Starting With a Budget

The dilemma for Bill and Jennifer Burris boiled down to this - a great new job for Bill, lots less money for the family.

They solved the problem by pulling out what is, for many Americans, the dreaded "B" word - budget.

Mr. Burris had left a job that was high on pay but low on satisfaction - branch manager at a local bank - to become a counselor at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Kansas City.

"If I could have designed my own job," he says, "this would have been it."

But the switch put a big dent in his paycheck, 25 percent less. So he and Jennifer pulled out their calculators and budget guidelines and found a way out.

They came up with a plan that, despite the pay cut, allowed Bill to keep the new job without drastic cuts in the family's lifestyle. Their new budget let them continue paying for their home, two new cars, food, even satellite TV and occasional vacations.

The changes did involve some sacrifice: fewer vacations, less savings, and the loss of cable TV, but the budget showed them how to make their spending work for them, instead of against them.

"It's not easy, but the more you do it, the more you see what you have to gain," says Jennifer.

Just the thought of preparing a budget, much less following one, sends many people running for cover.

So don't think of it as a budget; think of it as a spending plan, whose real purpose "is to help people live the lifestyle they want to live," says Eileen Sharkey, principal of Sharkey, Howes, Wagner & Javer, a family advisory firm in Denver.

For the Burris family, says Bill, a spending plan allowed a job that meant "making a difference" for his community instead of turning a profit for a bank.

The savings reduction was the hardest, he says. "You're robbing your future to pay for the present." Still, he says, job satisfaction is worth it. So "we extended some goals."

A successful budget starts with two basic elements - a financial goal and a solid understanding of how much it costs you to live.

Your goal, like theirs, could be to make ends meet on less, or buy a first house, or get out of debt.

Step 1: If you spend it, make a note of it

You need a clear picture of what you spend, which is not as difficult as it might sound. In fact, it's as simple as a small pad and a pencil. Experts recommend carrying them around to record every expenditure for at least a month. Better yet, two months, and some planners even recommend six months. That gives the clearest picture of spending patterns.

The hardest part for most people is accounting for daily expenses - the cash that goes to lunch, snacks, newspapers, and who knows what else.

"Where does it all go?" comes the continual refrain. This exercise draws a map.

Recording daily purchases for even a week can help, says Steve Rhode, president of Debt Counselors of America, based in Rockville, Md. But you have to take it seriously. If you spend it, write it down - 75 cents for a soda, 50 cents for a newspaper, $15 for dinner at Chili's, $250 on a new suit for work.

Many people also have trouble budgeting for occasional bills - property taxes, home maintenance, cars, pets, fitness, says Ms. Sharkey. Tracking expenditures over longer periods, up to six months, turns up these items.

Step 2: the Plan

After you've noted your expenses, divide them into categories: housing, food, transportation, clothing, utilities, recreation. Use as much detail as you want.

How does your spending stack up with the chart above? Those are guidelines from the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS). They don't work for everyone, but if you're spending substantially more in a category, take the hint and readjust.

Once you know how much and where you're spending, produce a spending plan that works for you and your family. Determine how much you want to spend in each category, but do it carefully.

"Don't set yourself up for failure," Sharkey says. Your spending plan has to be realistic and achievable. Maybe you need a budget category for baseball cards, or piano tuning, or the doggie dentist.

Another helpful hint: "mad money." CCCS recommends budgeting as much as 2 percent to spend on a lark. Otherwise such larks could break the budget.

The most common pitfall among Sharkey's clients is not budgeting enough for transportation, whether it's bus fare or car costs.

Once you have your categories, you have to decide where to put certain expenses. For instance, is cable TV a utility or an entertainment expense?

It doesn't really matter, as long as you feel you can control how much you're spending on it.

Caution! Credit cards ahead

Credit-card purchases should never be recorded simply under "credit-card bills," the experts say. Instead, itemize what you bought with the plastic, and record each item in its appropriate category. The only thing that should be listed under credit-card expenses are annual fees and interest charges.

Now you've got a budget.

So follow it.

Most budgets fail because people make them, then ignore them, says Mr. Rhode. "When people find too much pain, they give up." Most of these financial experts recommend renewing a budget once a year and reviewing it every three to six months.

Start now. "It's important to get started early, because if you don't know where your money's going, it's probably not going where you want it to," says Jeff Sheets of CCCS in Kansas City.

"It's a way to get people to think before they spend," Sharkey says, "not just add it up later."

Spending plans have other advantages, too.

Just ask Burris. "Once you get over saying 'Hey, I can't do that,' you see the things you can do," he says.

"We have friends over for dinner instead of going out," he says, "and we actually talk."

The Next Step

For a budget that won't bust yours, some free help:

* Consumer Credit Counseling Service, (www.cccsedu.org, check for local phone number).

* Debt Counselors of America, Rockville, Md., www.dca.org, or 800-680-3228)

Both organizations help with a variety of financial goals, from debt counselling to budgeting.

Some books on budgets and plans:

* The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, Andrew Tobias, Harcourt Brace, $5.99

* Making the Most of Your Money, by Jane Bryant Quinn, Simon & Schuster, $30.00

* Personal Finance for Dummies, by Eric Tyson, IDG Books, $19.99

* The Truth About Money, by Ric Edelman, Georgetown University Press, $19.95

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