How To Start A Personal Budget In 2021
Starting and maintaining a personal budget can be life-changing when done right. The only way to plan for the things you’ll be spending money on, is to, well, plan for them.
Using this method, you visualise all your money and where it is all going to, with the option to move money across categories or ‘envelopes’ should priorities change.
These days not many people will carry around actual envelopes filled with cash anymore but the classic envelope mantra can still work even if you are using your debit card, credit card, electronic transfers, or even mobile payment services.
Personally, I’ve been using a version of this ‘envelope’ budgeting method since 2015 and swear by it. According to this method, you start by giving every dollar (or ringgit in our version) a job. Once you can do that, you will be able to plan for your true expenses, adapt to unexpected changes, and spend less than you earn.
Let’s break it down here.
Give every ringgit a job
You may already have some large ‘envelopes’ created in your head, like your dining out money, car instalment, etc. But what about the rest of your expenses?
The problem with not having a budget for everything is, you won’t be able to keep track of all your current and future expenses from memory alone. You might be looking at your account balance and think to yourself, ‘Hmm, I still have RM500 left in the bank, so I have enough to buy this RM400 bag,’ forgetting in the moment that you still have an unpaid RM100 phone bill, still need that haircut before going back to the office, and you still need to eat until the next paycheck.
The first step of the envelope method is to record all the money that you have, including savings, into the system, regardless of where that money is. (Whether it’s in three different banks, in the wallet, under the pillow, doesn’t matter.) That way, you’ll have a single source of truth, to inform your money decision-making process later.
After that, set categories for everything (and we mean everything), and then take all the money that you have and divide them into those categories. Don’t worry if your total amount of money pooled earlier includes savings which you won’t be touching anytime soon – just set a category for that, too.
The idea here is to give every ringgit a job, and never let any money sit there unallocated, because that’s just a recipe for impulse purchases. Your categories may include:
|Frequently||Rent/mortgage, bills, car instalment, petrol/public transportation, dining out, groceries, household goods, money for family members, medicine, personal care, clothing, books/entertainment/games, streaming services|
|Occasionally||Car maintenance/repairs, car insurance and road tax, home appliances, home repairs, software annual subscriptions|
|Eventually||Emergency fund, general savings, vacation, new phone/computer, home down payment, retirement|
|Generously||Gifts, donation, dāna/tithing/zakat|
|Temporary||Credit card debt, student loan|
From then on, every time you’re about to make a purchase, don’t look at your account balance or cash in hand – look at the category balance instead. Running low on the ‘Dining out’ category? Then maybe getting that mocha frappé after lunch is not a good idea.
Plan for your true expenses
There are generally three types of expenses when it comes to frequency: one that happens at least once a month, like food, or bills; one that’s scheduled but occurs every few months/years, like your car insurance, or that software subscriptions of yours; and one that’s unscheduled/unexpected, like accidents, or a new phone.
The secret sauce in the envelope method, lies in the categories you’ve set for the second and third types of expenses.
Think of the times you’ve scrambled to gather that RM600 for your car’s insurance and road tax due at month’s end? With the category in place, you’ll only need to set aside RM50 monthly. And don’t forget the holiday season, when you tend to spend more for travel and accommodation and gifts.
While you’re still new to this, you might have some (or a lot of) debt to clear off. Remember to categorise them and allocate money there, too.
Adapt to unexpected changes
Even for the third type of expenses, the unexpected ones, you’d want to pre-emptively plan for them, too. Think of it as savings, except that instead of one large lump sum, you have multiple savings, each with their own purpose (retirement, new phone, car repairs, etc).
Knock on wood, but you know your car is going to break down someday, even if it’s years from now. Even if your current phone is still new, set aside RM100 into the ‘new phone’ category, and in two years’ time, you will already have enough for a mid-range device.
You won’t feel a thing. Think of it this way – you’re going to pay for all your expenses, one way (savings) or another (credit card). Why not ‘pay’ for them earlier in the budgeting system, way ahead of time, and with zero interest?
With your categories in place, whenever you overspend a category, you could just cover it up with surplus money from another category.
But keep in mind that with great flexibility, comes great consequence. Covering up your ‘dining out’ category with money from your ‘new phone’ category will only delay a cash purchase of that new device you fancy. It is better to just not overspend your ‘dining out’ category in the first place. And a good budgeting system lets you visualise all this in one place.
Spend less than you earn
You’ve been hearing this advice all your life, but it is no different than saying ‘eat healthily’ or ‘exercise more’. How do you even get there? Where do you start?
Well, once you get the hang of using this budgeting method, you will notice that you now tend to naturally spend less than you earn. Besides this overwhelmingly rewarding experience, this new habit will set you up for more financial milestones yet to come.
Heck, you could even automate this budgeting method by putting it on a spreadsheet and sync it to your phone via a cloud storage.
For it to work, your app should always be with you (on the smartphone), have the ability to record expenses (and set up your budget too, of course), sync to cloud or export/transfer its data (should you switch phones) and preferably be available on, or synced to, a desktop/laptop (for a bigger screen).
If you think your financial situation in 2020 didn’t leave much to be desired, fret not, for you are not alone in our current economic recession. Armed with this experience, perhaps the most important financial gift you can give yourself is to start a personal budgeting system in 2021 if you haven’t done so.