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An Easy Shortcut to Successfully Budget Your Finances


** Update: The rule below has been updated to reflect a small correction.

Most of us want to budget, we’re just not very good at it. To properly budget means that we need to keep track of all our expenses and all of our income. For most people the income part is simple, it’s the paychecks you get from your job. It’s the expense part that’s difficult because it requires detailed and regular record keeping to be accurate.

Have you ever tried to calculate all your expenses for a month? Generally this involves buying software like Quicken and entering in all your information (as well as downloading all your banking information into the software). Then hopefully at the end of the month the discrepancy between what you entered and what you spent isn’t too big. And have no doubt, there’s always a discrepancy, you always spend more than your budget says somehow. The budget (or software) must obviously be wrong then!

Or could it be that there are lots of cash expenses that just don’t get tracked. Those daily cups of coffee that ad up to $40 a month. Or what about that lunch the other day that was $16? Oh and that popcorn and drink at the theatre last week that cost over $300 after coupons? It all adds up.

So unless your extremely meticulous, which most of us aren’t, your budget will always be underfunded. Or so you might think. But today I’m going to show you a very simple way to minimize this discrepancy, and possibly come out ahead! And best of all, it’s much much simpler and takes almost no effort. The only downside is that it’s not as accurate so you really need to do it right. If you don’t, you can come out behind.

It all comes down to one very basic rule that’s used in software estimations. It’s the rule of padding. However unlike software estimations, we won’t pad as aggressively. The rule is:

For every Income leave the first digit
and reduce all other digits to 0
For every Expense increase the first digit by 1
and reduce all the other digits to 0.

* Anything that’s under $10 becomes $10.

Very simple. In other words you downplay how much income you make and you over-estimate how much you spend. This gives you room for error. It also allows you wiggle room for un-budgeted expenses such as going to the coffee shop, the ugly gnome lawn ornament you just had to have.

Let’s look at an example. If you make $1230/month, then you only count it as $1000 revenue a month. If you make $5498/month, then you only count it as $5000. If you make $12,942/month, then you only count it as $10,000. Already we’ve reduced our income by a good amount. That’s already a good padding.

In terms of expenses, an $8 coffee at Starbucks now becomes a $10 coffee. That $1.25 chocolate bar now becomes a $10 chocolate bar. Your $1200/month rent now becomes $2000/month rent. If it’s $825/month, then it now becomes $900. Notice that only the first digit changed in the last two examples. Remember, only the first digit is applied. This is to balance things out and keep everything in scale. If you’re rent is under $1000 then you’re probably dealing with amounts on the scale of hundred of dollars. If it’s over $1000, then you’re probably dealing on a slightly larger scale, in the thousands of dollars. By only looking at the first digit, it allows the padding to be on the right scale for you. To keep going, your car payment of $325/month becomes $400/month. The $175.54 grocery bill becomes a $200 grocery bill. And on it goes.

As you can see, by underestimating how much money you make and overestimating how much money you spend, you give yourself some room to breathe within your budget. You don’t need to be as accurate, you just need to correctly round your numbers. In other words, you’ve just given yourself a margin for error. And as an added bonus, these rounded numbers are also much easier to add up and calculate in your head.

By using just this simple principle of padding I was able to come out ahead financially for years. Every month I had some surplus money. Even today I still actively use this principle on a daily basis! However the main difference now is that I own and run my company (LandlordMax) which has forced me to calculated the detailed numbers at the end of each month. I need this accuracy to report my expenses and income to the government for taxes. When I was an employee, all I needed was an accurate number for my income (taxes), no one ever cared how much I spent. It just didn’t matter. With a company you need to know because you can write off your expenses on your taxes. Otherwise I still use the estimation method for my personal finances.

There you have it. The simplest and easiest shortcut to successfully budget your finances. For every Income leave the first digit and reduce all other digits to 0 AND For every Expense increase the first digit by 1 and reduce all the other digits to 0. And any amounts under $10 becomes $10.

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  •     Freewheeler
    · July 3rd, 2008  · 10:31 am  · Permalink

    But your example says something different than your rule says. In your example, you’re rounding expenses up and income down. That’s very different from ‘increase/decrease the first digit’. IMHO.

  •     Stephane Grenier
    · July 3rd, 2008  · 11:49 am  · Permalink

    Hi Freewheeler,

    Actually I am following the rule in the examples. Let’s look at another example in more detail.

    If I have an expense of rent that’s $2650, then the rule says increase the first digit 1. In this case, I would round up to $3000 (3 being the digit up). You’ll also notice that this rounds up my expense.

    In regards to income, you’ve made me realize that my rule isn’t quite as accurate as it should be. Instead of just reduce the first digit by 1, it should be leave the first digit and reduce all other digits to 0. Therefore $3,456 becomes $3,000 (rounding down). And if that’s the wording I use, then the first rule should be adjusted accordingly (“all other digits to 0).

    I’m going to give it some more thoughts and make some adjustments to this post tonight. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  •     FollowSteph.com - Oops…
    · July 3rd, 2008  · 9:59 pm  · Permalink

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