This is a guest post by Nikki “The Crazy Asian,” who posted the original article on her blog.
I used to live life striving to be in the black-or-white zones. You know what I mean: the world of the “absolutes”:
You must do this.
You must NOT do that.
And while that is still my default setting, I have learned to embrace the gray areas. I am continually reminded that life is a spectrum–there are many, many viewpoints and we have to figure out where we fall on that spectrum. And we have to remember that it’s okay to SHIFT, too. Just because we start in one spot doesn’t mean we have to stay there. In fact, I think we’ll do a LOT of bouncing around until we find where we fit the best.
I could go in many directions with this, but two prominent places where I am learning to TRULY embrace the gray are in the areas of personal finance and health. This post is all about the former.
Personal Finance: There’s a Reason It’s Personal
I love Dave Ramsey. I believe his Total Money Makeover plan and “baby step” philosophy is incredible. It provides a great template for those who want to get their finances under control. But I don’t follow it… anymore (insert gasp of astonishment here). My husband and I tried to follow his plan for a while, but it was met with a LOT of frustration, and our attempts were more like “bursts” of success, followed by us hitting a brick wall face-first.
For a while, I felt almost TRAPPED because we were trying to implement a plan by-the-book that wasn’t sustainable for us. We couldn’t consistently stick to a budget to save our lives, and when we did manage to stay within our drawn parameters, we were exhausted and spent (see what I did there ;)). For a couple years, I’ve been listening to Optimal Living Daily, including Optimal Finance Daily.
I love this because over time, I gained so many different perspectives on personal finance. There are tips and tricks that I never would’ve discovered if I had stuck squarely to Dave Ramsey’s philosophies.
Between Ramit Sethi, Mr. Money Mustache, J.D. Roth, J. Money, and hearing the wisdom from Warren Buffett (who, to be honest, before OLD, I had barely heard of and definitely did NOT know his money advice), I have been able to take bits and pieces and create a picture and perspective that is uniquely mine.
Always Be Tracking
I love that the OLD Podcasts so many bloggers focus on tracking expenses.
This, in my opinion, is a huge gap that Dave never even explored. He starts day 1 with establishing a budget. But if you don’t know where your money is currently going, you are setting a budget blindly. And hindsight is 20/20, but I realized early on that the reason that my husband and I were never successful with a budget was that we didn’t know what our current habits were. This should ALWAYS be a first step: building awareness to what you’re currently doing. You can’t effectively change and pivot in the right direction if you don’t know where you are.
As powerful as tools like Mint are that do the calculations for you, I personally find the most success in keeping a manual spreadsheet (you can also manually track in an app like YNAB). I have my own routine for checking and updating, and talking about our spending habits regularly help my husband and I make better decisions for our future goals and plans. Our budget isn’t usually the same from pay period to pay period for a myriad of reasons, but having a spreadsheet of where our money has historically gone is a tool that we use to plan for the future.
Another thing that has grown in importance for me is the power of set-it-and-forget-it.
I haven’t quite mastered full automation yet, which is another thing that many personal finance experts tout. While my husband and I are on the right track, I don’t think we’re ready to let go of that manual transaction. And that’s okay. We don’t have a recurring & automated transactions to take money from checking to savings (yet), BUT one thing we have been successful with is putting money aside from EVERY paycheck into savings. It was hard at first, but we’ve discovered that once it’s out of sight (and in a savings account that we don’t see/touch), it really is out of mind.
Paying Down Debt
Relatedly, this principle has also been reflected in our ability to pay down debts more aggressively. The debt snowball IS an area where we continue to follow Dave’s advice: make large payments toward your smallest debt with the intent of getting it paid off as soon as possible. While we don’t put ALL our extra income toward paying off debt, we HAVE found a balance that moves us closer toward being debt-free but also is sustainable for us.
It definitely was like building a muscle. We weren’t very strong at first, but over time, we’ve strengthened it and it has gotten easier every month to let go of “extra money” and focus on paying off debt. At times, it has been really painful to make a large lump sum payment toward a debt. We often talk ourselves down and it’s something that we’re continuing to work on.
On Monday, we’ll say “let’s put $1000 toward X” and by Friday, when the paycheck actually comes in, it morphs into “maybe… let’s only put $700 toward it.” But i’ll admit, even if we’re cringing when we hit the “Submit Payment” button for $1000, by the end of the weekend, we’ve almost always forgotten about the $300 we were trying to hold on to.
Make It Personal
The third thing i’m learning is that you have to make it personal.
Every single financial blogger is going to tell you “stop eating out,” “don’t spend $4 on a latte,” etc. etc. etc… but this is where “making it personal” REALLY matters.
We Hughes’ loveeee to eat. And try new restaurants. And go to concerts. And to, in the words of Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec: “TREAT YO’ SELF.”
But it all comes down to balance and discipline. We failed over and over because we didn’t make it personal. We didn’t account for the areas where we WANTED to be able to “treat ourselves.” We tried to follow a plan by-the-book that didn’t fit our lifestyles. I won’t lie–our food spending is astronomically higher than couples around us. It’s actually probably higher than most families around us. But that’s the area for us that is most personal. That also means we are far more intentional about spending in other areas. We plan our larger purchases like vacations in advance, and we make sure that we put first-things-first (bills and debt/savings goals), but we ALLOW ourselves to enjoy the freedom that comes after that.
Over time, we’ve established habits and patterns that have led to some great successes and a lifestyle where we are both working towards our goals AND enjoying the day-to-day.
What Personal Finance Looks Like For Us
- We have a spreadsheet that logs our spending (I refer to this later as the “Spending Sheet”); I’ll be honest–I’m the control-freak of the family so I update it a few times a week.
- We have another spreadsheet of all our expenses/budget and we talk about it regularly (I refer to this later as the “Budget Sheet”)–for us, it’s typically every other week.
- We look at the the entire month overall and then focus on the next 1-2 paychecks. We try not to get too far ahead in planning. Historically, we’ve done better when we are able to focus on a month at a time rather than trying to plan 3 months or 6 months in the future. I’m confident we’ll get better over time, but we aren’t there yet.
- First in our budget is the bills–we are fortunate that we have regular pay cycles and know exactly how much our paychecks will be and we know within a few dollars what our expenses will be every month. The way our bills are set up, depending on the week/pay cycle, we either have a little extra income or a LOT of extra income, which determines the next part of the conversation.
- Second is our savings/debt goals
- If we have a purchase in mind that we want to make, we talk about it
- If it’s something we deem “large,” we’ll determine the goal and the amount of money to save for it
- If we don’t have any purchases or savings goals, we determine the amount we want to pay towards our smallest debt
- During these conversations, we make sure our expectations are aligned, and then we execute.
- All of this is tracked on our budget sheet so that when the paycheck comes in, we (aka “I”) just make the payments and update the spending sheet. Again, I might cringe at the thought of that “Submit Payment” button, but once it’s pressed, the burden is gone.
The thing I love is that after we establish our savings/debt spending, everything else is “spending money.” It seems paradoxical, but now, planning ahead gives us the freedom to spend our money how we want. If we find that we aren’t reaching our goals fast enough, in our next budget talk, we make adjustments, whether it’s to save more to reach goals faster or to save less so that we have a little more to spend freely.
The Bottom Line
My biggest piece of advice is to take bits and pieces from different perspectives and mold them to be your own; enjoy the process of trying things, failing, and adapting to reach your goals. The key to reaching a goal is to stay disciplined and focused, so make it personal, make it sustainable, and then execute. As you learn and hear from other people, you’ll find that your plan probably won’t be a black-and-white process. You won’t have it all figured out. You’ll shift along the spectrum as you try (and fail) at things, so embrace the gray and adjust when necessary.
Nikki, “The Crazy Asian,” writes to share her personal experiences and to encourage others along the way. She mostly covers personal development and spiritual/Bible-related topics (and how they STILL are relevant to us today). Check out Thoughts of a Crazy Asian.