Archives For Budget/Finance

About a year ago, I saw a new product that I thought was a slam-dunk at first sight: The Nest Learning Thermostat.

Nestlogo

 

At the time they were a little difficult to purchase because they had limited distribution channels and Honeywell was suing them to try to keep their product off of the market. So after researching the product diligently, I did what any red-blooded American would do: I went to eBay and bought two of them. At the time, I think I paid roughly $300 each for my 2 Nests.

The kicker is that I knew I wouldn’t even be installing them in my house. Shocker! OK, to be fair, it was because I knew I was moving to a new home in about a month, so I chose to wait. Shortly after we moved to the new house, I installed the first Nest on the main floor.

Before you buy the Nest, check their website for compatibility. From what I understand, it works with MOST home heating/cooling systems, but not all of them, so do a little research to insure yours is compatible. All you have to do is take the face off your current thermostat and check the wiring pins. They have a simple compatibility checker that makes it a breeze.

Nestbox

The Nest comes tightly & securely packaged. Very Apple-like.

Continue Reading…

2012 was a great year in a lot of ways, but it’s the end of the year and it’s time to put it to bed. It’s now time to start thinking about the year ahead. Make plans to make 2013 your best year ever, whether it be for your home, family, small business, or whatever (why not all of those?).

If you and your family are like me and mine, you may have found yourself getting “off track” in several key goal areas during the year. Especially during the holidays.

One area where most of us can be more successful is the family budget. 

Check out Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 of my Creating a Budget series to see my process in more detail.

5 Steps to Sticking to Your Budget

1. Start Now!

It’s not the end of the year yet, but it’s close enough that you can go through your financial statements and average the money you spent in major categories for the year. It really is the best time of the year to make a budget happen. And the only way you can stick to it is to get it started, so start now for 2013.

2. Make It Habitual

Like anything else in life, once something is a habit, it’s much easier to stick to it. The earlier you start your “habit” the earlier it becomes “automatic” (so see step 1 above). Things that will help you make budgeting a habit are doing your budget at the same time every month, carrying your budget, looking at it regularly. Another tool that can help is the envelope system. Be intentional about this and you’ll have success.

3. Partner Up

This is especially critical in the realm of budgets because there’s a good chance you’re married. If you are, then you really should have a budget meeting with your spouse in order to make sure that nobody is being trampled in the process. That’s just healthy for your relationship. But you also get the benefits of “buy-in” that make it much more likely that your household budget will actually hold. If you’re single, partnering up may mean getting an accountability partner to hold you to creating a new budget on paper (or in the computer) each month and then assessing how good you are at sticking to it.

4. Do It Before The Month Starts

This may seem like common sense. And it is. But how likely are you to stick to a budget when you’re already a week into the month? Take the time to create your budget the last weekend of the month. Once you get it going, it really shouldn’t take a terribly long time. It becomes more of a review process, which means feedback. Feedback is the best way to alter your behavior.

5. Use a Consistent Tool

YNABIcon

I use YNAB 4 for making budgets and I love it (Here’s my review of it). Honestly, it’s beautiful and easy to use. There are tons of tools out there from home-made spreadsheets to plain white paper. Many financial sites include budgeting software. Mint.com has a pretty functional budget component and it’s free. Mint is also an awesome way to quickly gather information about where your money has gone over the past year.

Question:

What has been the key to your success (or lack thereof) in keeping with your budget in the last year?

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Financial Peace RevisitedFinancial Peace Revisited by Dave Ramsey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an absolutely fabulous book for anyone who wants to transform their financial situation from a nightmare into an absolute dream! My wife and I are currently going through Financial Peace University and this book is almost exactly the same information. It is indispensible.

Financial Peace Revisited is essentially the book form of Financial Peace University and is actually a part of that curriculum as you are asked to read certain chapters in association with a given week’s topic.

The book has chapters and subsections. Chapters cover really everything you need to know about money, starting with the basics, then expanding into topics that will help you understand the spiritual aspects of money (yes there are some) the emotional aspects of handling money, lifestyles (and lifestyle management). And of course they cover budgets and the famous Debt Snowball.

Basically everything is geared toward educating you not only to understand money but also to understand why you are tempted to do the things that end up causing people to end up in money trouble. More likely than not, if you’re reading this book you have experienced some financial trouble, or are pretty deeply in trouble. It’s not enough to blindly follow somebody’s advice on how to get out of it. If you do that, you’ll simply end up in the same trouble again in the future. On the other hand, if you learn the pitfall(s) that lead to your trouble in the first place you are really learning how to avoid falling into the same trap(s) in the future.

This book isn’t just for people who know nothing about money. Later chapters discuss building strong emergency funds (and why you should), retirement funds (and educates you on the most common solid options there), insurance coverage, and even charitable giving. There are chapters on teaching your children about money and also on how to handle money issues with family and friends (which can be touchy and very dangerous if you don’t think about it logically.

Overall, this is an absolutely fantastic book. I can’t say enough about it. Almost everyone out there could likely learn some things in this book that can substantially change their financial future, or at least has the potential to do so. Those lease likely to benefit are people who are deeply involved with wealth management already (perhaps professionally). And we all know people who constantly tell people the right thing to do, yet fail to follow their own advice.

You can of course buy Financial Peace Revisited
at Amazon (I get a small referral fee if you use this link).

Also, check out all of the resources available to you on Dave Ramsey’s website and his My Total Money Makeover Site.

View all my reviews

Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global CrisisCurrency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an absolutely fascinating book on a topic I suspect few people educated in America have any foreknowledge.

Recently, I’ve found myself interested in fiscal responsibility both on a personal scale and national scale. To that end, I’ve read other books such as Endgame by John Maudlin as well as Michael Lewis’ excellent books The Big Short and Boomerang. These books discuss the macroeconomic effects of our money system, national debt and trade. Very interesting stuff, especially if you have something of a traditional American education. Absolutely none of this stuff was covered in my economics classes during school.

The fact is that we are currently in a very interesting time. On the short term we have significantly increasing political turmoil in the USA and abroad. The national debt is astronomical and no real solution is on the horizon. The US elections are in 3 weeks. On the intermediate term, we are still in the throes of a significant depression for the past 4 years from a jobs standpoint and worldwide economic growth (though the stock market has mostly recovered). On a somewhat longer-term, we may be at a “market top” on a 30-40 year scale. Uncertain times, indeed. We’ve experienced significant economic manipulation by most of the major governments of the world in an effort to halt the downward slide of the current depression. Whether or not that has been successful is probably a very personal discussion for you.

That’s a lot of preface for a book review, but if you have put any thought whatsoever into any of the stuff in the preceding paragraph, you really should consider checking out this book. It not only has an extremely well-considered accounting of our current situation, which turns out to be Currency War 3, but also gives a fascinating account of Currency Wars 1 and 2 (which occurred around WW1 and WW2, respectively).

There is excellent discussion of various United States monetary policies over the last 200 years. Discussion of various economic theory that you may hear spoken of on CNBC or maybe even some of the political debates and the commentary that follows. The educational value of knowing where The Fed came from and how it arose, as well as the changes to Federal Reserve policy and structure over the years is excellent and invaluable.

One of the great things about Currency Wars is that I felt James Rickards was very fair and non-political in his assessment. He applied the same degree of historical perspective with the current policymakers and situation as he did with the previous major shifts in monetary policy. There doesn’t seem to be any political agenda other than educating individuals who have interest on the topic. In the end of the book, the author discusses some possible future scenarios depending on how things go from here based on economic theory.

While he doesn’t seem to have a political bias, there is clearly a bias in his opinion on how monetary policy should be handled. This is interesting to me as a layman as well. We simply don’t get to see much point-counterpoint discussion from the major policymakers at The Fed like Ben Bernanke and the other mega-bankers.

Overall, I just can’t say enough positive things about this book. Totally awesome.

View all my reviews

A User’s Review of YNAB 4

JasonC —  July 13, 2012 — 4 Comments

As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, I evaluated several different software options for household budgeting. A couple of these programs were either free (Mint.com) or I already owned (Quicken) or had access through membership to Total Money Makeover.com (Gazelle Budget). I briefly looked into others and did yet more research online. By no means did I do anything exhaustive, but through the process, I found an option that I felt works best for me – YNAB3.

After about a year of using YNAB3,  they have recently released a new version YNAB4 and I’m going to give a review/overview of that here.

Starting Off With YNAB

When you first open YNAB 4, you will be given the option to use a limited-time free trial key of the software or enter your activation key. They also allow you to opt-in to a free 10-day “course” of daily emails which discuss various aspects of budgeting and even give you action steps along the way in some cases. These are interesting and thought they’re a bit long, they are well worth the read.

Next Step

Once you’ve made it past the activation step, you’re presented with an interface to choose a name for your budget and a few options:

New Budget

The Cloud Sync option is new, but is a nifty trick as it allows you to access the same budget information from any of your YNAB devices. Currently the iOS version is still in the approval process, but this will make accessing your budget when and where you really need it a much improved experience.

The Starting Categories option is useful as well as it automatically creates categories that are going to be present in most family or small business budgets. In my case, we do both in the same budget, but went with the Personal/Family categories. It is easy to add categories or subcategories later.

Adding Accounts

Adding Accounts

Before you even get to the categories, the software will run you through the process of adding accounts. You should add your bank accounts, savings accounts, credit card accounts here. This will really help YNAB shine because that is the magic of the software – it essentially forces you to reconcile exactly where you are spending your money. You can’t cheat (or at least it’s hard) and it gets you in the habit of finding where every penny is going.

With each account you add, you’ll enter the name of the account, the current balance, and the date of the current balance. These can always be changed to reconcile the accounts. Also, you’ll choose the type of account (there are several options) and whether it is a Budget Account or an off-budget account (for things like your mortgage, auto loan, assets, etc.)

When you add the account, it will then let you add transactions to the account. Transactions are how YNAB “follows the money.” When you have a deposit, you mark it as income. Any withdrawal has to be assigned a budget category/subcategory. In my opinion, the best way to use YNAB is to download the information from your bank. Most banks offer free online banking. All you need is the ability to choose a date range and save the file as a quicken format document. Import this into YNAB (making sure to assign it to the correct account) and you’ll be ensuring that every non-cash purchase is captured. This works great with a debit card. It also works with your credit cards.

Transactions

Editing the Categories

This is where you actually set up your budget. One of the great features of YNAB is that it is a beautiful application. But behind the beauty is a lot of power, which is what you want.

YNAB will start you out with a pretty reasonable set of budget categories and subcategories. The initial interface will show you 3 months (current and next 2 months)

Budget Categories

As you assign your transactions, they will show up as outflows in the budget month in which they occurred. You’ll assign a budgeted amount to each subcategory and the categories will sum the subcategories automatically. The balance shows where you have over or under budgeted for any subcategory.

So What Makes YNAB 4 Different?

Most budgeting software out there lets you create categories and then at the end of the month you manually enter into each category what you spent in it. That’s great and very flexible. Too flexible. Because it’s very easy to forget how much you spent in a certain area. When we first started using YNAB, I had no idea how much money we were spending on fast food and restaurants. But because YNAB works best when you are importing data from the bank, there’s essentially no flexibility at all. You have to assign every penny spent to a category. With most other budgeting software, the creation of the budget is essentially the only function you get. Then next month you create another one. Tracking your expenditures is all up to you.

But since YNAB allows you to create the categories and then track where you spend every penny, it keeps you honest and actually shows you more of your actual habits. It’s a much better “paper trail” so to speak. It can be a bit frustrating at times, though, because you can’t enter your expected available income and budget for that. You have to have the income BEFORE you can assign the money for it. For those of you who are living it pretty tight, this could be a source of frustration. But I believe it can still change your habits.

The other significant difference is that YNAB lets you look at the months around your current month. It’s a bit like a “head’s up display.” You’re not just looking at this months budget or next month’s. You can look at several months’ budgets at a glance and see where you are having consistent problems or where you are doing well. Also, because it tracks the budget subcategories for things like rainy day funds, you can track the progress of your tire fund or car replacement fund.

If you used YNAB 3, you’ll jump right in with YNAB 4 without any problems. Here’s the new features list.  It’s the same thing with some interface updates. Nothing earth-shattering. I’m looking forward to the iOS version because that will really be a great new feature for workflow. There is also a newly updated report engine for creating graphical representations of your financial situation, including a net worth tracker.

One other thing: YNAB offers free webinar classes to get you up to speed with highly trained experts in their program. They have an Introduction class, a Credit Card class, and a Budget Workshop all of which are easy to sign up for on the support site and are interactive so you can personally have your questions answered. They also have a 5-part series of courses that are recorded and can be viewed at any time.

Finally:

Overall, I give YNAB 4   4.5/5 stars (It’s not perfect, but it’s  the best thing out there)

The support in getting started is tremendous. The interface is gorgeous and intuitive once you understand the paradigm.

The support is incredible. In addition to the online classes, they have an active support community, not to mention a blog for news and updates to keep you current.

I highly recommend YNAB 4.

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Your Budget Part 3 – Tips

JasonC —  July 9, 2012 — 2 Comments
Your Budget Part 1
Your Budget Part 2

Here are some tips for the budget:

Do’s:

  • Prepare (see part one). The more you prepare, the more realistic it is likely to be and the more likely you will be successful.
  • Be patient. It’s going to take a few months to work it out.
  • Make use of resources available to you:
  • Online banking
  • Mint.com (for a free solution, this is a wonderful tool)
  • Dave Ramsey’s Website (and books)
  • Software you may already have but just aren’t using (many computers once came with financial software, MS Office has some budget templates, etc.)
  • Work together with your spouse on every aspect of the budget. Not just the “how much to put where” but especially “why are we doing this in the first place”
  • Be flexible with your spouse. You both have to be. One major cause for budgets failing is when one person in the household isn’t “bought-in.” They won’t buy in if they don’t feel that their opinion actually matters.
  • Consider using an “envelope system” where you put money for each specific subcategory into an envelope and you spend money from that envelope only on those specific items.
  • Revisit your budget frequently. Several times a week at first. Follow the budget daily.
  • Consider getting together with another family who is trying to do the same thing & use each other for support.

Dont’s:

  • Forget to include some “buffer” money. I call this my “blow money.” If you’re too tight with your budget, you’re making it hard to actually live life.
  • Forget to include expenses that don’t occur monthly (oil changes/auto maintenance/tires, taxes, professional fees, etc.)
  • Fight over the budget. You’re going to need to work together on the budget. Money in marriages has a stressful effect, but it has to be dealt with. Both parties need to come into budget making negotiations with an open mind.
  • Wait until the end of the month to look at your spending. If you make the budget, you need to follow the budget.
  • Beat yourself up if you don’t get it “right” immediately. Instead, expect this to be a process. It’s going to take some time to get it right and get to a point where you can “stick to it.”

Personally, I’ve been working at this for 2 years (not coincidentally, I’ve been married just about 2 years). Yes, 2 years is all. I’m a doctor and you’d think I’d be smarter than that. But I would suggest that I know more high income earners who do NOT budget than ones who do. And I promise you that’s not a good thing. In that two years I’ve made a lot of progress, but still have a lot of room to improve. A lot of the things that you learn through a “budget” are really more about communication with your wife. Working things out so the budget works for the whole family is the toughest part of the whole business. A single person has it easy. 100% control and 100% vision. But once you add another person into the mix, and then children, the complexity goes up a tremendously.

But it’s all the more important because of that – there’s so much at stake.

Have any tips that are helping you stick to your budget? Leave a comment and share it with everyone!

See my last post for the first part in this series

Income:

Some people have regular incomes, but most people have some degree of variability to their income. If you get paid biweekly, you’re going to get paid twice a month except 2 months of the year you’ll get 3 paychecks. If you have additional variable income from other sources, take this into account. If you’re self-employed or work on commission, your income can be highly variable

If you have a very regular, consistent bimonthly income, then create your budget based on the average of two paychecks a month. If you get paid monthly, and it’s pretty consistent, then go with your average over the past 6 months (take your last 6 paychecks, add them up and then divide by 6).

If you have an irregular income, things can get more complicated. What I recommend for this case is to try to create a budget that fits within your smallest monthly income for the past year. If you live on straight commission, or have some other variable income (let’s say you get a base pay plus commission, or you have several part-time jobs, variable hours, or bonuses), then you’ll want to try and do the same thing. Depending on your previous habits and obligations, it may be hard to budget based on your lowest monthly income. But that is the beauty of a budget… by having an idea of how much you actually bring home and by creating a plan for where you are going to spend your money, you can actually change those habits. That’s the whole point.

Oh, one more thing:

Nobody said it’s going to be easy.

Getting out of debt is difficult. Much much more difficult than getting into debt. Getting out of debt doesn’t have the immediate gratification of making a purchase. Our society has essentially trained us that if we buy something we want, we’ll feel better about ourselves. It might actually even be true, but only for a very short while.

So make sure you spend a little time thinking of why you are doing this. What is going to be the benefit to forgoing those impulse purchases? Less stress every month whenever bills come due? Getting creditors off your back? Saving for regular vacations? Saving for your kids’ college funds? Having something set aside (financial margin) so that you can make it through those bumps in the road life always sends our way (it won’t hurt so much then)? Changing your financial future and maybe even that of your entire family? Retirement? Everyone has a different place they come from. Everyone has different motivation that works best. You’re going to have to find your own.

The Actual Budget

This is where you actually create the plan for your money.Money Remember, the goal is to pre-plan where your money goes.

Look at where you have been spending money. Create overall categories. Start with something like:

  • Tithing/Charity
  • Household
  • Utilities
  • Food/Groceries
  • Auto
  • Medical
  • Debt
  • Savings/Future Purchases
  • Other

Obviously your categories are going to be different. Break it down further into subcategories. Food may have the following subcategories:

  • Groceries
  • Fast Food
  • Restaurants

(Don’t sweat it if you get non-food items at the grocery store or Wal-Mart. Do make note if you make a large purchase like a TV, computer, furniture or stuff like that as it should go into other categories)

If you take your statements, you’ll be able to see where you’ve been spending your money. Take that as a baseline and then decide how much you should be spending on each category.