How to budget and save more money

You can’t get married without a budget

As I watched the sun set on my twenties, it dawned on me that I did not want to spend another decade teetering on the precipice of debt. In my twenties I tried to “find myself” through labor and discipline: scooping sawdust out of bins at the City College of New York’s woodworking shop, greasing tins during overnight shifts at the Sullivan Street bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, and washing dishes at SPoT coffee in Buffalo. As I approached my thirties, I decided to “make myself” and I began to seek knowledge from all directions related to personal finance. I listened to hundreds of podcast episodes on from ChooseFI, read dozens of books in the vein of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and I asked to hear the stories of friends and acquaintances who had reached the mythical status of millionaire. I was committed to escaping the insecurity of financial instability. 

Learning about your workplace benefits 

On an episode of the ChooseFI podcast, I heard that many people have workplace benefits they do not utilize. I contacted Nancy, the human resources officer at my job, and asked to sit down with her for a chat. “Do you know about your EAP benefits?” she asked. “You have all types of free counseling through it: marriage, financial, and nutritional…it really helped me and Teddy get through some tough times.” 

I signed up for financial counseling and soon after, Cole called me to ask a few questions:

“So Sean, do you want to get married?” he asked. 

“Yes,” I responded. 

“Ok, so you’re gonna want to begin saving up money for that. Typically, I recommend my clients save at least $20,000, and if you want to get married in the next five years, you can divide that $20,000 by 60 months. So, add $350 a month to your budget to be safe.” 

We continued forecasting future expenses and breaking them into manageable monthly chunks, while adding them to a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet summed all these expenses up and gave me a numerical value to represent the monthly income I would need to live my ideal lifestyle. 

Why do I need a budget? 

For the first time I realized success no longer had to be a nebulous ideas like “be wealthy,” “happy,” or “famous”. Rather, if I could find a way with all the cleverness, ingenuity, and privilege that I was blessed with to cover my expenses each month, I could then afford a wedding in Mill Valley, owning a home in Sonoma, and winter breaks in Kauai. As a kid in school, I would sit “front-most, center-most,” turn in projects before the deadline, and attend office to have my work reviewed before being graded. I loved the challenge of meeting the expectations provided by teachers. When I transitioned from school into adulthood, I felt disoriented with the lack of expectations and clarity. Where was the syllabus? I spent thousands of dollars and hours creating a music production company, then a writing company, only to have these projects peeter out because I was unable to generate substantial income to support my lifestyle. Learning to budget with Cole taught me the necessary pre-work of estimating expenses and setting financial goals that would keep me afloat during periods of growth and transition. 

How to budget when you are married 

After getting married and joining our bank accounts, my wife and I began to budget together. We would sit down over coffee and sort our disparate expenses from the previous month into neat categories. Sometimes, this led to the revelation of embarrassing spending habits and uncomfortable dialogues. “Sean, why did you spend $600 at Costco this month?” 

“Well, I am opening this new travel rewards credit card and I needed to meet the spending limit so I purchased a $500 Coscto gift card.” 

“WHAT? Why did you open a new credit card without talking with me?” 

Slowly, by budgeting together, I learned financial accountability to my wife, and our relationship deepened because I would weigh each decision with her money and credit in mind. We did our budget in the context of a family meeting and began to set relationship goals. If nothing else, having a family meeting with a budget discussion embedded into it gave us a reason to sit down and be present together. Through this process, I learned about my expenses and which ones I could control and which ones would be consistent on a month-to-month basis. 

What is the difference between fixed and variable expenses? 

By constantly seeking ways to decrease my expenses in order to save more money, I learned the difference between fixed expenses like utilities, transportation, and rent, and variable expenses like eating out, concerts, and subscription services. After reviewing the previous months expenditures, we set objectives to hold our spending on certain variable expenses to a limit for the new month and highlighted that category in red to keep it in mind. Then, we would forecast a number to spend in that category for the current month and hold each other accountable toward that goal. 

How to calculate your savings rate

Our savings rate, or the percentage you get when you divide the money remaining after all your expenses by your total income, hovered around 8% for the year of 2019, even with monthly student debt payments and a new baby daughter. Our goal now is to continuously be above a 10% savings rate each month, and eventually, closer to 50%. Here is an easy way to calculate your savings rate: 

Calculate your savings rate: 
income minus expenses = surplus 
surplus divided by income = savings rate 
How to calculate your savings rate

How can a budget help you save more? 

Before learning to budget, I spent the majority of my twenties with never more than $1,000 in my bank account. Granted, I was lucky not to be in debt, but rarely did I have the extra income to snowboard at Mount Rose, eat out at Central Market, or purchase a Honda that was made in the last ten years. Maintaining a budget became a mirror by which I could reflect on my habits in a small quadrant of time and take immediate action to improve my life. Working with my wife on this process brought us closer together and made us a team that is twice as strong in earning power and accountability than we would be alone. 

Since beginning the budgeting process I’ve met many goals that I set out to do: I purchased a home in Northern California, I married a brilliant and loving woman surrounded by family and friends, and I became a father to a beautiful daughter. Choosing to reflect on my choices through maintaining a budget and collaborating with my wife has given me both the hope and ability to design a life that I want. Where will a budget take you? 

How to make a New Year's resolution that you keep

How would you feel if you actually wrote the book you’ve been formulating in your mind for years? Or went out and performed a song you wrote at an open mic? What is stopping you? I’ll tell you…a precise goal and a process for completing that goal. Starting in March 2019, I began to develop a process to set goals, track my progress toward them, and celebrate when I had met those goals. In doing so, I earned tenure (and earn a promotion) as a teacher, read 12 books in less than 9 months, and published my writing online (eight years after earning an English degree and thinking about it everyday).

I spent my twenties trying many things: I worked as a baker (of bread, then cookies before being fired), a musician (that never sold more than a handful of mixtapes), the creator of online business (that never gained a client), and at a coffee shop (where I was never promoted to barista), until I finally found a vocation in education. In education where experimentation is paramount, my failures were celebrated as experiments, and I was able to support students in attempting to create their own process for learning. I now understand that one of the reasons the school environment has always been enjoyable to me is that there are clearly articulated goals and deadlines in school. What I lacked in my small business attempts was an ability to formulate my own goals and deadlines to measure success. 

One day, I received an article from my mentor which contained an idea Warren Buffet had shared. To paraphrase, he said, think of twenty-five things you want out of life. Write them down. Then, choose five of them. With all you energy and might, focus on completing those five, and actively avoiding working on the other twenty which will sap your energy. 

I followed this advice and wrote down 25 things I wanted to accomplish. My initial list was characterized by polar extremes like, “be president” and “keep my car running smoothly,” but in writing those things down and choosing five of them to work on, I was quickly able to identify which goals were actionable and which goals were out of my locus of control. 

Here is how I laid out my five “priority” goals to track my progress toward achieving them: 

My next focus was writing street level actions or “baby steps” I could take to work on my first goal (the left-most goal). By identifying one small thing I could do to move in the direction of accomplishing what I had set out to do, I was able to quickly identify what was in the realm of possibility. For example, one of my first goals was to “publish a story,” but no matter how many editors I googled and sent story ideas to, I was not able to gain traction. Because this goal was feeling unachievable, I decided to move it to my back-up list for the time being, and focus on some smaller goals that would feel great to accomplish like, “Read 12 books in 2019,” which I was able to do with sustained effort.  

By reading my five priority goals after waking up and before going to bed, I always have something to look forward to doing that day and something to wake up for in the morning. With each goal I accomplish, I add it to my “completed goals” list, which is now 23 accomplishments strong. And by sharing this with my friends, they were inspired to set their own goals and we formed a mastermind group to hold each other accountable. The pairing of accomplishments and community feeds my spirit and increases my motivation.  

In just 9 months of using this process, I set and reached goals to get tenured in my current job, to start a blog and share my ideas that were crammed into the attics of my mind, and to read twelve books in 2019. If I can do it after a decade of running around in circles, you can to. 

If you would like to try this process, you can follow the steps below or watch this video

  1. Go to https://sonomasavers.com/resources/ and open the link titled, “Goal Setting Template”. 
  2. At the bottom of the document, click on the sheet titled, “Backup Goal List” write down 25 things you want to accomplish. Don’t agonize over making them perfect — just get ‘em out. 
  3. Choose 5 of those goals and move them to the priority goal list. Reword them so that they are specific. Instead of, “Improve my relationship,” write something like, “I will take my wife on 3 dates in January 2020.” 
  4. Choose a date by which you will accomplish each goal. 
  5. Identify one step you can complete 30 minutes or less and write it below your goal.  
  6. Once you have taken the step toward your goal, focus on completing a step toward your next goal, and repeat this step until you come back to your first goal. 
  7. Re-read your goals each morning and evening, making sure to spend at least 30 minutes each day to take a step toward one of your goals.

Did you make a change to your life after reading this article? Are you willing to share? Send me an email at: seanemccormick@gmail.com and let me know your story.