I’ve decided to develop a budget.

This probably sounds strange coming from a guy who has been anti-budget all his life. Besides, haven’t I paid off all my debt? Don’t I have a positive cash-flow of over $1,000 per month? Yes, these things are true. But I’ve noticed something troubling: I’ve begun to experience that lifestyle inflation I’m always warning others about.

Lifestyle inflation is the natural tendency to increase our spending as our incomes increase. When we get a raise at work, we’re likely to spend more at home. A little lifestyle inflation is fine. But there’s a real danger of becoming too comfortable with increased spending. Once we become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, it’s difficult to cut back.

Cracks in the foundation
On our flight home from Orlando, Kris and I talked about my spending. It has increased in recent months. Some of this is deliberate. I’ve made a conscious decision to allow myself to spend more money on Wants. I can afford it. The trouble is that I’ve begun to spend indiscriminately again, and I’m afraid that’s a slippery slope. I’ll buy random magazines at the grocery store, or pick up a game for the Wii that I’m only half interested in.

I’m certainly not spending beyond my means, but I’ve begun to make more impulse purchases. I want to correct this now — before it becomes a problem. In the past, I’ve used a spending plan to help me meet my goals, and more recently I’ve been following the broad outlines of Elizabeth Warren’s balanced money formula:

But sometimes broad outlines aren’t enough. In this case, Kris suggested that a budget might help curb my impulsiveness, and I think she’s right. With a budget, I can set specific goals. I can focus on the things I really want instead of just spending on random things that appeal to me in the moment.

So, I’ve decided to create a budget. Not a comprehensive budget — my Income, Needs, and Saving are all fine — but a budget for my Wants. I want to exercise discipline in this area so that I’m spending on things that are actually important to me instead of random stuff, stuff that ultimately turns into clutter.

Blueprint for success
To start, I reviewed my discretionary spending from last year and compared it to the totals from the first four months of 2009. This is where tracking every penny you spend can prove valuable. By comparing my past spending to my present spending, I’m able to detect trends. It’s very clear, for example, that I am again spending too much on dining out. Time to cut back.

Next, I thought about my goals. What is it that I really want to do? Lately, travel appeals to me. Kris and I both would like to take a vacation to Europe in 2010. To make that happen, I need to save. This gives me a medium-term goal to save toward.

Finally, I allocated a specific amount of money toward my monthly Wants. Remember, because I’m self-employed, I have an irregular income that passes through my business account first. If I pull out $2500 per month (after taxes) to act as personal income, that gives me $750 to spend on my passions. That should be plenty.

Note:Based on my Income, Needs, and Saving, I can afford to allocate $750 for Wants. This might seem high to some GRS readers. It would have seemed high to me once, too. But because I’ve paid off my consumer debt, I have $750 per month to spend on the things that make me happy.

Building the budget
After collecting the data and setting my goals, I made a first pass at a budget. This is what I’ll use for June and July:

  • Books: $50/month
  • Comic Books: $50/month
  • Entertainment: $50/month
  • Clothing: $50/month
  • Charity: $50/month
  • Dining Out: $200/month
  • Vacation 2010: $200/month (plus small windfalls)
  • Miscellaneous: $100/month

Obviously, you might make different choices. I know that many GRS readers are avid contributors to charity, for example, and I suspect few of you budget for comic books! These are the allocations that seem to make sense for me and my situation. I’m sure that I’ll make changes to this budget as I work with it in the real world.

Actually, I have a lot of questions about how a budget should work in the real world. Because I’m a budgeting novice, I could use some help. I’m hoping that you experienced budgeters can answer some of my questions:

  • How often do you re-evaluate your budget? Do you make monthly adjustments? Quarterly? Yearly?
  • If you go over budget for a month, what do you do? Do you make immediate adjustments? Or do you simply try to correct things the following month?
  • What if I go under budget in a category? Does that mean I get to carry that money into the next month? Can I use it for a different Want category? (Perhaps sweep anything extra into the Vacation fund?) Or does does that money go to Saving instead? Or should I donate it to charity?
  • How do you track your spending against the budget? If I used the envelope system, I’d allocate the actual cash to each account before-hand. But what if I don’t want to have that much cash around the house? Is there a good way to keep track of current spending in each category? Should I carry a notecard with my monthly spending on it? (That seems to be what Bargain Babe recommends.)
  • Do you try to further reduce spending on these categories? For example, should I try to drop my budget for Dining Out even more?

This is a strange new world for me. Over the past year, I’ve been pursuing more and more advanced personal finance subjects and concepts. Yet here I am, in better financial shape than ever, about to implement a basic skill I’ve never mastered before. That’s okay. I believe it’s important to continue focusing on the fundamentals even as we tackle more advanced topics.

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