The start of another new year—when vows to “do better” proliferate, and all kinds of high hopes take flight. What do you want to do with this year? More sleep? Less saturated fat? Fewer rounds of Spider Solitaire? A better effort at really listening? At the risk of being a buzz kill, let me suggest “Better budgeting.” It’s not the nasty “money diet” we often assume, and doing it right can make a huge difference in your quality of life.
For starters budgeting is about denying yourself, and it’s not just about money. The dictionary defines budget as a “plan for allocating resources.” When done well, the effort makes it a whole lot more likely that you are going to put your money, time, energy, and effort where you really want it. And that makes for a happy life.
Most of us have had to pay close attention to what we do with our money at some point in our lives. Maybe now. Maybe as starving college students. Maybe when life dealt us lemons. When it’s tight, you can’t buy whatever you want, but with creative effort, you could get what you needed (sometimes from the thrift store or at the day-old bakery outlet). As we took on more responsibility and lived more complicated lives (careers, kids, homes, vehicles), budgeting time wisely also became important. Prioritizing tasks, setting and tracking goals, not doing the unimportant stuff made life livable again. By now budgeting energy may have become essential—the “go go go” that we managed earlier in life becomes less predictable at best and nonexistent in some cases as we age. (All is not lost. As long as you are breathing, you have some energy. The trick is to use what you have on the really important stuff.)
The thing that’s easy to miss when you start thinking about budgeting is that it’s not about not using the resource. A good budget effort defines precisely where you will use the resource. When I worked as a line manager in a natural gas distribution company, one of the first big challenges I faced was convincing the guys who ramrodded the repair and construction projects for our district that coming in under budget—especially by a significant amount—wasn’t the big achievement they all thought it was. Yes, not spending more than they needed to was good, but the company had set aside money for the work as much as a year earlier. If that money wasn’t actually needed, then it was sitting there doing nothing. Since large companies assure cash flow by borrowing, it was actually costing the company money when they budgeted higher than they needed. Coming in on budget is the gold star accomplishment.
In personal finances, letting the money sit in the bank—or investment account—might be just fine. But you also need to consider what you are not doing with that money. I have a friend who has plenty of money. Plenty. She also loves to travel. But when she travels, she goes economy class. She eats as cheaply as she can. She scavenges freebees instead of buying mementoes that will warm her heart for years to come. (She’s also the one who empties the bread basket from the table at the restaurant into a napkin and carries it home in her purse.) Because her sense of what she has to work with is distorted, her travel experience is less than what it could be (and her bread is stale and not shaped for sandwiches and toast).
We do the same thing with time, telling ourselves we “don’t have time” to get a pedicure or read the novel a friend raved about or take a sewing class. Then we spend an hour on the phone as a boring relative regales us with his latest medical procedures or use half a day on a task that was someone else’s job in the first place. You have time; you’re just using it on the wrong things.
Then there’s energy…. My Energizer Bunny needs a nap more often than I would prefer these days, and that has been very frustrating. But it’s also made me accept I need to make conscious choices about how I’m going to allocate this precious resource. I can’t lavish it on everyone and everything anymore.
I enjoy myself more—and spend way less energy—when I get together with one or two friends at a time instead of participating in large group events. (Conversation in large groups is more banal, and the topic changes too often to be meaningful.) The energy I’ve allocated for friendships goes farther when I see fewer at a time.
I also eschew people who dwell on the negative. I don’t want to go there and if you do, please go with someone else. That’s also true of people who insist I do what they want with my resources. You don’t get to spend mine. Period.
Most of the time, we aren’t in conscious managing mode with this stuff. Unless there’s a severe shortage, we just sort of go along. But when you let other people decide how you are going to use what you have to work with, you end up with a counterfeit life. Your money, time, and energy are spent on things you don’t value. That is a terrible waste.
There’s a tool to help with that. Budgeting. It might just pave the way for your best year yet.
Mary Lloyd is a writer and retirement coach. Her still way-out-of-date website is www.mining-silver.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For her books, check out her Amazon author’s page: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Lloyd/e/B001KECHEW