The Twenty-Minute-a-Week Budget: A Busy Couple’s Best Friend
There are few times when I feel closer to Cheryl than when we’re talking about money.
I’m not talking about the stereotypical “You spent how much on coffee?” discussion, either. I’m talking about the heart-to-heart sit down where you walk through your dreams, goals and daily expenses.
It’s during these times that we both get excited because we’re moving in a unified direction toward concrete goals.
In theory, it should be easy. Talks about money should come naturally to two people who love each other and share much of their daily existence. You and I both know that it isn’t easy. You have to grind it out, because there are so many other, less important discussions that crowd out money talks. Things like “what are you laying out for dinner” and “what are we doing Saturday” get in the way of “what do we want to do with our money to successfully plan the rest of our lives?”
I tend to agree with David Chilton, author of the financial planning book The Wealthy Barber. Like him, when I read yet-another-blog-post about yet-another-budget-idea, I think “budgets are baloney.” Like him, I believe that people do what they have to do to make ends meet.
The problem is that we spend far more time planning the near end than the far end.
My personal story about why most budgets don’t work:
As a financial advisor, I’d work with people on their budget. We’d figure out how much the family should spend on dinners, travel and holidays. Everyone would leave the meeting happy, ready for the challenge. A couple weeks later when we’d meet again, I’d be disappointed that the budget hadn’t worked. The couple wasn’t able to stay within the confines of this well-laid roadmap.
At first, I blamed the couples I worked with. They weren’t trying hard enough. They were so focused on irrelevant stuff that they weren’t truly trying to make a difference in the one area of their life that could change literally everything about their existence: their daily spending, their children’s education and their retirement vision. Everything.
Then I realized that I wasn’t following the type of budget I was recommending, either.
Who was I fooling? Certainly not my wife and kids. Sure, we were saving some money for retirement and college, but we weren’t doing nearly as well as you’d think, based on the money we were making. We’d find a reason for another dinner out, a treat for the kids, maybe an expensive dessert. Just little things. Almost always forgettable.
It was depressing.
So, I searched for a better way. And, the good news, is that after lots of trial and error, I found a successful budget plan.
I use it. Many clients use it. It’s had an astounding success rate. I wish I’d kept track of the statistics. Sadly, I never thought about it in those terms at the time.
So, with the usual aplomb you expect here, this is my scientific assertion: “This budget works for tons of people, dude.”
The real truth behind my budget plan is this: most couples don’t talk about money. That’s all that my budget tried to accomplish. Rather than writing down every penny or looking backward at expenses, this budget looks forward. We’re paying attention to last week’s expenses, but only so we don’t keep making horrible mistakes.
The truth in many families is that they operate like mine: one member of the team lives in a castle in fantasyland—while the other is focused on the bottom line. Often, it’s not even one person in fantasyland, but both partners are living only half of the truth. In my family it worked like this:
Daily expenses: Cheryl knows every penny and I’m in fantasyland
Investments and Planning: I know every penny and Cheryl is in fantasyland
At first, you may think, “This works for them! They’re delegating tasks that each of them are good at. This works.”
I don’t dispute that couples should delegate tasks. My budget allows for one member of the family to know the intricate details of their favorite area. The problem is that fights occur when the second partner has no clue what’s going on. I’m focused on our stock that tanked or the insurance application that’s been sitting on the table for four days (and Cheryl still hasn’t signed), while she can’t figure out why I’d go and fill the car up with gas when I work from home and never use it. We needed that money for other expenses this week, and now it’s spent and wasting away in the driveway.
So, all this budget does is accomplishes one single goal: it gets you talking about money.
You’ll be amazed by how transformative it is.
Early Budget Attempts
This is funny. Initially when I set out to design a “better budget,” I had this cerebral concept of a “family meeting”, but didn’t know how it would work. We chiseled this budget through trial and error. When you try my system—and I hope you try it–you’ll find areas that don’t work for you. Please write me about how you’ve adapted this budget to meet your own needs. I’m always happy to find another success story who’s taken this and melded it to their situation.
Cheryl and I decided to try out my meeting idea. We had lots of papers and stuff and we sat down on a Sunday afternoon.
Here’s a list of all the things that went wrong:
1) We felt like dorks. There was no agenda or plan, just a “meeting.” I realized nearly immediately that we’d actually need something to discuss during this time, or I’d just be staring at my lovely wife for an hour. I find that to be fun, but nothing gets done.
2) We meandered. Sometimes our budget talk became a “why is Nick not focusing on his math homework?” discussion. Not what we’re looking for.
3) Once we got rolling, the meeting ran really long and was sometimes contentious. I realized that it was awesome for a single meeting, but committing to that every week when we’re both driven and busy with daily tasks was impossible to ask.
4) We’d forget important papers. Sometimes we’d have the water bill and other times we’d have the 401k, but rarely did we have everything we needed to make informed decisions.
5) The meeting wagon often left without us. A month would go by without the meeting because life got in the way. Money disagreement weeds would crowd the nice budget tree we were growing.
1) The budget needed to include a data collection system. Chasing papers is frustrating and time consuming.
2) We needed a clear agenda so we didn’t just stare at each other.
3) It had to be a quick meeting. We set a goal of fifteen minutes. Usually we take twenty, but we’re still trying.
4) We’d have to focus not just on today’s meeting, but how we can improve the process. We’ve honed this process for over ten years now.
5) We acknowledge that we’ll fall off the wagon sometimes. It’s important to get right back on and keep moving.
We use a basket like this near the door to collect all bills and investment statements.
1) Bills and investment statements go into a basket near the door. Cheryl likes to pay bills immediately when they arrive. Unfortunately, that didn’t work for our budget because the important part, talking about expenses, would be missed if she just paid it right away. We now pay bills weekly. Some of my clients that are paid monthly only pay bills once per month, but look at every bill weekly that’s arrived.
2) The meeting has a set time and day of the week. Ours is Sunday afternoon. This started when my kids were young enough that they’d nap, so we’d take care of the budget meeting during that time. Now we meet at that time out of habit. This has become one of my favorite times of the week.
3) Here’s the agenda:
- Each person looks through every bill. Cheryl opens one and I open another. We look quickly through each bill and then pass it to the other person. In this way, each of us knows what every expense is that passes through the house! We’ve found so, so many mistakes on our bills that it’ll need to be a separate post. We’ve also discovered ways to lower our heating bills, water bills and cell phone packages, among others. Just because it’s right in front of us.
- Each person looks through every investment and insurance statement. We ask questions about each one and either answer them or write them down.
- We delegate responsibilities. Cheryl usually pays the bills (the part she likes to do) and I call the investment and insurance people. I also usually investigate changes to our cell plans or call about mistakes on the bill (the part I like to do).
- We talk about big expenses coming up that week, month and year. The main reason for this part of the budget is that I can’t stand being surprised by major expenses like school clothing. Shopping bags at the entrance to our house have caused more fights in our marriage than any others.
- We review the Mint expense summary (I’ve printed this off just before the meeting).
That’s it. Fifteen to twenty minutes per week and we’ve accomplished the following:
- We both know what the bills are in our house and the investments.
- We still focus on our areas of expertise and enjoyment
- Major expenses all are discussed before they’re made
This budget has solved more fights among couples than any other system I’ve seen or created. It may be easy to rip holes in because it’s not very analytical or sophisticated, but it works. I think this is because it acknowledges that people are busy creatures, and if you have a career and family, any budget plan has to be flexible enough to keep up.
In the next few weeks I’ll begin digging into pieces of this plan. We’ll examine areas of the budget that we’ve been able to cut. We’ll talk about home improvements that can lower your expenses. We’ll talk about automating your household so that the twenty-minute-a-week budget is a reality.
Okay, that’s my story. Now it’s your turn: What problems do you run into with your budget? Are there tricks you use that successfully help you avoid “the money fight?”
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