Budget Basics: Where Did All My Money Go?

By Derek Reimherr

The day I left Athens, GA - where I went to college - I had $50 to my name. My fun involved free beer from friends and video games given as Christmas presents. My dates with Maggie usually involved RedBox and leftover food. And at this point, the gravy train from Mom and Dad was officially dry.

I was lucky enough to have a well-paid job lined up with a large, soul sucking corporation. They relocated me to Los Angeles where I found a room in a house one mile from the beach at the unreasonably cheap rate of $800 a month including utilities. Then on my first day, I found out I would be in a position that was overtime eligible AND required overtime. Those crazy California laws rule. Soon, I had more 0s in my bank account than I knew what to do with.  

Suddenly our dates consisted of weekend gallavants (if the word is good enough for Theon Greyjoy, it's good enough for me) around LA - brunches in Hollywood, shopping on Rodeo Drive, beer festivals in Long Beach, you name it. We ordered rounds of $15 Moscow Mules without batting an eyelash. Okay, maybe we batted a singular eyelash.

The problem was, it didn't last. I moved to Boston where I didn't get overtime and where 1 bedroom apartments cost as much as mortgages on 4 bedroom houses in Georgia. Every time I checked my Mint.com account overview, I wept silently as I transferred money from savings to checking every month. I was blowing my cash like Aaron Carter, circa 2003, faster than you could say “I want Candy.”

I needed a freaking budget.

The “b” word tends to get thrown around a lot as something “everyone knows they should be doing” but no one actually is. There’s something about that sweet, sweet first paycheck that makes you want to ball out.

The biggest roadblock? Us. “There’s no point starting a budget, it’s not like I’m going to stick to it anyway.” Why is the struggle to keep a budget so real?

1. Your categories aren't realistic.

Stop living in Cloud City, kid, you aren't Lando Calrissian. Life doesn’t always fall in line with our ideal, narrow budget categories. You’re going to spend more than $150 a month on groceries unless you love grilled chicken breast and...seasoned salt.

2. You're not committed.

Just because you have a steady job doesn’t mean you can do whatever, whenever. Ever want to actually relive your study abroad dreams and go back to Barcelona? You’re going to need to cool it on the Starbucks rewards program and brew a few cups of joe instead.

3. You're not self-monitoring.

Setting up a budget is great, but you still need to log in and look at your money. It might be funny for @TheFatJewish to say he never checks his bank account, but he’s got White Girl Rose. What do you have? Track your spending.

4. You're leaving stuff out.

Remember your Mom’s birthday? You should probably get her something. Car maintenance? Those donut-tires on your car probably aren’t safe. These are things that don’t happen all the time, but you need to be ready when they do.

Think you need a budget yet? I did then and I do now. The difference is that my income has changed and so has my lifestyle which means different budgets for different times. Here are the 3 that I've used and Maggie and I employ at different times depending on our goals. 

  • Bare Bones: AKA only the essentials. New clothes (non-work related)? Nope. Eating out? Unnecessary. Brewery tours? Sadly and tragically, non-essential. This is probably not your everyday budget. This is for aggressive debt repayment, hardcore savings, or hustling to get that first real job. This is the “roll up your sleeves” financial system.
  • Fun Money: The most basic of budgets I would recommend. It focuses on the simple idea, “How much money is left after paying bills, taking care of the essentials, and saving some cash?” What’s left is your fun money - you don’t even need to bother tracking it.  You might spend more (read: waste) than you should, but you at least you took care of business first. This is what we end up using most of the time without realizing it.
  • Zero-sum: This is the ideal to me and what we (try to) use. The Simple Dollar, a blog I read, talks about exactly why you should use a zero-sum budget. At its core, a zero-sum budget assigns every dollar a job. You’re trying not to live paycheck to paycheck because you one saved up one month’s expenses in your bank account and won’t go bankrupt from paying bills. It takes some discipline, but it’s worth it.

The entire point of doing a budget is to change behavior. Poppin’ bottles was cool for us cool when we had the budget of Leonardo DiCaprio, but otherwise, sticking to a plan is better. If you don’t want to fall to shambles when life happens (been there 👋), don’t go through the motions and actually try the process.  It'll be worth it. 

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What budgeting tips and tricks have you used? We're always needing new ways to not blow our money shopping on Amazon Prime.

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