It’s a big day at Get Rich Slowly HQ. Later this morning, I’ll speak with my book editor for the first time. This project is about to devour large chunks of my life. Fortunately, the new Staff Writers will pick up the slack. (Actually, to be fair, I think they’ll more than pull their own weight.) Here, then, is the first contribution from Adam Baker, Get Rich Slowly’s first-ever Staff Writer!

Receiving a “mini-windfall” of unexpected income is an awesome feeling! However, I have a confession to make. Courtney and I are terrible at handling how we spend these pleasant surprises. More times than not, we find it insanely easy to justify squandering this unexpected money on impulse purchases, even when the rest of our budget is working well.

For the most part, we’ve slain the “justification” monster in our budgeting life. We’ve desperately attempted to eliminate the “I deserve this…” mentality. However, when it comes to “mini-windfalls”, somehow we seem to always break down.

I’m referring to the $40 in the birthday card from a relative. Or the extra $125 you made selling some stuff at the neighbors garage sale last Saturday. Even miscellaneous income from side jobs would fall into this category if not included in your normal budget.

You can see this phenomenon amplified during two specific times of the year in early February and late April. Why? Those are the peak times for income tax refunds.  While preparing taxes this year,I listened to countless people tell me what they would be doing with their “unexpected” money. We aren’t the only ones who are quick to justify non-budgeted impulse purchases with windfalls of this sort.

Income is income is income…
If we are being blunt, it shouldn’t matter if the money comes in the form of a bi-weekly corporate paycheck, a quirky birthday card, or a instant tax refund chain. Once the money is in our hands or hits our bank accounts, it all spends the exact same.

As a kid, I remember watching my father mix all of the food on his plate together before eating it. In response to my stares, he would always repeat, “It all ends up in the same place, anyway.”

While you can’t really argue with that logic, many would be quick to point out that they enjoy the different contrasting tastes. They enjoy the process of selecting what the next bite will be. They don’t want to just combine everything together.

While some may be able to effectively treat all income equally, most of us have some sort of internal struggle. It seems like no matter what the amount of the unexpected income, I can always match it up to something I’ve been wanting forever. It’s a nasty financial habit. One that I’ve honed with many years of practice.

Striving for conscious spending
Let me be clear. It’s perfectly fine to spend on wants.  It’s a great idea to “blow” money from time to time. But if we aren’t conscious about how we handle this process, it can spiral out of control.

Courtney and I realized that we needed to establish parameters on how to deal with this sort of income before it actually arrived. We weren’t against allocating a portion of it to indulge our wants, but we did want control over the situation.

If we were going to “blow” money, I at least wanted a say in it. We no longer had interest in letting our whims have free rein over this portion of our income.

Two strategies to buck the “justification” habit
As I pointed out above, ideally we could just treat all income equally. We’d budget it all the same and allocate the “unexpected” in the same fashion as our normal paycheck. In practice, however, many of us still find ourselves compelled to splurge.

Here are two simple strategies that have helped us reestablish control:

  • Choose one specific, tangible goal to “catch” all extra income. The key is to select a specific goal ahead of time.  For example, many choose to immediately throw any non-budgeted income at their debt. Once they’ve established what order they will pay off their debt, they simply apply all extra money as soon as it appears. This can also work for other goals, such as paying cash for your dream car or saving for a down payment on a house. My experience has been that if you pick a compelling goal, you’ll be inspired to find even more ways to increase your “unexpected” income. A worthy side benefit of this tactic.
  • Allocate a pre-determined percentage to “blow” money. This system is commonly used with larger windfalls (inheritance, sales of major assets, etc…), but can be applied to the smaller ones, as well. For example, you may choose to allocate 50% (with smaller windfalls) of any non-budgeted income to be spent as “blow” money, while they other 50% is either funneled into the normal budget or put towards a specific goal (as above). This tactic also can motivate you to find more ways of generating income. After all, the more side income you bring in the higher the percentage you get to apply towards personal wants.

Keep in mind, that neither of these tactics is going to completely solve the issue. I’m not a big fan of outsourcing responsibility onto a system of some kind. However, experimenting with these two techniques has helped me maintain control over an area that is a reoccurring weakness.

Once again, it’s all about consciousness. I feel empowered when I consciously choose how I treat all income that comes into our life. Even if I choose to spend it in the same way, I like knowing I’m in control.

How do you handle unexpected income in your life? Do you lump it all together or have you designed a specific system to handle it? What techniques do you use maintain control?

Photo by lepiaf.geo.

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