Organization in Finances

Today I am excited to have my financial coach, my CFO, co-owner of Nancy Ray Photography, my wonderful husband William guest blog about on how we organize our personal finances! Be sure to follow his blog here.

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Let’s be real here. Keeping track of your money is hard!

There are bills to be paid. Savings goals need to be met. Debt payments to make. Constant swiping and authorizing through any given week. And where in the world did the cash in my wallet go?

It’s not easy, and that’s why public accountants (CPAs) are paid for their professional services!

If you don’t have ANY money organization whatsoever, don’t try to do all of this at once! You’ll be overwhelmed, crash and burn, and you’ll be one of the many that says, “Oh yeah I tried a budget and it just didn’t work for me.” Do one at a time (plus number 4) and work from there. Just starting to really pay attention to your expenses throughout the month will help you better understand where your money is going.

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1) Monthly Budget (and meetings)

There is simply no greater thing you can do for your financial situation than to start to handle your money purposefully and intentionally. The way you do that is a budget. Don’t freak out. A budget is simply a plan for where your money is going to go. Budget = Plan, simple as that. Having a game plan, even if you deviate from it, is most of the time much better than having no plan at all!

When Dave Ramsey and his team studied what it was that was helping all of these families in Financial Peace University turn things around with their money, they found that it was doing a budget. The best predictor of success for people who went through Financial Peace University was whether or not they were doing a budget.

(I’ve written a fair amount about the budgeting process, which you can see here :  The case for the budget + How to do a budget + Tuesday tips for Budgeting )

In short, a budget should be made every month, before the month begins. Nancy and I don’t have one budget that we use the entire year, because every month is different. Utility bills go up and down, fuel costs fluctuate, and we spend a lot more on gifts in November and December because of our birthdays and Christmas.

If you’re just starting out, don’t over-complicate it with Quicken, a crazy complex Excel spreadsheet, or some system you’ve never tried. Just grab a notepad (and give it to your spouse if they are more numbers-inclined), write your income at the top, then list all your expenses for the coming month and how much you estimate they’ll cost you.

For our bills, we keep the current month in the “Bills” folder that is with all of our mail for easy access (see Nancy’s Organizationin Home post), then we file all those away after their paid.

Your monthly budget probably should look similar to this, except maybe it’s written down:

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Once the more numbers-inclined spouse prepares it, both need to sit down, review it, and discuss it. This is where things can get a little challenging. Both of you have a vote; both of you have a voice, and you’re both adults. Work out your differences and concerns and come to an agreement that both of you can live with for 30 days. You’ll be having this discussion again.

At that point, you have a contract, and both of you move to execute the plan as it’s written. Don’t change the plan on the fly, talk to your partner and figure out where you can adjust to make those unexpected expenses work!

At the end of the month, you review the scorecard for the month. How did you do? Do we need to increase this category, and can we reduce this category?

If you do this process successfully, you’ll get two awesome things from it:
– A sense of empowerment and control like you’ve never felt before with your money.
– A raise! Or at least it will feel like it when you’re telling your money what to do instead of always wondering why you don’t have any.

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2) Envelopes

The way we keep track of our discretionary categories is by using cash in an envelope system. You could have any number of cash envelopes, but the envelopes we have are Food (we combine groceries and restaurants), Clothing, Household (lightbulbs, replacements, minor repairs), Auto Care (oil changes, washes, small maintenance), Gifts, Date Night, and Hair (for our haircuts).

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Cash is powerful, and there’s immediate feedback whenever you use it. I can look down into the envelope and see, “Hey, I’ve got $100 left to spend on food this month.” There’s no wondering about how much I can spend on this or that – it’s clear.

Using cash also helps limit your spending. The average cash sale at McDonald’s is about $4.50. The average sale with a credit/debit card? Over $6.

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For categories like gifts, clothing, and auto care, cash builds up in our envelopes month over month. We do that so when the time comes to buy a new pair of shoes or make a minor car repair, we have that money in the envelope.

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If you’ve not used cash before, it will be cumbersome. But you get used to it over time, and you’ll love the control that it gives you!

We bought our Deluxe Envelope System through Dave’s online store. It’s wonderful!

To read more about how we use the Envelope System, read Nancy’s guest post on Em For Marvelous.

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3) Digital tools

Technology has done some incredible stuff for us. It seems that each day there’s a new app for my iPad to help me track and control my spending.

We use My Total Money Makeover for our budgeting software. It’s easy to use, and Nancy enjoys the colorful interface and organization options. I just like the fact that it gets the job done! We also love the feature of copying and pasting the previous month’s budget, instead of starting the new month’s budget from scratch.

I can’t review all of them here, but one of my favorites is Mint.com. It is a powerful, free software that has organization, tracking, and budgeting features, a great web interface and beautiful apps for iOS and Android.

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Especially if you’re not going to use cash envelopes, a system to help you track your spending is really important. Having one of these systems tie into your bank account is a simple and easy way to do that.

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4) A little extra never hurt

One thing I don’t like doing is keeping track of exactly when money is coming in and going out. I like to focus on the “big picture” of the month, not when exactly I’m getting paid, how much my bills are right then, and what paycheck is paying which bills.

For instance, there are a lot of bills front-loaded in the month. Maybe your rent is due, our HOA charges us on the 1st, we tithe on the first, we have some utilities due by the 5th, and we want to fill the envelopes for the month. That’s more than my first paycheck, so how do we do all that at once?

That’s why Nancy and I keep a float of about $1000 in the checking account. This helps deal with the fluctuations that come from different paydays and bill due dates. You don’t have to worry about them as much. This isn’t an excuse to be sloppy; it gives you the flexibility to focus on the larger, monthly picture.

For most people, $1000 will probably be fine. If you have a high income and high expenses, you might want to keep more than that.

Important Note: If you do keep a float in your checking account, you can’t base your spending off what’s in your account anymore, you have to base it off your budget. No more looking at the account and thinking, “Oh I’m good to go out tonight!” It’s no longer based on that balance number, it’s based on your budget.

Overall, you must blanket all of these points with lots and lots of communication if you’re married. If you can get on the same team as your spouse with your money, it’s like it supercharges your marriage. Whether or not you use these systems or follow any of this financial advice, getting on the same page will be a huge asset to your finances and your relationship.

When you get bogged down in the how and what you’re trying to do with your money, remember the why. Why are you doing all this?

To secure your retirement?
To travel the world one day?
To get your mind and spirit freed from the cloud of debt you feel hanging over you?
To give your kids the experiences you never had?
To give generously so people’s lives are changed?

Remembering the why can help you push through the (sometimes messy) what and how.

So I’m curious. What are some ways that you keep your money organized?

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  • I'm one of those "excel spreadsheet" people. To make this work for me, I have a notebook (always to hand on my desk) where I jot down everything I spend (and by everything, I do mean everything; a $1 chocolate treat gets recorded along with a, significantly larger amount shall we say, bill) in as close to real time as possible. At the end of every month, I transfer this data into my spreadsheet, assess spending and plan for the next month. I find the most helpful thing is to have the pen-and-paper notebook to use as a running tally. Without it, receipts would add up, I'd lose track and thus my tracking and monitoring system wouldn't work.

  • Katie said:

    I'm one if those people who hates carrying cash so I use either a debit or credit card for all my purchases. However, I always pay off the credit cards at the end of each month and I only charge for things when I know that I have money in my bank account to back it up. I love that I can get cash back and rewards for spending money that I was already going to spend and I'm also building a good credit score for the feature. As far as my budget goes, I have a spreadsheet for my checking and savings accounts that I use to save money for car repair, taxes, insurance, etc. and to keep track of how much money I have available to spend in all my monthly categories. I have a "finances" time set aside each week to enter any purchases into my spreadsheet, pay bills, and monitor my budget. I regularly refer to my spreadsheet to see how much money I have in each category so that I always know what's available when I go to the store. It has been a great way for me to do a Dave Ramsey style budget while still gaining good credit and rewards points without going into debt or having to carry around cash. It's not for everybody. But I love it.

  • Thanks for sharing! I love that you guys share so open about your lives! It's encouraging how y'all strive to live a holistic life that portrays the Kingdom and it's values to others!

    My husband and I recently started using YNAB.com (you need a budget) and it's changing our lives! We tried using Mint, but it was pretty complicated for us b/c it connects to your bank accounts. With YNAB it's totally manual, which gives us complete control. We love it!

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