Throughout the entirety of my upbringing I’ve looked at money and asked a very single, pointed question: how much is in my bank account right now? If I had enough to buy whatever thing I was looking at, then I bought it. If I didn’t have enough–and most times I didn’t–I didn’t buy it.
In high school and college, I felt like the outsider for struggling with spending money and also with understanding how much of it I needed and how much of it I actually had. For a guy who’s been working since he was 12, I really had no concept of saving or any sort of financial planning.
Honestly, I have no idea how I survived in college working an average of 20 hours a week making about $8.00 an hour. My rent was hardly ever on time and my only sort of spending money came when I’d get extra hours at my job for the university. I never made a budget, but if I had, it probably would have looked like this:
Jordan’s Monthly College Budget
Income: Approximately $500
Everything else: whatever’s left
The Moment it All Changed
In writing, there’s a device called an inciting incident. Basically, this is the moment when something happens to the protagonist of a story to make them embrace a certain conflict. Without it, they would just sit on the couch playing video games and nothing would be worth reading.
My inciting moment for almost all my adult decisions was getting engaged to my beautiful wife.
This particular revelation that I needed to understand money and have more of it than enough to buy a six pack of PBR came when I realized I’d soon be moving to a new city and getting married. Lucky for me, Britt’s parents were kind enough to let me live at their place for a few months while I figured things out with my job and such.
Pro Tip: If you want to get married, start becoming comfortable talking about money because you’ll talk about it a lot.
How I learned to build a budget
Originally, the plan was that Britt would handle all our finances, because she had way more experience (read: any) with budgeting and was actually smart enough to put some money in a savings account. Truth be told, I was intimidated by the fact that Britt was way better with her money than I was. Maybe it was a gender thing for me—wanting to be the provider and such.
That’s certainly part of it, but I think the bigger realization was that I was terrified to be exposed. You see, when you ask someone to marry you, it feels like there’s a big underlying implication of, “I’ve got a plan.” So when she said yes and I didn’t have a plan, I realized it was time to get serious. I didn’t want her to find out how little money I actually had.
But a funny thing happened after I started obsessively writing down numbers on scrap paper: I started to really like it.
Tangible Steps to Becoming a Budget Nerd
Step 1: Create a Mint Account
We’re not getting money for telling you to use Mint (I wish we were; where you at Mint’s marketing team?!), so it’s with full transparency that I can tell you that it really has changed the way I look at money.
If you’re unfamiliar, Mint is an online budgeting tool that allows you to create budgets, set goals, keep tabs on your accounts, etc. The best part to me is that Mint serves as an aggregator for all your different bank accounts. And while you can see all your money in Mint, there is literally no capability to move any of the money. It is strictly for looking at your finances.
The only downside that I’ve discovered is that Mint requires you to often manually change the way your transactions are coded for them to count towards your budgets. That said, you can also set rules like making “Dunkin Donuts” purchases show up in your “Love Myself” budget as opposed to your “groceries” budget.
Plus it’s really pretty, see…
Step 2: Play with the Numbers
The way I became enthralled with budgeting and money in general was by spending copious amounts of time in Excel and on Mint figuring out exactly where our money was going and how much we could make/save by doing different things.
Maybe I’m a child, but I learn by play. Money is no different.
I’m no accountant, but it seems to me the 3 most important things to learn when you’re first building a budget are:
- Your after tax monthly income
- Your total bills (fixed expenses) for the month
- Your average spending (fluid expenses) for the month
The first two are pretty straight forward, but after you figure out how much you have to spend each month, you can figure out how much you get to spend each month, or maybe you’ll see you’re spending more than you’re making and realize it’s time to stop eating so much Jimmy John’s (that’s our struggle).
Step 3: Make a Plan
After you’ve answered the above basic questions, I recommend creating a spreadsheet with all your expenses laid out. I use Google Drive (once again, not a paid promotion) to keep track of all my budgety things. For me, this was the time when I also started to get really passionate about finding ways to save money. The easiest way to do that is to play with the numbers and realize how the smallest savings can add up.
Step 4: Tweak the Plan
Part of what makes me a nerd for budgeting is how excited I get when it comes time to tweak things each month. For instance, if I over budget for eating out one month, I get really excited to see where the remaining money will go. Admittedly, it’s not as exciting when you’re having to figure out how to compensate for overspending. And that’s also much more common.
I’ve been budgeting for about 2 years now and I can say that it’s not easy to keep up with. I tweak the budget on a monthly basis, but using these steps has really helped my wife and I to have a fuller understanding of our finances.
I am not a professional financial planner—not even close. That said, the point of our site is to tell our stories so that we can be helpful to people going through similar circumstances. So don’t take my word as absolute on any of this. Also, if you have some advice I missed, it’d be pretty cool if you shared your wisdom (links are great too) in the comments section below.