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Why it pays to switch to a cash-only lifestyle

Paying for everything in cash may seem inconvenient, but by forcing you to grapple with physical money, it can be a useful budgeting tool.

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    U.S. one-hundred dollar bills are seen at a bank in Seoul (August 2, 2013). Saving for the future becomes much easier when it's pegged to a specific event or goal, like travel.
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Have you considered using the cash system to get your budget under control? You're not alone. But what are the best practices? I'm going to share a few tips and tricks that work for my family. If you're totally new to this method, these tips should help you become a cash-carrying ninja in no time at all.

1. Plan Ahead

Carrying money around can be horribly inconvenient and even intimidating without a good plan in place. When I started out with cash, I was always worried I wouldn't have enough to cover what I was buying. Worse, I didn't have a clear understanding of exactly how much I spent in each of my budget categories.

Now? I use cash for all our variable expenses. These core areas for my family include groceries, clothing, entertainment, household items, allowances, and other activities. At the start of each month, we get out half of the budgeted amounts in cash and divide them up into the categories. We get the second half out at the next pay period during the month.

2. Get Organized

A lot of people use an envelope system to organize their cash. And it makes good sense. Once you have planned ahead and budgeted out your amounts, you simply label envelopes, distribute your money into them, and get to sensible spending.

I personally like to use one of those mini expanding files to keep everything together and clearly labeled. I also have a paper register where I track how much cash I've taken out of each category. It's a little old school, but it's a system that works well for me. You may want to use an Excel spreadsheet or budget app to manage your paper money.

3. Keep Track

At the end of each month, I try to make some mental notes about how everything went. Our needs as a family change and evolve over time. For example, we haven't bought many clothes lately, so we've been able to reallocate some of those funds into our grocery budget that seems to have ballooned since our daughter transitioned from toddler to preschooler.

I also track any extra money we have leftover at the end of each month by category. As I observe the trends, I customize our budget accordingly. The thing I like about cash is that it's so physical. There's no ignoring it. It's either there or it isn't. So, it's a nice, in-your-face reminder of how we're doing with our variable expenses each month. The extra time it takes to pay attention is well worth it.

4. Mind Leftovers

Usually we use the surplus to do something fun as a family — go out to dinner, enjoy a movie, etc. Though lately we've considered adding it to our savings since we're expecting baby number two in the summer. The cool thing about leftover money is that it's, well, leftover. You can do whatever you want or need to do with it, depending on your current lifestyle and financial situation.

We keep our excess funds in a big jar. This method, if you can call it that, might not work for everyone, but our budget is tight enough that it isn't overflowing. Still, it's a good place to grab cash as needed for incidentals, like random ice cream dates. If you're more into getting ahead or saving, you could consider pitching the money forward and taking out less for the next month. Or when you visit the bank for next month's withdrawal, put the leftovers straight into your savings account.

5. Think Safety

Above all, if you're carrying a load of cash around, you want to be safe about it. I try not to carry more than I need for any given shopping trip. So, if I'm going grocery shopping, I won't bring any of the other envelopes unless I need to. (If I'm getting household products in addition to food, for example.)

I also don't bring the entire month's worth of funds with me when I go shopping. Instead, I calculate how much I might spend beforehand and bring only that much (or just slightly over what I expect to spend). It can be tricky, but with a little practice, you will get the hang of it. The worst that can happen is you have to leave something at the store.

With regard to safekeeping at home, there are definitely good and bad ways to store your cash. Our jar is well hidden in the kitchen cupboards (though, I should probably go move it after telling you that). Also: We don't keep more than a set amount at home. If you plan to keep lots, make sure you add that amount to your home or rental insurance in case of emergencies.

This article is from Ashley Marcin of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website. This article first appeared in Wise Bread.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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