This is a guest post from Gail Vaz-Oxlade, the host of the popular Til Debt Do U$ Part on CNBC (Saturday nights at 10 and 10:30). Gail is a columnist for MoneySense, Chatelaine, and Zoomer Magazine and blogs daily at her website, where she also offers terrific tools people can use to dig themselves out of the hole. Gail’s latest book is Debt-Free Forever.

Imagine the freedom to never worry about money. Some dopes think that means having so much of the green stuff that you could never spend it all. But bad money management has put many a Richie Rich in the poor house. No, I’m talking about the kind of freedom that comes from being in control of your dough. I’m talking about a budget.

I know budgets aren’t romantic. And for all those people who feel they’re entitled to buy whatever they want, whenever they want it, a budget can seem like kryptonite. But you can choose to continue to see a budget as a major pain in the butt, or you can choose to see it as a useful tool that helps you spend your money on the things that are most important to you.

By Any Other Name…
Once upon a time to try and get away from the stigma the word “budget” carried, I took to calling them “spending plans.” But you know what? It wasn’t the word people hated — it was the discipline, the work, the focus required to pre-determine how much you were going to spend, and then spend no more.

Regardless of whether you call it a spending plan or a budget, the point of the exercise is to decide how you’ll spend your money. Having a plan gives you the freedom to enjoy yourself because you don’t have to worry about how you’ll pay the bill when it comes in. You’ll know, right from the start, whether you can afford the purchase you’re contemplating or not. And if you really, really want it, you can decide what you’re prepared to give up to get it, whatever it may be.

Note: This sort of decision-making is what conscious spending is all about. Your regular expenses are mapped by a budget. When something unusual comes up, you can make the decision: Do I pull money from the grocery or gas or garden budget? Or do I wait to save for the new thing?

Have you ever made a large cash withdrawal from a banking machine only to wonder a few days later where all the money went? Think for a moment: Where did the last $100 you spent go? Stop for a minute and write it down. Chances are you can account for most of it, but there may be five, ten, or twenty dollars missing from your list.

Why You Should Track Your Spending
What does it cost you to live each month? Some people under-estimate their expenses because they forget the things that don’t occur every month.

  • Did you include your gym costs even though you pay them once a year?
  • How about your house or car insurance?
  • Did you include the cost of your haircuts, your contact lenses, or your vacation?
  • Do you pay someone to shovel your snow, clean your windows and carpets or do your taxes?
  • What about your vet bills, the flowers for your garden or patio, your best-friend’s birthday present?

Some people under-estimate their expenses because they actually don’t know how much they’re spending on things like take-out, clothes, and coffee. Over and over when I show folks how much money they’re spending on the non-essentials of life, they’re gob-smacked. Well, the only way to make a budget that will work is to know what you have been spending so you get some sense of what you’re going to have to change.

One of the best ways to gain a perspective on your spending habits is to keep a log of everything you spend, each time you do a transaction. The idea is to figure out where you’re spending all those dimes that seem to go missing each month. It’s also about learning more about yourself and where your place your priorities. This isn’t about shame, blame, or deprivation. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to change. But you should at least know. With a spending log, you’ll have a clear picture of what you’re getting for your money.

When you do all your money management in your head, it’s very easy to forget things — sometimes important things — that will have an impact on your overall financial life. You’re always guessing how much you have left. And you shouldn’t really be surprised when your account is overdrawn. After all, if you don’t know how much you have, how can you know how much you can spend?

If you don’t believe you can find the time to maintain your budget — collecting receipts, entering details onto your budget, adding it all up and balancing it out — think about the time you have to spend solving the problems that arise from not taking care of the details. And think about all the money you waste on overdraft fees, interest costs, and ATM transactions. You’ll have to decide whether you’d rather live life peacefully, or continue waking to the specter of financial worry rattling his chains at the foot of your bed.