Building A Better Budget

How we got rid of one of our biggest budgeting pitfalls

How many times has this happened to you?  You go to Target, intending to buy dish soap, sandwich bread, and shaving cream.  You leave Target with dish soap, sandwich bread, and shaving cream… plus, a magazine, a picture frame, a lamp, 3 shirts, a pair of shoes, a bike pump, and some ice cream.  Somehow, you spent $80.  Sure, you bought what you planned to buy, but you also bought all sorts of other things you “needed” but hadn’t planned to buy.

I can’t even tell you how many times this has happened to me.  For the first few years of our marriage, we lived within 2 miles of Target and I doubt we ever left the store without at least one item we really “needed” but hadn’t planned to buy.

But, it seemed okay because we had money budgeted for “miscellaneous” expenses and, as we reconciled our monthly budget, we were able to file any unexpected Target purchases under that category. (Or other unexpected purchases… But, for us, they almost all happened at Target!)  Even still, nearly every month, we outspent our miscellaneous category and felt like we had little to show for the extra money we’d spent.

Despite our best efforts and the fact that we rarely bought things we didn’t “need”, we felt like we just couldn’t meet our monthly budget.

A few months ago, though, we had a budgeting breakthrough: we deleted the “miscellaneous” category from our budget. I’m certain it has saved us hundreds of dollars (not to mention large amounts of clutter) already.

Since we created our budget 5 years ago, we’ve allocated $20 a month for each of us to have as “flex spending”.  If I want to go out with friends, buy a shirt I don’t really need, or get my nails done, I can use money from my flex spending category. (We also add any money we receive as gifts to each of our categories.)

We also used to budget anywhere from $20-50 a month toward those “miscellaneous” purchases. Basically, anything that was for our family as a whole went into this category – whether it was a new desk, a bike trailer, or home decor.  (Another name for this category could have been “Things I Like at Target and Am Certain I Will Use”!)

When we prepared to move to South Carolina, though, we decided to pare back our belongings and held a huge yard sale. As we earned back pennies on the dollar on all the silly picture frames, candles, and what not that we had bought over the years, we realized we needed to stop.  We needed to stop spending money pointlessly and we needed to stop bringing home things we didn’t truly love.   Looking at the clutter in light of our budget, we realized that it all had been budgeted for under the category “miscellaneous”.

So, we decided to delete the miscellaneous line item from our budget.  Here’s how:

Instead of a line item for miscellaneous and line items for each of us, we deleted the miscellaneous line item and added $10 to each of our flex spending accounts each month.  Now, we each have $30 a month to spend on whatever we want for ourselves or for our home.  But, here’s the catch: anything we buy that’s not an essential like food, clothing, or gas gets categorized as “flex spending” for one (or both) of us.

Rather than justifying a purchase by saying it’s budgeted for under the miscellaneous category and telling ourselves that (fill in the blank) is something that we really do need, now we each are held accountable for every flexible amount of money that we spend.

Let’s pretend I find a $50 piece of art I want to hang on the wall in our living room.  I ask Beach Dad if he likes it or not.  If he likes it and we both decide it’s worth it, we can split the cost between each of our flex spending accounts.  So, I lose $25 and he loses $25.  We both have intentionally made the decision that we want that piece of art and we have both actually sacrificed something in order to get it.  Instead of going out to dinner with friends this month, I’ll go out for a $5 dessert and I’ll get to have this piece of art on my wall.  And, if I love the piece of art and that’s what we both want, then it’s absolutely worth it. That’s what our flex spending is for!

But, if he doesn’t love it as much as I do and he doesn’t want to spend $25 of the $30 he’ll get this month on the piece of art, then I have a new choice to make. I can either decide “I love this and it’s worth $50 of the money I’ve saved between last month and this month” or I can decide “Really, it’s not worth it. I’d rather get a pedicure.”

How many times have I decided it’s worth it?  Well, here’s a hint:

I’ve hardly found anything to buy that feels worth it when I have to be held personally responsible for its purchase.  That spot on our wall is bare because we haven’t found anything we actually love yet.  We haven’t found anything that we can actually justify spending money on.

Thankfully, I know that Beach Dad is agreeable – we have similar tastes and we both have agreed to sacrifice our flex spending when it makes sense. If I do decide to spend “my” money, I don’t feel like he’s just being stingy – it’s simply that I want something he’s impartial about.

When we find the item that we both truly love, we’ll have our flex spending money lined up and we’ll know that it’s worth every penny of the sacrifice we’ll each have to make to buy it.  But, until then, now that we can’t just blame the miscellaneous category for our overspending, we’re each going to wait for what we really love and want to hold onto.

And, as we buy less, we’re also getting a lot more creative than we used to be.  When we designed our gallery wall, it felt empty at first and we contemplated buying more picture frames.  Neither of us wanted to contribute our flex spending for yet another black picture frame, so we rearranged some frames in our bedroom and used the extras in the gallery wall.  It worked wonderfully and we saved ourselves some money to use on other, much more fun things!

Now, it’s your turn… Where’s your biggest budgeting pitfall? Are you as vulnerable to overspending at Target as I am? Or, have you successfully had a “miscellaneous” category without overspending?

6 thoughts on “Building A Better Budget

  1. Stephanie H September 5, 2012 / 10:05 pm

    SOOO true…our “misc” category is always over budget! I love the idea of each of us having our own “fun” money that no one can get in a tizzy about 🙂


    • beachmom September 7, 2012 / 10:20 am

      Yeah, it’s really freeing, even though it’s not much money! 🙂


  2. Gini September 6, 2012 / 12:15 pm

    Doing away with Misc. is a genius idea. We all know about new car depreciation as you drive off the lot. However, that “necessary” Target item which cost $25 is worth about $2 as you exit through their automatic doors! Thanks for this reminder.


    • beachmom September 7, 2012 / 10:21 am

      What a great way to think about it! That’s so true. I should think about “depreciation rates” of the junk I buy more often.


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