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Creating a bare-bones budget

Most personal finance experts will tell you that you need between 3-6 months of living expenses saved in an easily accessible Emergency Fund. Having cash as a cushion is always a good idea – but when you run into hard times, it’s how you choose to spend your emergency savings that can mean the difference between getting through your financial crisis, or having to make some truly difficult decisions.

You might already have a budget created for your monthly expenses, but having a budget in order to deal with a financial emergency is also really important – and creating one before a crisis hits will make it a lot easier for you to make the transition.

Related: When is it okay to use your Emergency Fund?

Over the past weekend, I took a hard look at my finances and created a bare-bones budget for my current situation. Employment Insurance will just be enough to cover all of my expenses – mortgage, strata, hydro, cell phone, internet, car insurance, and about $100/month for groceries. I’d love to be able to get through this without having to touch my Emergency Fund – but I’m pretty realistic and know it’s likely not possible. But my stress level is significantly lower knowing that I’ve got some money in the bank set aside for exactly this kind of situation.

Here are a few tips on how to create a bare-bones budget:

Fixed vs. discretionary expenses

Typically when creating a budget, you would divide your categories into two separate spending groups – fixed and discretionary. Fixed expenses can also sometimes be reduced, but may require a longer time to see any benefit – such as waiting for a lease to run out in order to move to a cheaper apartment. This means the easiest way to lower your budget is to focus on your discretionary spending.

Here is what my bare-bones budget looks like compared to my current February 2014 budget:

barebonesbudget

You can see, I was able to eliminate $765 from my monthly budget without too much problem. And I know that if needed, I could cut down my budget even further. For the next few months I will use this budget as a guide for my monthly expenses, but if it gets too tight, I can eliminate internet, lower my cell phone bill, and get rid of my car insurance. That would likely save an additional $180/month.

Dealing with debt

I’m extremely thankful that I don’t have any debt, aside from my mortgage. However if you’re in debt, you generally cannot escape your debt repayments without serious repercussions. You might be able to call each creditor to inquire about lowering your payments until you can get back on your feet. And if you have debts that are tied to a car, boat, motorcycle, etc. – you might need to consider selling and putting the money towards the loan instead. There’s a chance you could end up taking a loss in the process, but eliminating or reducing your monthly payments might leave you ahead in the long run.

Defer if possible

Many expenses cannot be avoided, even when you’re in a financial crisis. If you can, avoid replacing or paying to repair the items until you’re back on your feet. For example, if you microwave or dryer has broken, re-heat your food on the stove and hang-dry your clothing instead. You might not be able to get away without fixing your refrigerator, for example, but make sure to look for alternative solutions too. If a friend or relative owns a small fridge, or has a spare one in the garage, ask to borrow it until you can get yours fixed.

Once you start putting the numbers on paper, you can start to see how much money you will need to spend each month, and how long you can live off of your savings.

While I have been able to do a lot for myself to make sure I’m okay financially while I’m laid off, I can’t put a price tag on how much my friends, family, and BF are keeping me sane. And the positive and thoughtful blog comments, texts, tweets, and e-mails I’ve gotten from so many people have really put a smile on my face. So thank you. It’s really, really appreciated. :)

Do you have a bare-bones budget created in case of an emergency?

This is why your budget doesn’t work

My story is probably similar to yours: I didn’t create my first budget until I was 22 years old and halfway through college. I always knew I had to make one, but the process seemed overwhelming and I didn’t know how to even start. I knew I was spending more than I was making, but I didn’t have the discipline to stop, or the energy to figure out a way to make my situation better. So I kept chugging along, going deeper and deeper into debt.

During my last year of college, when I knew graduation and “real life” were just around the corner, I tried to create a student budget that I thought was realistic – but it failed. I’d get frustrated with myself, adjust the numbers, and fail over and over again. After a few months, I gave up. I ignored my bank statements and didn’t try budgeting again until I graduated with over $20,000 in debt.

When I look back at why my budget kept failing, I realized it was for four specific reasons:

No knowledge of past spending habits

It’s pretty hard to create a realistic budget if you don’t have anything to measure your numbers against. If you have no idea how much you spent on restaurants or entertainment last month, how will you be able to spend less next month? It seems like common sense to me now, but back then, I didn’t have a clue.

The basics of budgeting begins with figuring out how much money you will have for the month (your income), dividing it up based on what you want to do with it, then tracking where your money actually goes.

A budget is supposed to provide guidelines and goals to strive for, and when you’re accurately recording your spending habits – whether it’s in a simple spreadsheet, or with budgeting tools like Mint or Quicken – the numbers don’t lie.

I had never saved receipts before, or recorded my spending habits, so when I went to build my budget, I started arbitrarily plugging numbers into the spreadsheet that sounded reasonable to me. I had no idea that the $100 I thought I spent on groceries each month was actually closer to $250. And the $20 I thought I spent at Starbucks? Well, that number was actually closer to $50.

Related: Can you feed yourself for $100/month? 

No defined goals

Most people budget because they want to achieve a financial milestone – like paying down their debt faster, saving for a down payment, or making a big purchase. While these are great goals to have, they aren’t specific enough to be truly motivating. Sure, I’d love to pay down debt and get ahead, but why am I doing it, and what do I actually need to do in order to achieve those goals?

For example, instead of creating a specific goal like, “I want to save an extra $100 per month to put into an Emergency Fund,” or “I need to pay down my debt by $300 each month,” I just knew I wanted to stop going further into debt, and didn’t take it any deeper than that. So without defining a way to get me there, I ended up lost. And my goal of stabilizing my debt (while I was still in school) remained a distant dream.

Quitting too soon

I stopped using my budget midway through my third month. I spent weeks creating a budget and kept track of the money coming in and going out of my bank account. But I was always going over my budget, and constantly spending more than I was making. It was frustrating not being able to see results, so I took the easy way out – I quit.

However, budgeting – much like exercising – takes time to see real results, and I was too impatient. I wanted to see immediate, concrete evidence that my efforts were paying off. For some reason, I had it in my head that I could eliminate my debt just as easily as I accumulated it. :) But at that point, I hadn’t even figured out how much my average monthly income was. And I also hadn’t taken the time to identify what areas I was constantly going over on my budget. If I had just taken an extra step or two to average out my numbers and figure out a way to decrease my spending in the categories I was constantly going over, I likely would have seen improvement over the following few months.

Related: How much is your car costing you?

Not realizing what a budget is meant to do

I saw budgeting as a restriction; a way to stop me from having fun. I knew I had to do it, but I wasn’t happy about it, and because of that, I had a really bad attitude.

I didn’t understand that the purpose of budgeting was to help me manage my money so that I could have even more fun with my life. And once I realized that my debt (and my unsustainable lifestyle) was going to always hold me back from achieving the goals that I wanted for myself (like home ownership, travel, and potentially starting a family), it finally clicked. A budget wasn’t about deprivation, it was about empowerment! By choosing where my money went, and living below my  means, I was creating a better future for myself.

What do you think is the hardest part about creating (and sticking to) a budget?

How much is your car costing you?

I’ve owned a car for most of the 6 years I’ve lived in the Vancouver area, and it makes up a significant portion of my monthly budget.

Car expenses represent approximately 11% ($275-300) of my monthly spending (or 5% of my approximate gross monthly income) – and that’s just for gas and insurance. These are just my regular monthly expenses, and doesn’t take into consideration oil changes, repairs, wear and tear on my vehicle, or the actual cost of buying my car (obviously). Thankfully, my car is new enough that it hasn’t needed any repairs, but I know it’s only a matter of time until something needs fixing.

So what does that $300 get me each month? Let’s break it down (along with my reasoning):

  1. A shorter commute to work. Taking transit would take anywhere from 2.5 to 3 hours roundtrip. My commute by car takes 35-40 minutes each way.
  2. Access to the things that I love doing. Everything that I love to do in my spare time requires a car, and I do these things almost every day of the week – which is why renting a car or belonging to a car co-op isn’t that great of an answer.
  3. Transit is expensive. A full transit pass for Metro Vancouver costs $170. That’s approximately how much I pay for gas each month.

These are all somewhat valid reasons for owning a car. It’s worth it to me right now, because my car hasn’t needed a lot of maintenance. But will it be worth it in the future? I don’t know. I purchased this car new back in 2009, and the only other car I’ve ever owned always had something wrong with it – so it’s hard to say.

Here are my rebuttals to my own above-reasoning:

A shorter commute to work

  • I could move closer to work. This is a pretty extreme option, but there are definite downsides to living in the suburbs. And truthfully, I’ve thought about moving into the city of Vancouver on more than one occasion. It just hasn’t gotten to that point yet. And I really, really love where I’m living right now.
  • I could find a job closer to home. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many marketing jobs in the city that I live in, but it’s always worth investigating.
  • I could bicycle to work. There are no female shower facilities at my office. But, if I pushed hard enough, wouldn’t they have to provide something? That being said, I’m mostly concerned with the 50km roundtrip commute on very busy roads and bridges. Not that I couldn’t do it physically, but it would likely affect my running. Could I (or would I) really bike 25km in the morning, run 1-2 hours after work, and then bike 25km home? And what if I wanted to go out after work? I’d be all sweaty

Access to the things that I love doing

  • I could find alternate ways to have fun. Playing field hockey 3-4x/week is fun, but excessive and kind of expensive. Especially since the practice field isn’t located near transit (and twice a week, I go to practice straight from work – so no car pooling available). Plus games are spread across a very large area. If I wanted to quit the car, I’d likely have to quit field hockey too. But running is free, and there’s a great 20+km running trail just steps from my office that I’ve been using multiple times a week over the past few months.
  • Hiking could be done with a rental car. True. I bought my AWD car so I could have access to the mountains and ski hills. But really, I only do that once a month – maybe twice in the summertime. I think it would be cheaper to rent a car for those specific times.

Transit is expensive

  • I would save on the wear and tear of my vehicle. By taking transit, I will be prolonging the life of my car. This makes me happy, and it’s actually something I’ve really wanted to do. I love this car – it’s perfect for me.
  • Transit is a green solution. It’s obviously better on the environment if I leave my car at home.
  • I could buy a one-zone pass. It doesn’t really make sense to buy a one-zone pass, since I would need access to all three zones. But maybe it would be cheaper to buy a one-zone pass ($91/month), and then just add on additional fare when I need to cross to other zones. Otherwise a full-zone pass costs $170/month. Which is ridiculous.

I guess the point of this post is that I can justify having my car as a “need” all I want, but based on my own arguments, it’s obvious that a car is a “want.” My car definitely fits in nicely with the lifestyle that I want to live right now, but is it absolutely necessary? Of course not. Who knows if my thoughts on owning a car will change in the future, but I’m actually pleased (and a little surprised) with how easy it was for me to come up with solutions to get away from owning a car. Some of them are pretty extreme (like selling my house, quitting field hockey, or finding a new job), but all options have to be considered whenever you’re dealing with money.

Having an extra $300/month would be nice. But considering a bus pass would eat up half of that savings, I’d be losing many hours commuting by transit, and I’d be forced to quit a lot of the fun things in my life, I’m okay with the cost for now. But just barely.

How much is your car costing you – and could you live car-free if you had to?

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