Adventures in returning to the envelope system

I first read about the envelope system back in college. I used it regularly, but after graduating and paying off my debt, I sort of abandoned it. I’d gotten a hold of my finances, and I figured I could budget safely without having to use this tactic. I could afford to give myself a break.

Then, last month, I realized just how much of a break I’ve given myself over the years, especially when it comes to food. Upon examining my expenses for the year, I complained to Brian:

“Hey, why am I always paying when we go out? I know it’s the 21st century, but come on!”

“What are you talking about?” he argued. “I always pay!”

“Then why did I spend upwards of $400 this month?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but so did I.”

“No,” I argued. “There’s no way we spent a grand on food in just four weeks.”

Turns out, we did. We’ve been spending a ridiculous amount on food and groceries. And while it hasn’t put us in the poor house, it’s still a waste. It’s a waste because there are things we want to save up for — a house, maybe. Who knows if that’s what we’ll want in a few years? But when we get there, it would be nice to know we have the option and didn’t squander it on burgers and beer.

“We’ve got to start using the envelope system,” I declared.

“What’s the envelope system?” Brian asked.

“We take a set amount of cash from our paychecks and stuff it an envelope,” I explained. “And that’s the only money we can use on groceries and dining out.”

“I don’t like it.”

Brian doesn’t enjoy frugality as much as I do. For him, it’s more of a means to an end. Still, he knew it was the right thing to do if we wanted to stop spending like maniacs.

It’s been almost a month since I’ve returned to the envelope system. Here’s what I’ve learned (and re-learned).

I Overestimated My Frugality

I forgot how much power tangibility has. I stopped using the envelope system years ago because, as I mentioned, I was earning more and was financially independent. My debts are paid, I have an emergency fund and, each month, I auto-deposit into my retirement and savings accounts. All of this convinced me that I was on top of my finances; I didn’t really question my thrift. And maybe I had a good hold on my finances, but I also spent $400+ on food in one month. In fact, in one week, I’d spent $90 on groceries and another $80 on restaurants.

And hey, sometimes in life, things happen and maybe you do spend crazy money like that. Or maybe you really love food, and you earn enough to spend money on what you love. But the thing is, I didn’t even think twice about it. Oh, sure, I noticed I was blowing my budget a little every now and then. Life happens. A friend comes into town one month; I throw a party the next. But I was blowing my budget by the hundreds on a regular basis, and maybe I was in denial, but I failed to admit that.

Being restricted by cash helped me understand how liberal I was being with my debit card.

Expect the Unexpected

This week, we had a couple of friends unexpectedly come into town. They wanted to go out and enjoy the city, and we wanted to show them around. Of course, dinner was involved, because you can’t come to Los Angeles without eating Umami Burger.

“We just won’t go out this weekend,” I told Brian. He argued that their visit shouldn’t come out of the envelope money, as it was unexpected. We talked about it for a while and eventually realized that most of our overspending is usually due to the unexpected: A friend comes into town. It’s someone’s birthday. We have to bring a pie to an impromptu potluck. The things that don’t happen every month keep happening every month. Thus, when we calculate our food budget, we should expect the unexpected.

Planned Splurges Are More Enjoyable

A couple of Saturdays ago, we headed downtown with some good friends. These friends know where all the best spots are to eat, drink and play. We knew we were going to spend money, so before we left, we talked about how much cash we should bring. We decided on $60. Taking out $150 every Friday, this would give us $90 for the week, which should be plenty.

Going out that day, we were conservative with our money. We still enjoyed each spot we visited, but we didn’t spend carelessly, as we knew the $60 would have to last us the entire day. We were more conscious of what we wanted to spend money on. This kept me from ordering cheese fries when I wasn’t even that hungry to begin with. Under the old system, I would’ve ordered the fries without thinking about my budget. Under the old system, my budget was something I dealt with later — I already spent $240? Okay, then I’ll try to only spend $10 for the rest of the month. But using cash made the budget something I had to consider as I was spending. This made budgeting much more effective. No kidding, right?

That day, we held back enough to enjoy the most delicious bowl of ramen later that night. I’d been looking forward to that Ramen all day. Knowing that we planned for this splurge made it all the more tasty.

Leftover Money Feels Awesome

This week, we’ll actually have $12 left over. It’s just $12, but the fact that we stayed within our budget feels great — because it wasn’t hard. We didn’t go out as much, and when we did go out, I ordered less food. I only paid money for things I really wanted. And I don’t feel any different; I don’t feel as if I missed out on anything.

I thought it would be painful to return to the envelope system. It’s a little surprising that spending less has been so easy.

Another thing I learned: it’s important to make a regular habit of looking at the big picture when it comes to my finances. I assumed I was being a good little saver who just had a few occasional unexpected expenses. I didn’t take a step back and consider that I was being haphazard about my spending.

These days, I’m in a much better financial position compared to my college days. The ramen I eat now is a little more sophisticated, a little more expensive. My lifestyle and savings goals now are different than they were in college, but the envelope system works just as well now as it did back then.

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