but don’t do so until your financial house is in order

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

As my wife and I enjoy a brief vacation here in beautiful Big Bear, Calif., about 90 minutes northeast of L.A., the vast view speckled with wonderful homes got me to thinking about my next blog post.

One of the most prominent among the numerous dilemmas that face young adults as they attempt to successfully establish positive financial momentum is when to pull the trigger on the purchase of a house… and thereby cease building someone else’s net worth.   Put another way, there are giant advantages to buying a home versus renting for the people who are reasonably in a position to make that leap.

With renting, you are squandering money monthly.  Okay, I don’t mean that in the literal sense – your rent gives you a place to live for 30 days or so.  But once the month elapses, you have absolutely nothing to show for the rent you paid.  Also with renting, you can’t make any improvements without permission from the owner, must trust the owner to make needed repairs in a timely manner, and are restricted by the owner on whom you can have living at the home, whether you can sub-lease… a host of potential restrictions.

Sounds almost like the government, eh?

When you own the home, it is YOURS even though you don’t get sole ownership until after the mortgage is paid off.  And who cares about that technicality as long as you don’t have the bank manager claiming dibs on the master bedroom?

Seriously, as long as you continue to pay the bank as promised when you signed the loan documents, you can do pretty much whatever you want with the home, and have anyone live with you as you please,   More importantly, every payment you make builds equity (wealth) for you in at least one of two ways – by paying down what you owe, and by possessing a commodity that appreciates in value more often than not.

And believe it or not, it is often better to owe money to the bank on your home than having it paid off free and clear.  I will explain in detail why that is in a future post.

Back to the benefits of owning.  Did I mention a very huge tax benefit?  Interest paid on a mortgage loan is (virtually) always deductible as a write-off.  On a new loan, of which much of the payment is interest, that can add up to $10,000 or more in a year.   And you can write off the property taxes, too.

Conversely, rent is not tax deductible.  And don’t even think about the paltry renter’s credit.  There’s no comparison.

But wait!  In your adult life up to now, the money talk has likely been about saving more, spending less, and eliminating debt. Doesn’t buying a home go against the grain in that it represents spending and most certainly is NOT eliminating debt but is instead creating it?

Well, as usual, that depends on your specific circumstances.

Of course, I should clarify that I am referring to a young couple or family’s first home, not a vacation castle in the mountains such as those we’re surrounded by up here.  With that in mind, let’s skip past the how’s of buying a home – entire books have been written on that subject – and focus here on the more crucial “when?”

Many folks fall into two broad categories when it comes to making this decision, and neither are ideal.  The first group is intimidated by the idea of such a massive commitment as buying a home – the process of finding the right place, determining what they can afford, qualifying for financing, having enough for a down payment… it can be overwhelming the first time around.  They’re scared to death to make the wrong move.

The second group jumps into the fray before it can really afford to.  A pay raise of 50 cents an hour with a promotion to assistant to the assistant manager, and a proclamation is made that it’s time to ditch the studio apartment in the low-income district and go get a two-story with a pool in the suburbs.

Hold on there, Trump!  Somewhere in the middle, with a lean toward the overly conservative first group, is where you ideally need to be.

There are essentially four factors that should be in your favor before even considering the decision to buy a home:

1) Gainful, secure employment.  If you’re not solidly employed, you won’t qualify for financing anyway… but nevertheless new home-buyers need to have a steady income stream that can be reasonably counted on (note, however, that there’s no such thing as absolute job security or a slam dunk success in business). In short, you should be working at a stable job that you like enough to make a mental commitment to it indefinitely.

2) Little or no other debt.  A car payment is OK, or absent that, a SMALL amount of other debt.  But if you’re into credit cards and other unsecured commitments more than a few hundred dollars, it is wise to get that taken care of first. And if you have undesirable debt yet have saved what you believe to be enough for a down payment on a house, you should likely use all or most of those funds to pay off the debt instead.

3) Appropriately frugal spending habits.   You’re living below your means, putting money away monthly and are comfortable sticking with “staples” like a cellphone which isn’t the absolute latest, greatest model and technology.  And you’re cool with eating Tuna Helper or Swanson dinners more often than not even during LobsterFest.

4) You’ve got at least a few months of savings built up already.  Stuff happens, so you certainly don’t want to be in a position to get behind on your mortgage if your transmission goes out.

Did you notice that I didn’t specifically make having the money for a down payment a requirement?   Let me explain:  Many, many folks get caught up in the idea that they can’t or shouldn’t attempt to buy a home unless they’ve saved enough cash for a legitimate down payment – 10%, 20% or even more.  It simply isn’t true.  First-time buyer programs today are… well, first-rate.  Some even require as little as a 1% down payment, and FHA’s basic first-time buyer program requires only 3% down.  Closing costs must be accounted for, too, but some programs roll those costs into the loan.

There is a negative to a lower down payment – Private Mortgage Insurance.  PMI is charged by the lender whenever a loan is made on more than 80% of the appraised value of the home (in other words, you put down less than 20%).  It is expensive – as much as 1% of the outstanding balance on the loan annually) – and undesirable, but not so costly that it should prevent wanna-be homeowners from going forward assuming they otherwise have the means.  The numerous benefits of owning your abode outweigh the temporary nuisance of PMI in most cases, and as soon as you have established equity of more than 20%, you can contact the lender (they will not do so automatically) and request the PMI be cancelled.

THE KEY FACTOR HERE ISN’T HAVING A BIG DOWN PAYMENT, IT IS AVOIDING TRYING TO BUY TOO MUCH HOUSE.  Banks have their own rules about “how much home” you can afford.  My recommendation is to see what they will approve, and reduce that amount by 20-25%.  Why?  Because it will virtually assure that you won’t buy more home than you can swing.

Simply put, be willing to dictate the terms, or be willing to walk away and try again in a few months.  Believe me… the latter is grossly preferable to getting in over your head, assuming the lender guidelines would even permit such a circumstance.

Good common sense (hmmm… is there such a thing as bad common sense?) will usually be accurate in determining when you can and should move forward with the big step of buying a residence.  Don’t get eager and foolishly proceed before you’re ready…

But you should also avoid standing pat just for the sake of it.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Results are NEVER guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, invest at your own risk.